Fantastic article by Steve Wasserman, a former editor of the LA TimesBook Review, on the way corporate mergers in the newspaper industry (aswell as the demise of progressive journalism) have meant the radical,casual, careless downsizing of book review sections and the dumbing-down of content. The punchline ispowerful: if you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. The corollary is also true: illiteracy breeds poverty, crime, andcycles of both. This is reblogged from truthdig.com, and originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman will be joining Truthdig.com as an online journalist. I highly recommend getting an RSS feed to Truthdig. It's a really smart site and anyone who hires Wasserman deserves lots of readers. Here's the url again, www.truthdig.com
Goodbye to All That
Posted on Sep 7, 2007
Originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Editor?s Note: Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los AngelesTimes Book Review, will be bringing his talents to Truthdig with weeklybook reviews starting in October.
The health of a society is always bestmeasured by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable citizens. Thesame test may be usefully applied to America?s beleaguered newspapers.Set against the general loss of confidence afflicting the profession isthe crisis confronting those few newspapers that bother to regularlyreview books. Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapersacross the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, insome instances, abandoning the beat entirely. At a time when newspaperowners feel themselves and the institutions over which they preside tobe under siege from newer technologies and the relentless Wall Streetpressure to pump profits at ever-higher margins, book coverage is amongthe first beats to be scaled back or phased out. Today, such coverageis thought by many newspaper managers to be inessential and, worse, amoney loser.
Yet a close look at the history of how America?s newspapers havetreated books as news suggests that while the drop in such coverage isprecipitous, it is not altogether recent. In the fall of 2000, CharlesMcGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, thenation?s preeminent newspaper book section by virtue of longevity,geography, ambition, circulation, and staff, was already lamenting thesteady shrinkage of book coverage. ?A lot of papers have either droppedbook coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. Thenewsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don?t any longer,?McGrath told a Times insert profiling the Book Review. Indeed, the following April, the San Francisco Chroniclefolded its book section into its Sunday Datebook of arts and culturalcoverage. The move was greeted with dismay by many readers. After sixmonths of public protest?and after newspaper focus groups indicated thebook section enjoyed a substantial readership?it was reinstated as astand-alone section. (Five years later, it would lose two pages in acost-cutting move that reduced the section, now a broadsheet, by athird to just four pages.) In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. Today, The New York Times Book Review averages thirty-two to thirty-six tabloid pages, a steep decline from the forty-four pages it averaged in 1985.
That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is thecurrent pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that anunbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beatshould exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question. Jobs,book sections, and pages are vanishing at a rate rivaled only by thedegree to which entire species are being rendered extinct in theAmazonian rain forest. Last spring, Teresa Weaver, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?slongtime and well-regarded book editor, was shunted aside, her originalbook reviews largely replaced with wire copy. The paper?s editor saidwithout shame or chagrin that the move was part of a more generalintent to reconfigure the newspaper?s coverage of arts, including musicand dance. Meanwhile, readers of The Dallas Morning Newsfound themselves without a full-time book critic when Jerome Weeks, whohad filled the role since 1996, accepted a buyout offer amid a vastrestructuring of the paper.
Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor?s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribunedecided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of theweek. Its book editor, Elizabeth Taylor, ever the optimist, said thatthe very slimness of the Saturday edition would mean that its few pageswould loom larger in the eyes of readers and, with any luck, in theesteem of potential advertisers. In June, the San Diego Union-Tribunekilled its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to movebook reviews into its arts pages. And earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times, in a significant retreat from the ambitions that prompted the creation of its weekly Book Reviewin 1975, decided to cut its twelve-page Sunday tabloid section by twopages and graft the remaining stump to its revamped Sunday Opinionsection. The press release announcing the change sought to allayreaders? concerns by proclaiming the paper?s intent to expand onlinecoverage (a task made more difficult by the paper?s reluctance, so far,to add staff, but instead to increase the burden on the Review?seditor and subeditors). The paper also promised to increase the numberand prominence of illustrations and photographs, neglecting to notethat doing so would further reduce the space allotted for actual words.
For many writers, this threat to the nation?s delicate ecologyof literary and cultural life is cause for considerable alarm. Lastspring, the novelist Richard Ford decried the disappearance of bookreviews. Michael Connelly, an ex-Los Angeles Times reporterand now a bestselling mystery writer, denounced the contraction of hisformer paper?s book section. Salman Rushdie, in a rare publicappearance, went on The Colbert Report to voice hisdispleasure. Writers and readers alike signed petitions circulated bythe National Book Critics Circle, hoping to reverse the trend.America?s newspapers, they argued, must not be permitted to regard thecoverage of books as a luxury to be tossed aside. A widespread culturaland political illiteracy is abetted by newspapers that no longer reviewbooks, they charged.
Others, equally passionate, dismiss these concerns as exaggerations,the overblown reaction of latter-day Luddites vainly resisting the newworld order now upon us. They foresee?indeed, welcome?an inevitable ifdifficult adaptation and seek to free themselves of the nostalgia for apast that never was. Newspapers, in this view, are at long last takingsteps, however painful, toward a revivified cultural blossoming. JamesAtlas, a former writer for The New York Times and The New Yorker,and now an independent publisher, embraces the new with all the fervorof a convert. Not only is the future rosy, the present is prelude. Ashe told the Los Angeles Times in May, ?There is intelligentbook talk going on at so many levels. It includes much more thanreviewers and bloggers. Once technology is discovered, you can?t stopit. We?re going to have e-books. We?re going to have print-on-demandbusiness. We?re going to have a lot more discourse on the Web, and itwill become more sophisticated as literary gatekeepers arrive to keeporder. The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like itor not.? To listen to the avatars of the New Information Age, the meansof communication provided by digital devices and ever-enhanced softwarehave democratized debate, empowered those whose opinions have beenmarginalized by or, worse, shut out of mainstream media, and unleasheda new era of book chat and book commerce.
