Economics plays a part- readers are increasingly accessing newspapers online and advertising revenues are falling. But as author Richard Ford asks in the article, shouldn't a review section be considered a public service?
Rich says that many writers, publishers and critics worry that the spread of literary blogs will be seen as compensation for more traditional coverage.
...an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.There are some excellent literary blogs which offer reviews, articles and commentary (and the article singles out Bookslut, The Elegant Variation, Beatrice.com, the Syntax of Things and curledup.com).
But can litblogs, no matter how good take the place of more traditional review sections?
The article quotes a leading litblogger blogger Maud Newton as saying that she would never consider what she does a replacement for more traditional book reviews.
I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger... But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.(British critic John Sutherland and novelist Susan Hill you may remember also had very strong views on the subject.)
Another point that emerges from the article is that even the most popular litbloggers are simply not mass media enough to act as any kind of replacement for a newspaper review section - they simply don't get anywhere near as many readers as a newspapers (though those readers who do turn up tend to be more interested in buying books).
What's the situation like elsewhere?
John Freeman on the Guardian blog reports that the recent London Book Fair:
... hosted a panel to discuss the Spanish literary supplement. The tone of the panel was fretful, but it was hard to figure out why. The Spaniards can enjoy over 25 such supplements, we learned, with more on the way. Panellist Rupert Shortt of the Times Literary Supplement blushed for England by comparison.More about this can be read on Critical Mass.
Zafar Anjum in Singapore also blogs about the issue and is optimistic about the situation in India. (Though tellingly Singapore itself doesn't get a mention!)
In Malaysia we have the Star to thank for an expansion of book pages and the local bookshops for supporting the initiative. We still need more literary writing here, both in terms of quantity and quality, but how far that can happen I don't know. Meanwhile local bloggers play an extremely important role in creating the conversation about books.
I can't end this post without yet another mention of the Guardian which produces a terrific amount excellent literary content enhanced by a blog, podcasts and other technological marvels, and then archives everything (even reviews from years back) so we can keep going back to it. And all of it for free! (Am afraid to ask, how on earth do the economics of this work? The print newspaper doesn't have a vast circulation - less than half of that of our Star actually!)
John Freeman asks on the Critical Mass blog how important are reviews in helping you decide whether to read a book at all?