Esteemed book review editor Teresa Weaver is being fired from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to help the newspaper cut costs, and John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, has called for an aggressive public protest. I think this is a great move, and if I were near Atlanta I’d love to join the flash mob that’s planning to assemble outside the newspaper’s main office on May 3.
Freeman has also asked numerous writers and critics to write articles for the NBCC’s Critical Mass blog about why book reviewing is important, but unfortunately this effort has generated some mediocre writing. For instance, this article by Roxana Robinson is one of many that treats online culture as the nemesis of literary criticism. Somehow, instead of addressing the real crisis facing book critics — a failure to find venues that will pay them well — several of these commentators are trying to buttress the “lit-crit” professional class by emphasizing imaginary differences between themselves and the upstart fledgling book critics who write for blogs. This is not a wise way to address the problem.
Fortunately, John Freeman himself has seen the light on this point and reversed some of his own earlier comments. He also posted links to an impressive number of other conversations about the movement he’s kickstarted, and some of this is real good reading. Here is some of the commentary going around. With all these arguments and resolutions and objections bouncing back and forth, what’s the chance that I’ll have something new to say?
Well, I can try. It seems to me that much of this commentary is missing the obvious socioeconomic angle. For most smart, literate people I know, book reviewing was never a career option, because they had to earn a living and could not invest the leisure time needed to enter such a rarefied and unprofitable field. When I graduated college it was understood that I would take complete financial responsibility for myself, and so I began working a full-time job as a software developer. I continued to write in my spare time, and I took writing courses and submitted stories and poems to journals. Once I became a parent, it became that much more clear that I could not prioritize my literary interests anywhere near the top of my list. The kids come first, then the job, and I spent the time I had left trying to write, and trying to get noticed as a writer.
Blogging has made me feel somewhat successful as a writer, even financially (I earn between $400 and $700 a month from those little ads you see on this article page, which isn’t much, but the cash comes in handy). But I can’t even dream of quitting my day job, and to be honest I’m a bit perturbed about the fact that I’ve never had a career path option like “go to a great college, make connections, work as an intern while your parents support you, and then eventually earn enough through your writing that you can afford a place in Brooklyn”.
It’s all about the socioeconomics. I like it when John Freeman writes, in the article above, that too many people imagine book critics to be stuffy snobs with names like “F.D. Rumplemeyer” or “J.R. Woatslittle”. Of course this stereotype is not true, but I do have a feeling that a lot of book critics went to schools with names like “Harvard” and “Yale”.
I think the National Book Critics Circle is doing a good thing by calling attention to the crisis in newspaper book reviews. But blogs are important to the lit-crit equation, not because they’re fast or trendy or interactive, but because people who are writing while scraping to earn a living don’t have the luxury or the time or the connections to establish themselves in print media. We need to get our words out there anyway we can, and if we can get paid for our words by selling some ads, that’s even better. It’s honest work. And unless you can write well and you know what you’re talking about, you’re not going to get linked, you’re not going to get traffic, and you’re not going to sell ads. That’s how “quality control” gets taken care of in the blogosphere.
I’ll support anybody else trying to earn some money by writing, either in print or online, as long as they’re willing to hustle for it. I hope others who get paid to write are willing to support my endeavors too.