The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understoodagainst the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: thefirst is the general challenge confronting America?s newspapers ofadapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that areincreasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away fromnewspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profoundstructural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing andbook-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; andthe third and most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture ofliteracy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast andvisually furious culture renders serious reading increasinglyirrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable forabsorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.
These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not leastfor the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for athriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance inthese matters of how books are reported upon and discussed. The moraland cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be amuch-overlooked commercial opportunity for newspapers waiting to beseized.
A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: book coverageis not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes formost reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One istempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages ofAmerica?s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.
Passion and Obligation
In the nine years that I was privileged to preside over the Los Angeles Times Book Review(from 1996 to 2005), I grappled with many of these issues. I had afront-row seat at the increasingly contested intersection of cultureand commerce. I regularly dealt with such vexing questions as how tobalance the reporting of both so-called high and low culture, how togain more readers and advertisers, how to improve and expand bookcoverage throughout the pages of the newspaper. It was more than aspectator sport. I was deeply enmeshed in this unfolding drama and hada large stake in its outcome. After all, I had worked for five years asa journalist in the late seventies and early eighties as deputy editorof the paper?s Sunday Opinion section and daily op-ed page. I left tojoin The New Republic, where I ran its publishing imprint, ajoint venture first with Henry Holt and then with Basic Books,departing three years later to become editorial director and publisherof The Noonday Press and Hill & Wang, both divisions of Farrar,Straus & Giroux. In 1990, I was appointed editorial director ofTimes Books, then an imprint of Random House, Inc., and it was there,in my eleventh-floor Manhattan office, one sweltering day in August1996, that I received a telephone call from my old alma mater?the Los Angeles Times ?wondering if I?d return as the paper?s literary editor.
I felt I had no time to waste; life was short and literature long.Moreover, in a nation of nearly 300 million people, you were lucky atmost papers to get a column or a half page devoted to book reviews, avirtual ghetto that I had long thought was a betrayal of journalism?sobligation to bring before its readers the news from elsewhere. Only ahandful of America?s papers deemed the beat important enough todedicate an entire Sunday section to it, preeminently The New York Times, The Washington Post,, and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times,even after its reduction to thirty-six pages, dwarfed the others. Itwas the paper to beat. My aim was to be three times as good inone-third the space: to boost the nutritive value of each review anddeliver to readers a section on Sunday that would be remembered onMonday.
I wanted to edit the Los Angeles Times Book Reviewin such away?and with such zeal?that readers might feel the heat of genuinepassion for books and ideas in its few pages, which were guaranteed bythe paper?s top editors at twelve tabloid-sized pages, but occasionallywent up to sixteen, depending on ad revenue (of which there was barelya trickle) or sometimes on special occasions. Above all, I wanted totreat readers as adults, to shun the baby talk that passes for bookchat in all too many of America?s newspapers. I wanted to deliver asection aimed squarely and unabashedly at the word-addicted and thebook-besotted. To do so, I knew I would have to edit, as NadineGordimer once enjoined authors to write, as if I were alreadyposthumous?otherwise I would perhaps lack the necessary courage.
My greatest conceit was my intent to use my new post to answer asingle question: Is serious criticism possible in a mass society? If itwere possible in L.A., then it would be possible anywhere. I wanted theBook Review to cover books the way the paper?s excellentsports section covered the Dodgers and the Lakers: with a consummaterespect for ordinary readers? deep knowledge and obvious passion forthe games and characters who played them. Analysis and coverage in thepaper?s sports pages were usually sophisticated, full of nuance,replete with often near-Talmudic disputation, vivid description, andsharp, often intemperate, opinion. Its editors neither condescended norpandered to those of the paper?s readers who didn?t happen to lovesports. No, this was a section aimed directly at fans, and it presumeda thoroughgoing familiarity with the world of sports. Like the Book Review,the sports section was nearly ad-free and yet nowhere was the demandmade that the section ought to gear its coverage to encourageadvertising from the very teams its editors and reporters were chargedwith covering. The sports section, like most sections of the newspaper,if one were to have separately totaled up its costs, lost money. Thesame was true of the Book Review. Nor was the Los Angeles Times alone. This was the case at most of America?s newspapers.
As I prepared to leave the precincts of book publishing for whatI saw as simply another station in the kitchen, I discussed my movewith Charles McGrath, who in 1994 had left The New Yorker to become editor of The New York Times Book Review.He surprised me by saying he rather envied me my new post, telling methat, unlike himself, I wouldn?t have to try to cover the waterfront.The few pages given to book reviews in the Los Angeles Times,he said, would liberate me from having to provide a full-serviceconsumer guide, which in any case he knew to be a hopeless, evenSisyphean, endeavor.
An unsentimental corollary to his sobriety was presented to me somedays later by Joan Didion and her husband, the late John Gregory Dunne.What advice did they have as I prepared to return to my old paper andtheir former hometown? Didion extended her arm and, gripping my forearmwith steel in her fingers, said: ?Just review the good books.? Ilaughed, and she added, ?No, I mean something quite specific: Justbecause a writer lives in zip code 90210 doesn?t mean you have to payattention. If the work is good, of course, but if it?s second-rate, orworse, don?t give it the time of day. To do otherwise is a formula formediocrity, for the provincialization of the Book Review.?
