Critical Mass

If college leaders want to learn how to recruit female scientists, they might want to visit the U. of Maryland-Baltimore County.

April 25, 2007

This week’s Intellectual Affairs is an open letter of sorts. It is directed in particular to university librarians and to people at academic presses. Even scholars who occasionally try reaching out to the non-academic public may want to read it.

Let’s forgo this column’s usual essayistic-shambolic approach and be very blunt. I am writing this as a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), and am mainly addressing people who belong to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP).

On behalf of my colleagues, I am making a plea to you for solidarity. We are in trouble. We need your help.

Over the past several years, the economics of daily newspapers have become much more complicated and many paper owners have felt that their profit margins weren't large enough. Coverage of books has been one of the easiest things to cut. And the cuts have tended to come early and often. They have taken the form of various measures, including shrinking the space available for reviews and interviews; reductions of freelance budgets; and the increased use of syndicated material. Most book pages have always had very small staffs. Now it is rare that more than one editor handles the reviews full-time, and in many cases the entire section has been closed down.

Such cuts are usually explained as a matter of economic necessity – the decisions framed in terms of meeting the perceived interests of the public. But the reduction or elimination of book coverage has occurred even in cities where readers clearly want and expect it.

Perhaps the most striking example (the case that, for many of us, revealed the shape of things to come) is that of The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2001, the editors decided to shut down its freestanding book supplement – shifting its diminished literary coverage to the back of the paper’s entertainment section. A strong protest went up from readers and bookstore owners in the Bay Area, with its large literary and academic communities.

And so the book section was saved, if on a smaller scale – at least for a while. Last year the section was cut by two pages, then cut again recently. “We used to run something like 15 reviews a week,” said its editor, Oscar Villalon, in August. “Now in a good week we run about 10, but we've had as few as six.”

More recent developments elsewhere are equally discouraging. The Los Angeles Times is now combining its book supplement with the opinion section. Last week The Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated the position of its book-review editor as part of a “staff reorganization.” It is worth mentioning that Atlanta, which recently hosted the conference of the Associated Writing Programs, is listed the country’s 15th most literate city (well ahead of New York, as it happens). Other examples abound.

Needless to say, there have always been severe limits on the depth and range of literary coverage at newspapers. (After 20 years of reviewing for them, I realize that as well as anyone.) But book pages have a modest but significant role in constituting regional literary communities. They are part of a local public sphere that often includes – don’t forget – scholars who review books as well as write them.

Perhaps online media will take up the slack? Let’s hope so. But the destruction of the remaining “reviewing infrastructure” at American newspapers is a bad thing for authors, for readers, for booksellers, and for publishers.

So I am addressing academic librarians and university-press folks, now, because they – because you, rather – seem well-situated to grasp an important point.

We have something in common: It is very easy for others to take what we do for granted. As far as most civilians are concerned, printed matter is generated by parthenogenesis, then distributed across the land like the spores of a ripe dandelion, transmitted by the wind.

We know better. We do what we can with our shrinking budgets – secure in the knowledge that the work itself is worthwhile, if not always secure in much else.

This week and throughout May, the National Book Critics Circle will be trying to raise some public recognition of where things now stand – and to create some pressure to reverse the trend towards downsizing and elimination. We have about 700 members. Not all of us are editors or reviewers for newspapers. But we do see the book pages at newspapers as part of the cultural ecology, so to speak. Halting their destruction seems like a necessary thing.

What can you do? I asked John Freeman, the outgoing president of NBCC, who responded by naming some very specific actions that would be helpful.

(1) Sign the petition to reinstate the book-section editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

(2) Write to your local newspaper’s publisher to express support for its book coverage. And if your paper doesn’t have such a section, ask why not. “It always baffles me,” as Freeman says, “why university towns like New Haven, Durham, Champaign-Urbana and Iowa City have virtually no book pages in their papers.”

(3) Talk to your local independent bookseller. Local literary scenes are often undercut by the power of superstores and the reliance of newspapers on “wire” copy about books (that is, material issued by syndication). Smaller bookshops are rallying points for opposition to these trends.

(4) Review books for your local paper. This requires developing a voice that may sound rather different from the one you might use when reviewing books for a professional journal. An easygoing style doesn't always come easily. But it can be enjoyable to acquire and to practice, and newspaper ink has addictive properties.(“The more the academy engages with the public through reviews,” Freeman told me, “the better chance we have of connecting tradition with culture, and judging new works of art accordingly.”) And if you already review, consider becoming a member of NBCC.

(5) Whether or not you join NBCC, please make its blog Critical Mass part of your Web-browsing routine. Over the past year, it has become the “blog of record” for literary and publishing news. And insofar as book-folk have a rallying point in dealing with the changes at newspapers, Critical Mass is it. Freeman says it will have updates on efforts to challenge cuts at The Raleigh News & Observer, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The L.A. Times.

At this point, the future of newspapers is very uncertain. It is all I can do to suppress the (admittedly cliched) thought that we are striving to preserve a claim to occupy a few deck chairs on the Titanic.

But uncertainty may also represent opportunity. Newspapers now often gear their cultural coverage at some “youth market” – quite vaguely and patronizingly conceived – that editors treat as having an attention span registering in milliseconds. So you get in-depth reports on "American Idol," perhaps. The wisdom of directing scarce resources in that direction is not unassailable. Other media can cover such things faster and, if this is the word to use, better.

Newspaper publishers may yet understand that they have readers who expect something else. And it is necessary to remind them, from time to time, that such readers exist. It seems important to do so before it’s too late. Things are now at a tipping point, also known as the point of no return.


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