All Booked Up

There are lots of reasons to complain about how the press handles books. Scott McLemee wants to do more than complain.

September 1, 2005

Next week, Intellectual Affairs will undergo a big change. (For those who have been wondering why the column disappeared for the past couple of weeks, that's the reason: remodeling.)

From now on, the slot for Thursday will be dedicated to coverage of new books -- mostly, that is, of what is often called "serious nonfiction," with a definite bias in favor of scholarly titles. But the column won't entirely neglect fiction. Nor am I absolutely committed to seriousness, for its own sake, on a 24-7 basis. (Some academic books are preposterous, and they deserve attention as well.)

Work from university presses will have a definite advantage for coverage in this slot that they might not elsewhere. The same is true of books from small presses. Having a muscular publicity apparatus behind a given title won't do it any good; the only real criterion, to be honest, is the appetite and mood of my intellectual tapeworm.

You might very well find an interview with somebody whose books never get reviewed anyplace besides The Outer Mongolian Review of Phenomenological Ontology. At the same time, I plan to cover a couple of forthcoming books that will probably be best-sellers.

The distinction between "popular" and "specialized" titles is very important to booksellers; also, to snobs. Otherwise, however, it does not seem all that meaningful, let alone worthy of respect.

In its Tuesday slot, Intellectual Affairs will continue along the lines it has followed for several months now, offering the usual smorgasbord: thumbnail accounts of scholarship, glosses on current events, interviews with academics and writers, personal essays, reading notes, and the occasional targeted spitball.

The decision to take on regular book coverage is, in part, a matter of putting my backbone where my mouth is. It's easy enough to complain about the erosion of book coverage by mainstream media. Doing something about it is another matter.

Ever fewer newspapers give any space at all to books of any kind. And most that do, it seems, have cut back in recent years. Even then, they tend to run material "off the wire" -- that is, from news services. Which means (in turn) that titles and topics reflect some vague but rigid notion of what "the public" will find of interest.

As for the general-circulation newsmagazines, they are, if anything, even worse about it. Last year, I complained about this bitterly at some length in a speech at the awards ceremony for the National Book Critics Circle.

There was a murmur of assent from the crowd. And for one brief, adrenaline-charged moment, it seemed possible to imagine shaming certain very powerful media gatekeepers into a sense of responsibility.

Perhaps the days might return when Time and Newsweek felt some obligation to report on the same books covered in The New York Review of Books. They did, you know, once upon a time.

Well, no such luck. If the editors of Time and Newsweek do have a model for their cultural coverage, it seems to be People magazine.

Even when the mainstream media do attend to ideas or substantive books, there can be serious misfires, as discussed last time. After all, the ethos of a newsroom bears no resemblance to that of a seminar room.

After some years in journalism, I finally understood that the profession has its own metaphysics. Reporters exist in a universe that no scholar can quite imagine. In it, the world came into existence only during the previous week, and nobody understood a thing about it until earlier this morning.

There are good reasons for operating according to this "as if." It is a perfectly suitable framework for handling a zoning dispute or a payola scandal, for example. But it creates certain problems in covering ideas, books, or arguments with a complex backstory.

As a corrective, of course, one may zip past complexity and shoot for hipness by declaring that some concept or trend is "hot."

Lending an aura of sexiness to the otherwise abjectly nerdish strikes me, for various reasons, as a good thing. But there can be too much of a good thing. Whole sectors of academic life are already so dominated by the star system that, in attending conferences, you halfway expect to see a red carpet.

So this column will never, ever, under any circumstances, call any book, idea, or person "hot." (Paris Hilton can have that word.)

Is pessimism in order, then? Maybe it is. But there have been encouraging signs, from time to time.

The late and sorely missed Lingua Franca had a section called "Inside Publishing." It will serve as one model for the book coverage in the Thursday slot. (Between 1995 and 2000, I turned out many an Inside Publishing piece, so the inspiration here is not purely contemplative.)

And the Ideas section of The Boston Globe is an oasis in what often seems like a newspaper desert. 

And while Intellectual Affairs is not a blog, it takes some inspiration from the emergence of a new and growing public sphere. Or rather, of a perpetually self-renewing multitude of public spheres -- organized in so many layers that broad, categorical statements tend to be reminders of Blake's aphorism: "To generalize is to be an idiot."

Sobering words for a generalist writer to consider, to be sure. Still, at whatever risk of nonspecialist idiocy, the new books coverage will start next Thursday.

And on Tuesday, I'll be back with a report on a contemporary thinker so disgusted by his own celebrity that he's faked his own death....well, sort of.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top