She was preaching to the converted. If I had a bias?and I did?it wastoward paying attention to the unknown, the neglected, the small butworthy (and all-too-often invisible) authors whose work readers wouldotherwise not have heard about. Books that had already jumped onto thebest-seller lists by writers who had become so-called brand names andwho benefited from the enormous publicity machines marshaled on theirbehalf by established publishers, seemed beside the point. Why bring toreaders news they?d already heard?
Mass and Class
Besides, review space at the Los Angeles Times, as atall other papers, was tight, making hard choices inescapable. Decisionsabout which books to review were inherently subjective. Given theavalanche of titles that publishers daily sent my way (nearly onethousand a week), it would be triage every day. Between the Sunday Book Reviewand the reviews that appeared in the daily paper, we had room enough tonote or review only about twelve hundred books annually (The New York Times,by contrast, reviews about three times that number). I would simplyhave to rely upon my own literary acumen and taste, cross my fingers,and hope that a sufficient number of the newspaper?s readers would findin themselves an echo of my own enthusiasms. I would try to honor whatMary Lou Williams, the jazz pianist and composer, said about herobligation to her audience and her art: ?I?keep a little ahead of them,like a mirror that shows what will happen next.?
My mission, I was told by Shelby Coffey III, then the paper?s editorand the man who hired me, was to focus on books as news that stayednews?books whose pertinence was likely to remain fresh despite thepassage of time. Reasonable people might reasonably differ, of course,on how best to do this. But doing it properly, we agreed, meantexercising both literary and journalistic judgment, spurning commercialpressures, eschewing the ostensibly popular in favor of work that wouldbe of enduring worth?insofar, of course, that one can ever be sure ofthe future?s verdict from the decidedly imperfect vantage point of thepresent. I knew this ambition would likely incur the unremittinghostility of the samurai of political correctness, whether of the rightor the left, as well as the palpable disdain of newspaper editors whohad convinced themselves that the way to win readers and improvecirculation was to embrace the faux populism of the marketplace.
In this view, only the review (or book) that is immediatelyunderstood by the greatest number of readers can be permitted to seethe light of day. Anything else smacks of ?elitism.? This is a coarseand pernicious dogma?a dogma that is at the center of theanti-intellectual tradition that is alive and well within America?snewspapers. It is why most newspapers barely bother with reviews. Andit is why most newspaper reviews are not worth reading. I sought tosubvert this dogma. Of course, ideally I wanted what Otis Chandler inhis heyday had wanted: mass and class. But if it came down to a choicebetween the two, I knew I?d go for class every time. In literaryaffairs, I was always a closet Leninist: better fewer, but better.
Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic?s literary editor fornearly twenty-five years, has rightly observed that if ?value is afunction of scarcity,? then ?what is most scarce in our culture islong, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do nothave obvious or easy answers.? He is among the few who have chosen toresist what he condemns as ?the insane acceleration of everything,? andprefers instead to embrace the enduring need for thought, for seriousanalysis, so necessary in an increasingly dizzying culture. Wieseltierknows that the fundamental idea at stake in a novel?in the criticism ofculture generally?is the self-image of society: how it reasons withitself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the Eros ofacceleration made possible by the digital revolution banishes the needfor the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as he has said, theobligation of cultural criticism?and is that too fancy a word for whatought to be everywhere present in, but is almost everywhere whollyabsent from, the pages of our newspapers??to bear down on what matters.It is a striking irony, as Wieseltier points out, that with the arrivalof the Internet, ?a medium of communication with no limitations ofphysical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.?
Wieseltier?s high-minded sentiments recall the lofty ambitions of Margaret Fuller, literary editor of the New York Tribunein the mid-nineteenth century and the country?s first full-time bookreviewer. Fuller, too, saw books as ?a medium for viewing all humanity,a core around which all knowledge, all experience, all science, all theideal as well as all the practical in our nature could gather.? Shesought, she said, to tell ?the whole truth, as well as nothing but thetruth.? Hers was a severe and sound standard?one that Americanjournalism would only rarely seek to emulate.
For the most part, early newspaper book reviewing, where it was done atall, was a dreary affair. And discerning observers knew it. In a 1931assessment of the state of book coverage, James Truslow Adamscomplained in The Saturday Review of Literaturethat ?mass production journalism is doing much to lower the status ofreviewing.? Nearly thirty years later, little had occurred to revisethat judgment. Elizabeth Hardwick?s coruscating essay, ?The Decline ofBook Reviewing,? appeared in Harper?s Magazine in October1959. She called for ?the great metropolitan publications? to welcome?the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and aboveall, the interesting.? Her plea fell on deaf ears.
