Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Throwing the Book Reviewer Out with the Bathwater

Mokoto Rich highlights a very worrying trend in the US when he asks Are Book Reviewers Out of Print? Major newspapers across the country, among them the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been dropping their book review sections. The National Book Critics Circle has initiated a campaign to protest the cutbacks.

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?


Matthew da Silva said...

In Australia, Susan Wyndham is very active in the blogosphere and also runs her own blog out of the Sydney Morning Herald website. In The Age (Melbourne) there's Jason Steger, but he doesn't run a blog.

The Australian, the only national broadsheet, launched the Australian Literary Review last year and they've recruited a full-time editor.

The other capitals (Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, hobart, the ACT and Darwin) are nowhere near as well serviced as the two largest cities. But Fairfax media (which owns the SMH and The Age) this year launched an online-only newspaper that has 14 full-time journalists. It takes lit feed from the SMH and The Age.

In general, I do NOT see the U.S. trend migrating south.

In the blogosphere, the primary Oz book blogs are Matilda, which is run by Perry Middlemiss in Melbourne, and Sarsaparilla, which is a group blog that is generally updated every couple of days (although the frequency of posts has regrettably fallen in recent months).

There has never been ANY disparaging comment by the published critics about Oz book blogs. But, then again, there has been no diminution of printed culture pages here, either. So no sense of competition has arisen. Maybe Australians are just less argumentative than Americans. I don't know the reason why.

However, something to keep on the lookout for is Fairfax' decision to reduce the physical size of the SMH and The Age, in 2008. Whether this change results in fewer column inches of cultural content, remains to be seen.

For your info, Wyndham has posted on precisely this topic on the Undercover blog on the SMH website. Worth a look.

Anonymous said...

It's odd to have a newspaper here with more circulation than The Guardian, isn't it ? in my mind, the very concept of a Malaysian newspaper having a higher circulation than a major British one is sort of upside-downish, like Goliath being smaller than David.

Reviews don't really help, but are nice to read nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

I'd say that yes, book reviews are important in getting the word out about a book (like the way your review of Kam Raslan's debut made me want to go out and buy it) ... but overall I'd prefer Amazon.com. The way I discover books goes something like this:

1. Read about book in magazine, newspaper or litblog.

2. Go to Amazon and read more about said book.

3. Go to bookstore(s) in Kuching looking for book.

And, as a last resort,

4. Hunt down book in every bookstore in KL when I'm over there.

To anonymous: I'm not surprised - as far as quality goes Star trumps NST. Or maybe that's just me. But with only two major English dailies to choose from us Malaysians have got no choice but to pick one (or both). =)

bibliobibuli said...

dean - and the quality of the lit pages in the australian dailies is high too. am guilty of not seeking out more of the australian litblogs (apart from your and ron's) but will check out the blogs you mention. i very much like having an australian perspective on things.

i think bloggers and literary journalists sniping at each other is waste of time too.

anon - guardian circulation i believe is around 400,000 daily. the star sells around a million copies on a sunday with an estimated 3m readers. (please someone correct me if i'm wrong)

i wonder how many read online? i wonder too how newspapers make their money when content is online? the star seems to be archiving its articles now for quite a long period without subscription and i really do value that. (the star has some small google ads but is it really making much money from them?)

eli - i love the amazon reviews too and will always check them out - though not till after i've read a book usually

ohoh - you're in kucing!! i did wonder if you were studying overseas

Greenbottle said...

great reviews have literary merit and can stand on their own as good writings...and i love collections of book reviews by good reviewers (especially by good authors and wellknown critics) and i mainly read papers like the guardian and sunday times (UK) for their book review sections.

it'll be a sad day when the big papers drop the book review section...i hope it'll never happen.

malaysian STAR can sell ten million for all i care but i still consider it mainly rubbish in comparison to the guardian...

bibliobibuli said...

greenbottle - newspapers like the guardian and nyt times set the standard and we are miles away from having anything like that here. although the news straits times on wednesdays used to have excellent literary articles. we've gone backwards from that point.

one thing i do like about the star's new supplement is that they are getting some good guest reviewers.

speaking of which, greenbottle, have you ever, would you ever write reviews for the papers? i like the comments on books you post on your blog

Anonymous said...

Hehe. Yes I am. And studying overseas? Soon. I hope. Doesn't really matter now - I've yet to finish writing the Great Malaysian Novel.


bibliobibuli said...

v. good luck with it and with your studies ...

Greenbottle said...


agree with you...and i too miss the good old days of NST wednesday literary pages...my fav were amir muhammad's perforated sheets, and the demented salleh ben joned's writings...and dina zaman's dina's dalcha was good too. i wonder who the hell is the literary editor of nst now? a guy who just read harry bloody potter prabably.

in fact i did write one and only book review of sort (under my real name) and it came out in the NST wednesday lit pages on 24 june 1996 and titled "butdoyousee it's a bloody insult spoono yaar?" i'm not sure if it's archived ...it's about salman rushdie's satanic verses...

here's the first two paragraphs...

one can't help wondering why with the US2 million bounty on his head not even one attempt has been made on Rushdie's life for the past almost 10 years. This must be very humiliating for the creator of Gibreel Farishta - the great dreamer of orgiastic dreams of Lucifermahound Jahilia whorehouse - the great imaginative fecund ratgod himself. Everybody's dream fool who could be depended upon to kick sand in the face of bland normality and archaic faith.

After all the hubris and initial excitement and false hopes this must be a great dissapointment indeed. After all the dalca life i've been through, and not even a damn water pistol shot. A bloody insult spoono yaar?....

you'll not likely to read any book review from me anymore i'm afraid...it takes me ages to even finish a book these days...although for the past couple of yrs ironically i've never buy so much books in my life...

bibliobibuli said...

i don't think the nst has a literary editor anymore. the newspaper is clearly aimed these days at a less intellectual audience.

hmmm so you did write a review. doesn't surprise me.

i'm also a slow reader buying way too many books