A Debt of Honor -- Skipped Out On

Newspapers keep abandoning any responsibility toward books. Scott McLemee looks back at print culture....

July 23, 2008

The Sunday book supplement of the Los Angeles Times is being discontinued after a run of more than three decades. It will make its final appearance this coming weekend. Four former editors of the section have signed an open letter of protest. They point out that the Times has been sponsoring an annual Festival of Books at the University of California at Los Angeles for a dozen years now – a matter of some civic pride, but soon to be “a hollow joke” given the gutting of the paper's literary coverage. From now on, any reviews will run in the "calender" section of the paper, along with movie schedules and advice on where to find the best pizza in LA.

Meanwhile, Publishers Weekly reports that The Hartford Courant has just laid off its books editor.

This is news – and yet none of it is new. The tendency has been noticeable for several years now. More such downsizing could be on the way at any second.

In the spring of 2007, this column raised one of the first calls for readers to put some pressure on newspaper editors not just to continue to offer book reviews but even to expand their coverage. And in November, I reported here on the encouraging case of The Austin American-Statesman, which is offering regular reviews of titles from university presses.

Last month, during his speech at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, outgoing president Sandy Thatcher quoted from my interview with Roger Gathman, who writes “The Academic Presses” for the Austin paper. “The people making decisions,” Gathman had said, “have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that don’t involve reading.” Thatcher, who is also the director of Penn State University Press, indicated that his recent venture in editing the review section of a local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, was inspired in part by that column.

At the time, I pointed out that Gathman's comment about reading would seem profoundly sensible to anyone who gave it two minutes of thought – but who could spare that much time when (as it seems at newspapers nowadays) the sky is falling?

Not all of it comes down to economics, though. We’re also talking about the effects of a long-term change in ethos.

People at newspapers – not a majority but any means, but a significant core – once held respect, verging on reverence, for the printed word as such. A sort of continuum existed between the world of newspapers and that of books. The examples of H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Walter Lippmann seemed to prove it. Each had been a journalist and gone on to write things of a more durable nature; and knowledge of this possibility left its mark on others.

Indeed, to a bothersome degree sometimes. The legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell – who started his career covering the police blotter in Brooklyn – could wryly note that “a newspaper can have no greater nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”

Over the years, book-review sections have existed because somebody in charge had a commitment to them – an old editor, perhaps, with an unfinished novel in the drawer, stored beneath the shot glasses. The oft-repeated claim that shrinking or abandoning book coverage is economically justified because publishers have stopped buying enough ads is nonsense. They never did; and anyway, no sports page depends on business from the teams it covers. The willingness to keep book sections alive was never rational in the narrowest sense. It manifested a sense of participation in print culture; it tried to pay a debt of honor.

Somewhere along the way, however, the book ceased to function as a reference point – an ideal model, a standard of seriousness, the outer limit of one’s sense of possible aspiration. Television took over that role. (But only, it turns out, as a wedge: TV was only the first of the screens that would define the way we live now.)

The horizon was was increasingly defined by CNN. There was no fundamental reason for newspaper people to feel obliged to keep covering books, as such. The element of filtering, the determination of “news value,” is performed outside the realm of print. An author is important once he or she has been on cable -- or, if very fortunate, Oprah. So why bother keeping a review editor around, hazarding guesses?

Last year, the University of Missouri Press publishedFaint Praise: The Plight of Reviewing in America by Gail Pool, an experienced literary journalist with a sharp sense of just how many problems beset the field, even apart from downsizing. “Though people deplore the poor quality of reviewing,” she writes, “no one seems to conclude that so many reviews are bad because reviewing is hard to do well.” In the best case, wrote Pool, reviewers would be able to “read critically, think lucidly, and argue logically. They must write clearly enough to accessible, sharply enough to be entertaining, and tightly enough to turn seven hundred words into an article.”

Pool’s argument, in a capsule, is that reviewing in general-interest publications tends to be mediocre due not only to the scarcity of such talent, but also to a lack of incentives for learning to do the job well. The rewards structure does not make reviewing a good investment of one's time or talent. The pay is terrible. Glory must be calculated using metrics normally applied to the size and half-life of subatomic particles.

The thrust of Pool’s analysis is that, even so, ultimately nothing will improve unless editors and critics formulate and uphold higher standards for their own work. Reading Faint Praise when it appeared last summer, I thought its author made many smart and telling points, and vowed to try to live up to her call.

But given the latest news, it’s hard to think that the demand for seriousness and craftsmanship even makes sense. After two decades of reviewing books for newspapers, I have acquired a few tools and some capacity to use them. But the effort seems to have been like an apprenticeship in horse-shoeing or the repair of covered-wagon wheels. It took a lot of patience, but market demand for this skill is not now trending upwards.

The Los Angeles Times Book Review was one of the last freestanding literary supplements in an American newspaper. Preserving it would have been a matter of pride to anyone capable of grasping that a newspaper is one part, potentially an honorable part, of print culture itself. Instead, the publisher is grasping dollars, and honor has nothing to do with it.


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