But soon she would have a chance to take matters into her own hands.Little more than three years later, during the New York newspaperstrike begun in December 1962, Hardwick and her then-husband, the poetRobert Lowell, would help found The New York Review of Books,whose first issue appeared in February 1963. Hardwick and herco-conspirators, including Jason Epstein, founder of Anchor Books atDoubleday and an editor at Random House, and his then-wife, Barbara,were fed up with the idea that books could be adequately discussed inreviews hardly longer in length than several haikus stitched together.To properly elucidate significant books one needed elbow room, as itwere, to stretch out with an idea. One needed a certain rigor. Whatserious readers craved and what the editors of the Reviewwould provide would be reviewers, often poets and novelists, scholarsand historians themselves, who had earned, as Hardwick put it, ?theauthority to compose a relevant examination of the themes that make upthe dramas of current and past culture.? Further, the editors of theNYRB proclaimed, in a credo published in the first issue, that theywould not waste time or space ?on books which are trivial in theirintentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce atemporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.? TheNYRB was intended as an exercise in literary hygiene. Today, the Review?s original editor, Robert B. Silvers, who had asked Hardwick to write her essay for Harper?s Magazine nearly fifty years ago, remains at its helm.
The NYRB, alas, was a singular intervention in American letters,and its appearance did little to elevate the ossified and blinkeredcoverage of books in newspapers. The truth is that there never was agolden age of book reviewing in American newspapers. Space was alwaysmeager and the quality low. Nearly a quarter century ago, according toa 1984 study in the Newspaper Research Journal, the averageAmerican newspaper used three-quarters of a page to one page a week forbook reviews. At the time, about fifty thousand books were publishedannually. (Today, it is more than three times that number.) The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each reviewed about fifteen hundred to two thousand of them. Other major papers?the Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald?reviewedabout six hundred to twelve hundred each. Most papers averaged farfewer reviews?about three hundred each. Only three papers thought suchcoverage warranted an entire, separate Sunday section.
In 1999, Jay Parini, a distinguished critic, poet, and novelist,issued a grim assessment of the state of contemporary newspaper bookreviewing. ?Evaluating books has fallen to ordinary, usually obscure,reviewers,? he observed in The Chronicle of Higher Education.?Too often, the apparent slightness of the review leads inexperiencedreviewers into swamps of self-indulgence from which they rarely emergewith glory.? Moreover, the very brevity of most newspaper reviews?means one rarely has enough space to develop an idea or back upopinions with substantial argumentation. As a result, reviews arecommonly shallow, full of unformed or ill-formulated thoughts, crudeopinions, and unacknowledged prejudices.? The result, Parini concluded,is all too often a mélange of ?ill-considered opinion, ludicrouslyoff-the-mark praise, and blame.? How little newspaper book coverage hadchanged. Thirty-six years earlier, disgust with the same ubiquitous,thin gruel had prompted Edmund Wilson to declare in the second issue ofThe New York Review of Books: ?The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers? strike only made us realize it had never existed.?
Mark Sarvas, among the more sophisticated of contemporary literarybloggers whose lively site, The Elegant Variation, offers a compellingdaily diet of discriminating enthusiasms and thoughtful book chat,recognizes the problem. In a post last spring about the fate ofnewspaper reviews, he wrote: ?There?s been an unspoken sense in thisdiscussion that Book Review = Good. It doesn?t always?there are plentyof mediocre to lousy reviewers out there, alienating (or at leastboring) readers?Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.And every newspaper covers the same dozen titles?There?s much talkabout the thoughtful ?literary criticism? on offer in book reviews butyou don?t get much of that literary criticism in 850 words, so can westop kidding ourselves?? But neither does Sarvas find such criticism onthe vast Democracy Wall of the Internet, which he is otherwise at painsto promote. He confesses that, for him, the criticism that counts is tobe found in the pages of such indispensable publications as The New York Review of Books or the pages of the upstart Bookforum.
What Sarvas is reluctant to concede but is too intelligent to deny is what Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time magazine, eloquently affirmed in a blunt riposte, published in the Los Angeles Timesin May, to the ?hairy-chested populism? promoted by the boosters ofblogging: ?Criticism?and its humble cousin, reviewing?is not ademocratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideallyundertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond theirhasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object).It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoreticalknowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author?s (or filmmaker?s orpainter?s) entire body of work, among other qualities.? Sure, two,three, many opinions, but let?s all acknowledge a truth as simple as itis obvious: Not all opinions are equal.
Moreover, the debate over the means by which reviews arepublished?or, for that matter, the news more generally?is sterile. Whatcounts is the nature and depth and authority of such coverage, as wellas its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readersfind it on the Web or on the printed page matters not at all. Contentrules.
In the fall of 1996, as news of my appointment as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review was made public, I attended a reception and party at the New York Public Library to mark the centenary of The New York Times Book Review. One hundred years after Adolph Ochs started a separate book review supplement as one of his first acts after buying The New York Timesin 1896, his descendants gathered to toast a visionary who had done hisutmost to ensure that his newspaper would be peerless far into thefuture as the indispensable chronicler of a city he believed destinedto become the financial and cultural capital of the twentieth century.
As I greeted Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who had only recently beennamed publisher, succeeding his father, he congratulated me on my ownnew post. I drew him aside, thinking to take advantage of theopportunity to ask him whether or not The New York Times Book Review,the beneficiary of a disproportionate share of book publishing ads byvirtue both of its location in the capital of American book publishingand its national distribution, had ever made any money. It had longbeen rumored in publishing circles that it did not. But who reallyknew? He looked at me evenly and said, ?I think, Steve, someone in thefamily would have told me if it had.? He then said that in the previousyear, if one were to have added up the staff?s collective salaries(there were then more than twenty full-time editors), the cost ofhealth care, the combined expense of printing, production, anddistribution, payments to contributors and illustrators, among othersundry expenses, the section had lost millions.
