Reviewing the Review: July 27 2008

It’s alarming to hear that the Los Angeles Times’ budget cuts have doomed its Sunday Book Review, which will cease to exist as a standalone section of the paper after this weekend’s issue. This announcement was blunt and sudden, and now, protests aside, the deed appears to be done.

The Los Angeles Times will remain a lively presence in the bookosphere, and those of us who read their literary articles online may barely notice the disappearance of the standalone weekly publication. I’ve only read the physical publication myself a few times when visiting the city (along with one weekend when they were kind enough to review my book), so I can’t honestly say I’ll miss the LATBR. But I bet a whole lot of West Coasters will, and for those readers this must be terrible news.

So, now, is the New York Times Book Review in trouble? Nope. The NYTBR is unlike every other American newspaper book supplement, mainly because publishing industry insiders read it. That’s why the NYTBR brings in healthy ad dollars — these ads are targeted towards publishing professionals and booksellers more than towards general readers in the first place — and this means the NYTBR will stick around. The LATBR was never as thick or substantial a publication as the NYTBR anyway, so comparisons really don’t hold. Still, I am sad to hear of LA’s loss, and I agree with the many protesters that the Los Angeles Times has made a harsh and short-sighted decision.

Perhaps I ought to regard this weekend’s New York Times Book Review with an adoring gaze in light of this news. However, the sleepy publication that arrived on my doorstep this morning hardly warrants it. The cover article offers Charles McGrath’s appreciation of Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House by Miranda Seymour, an apparently “odd and oddly affecting book” about growing up in a Jacobean manor house in Nottinghamshire, England. This is the cutting edge? The book sounds like a quaint little memoir, but I don’t care for doll houses and don’t see why I should care about a Nottinghamshire manor house either. Also, I’m sure Noel Coward said it all better here:

The Stately Homes of England,
Although a trifle bleak,
Historically speaking,
Are more or less unique.
We’ve a cousin who won the Golden Fleece
And a very peculiar fowling-piece
Which was sent to Cromwell’s niece,
Who detested it and rapidly sent it back
With a dirty crack.
A note we have from Chaucer
Contains a bawdy joke.
We also have a saucer
That Bloody Mary broke.
We’ve two pairs of tights
King Arthur’s Knights
Had completely worn away.
Sing Hey! for the Stately Homes of England.

Who can beat that? With a cover piece that reads like a transplant from the Real Estate section, this NYTBR has nowhere to go but up, and James Campbell’s thoughtful analysis of Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir provides a brief ascent, especially when Campbell risks the opinion that the esteemed McMurtry has grown lazy and soft in his recent work:

McMurtry, who has turned Archer City, Tex., where he grew up, into a “book town” and helped give it a public library, is a genuine bookman — a reader as much as a collector — but the character of the books he loves is absent from his memoir. The detail that sticks in my mind does not concern a lovely copy of “The Sun Also Rises” or a “one-of-100 Ulysses”; it is the information that while McMurtry used to get up early “and dash off five pages of narrative,” nowadays he has increased his output to 10.

Liesl Schillinger is amusing on the subject of Shakespeare cheerleader Jess Winfield’s My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare, which she describes as “lusty, pun-drunk” and appears to find wearyingly cartoonish. I concluded the same thing recently when I contemplated this tome in a bookstore and decided not to read it.

Finally, as a committed pacifist I must take exception to Ed Champion’s remark, however jestingly intended, that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if somebody kicked outgoing NYTBR editor/writer Rachel Donadio in the teeth. I am glad to hear, though, that Ms. Donadio is leaving the Book Review to become the Times’ Rome Bureau Chief. I wish her well there. Literary criticism just wasn’t her thing.

7 Responses

  1. Do they even read books in
    Do they even read books in LA?

    I’m not sure it’s really that harsh or short-sighted though, if it’s living online. I mean even though we know it’s not a viable platform to be taken seriously.

  2. They definitely do read books
    They definitely do read books in LA, though apparently the Los Angeles Times doesn’t think so.

    (Or, even more to the point, apparently the marketing departments for the big publishing companies don’t think so, or else they’d buy enough ads to keep the supplement afloat).

  3. beckett

    Welcome back to the

    Welcome back to the Honeymooners. How Sweet it is. Baby, you’re the greatest.


    I had heard that the LA Slimes was going to end their book review. To me that was the only consistently worthwhile feature in the entire rag. On sundays I’d scrounge it out of a bin and read it. Almost inevitably there was at least one review that was interestinng — where I learned something I didn’t know or saw a review of a book I’d be interested in getting.

    And each Sunday when I read it I of course thought of Lit Kick and reviewing the review. I always thought maybe I should do a run down on it the way Levi does for NYTBR.

