Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Yet more on book reviews

The NYT weighs in on major newspapers, especially the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times, reducing or eliminating their book review sections.

The NYT seems to imply that blogs are picking up part of the slack, but I think I'm with fellow MSU alum Richard Ford on this one. I think that the blogs are great and provide an essential additional venue for books to receive attention, but won't reach many of the audiences who look to the larger weekly newepaper book reviews to find something to read.

I also like Ford's point on the question of responsibility. PBS's Frontline had an excellent series recently on the changing role of newspapers in society and in competition with new media. Once again, while I'm excited by the prospects of participation in new media, I'm also struck how almost no one in the new media projects really considers themselves journalists, much less wants to even consider the sort of questions of ethics and responsibility to the reader that most journalists deal with all the time.

The new media is fabulous, but I think that it's incredibly short-sighted to act as though it makes the old media obsolete. Increasingly, we need both.

(Speaking of journalists, Ellen E. Heltzel at provides a good summary of the issue.)


Robin said...

Especially when it comes to book reviews, I just don't get the journalist/non-journalist argument. I LOVE the NYT book section, but it does not seem at all journalistic to me. And the kind of discussion & analysis that people are doing on, for example, a blog like Crooked Timber is (I think) on the same level by any metric. Can book-blogs replace newspaper book sections in quantity and quality? Not yet. Does their trajectory indicate they will be able to? Definitely. And I predict without hesitation that before long book-blogs (well, more broadly: non-newspaper book discussion, in lots of crazy forms, all over the internet) will drive much more attention and sales to books new and old than measly ol' newspapers.

Gavin said...

I love that this is the argument that you and I constantly have—bright-eyed, optimistic Robin saying "yes! The new will be sufficient!" and grumpy Gavin saying "no! There are things that will be lost!" All while of course, I think you would praise a lazy Sunday with the NYT as highly as I would, and I crave a Blackberry.

I know we've talked about the "Long Tail" before, but it seems to me that settling on blogs for our book reviews will forever destroy the idea of a general readership. Sure, there was a lot of illusion in that idea all along, but are we really better off in a world of nothing but niches?

Additionally, I still think that the book blogs are hard to find for the general, possibly not tech-savvy reader. I know I have a dickens of a time finding them, especially compared to the NYT Book Review, which is available in the front of my favorite bookstore (and most others). As more people buy books online, maybe this will matter less, but I feel like I'm always reminding people that there's a great deal of elitism in assuming that the online world will set everyone free. Not everyone has easy or regular access to the internet, $100 laptops notwithstanding. (And note that no one is trying to offer those laptops to the poor in the U.S.)

Tim said...

Well --

the thing about the New York Times, even the book review, is that

while it's 1) great and
2) has real pretenses to universality and
3) sometimes gets knocked by niche and hyper-elite audiences for those reasons,

it's always been by and for an elite audience.

The best comparison probably isn't to Crooked Timber or the book blogs but, which is arguably much more universal in its reading recommendations now than the NYT ever was. As Robin knows, Amazon is perfectly tailored to both elite and nonelite readers, with recommendations and reviews that appeal to both. Also, it leads immediately, rather than proximately, to the purchase and (usually) the reading of books. And now that you can browse excerpts or whole chapters online, it's better than just a review; it's the real thing.

This, I think, is what will ultimately happen; not a wholesale abandonment of the "general readership" (which has been "under attack" as long as literacy has been around) but the invention/emergence of new forms of authority, some of which will step into the dominant roles held by old clearinghouses, but all of which are (by virtue of the technology) more friendly to an intensive, niche readership than the old newspaper and bookstore system ever was.