Readers of The New York Times have inarguably benefitedfrom the enlightened views of the paper?s owners and editors who havealways understood the importance of providing readers with news of themost important and entertaining books being published in the country.They also regard the Book Review as something of a lossleader, appealing to the best-educated and most prosperous of thepaper?s readers, many of whom they rightly presume will go wanderingamong the Ralph Lauren ads in the money machine that is the paper?sSunday magazine. In his illuminating 1985 three-part series in the Los Angeles Timeson how newspapers go about reviewing books, David Shaw, the paper?slate Pulitzer Prize-winning media correspondent, quoted MitchelLevitas, then the editor of The New York Times Book Review: ?We lose money, and we always have, but I don?t know how much.?
At the time, Levitas?s section at the Times had a staff of twenty-one, The Washington Post had four, and the Los Angeles Times made do with two full-time editors. Shaw reported that in the mid-1980s, The Washington Post was losing nearly $1 million a year on its Sunday book section. In 1985, the San Francisco Chroniclewas expecting to lose just under a quarter million dollars on itsweekly twelve tabloid pages devoted to books. Levitas?s boss, AbeRosenthal, then the executive editor of The New York Times, declared he neither knew nor cared if the Book Reviewlost money. ?You can?t expect a payoff on reviewing books anymore thanyou can expect a payoff for covering foreign news,? he told Shaw. Sucha view seems a relic from the Pleistocene Era.
I knew very well when I took the job at the Los Angeles Timesthat getting ad revenue from publishers was all but hopeless. I had hadto make tough decisions as a publisher myself about where to place adsand, for most books, buying ads in the Los Angeles Times didn?t make sense. The cost for a single full-page ad in its Book Reviewexceeded the entire advertising and promotional budgets for the vastmajority of all books published. Given a choice between advertising in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, publishers invariably and sensibly went for The New York Times. After all, The New York Times made sure that more than seventy-five thousand copies of its Sunday Book Reviewwere separately available in bookstores across the country. Individualsubscribers accounted for another twenty-eight thousand copies. In anindustry where fifty thousand copies of a book sold within three weeksof publication is enough to make a book a national best-seller, anyinstrument of publicity that reasonably assures that the news of newbooks will get into the hands of readers disposed to buy them willalways have pride of place with potential advertisers. That is why theprospect of commanding the attention of the one hundred thousand or soreaders and separate subscribers to The New York Times Book Reviewoffers the single most compelling reason for publishers to advertise inits pages (and to pay a premium for doing so) while ignoring theexorbitant fees more local papers charge. The Times offers anational audience in multiple markets and assures delivery to dedicatedreaders. Local papers can?t compete by offering meager coverage whosefew pages are lost within the circulars and inserts of the typicalSunday paper.
During the years I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review,it lost about a million dollars annually. The pittance the sectionreceived in the early years of my tenure, from the ads supplied chieflyby Barnes & Noble and Crown Books, dried up when B&N made astrategic decision to pull the bulk of its advertising from booksections in favor of placing ads in main news sections, and when CrownBooks, owned by the feuding Haft family, declared bankruptcy. Nothingthat has occurred in the more than two decades since Shaw?s 1985 surveysuggests that book reviews are clinging to life on anything other thanthe sufferance of their respective papers? managers. And now thatsupport, always precarious, is at ever greater risk.
The argument that it is book sections? lack of advertising revenuefrom publishers that constrains book coverage is bogus. Such coveragehas rarely made a dime for newspapers. Nor will it. Book publishershave scant resources; their own profits are too slim and, besides,newspapers charge too much for them to afford significant printadvertising. Just to pay for the real estate in the chain storesconsumes a huge chunk of a publisher?s advertising budget. Moreover,their own marketing surveys consistently show that most people who buybooks do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they?veseen, but upon word of mouth. What?s worse is that most people who buybooks, like most people who watch movies, don?t read reviews at all.For those who do, however, reviews are an invaluable way ofeavesdropping, as it were, on an ongoing cultural conversation ofcritical importance.
The obligation of America?s newspapers to cover this conversation?tocover the news of books?ought not to depend on the dollars that are (orare not) to be derived from publishers? ads in the book supplement.It?s beside the point. Of course, if one were to make profit themeasure of such coverage, then the model to be emulated is less that ofthe typical newspaper and more the model of a magazine like The New York Review of Books,the most profitable and erudite and influential review publication inthe history of modern American letters. It enjoys a readership of280,000?readers who remain loyal to its unflaggingly high standard?andhas been in the black for nearly forty years.
At the Los Angeles Times, as at other newspapers, readers of the Book Review were a minority of the paper?s overall circulation. Internal market surveys at the Times consistently showed the Book Reviewto be the single worst-read weekly section produced by the paper. I wasneither surprised nor alarmed. Since most people didn?t read books, Ifigured of those who did, only a fanatical few would go to any greatlength actually to read about them. The regular consumption of bookreviews is an acquired taste. Since 1975, when the Book Review was created as a separate section at the Los Angeles Times, it had almost always been the least-read section of the Sunday paper. This was so at other newspapers as well.
This unhappy fact bears scrutiny. Among the paper?s most well-offand best-read demographic cohorts?whose members arguably make up anybook review?s ideal readers?the Sunday Book Review was among the more favored of the weekly sections of the Los Angeles Times. Ed Batson, the paper?s director of marketing research, told me that in 2004 some 1.2 million people had read the Book Reviewover the past four Sundays out of 6.4 million readers. The corereadership of what Batson called the paper?s ?Cosmopolitan Enthusiasts?amounted to about three hundred and twenty thousand avid and dedicatedreaders for whom the weekly Book Review was among the mostimportant sections of the paper. It was, in part, because of thedevotion of this core readership that when, having survived threeeditorial regime changes, I chose to leave the Times in 2005, Ibelieved that my work there had driven a wooden stake through the ideathat no one reads or cares about serious criticism in L.A.