    I didn’t like the format for the LATBR for a long time. The NYTBR has an index at the beginning. The LA Slimes review took out any index a while ago. That bothered me at first, but actually I think it turned out to be to my liking and a good idea overall. I leafed through it all, page by page, so I didn’t miss anything and therefore probably saw things I wouldn’t have turned to from an index entry.

    Of late the LATBR did something that was a bit goofy or kitschy for a newspaper. They incorporated the Sunday opinion section with the book review and printed them back to back upside down like an Ace double.

    I actually liked that. It made my search at Starbucks to sit down and read these sections much easier. It killed two birds with one stone.

    I think it is a very dumb idea to do away with this. But the LA Times is all ready a zombie.

    I for example could only remember my parents, grandparents, Aunt, Uncle subscribing to the LA Times from the time I was young. That’s what people in southern Califormia did, — read the LA Times in the morning. As a kid, after my family moved to northern California, my grandparents saved the sunday Calendar section for me. After school I moved back down to LA and when I got married, what did I do? Of course I subscribed to the LA Times.

    But I cancelled my subscription a number of years ago. I kept it for a while even after cancelling because they kept calling me (and thousands others) every day (literally) and essentially gave it to me free.

    For a while I still bought the Sunday paper to get the coupons.

    Now I don’t buy it ever and won’t. I won’t pay them any money. I hope they go out of business.

    Dumping the best thing about the paper is typical of them.

    At the same time they have been doing new sections, I forget what they are called, that are nice and almost glossy. How do they do this if the reason for the book review dump is due to budget? It’s the same dynamic as you mentioned. They put out sections that get high advertising from industry sources, entertainment industry.

    I actually thought the LATBR was better than the NYTBR. More down to Earth and straightforward. LATBR’s lower profile probably allowed this. It wasn’t in an industry spotlight and, importantly –UNDERWRITTEN – by the corporates as the NY Slimes BR is.

    I find it fascinating that LA Times Book Review is known on line by you New Yawkers. I have never even looked or considered looking at the LA Slimes BR online. But, the NY Slimes BR online is very good I’ve always though and seldom do I see it any other way.

    So this LA Slimes BR is gone, NYTBR is an arm of the corporate publishing industry (as as LA Times is the corporate entertainment industries house publication). Where’s a book aficionado to go? Is thar gold in them thar hills?


    Again, welcome back to you Levi and Caryn. I’ve “known” you a long, Levi. It’s all quite something, ain’t it?


  4. We do indeed read books in
    We do indeed read books in L.A. One thing most of us didn’t read, however, was the LA Times.

    The LA Times was not a good paper (and it’s almost appropriate now to speak of it in the past tense), but it should be pretty scary news for anyone that the paper of record in the second largest city in the country is now all but gone. The book review supplement is one of many, many things they’ve cut, with more cuts to come.

    LA-disparaging and mainstream media suspicion aside, this is not good stuff at all.

  5. I for one, am thrilled that
    I for one, am thrilled that Rachel Donadio is going to Rome to be the bureau chief. She knows the language, the city, and the culture. I don’t suppose she knows the people, but then again, nobody at the New York Times has ever associated with “the people.” That’s probably the biggest problem with the entire industry.

    Take your critique of Thrumpton Hall for example – “I don’t care for dollhouses.” An innocuous enough comment; but does it carry the undertone “I want the tough, gritty, hard-hitting, down and out genre crap that everybody’s writing nowdays.” I don’t suppose you intend that. But why reject Thrumpton, seemingly on that basis?

    I personally might prefer that quaint little memoir exactly because it isn’t in the genre mentioned above. The world today isn’t particularly attractive to me. Genre descriptions of it don’t intrigue me. And as for the death of drama in theatre (my own gripe, re the loss of the LA Times book review) I recently saw The Mousetrap again because I couldn’t find any other drama in London.

    (Actually a play I went to in Hammersmith – Frozen – had unfortunately closed a couple of days earlier; and The Chalk Garden at Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden; and Harper Regan at the National Theatre south bank, were sold out for that evening.)

    But The Mousetrap is a nice little play (though not very well acted by this particular cast); and not at all well attended by this season’s audience. Apparently “the people” are turning their backs on art and literature, just as the LA Times review is turning away from them. It’s a sad state of affairs. More on that here -

    PS – Rome is nicer than New York.

  6. Interesting perspectives on
    Interesting perspectives on the LA Times from several of you — thanks.

    And yes, TKG, that is something …

  7. Coincidentally, some Los
    Coincidentally, some Los Angeles residents told me what they’re reading in a video just posted to Jacket Copy. Books, really. Thanks for the nod, Levi; I am sure our online presence will continue to grow.

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