Save Our Book Reviews! By Tim W.

Brown Let me start by saying that I’m categorically against eliminating coverage of books in daily newspapers. I come at this opinion like most of my fellow reviewers, both for altruistic and selfish reasons. Altruistically, I believe it's a social good to discuss with readers a book's merits. It serves an educational function and helps to broaden culture. Selfishly, I'm afraid that downsizing of book review sections will eliminate opportunities for me as a reviewer. So far I've been shut out of being hired to review for a major newspaper, but I can dream, can't I? I also fear for the future of book reviews, because I'm a writer of fiction. My first novel, Deconstruction Acres, was published by a small press in 1997. It was reviewed in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune and other places. I have another book coming out next year also from a small press. I fear it won't be similarly well-reviewed given the current climate. I'm certain that other authors and publishers of small press books have the same concerns. The net effect of cutbacks at newspapers nationwide is to magnify the importance of a handful of stalwarts, and this isn’t a good thing. To my knowledge, The New York Times and Washington Post, the two most influential publishers of reviews of general interest books, have no plans to scale back their book coverage. As more and more newspaper book sections fold and their book critics are laid off, writers whose books are reviewed in the Times or Post will have struck the equivalent of gold, not unlike having one's book chosen by Oprah as an Oprah's Book Club selection. The reviewers writing for these book sections, who already wield disproportionate influence, will see their opinions magnified ten-fold, while their compatriots elsewhere, who could bring sorely needed diversity to their narrow, tweedy viewpoints, will be all but silenced.


When I told a colleague that I was appearing on this panel, he asked, "Isn't being against shutting down book reviews sort of like being anti-terrorism?" Meaning it's a point beyond debate. Surprisingly, there has been some debate on this topic mostly coming from the literary blogosphere, which has said, in essence, that there might be some creative destruction at work here, as those who care about books find the newspaper book section less relevant, even dysfunctional. I would say this is true only insofar as newspapers in general are becoming less relevant to Americans as news consumers increasingly tailor the information they receive from online resources according to personal interest rather than relying on some editor packaging "all the news that's fit to print" for them. Blogs, literary and otherwise, are going over the heads of the so-called mainstream media to reach readers directly. While this is a threat to newspaper book people, it provides a lot of opportunities for small press publishers and authors, because between the cracks in the mainstream media edifice are a number of outlets where books are thoughtfully, really thoughtfully, reviewed as literature rather than commodities to be sold or "news" to be peddled – places where you're more likely to get a sympathetic reviewer and reach a more targeted audience interested in what you have to say. We're giving out copies of such publications tonight thanks to their publishers. Check out Rain Taxi and The Bloomsbury Review and Small Press Review, where communities of readers discuss books passionately. Online, The Complete Review, represented here tonight by M.A. Orthofer, is a superb example of what I'm talking about, along with New Pages. I'm uncertain about what the future of book criticism holds, but I do know this: it's this passion for books, rather than a 9-to-5 job as a book critic, that will be the savior of book criticism. I make very little money from reviewing -- I have a day job unrelated to publishing


that sustains me. Mine is truly an independent voice: I’m not beholden to any single publication or institution, and my opinions are neither encumbered by advertisers nor reined in by worrywart editors. In my reviewing I'm devoted to and defend the small press ethos of surviving against all barriers thrown in my, no our, way by bottom-line-focused media conglomerates and the herd mentality of mainstream book journalism. This brings me to a few final words of advice for saving our book reviews: editors and critics need to get off their asses and actively seek out significant books to review. It's been my experience that journalists are astonishingly lazy, relying on information fed them by press conferences and press releases rather than personal curiosity and advocacy for the truth. For there are wonderful books that exist below the radar of the New York publishing establishment that can be found by expending only a little extra effort. Dan Simon on our panel here publishes such books. I advise all book reviewers to visit small press web sites regularly and see what’s up; peruse their catalogs; read their damn books. Make a discovery and share it with world.


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