If newspapers properly understood such readers and the lifestylethey pursue, they would, in theory, be able to attract advertising froma diverse array of companies, including movie companies, coffeemanufacturers, distillers of premium whisky, among others.Diversification of ad revenue is a key component of a winning strategyof growth. But apart from The New York Times, no newspaper has dedicated sales reps whose sole job is to sell space for book ads. And even The New York Times, with three such reps, finds it hard to drum up significant business.
It is an unfortunate truth that a mass readership will always eludeany newspaper section dedicated to the review of books. Nevertheless, Iwas convinced that because readers of book reviews are among a paper?sbest-educated and most prosperous readers, it might be possible to turna cultural imperative into a profitable strategy. Such a strategy wouldrequire commitment and vision from the overlords of thenewspaper?qualities that, if history is any guide, are always in shortsupply.
News That Stays News
The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections toturn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation?snewsrooms that is?and, alas, always was?an ineluctable fact of Americannewsgathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barelydisguised contempt for the bookish. Even for those few newspapers thatboasted a separate book section, book reviewing was regarded assomething of a sideshow. It simply wasn?t at the beating heart of thenewsroom. Careers were advanced by shoe leather, not by way of thearmchair. The suspicion was strong among reporters and editors alikethat anyone with enough time could read the pages of a book andaccurately report its contents. Such a sedentary activity, however, wasa poor substitute for breaking news and getting scoops.
Carlin Romano, the book critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran up against this widespread prejudice time and again. ?I remember once putting on the cover of my section a translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic, on the dubious argument that maybe, you know, it?s thenext Cervantes and it will endure in the culture.? (Published in 1490, Tirant Lo Blanc had, in fact, strongly influenced Cervantes when he wrote Don Quixotea century later.) ?I got called into the office on that, and someonesaid, ?Have you gone crazy??? Romano goes further: ?Perhaps the mostremarkable aspect of American newspapers in the 1990s is theirhostility to reading in all forms.? This is the taboo that dares notspeak its name.
I wanted to say goodbye to all that. Where everyone else wasgoing faster, shorter, dumber, I was intent upon going slower, longer,smarter, on the perhaps foolhardy presumption that there were enoughadults out there in Newspaper Land who yearned to be spoken to asadults. During my years at the helm of the Los Angeles Times Book Review,I always did have an Ideal Literary Editor in my head. I often tried toimagine what I might do if I had been, say, the literary editor of The Times of London in 1900 when a then-obscure Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud published his first book, The Interpretation of Dreams.Suppose I?d had on my desk only two books?Freud?s and, say, the nextsurefire best-selling novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward, the Danielle Steel ofher day. Space is, as ever, limited. Mrs. Ward?s publisher hasannounced an unprecedented first printing of one hundred thousand (theequivalent of at least a half million today) while Freud?s book willstart off with well under a thousand copies (of which it will take hisindependent publisher the next six years to sell a paltry 351 copies).I have to choose which to review. I like to think I would have chosenthe Freud. I like to think that I would have had the perspicacity toask George Bernard Shaw to undertake it. And I like to think that Iwould have asked Shaw to write a long essay?some 2,500 words, more ifhe thought it warranted?in which he would declare the book amasterpiece, of lasting merit, and predict that it would go on toinfluence the whole of the twentieth century. As indeed it would. Who,today, remembers Mrs. Humphry Ward? Or, for that matter, the editor whochose her book over Freud?s?
From time to time, occasions for such choices presented themselves during my tenure as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.To be honest, it was less a matter of serendipity than my ownwillfulness. Two instances stand out. In 1997, Penguin announced thatit would be releasing a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz?s selectedwritings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkableseventeenth-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Norwas I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English,even some three hundred years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, asif Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole ofSpanish literature owed a debt to her work. Thus I decided that ananthology of her writings, translated by the excellent Margaret SayersPeden, and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought tobe treated as news. Big news. After all, about a quarter of the readersof the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.
Octavio Paz, Mexico?s greatest living poet and critic, contributed alengthy essay praising Sor Juana. But when I showed the color proof ofthe cover to my superiors, I was met with baffled incomprehension. SorJuana who? A nun who?d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had Itaken complete leave of my senses?
Dispirited, proof in hand, I trundled up to the paper?s executivedining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When AlbertoGonzalez, the paper?s longtime Mexican American waiter, appeared totake my order, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: ?Sor Juana!? ?You?veheard of her?? I asked. ?Of course. Every school child in Mexico knowsher poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a small boy tovisit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.? Atwhich point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite severalverses. So much for my minders, I thought; I?m going to trust Albertoon this one.
After Paz?s paean appeared, many people wrote to praise the Book Reviewfor at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segmentof the paper?s readers. Their response suggested that the surest routeto connecting with readers was to give them the news that stays news.
In 1999, Modern Library announced the imminent publication of a new translation of Stendhal?s The Charterhouse of Parmaby Richard Howard, America?s most gifted living French translator. Sucha translation of one of the classics of Western literature was, I felt,news. And so I commissioned a lengthy essay by Edmund White whichturned out to be so laudatory that I published it prominently in theSunday Book Review. The next morning, Michael Parks, then theeditor of the entire paper, waved me into his office as I happened towalk by. With one eyebrow cocked, he looked at me and said with a kindof weary bewilderment: ?Steve, Stendhal? Another dead, white, Europeanmale?? I explained my reasons. He didn?t seem convinced.
