This post, by Jeff Gomez, originally appeared on his Print is Dead Blog on 5/30/07. Hard as it may be to believe, book review sections were already beginning to shrink and disappear even then—two years ago.
Last week, Art Winslow had an essay on the Huffington Post site’s Eat the Press section; entitled “The New Book Burning,” the essay revolved around the recent reduction of book review sections in a handful of major American newspapers.
Writes Winslow: “In the new book burning we don’t burn books, we burn discussion of them instead. I am referring to the ongoing collapse of book review sections at American newspapers, which has accelerated in recent months, an intellectual brownout in progress that is beginning to look like a rolling blackout instead.”
First of all, I think Winslow is being more than slightly hysterical when he tries to portray the disappearance of book review sections as being “the new book burning.” That’s not only a ridiculous suggestion, but a dangerous one.
Burning books is about the totalitarian eradication of what the ideas in books represent, whereas book review sections being slimmed down or phased out is about simple economics and the fact that, in our Internet age, things are rapidly changing and book reviews are no longer needed. But Winslow prefers to take a darker view, rhetorically asking, “How did we arrive at what seems to be a cultural sinkhole?” Instead of answering that, I’d like to ask Winslow a question: “Where have you been for the past ten years?”
But what I find most interesting about Winslow’s essay is that he’s a “former literary editor and executive editor of The Nation magazine and a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Bookforum and other publications.” So it seems that Winslow, and many critics and writers like him, are really just clamoring to keep their jobs. In the end, they don’t want things to change because they don’t want to give up the power they currently have.
In the past, Winslow and the other book reviewers out there acted as the arbiters of literary taste: when they would write a good review of a book, their review had the power to propel that book into the national spotlight (and vice versa; a bad review could ruin a book, and sometimes an entire career). So while the importance of movie critics has lessened over the years (gore-fests like Hostel and Saw, which are routinely ravaged by reviewers, go on to make millions at the box office despite what any critic says), in the book world, reviewers have — until fairly recently — retained their clout. (As New Order put it in a song, “We’re not like all those stupid people/who can’t decide what book to read/unless a paper sows the seed”).
But with the Internet, blogs, the rise of “citizen journalism” and user-generated content, book reviewers are seeing their little corner of the world erode and fall into the sea, and they don’t like it.