Readers all over Los Angeles, however, came to my aid. Thanks tothem, the Stendhal was flying out of local bookstores and risingsteadily on the paper?s best-seller list. Our review was followed byconsiderations in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. Sales took off, prompting The New Yorker?s Talk of the Town to print an item tracing the trajectory of the book?s unexpected success and crediting the Los Angeles Times for having helped to spark the sudden national interest.
The prospect of running the Los Angeles Times Book Reviewwas irresistible. I was also convinced that the moment was ripe, thatLos Angeles had long ago shed the fetish of its provincialism. It wasnow a big, grown-up metropolis, no longer afraid to wear its neuroseson its sleeve. I also suspected, as The Wall Street Journalwould report in a front-page story in 1998, that America was?increasingly wealthy, worldly, and wired.? Interest in the arts wasbooming. I could see that notions of elitism and snobbery werecollapsing upon the palpable catholicity of a public whose curiositieswere ever-more diverse and eclectic. The percentage of Americansattending the performing arts was rising dramatically. Movies like Shakespeare in Love and The Hours (and in later years Babel and Pan?s Labyrinth) that might once have been consigned to art-house ghettos were now finding both a mass audience and Oscars.
Regional theaters and opera companies blossomed even as TowerRecords closed its doors. CD sales might have been slipping, but onlinemusic was soaring. Almost ten years later, Peter Gelb, the MetropolitanOpera?s new general manager, understands this cultural shift betterthan most and launched a series of live, high-definition broadcasts ofoperas like Puccini?s Il Trittico and Mozart?s Magic Fluteshown at movie theaters across America. His experiment was a triumph,pulling in thousands of new viewers. As Alex Ross reported in The New Yorker,Gelb?s broadcasts ?have consistently counted among the twentyhighest-grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood?sproudest blockbusters on a per-screen, per-day average. Such figuresare a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written offclassical music as an art with no mass appeal.? The truth is that manypeople everywhere are interested in almost everything.
Thanks to Amazon, geography hardly matters. It is now possiblethrough the magic of Internet browsing and buying to obtain virtuallyany book ever printed and have it delivered to your doorstep no matterwhere you live. This achievement, combined with the vast archipelago ofbricks-and-mortar emporiums operated by, say, Barnes & Noble orBorders or any of the more robust of the independent stores, has givenAmericans a cornucopia of riches. To be sure, there has also been theconcomitant and deplorable collapse of many independent bookstores?downby half from the nearly four thousand such stores that existed in 1990.Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporaryAmerican bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we areliving at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole ofhuman history has more good literature, attractively presented, soldfor still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. Youwould need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in asemi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make yourway through the good books that are on offer.
This is, strangely, a story that has not received near the attentionit deserves. And yet its implications are large, especially if papersare to have a prayer of retaining readers and expanding circulation.There is money to be made in culture, if only newspapers were nimbleand imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lieall around them.
Yet the opposite appears to be the case. In 1999, MichaelJaneway and András Szántó directed a year-long study of how America?snewspapers covered the arts. Their conclusion: poorly. Funded by thePew Charitable Trusts and based at Columbia University?s GraduateSchool of Journalism, the study found that straightforward listings ofupcoming events make up ?close to 50 percent of arts and entertainmentcoverage? and that ?in-house staffing and resources have not beenincreased to match an explosion of arts activity.? The report notedthat ?the visual arts, architecture, dance and radio get only cursorycoverage? and that ?the daily Arts & Living section lags behindboth business and sports as a priority on almost every newspaper, bothin its allotment of pages and staff.? Yet, by almost every measure,Americans are a people who spend vast amounts of time and incomepursuing leisure activities of all kinds, including reading. Sure, booksales might be down nationally and serious reading a minority pursuit,but other indicators suggested a persistent and passionate engagementwith the written word.
By the early years of the twenty-first century, for example, bookclubs had grown to an estimated five million members. Brian Lamb?sCSPAN-2 airs in-depth, commercial-free interviews with and readings bynonfiction authors round-the-clock every weekend. And even in LosAngeles, a city notorious for making a fetish of the body and eschewingthe life of the mind, interest in books flourishes. I found myselfreturning to a Los Angeles in which more bookstores were thriving thanever before in the city?s history. Indeed, in some years the averageper-capita sales of books in the Los Angeles metropolitan region hadoften exceeded?by some $50 million?such annual sales in the greater NewYork area.
It?s almost enough to give one hope. This apparent utopia of readers,however, masks a bitter truth: the arts of reading are under siege. InJune 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings ofan authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning twentyyears of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority ofAmericans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might becalled literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed,when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play,or poem. This was true for all classes and categories, whatever theirage, sex, education, income, region, race, or ethnicity. Still, despitethe growth in the population of the country, the survey found that theoverall number of people reading literature remained stable at about 96million between 1982 and 2002. Interestingly, the west and northeastregions of the country had the highest reading rates. It wasn?t at allclear why, and the report didn?t say. Nor did the survey ask whether ornot these same Americans had read history, biography, or self-help, thechief subjects that have historically engaged Americans? attention.
Serious reading, of course, was always a minority taste. We?ve knownthat ever since Dr. Johnson. ?People in general do not willingly read,?he said, ?if they can have anything else to amuse them.? Today, theentertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number ofcompelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans?scores ofmillions?are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many morecan read but choose not to. Of those who do, most read for the entirelyunderstandable pleasures of escaping the drudgeries of daily life orfor moral, spiritual, financial, or physical self-improvement, as thehistory of American best-sellers suggests. The fables of Horatio Alger,the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, the nostrums of Marianne Williamson,the inspirations of such secular saints as Lee Iaccoca?all are thegolden jelly on which the queen bees of American publishing havetraditionally battened.
Obsessive devotion to the written word is rare. Acquiring theknowledge and technique to do it well is arduous. Serious readers are apeculiar breed. Elizabeth Hardwick, for one, has always known this.?Perhaps the love of, or the intense need for, reading ispsychological, an eccentricity, even something like a neurosis, thatis, a pattern of behavior that persists beyond its usefulness, which iscontrolled by inner forces and which in turn controls.? For this kindof reading is a profoundly antisocial act: it cannot be done in concertwith friends; it is not a branch of the leisure industry, whoseentertainments, whether video or computer or sports or rock ?n? roll,can be enjoyed in the mass. How many times, for instance, did you eversay as a child: ?Leave me alone! Can?t you see I?m reading??
Twenty-five years ago, the distinguished editor and publisherElisabeth Sifton announced the discovery of what she dubbed Sifton?sLaw: ?There is a natural limit on the readership for serious fiction,poetry and nonfiction in America that ranges, I would say, between 500and 5,000 people?roughly a hundred times the number of the publisher?sand the author?s immediate friends.? Sifton?s Law was a gloss on DwightMacDonald?s puckish speculation of the late 1940s in which he supposedthat there were only about five thousand people interested in seriouswriting. The problem, he observed two decades later, was that it waslikely the same five thousand but they were all getting quite a bitlonger in the tooth.
That suspicion could not have surprised the folks at theBook-of-the-Month Club. They had long been monitoring the steadydecline in Americans? reading habits. Back in the middle of the GreatDepression, long before the advent of television, much less theInternet, the club had hired the Gallup organization to survey readinghabits among Americans. In 1937, Gallup found that only 29 percent ofall adults read books; in 1955, the percentage had sunk to 17 percent.Fifteen years later, in 1970, the club evidently no longer could bearto know, and Gallup stopped asking. True, the total income of Americanpublishers continued to rise, but that happy news concealed a moretroubling reality: profits reflected inflationary costs passed along inhigher list prices, while the number of readers flocking to bookstorescontinued to decline. That is still the case.
The terrible irony is that at the dawn of an era of almost magicaltechnology with a potential of deepening the implicit democraticpromise of mass literacy, we also totter on the edge of an abyss ofprofound cultural neglect. One is reminded of Philip Roth?s oldaphorism about Communism and the West: ?In the East, nothing ispermitted and everything matters; in the West, everything is permittedand nothing matters.? In today?s McWorld, the forces seeking to enrollthe populace in the junk cults of celebrity, sensationalism, and gossipare increasingly powerful and wield tremendous economic clout. Thecultural conversation devolves and is held hostage to these trends. Thecorporate wars over who will control the technology of newsgatheringand electronic communication and data and distribution are increasinglyfierce. Taken together, these factors threaten to leave us ignorant oftradition, contemptuous of the habits of quality and excellence, unableto distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly.
But perhaps this is too bleak a view.After all, 96 million readers is a third of the country. As JohnMaxwell Hamilton, a longtime journalist and commentator on Public RadioInternational?s Marketplace, writes in his irreverent and trenchant book, Casanova Was a Book Lover,?People who care about books care profoundly. What they lack in numbersthey make up for in passion. A typical mid-1980s study illustrates thefidelity of readers to reading. Only half of the American public, thestudy found, had read at least one book in the past six months. Ofthose ?readers,? however, almost one-third devoured at least one book aweek.?
And the book itself?compact, portable, sensuous?has yet to be bestedas our most important information-retrieval system. Even Bill Gates,that Yoda of the virtual world, has been unable to resist itsseductions. When, in 1996, he wanted to tell us about ?The Road Ahead,?to commit the vision thing, what did he do? He had the Viking Presspublish his book. He did not post his Delphic pronunciamentos on hisMicrosoft site. For Gates knew then?as he knows now, despite his recentinsistence that the digital future will carry the day?that the bookstill retains the patina of authority that only time and tradition canbestow.
What matters in this Kulterkampf is a newspaper?sambition, its business acumen, and its cultural imagination. It?s aquestion of allocation of resources, of what a paper?s owners andeditors think is important for readers to know. It is a question ofwhat, in the judgment of the paper?s minders, is news. It?s a questionof respect for ordinary readers? intelligence and their avidity forculture. Famously, books contain news that stays news. I believed whenI was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review?as Ibelieve now?that there is no more useful framework for understandingAmerica and the world it inhabits. It is through the work of novelistsand poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend withthe often elusive forces?of which language itself is a foremostfactor?that shape us as individuals and families, citizens andcommunities, and it is through our historians and scientists,journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, howthe present came to be, and what the future might bring.
Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapersforget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news ofsuch books?without literacy?the good society vanishes and barbarismtriumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on themorning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles TimesFestival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expectedtrouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, ?Ma?am, books arelike Kryptonite to gangs.? There was more wisdom in that cop?s remarkthan in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminaljustice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies sincetime immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach yourchildren to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.?