Auditing the Review: January 18 2009

It’s terrible news that Book World, the Washington Post’s Sunday literary supplement and one of the New York Times Book Review’s few remaining near-peers, may quickly cease to exist. Like the equally important Los Angeles Times Book Review last year, Washington Post Book World does not appear to be able to generate enough ad sales to justify its editorial and production costs.

This one hits close to home for me, because the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area has been my secondary residence for the past several years. The Sunday Book World really doesn’t compare to the New York Times Book Review in terms of quality, influence, star power or reach, but it has provided me with good reading on many a lazy Sunday, and many I’m sure countless citizens of the Capital District would consider this a tragic loss. Is it all over for Book World? Critical Mass asked Marcus Brauchli:

Responding to our question about the speculation that the Washington Post Book World’s days are numbered, new Washington Post honcho Marcus Brauchli tells us, “We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas.”

This is what’s called a bullshit response, an answer that doesn’t answer, and I wish Critical Mass had rendered their paragraph accurate by the addition of a single three-letter word:

NOT responding to our question about the speculation that the Washington Post Book World’s days are numbered, new Washington Post honcho Marcus Brauchli tells us, “We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas.”

Brauchli’s refusal to answer the question points to the obvious conclusion: Book World is probably gone. So, is the NYTBR in trouble too? I really don’t know. I scoffed at the idea last July, but I’ve also been tracking the diminishing number of ad pages in weekly issues since December, and the situation keeps getting worse. Yet again, this week’s issue is an anemic 24-pager. Every issue in January has been a 24-pager. I know that book publishers are cutting costs, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a NYTBR so completely devoid of industry support. Not a single ad of any size appears between page 5 and page 21. The opening and closing pages include a few partial page buys from Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt, Vintage, Hyperion, Other Books and the Annemarie Victory Organization, and there’s not one full page buy other than the usual Bauman Rare Book back cover. Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this must represent a historical low point for ad sales at the Book Review.

The conclusion is clear: despite its exalted position in the American book marketplace, the New York Times Book Review is probably in trouble. I can’t imagine that our big New York publishers (who love the Book Review) will let the publication wither and die. I don’t understand how they could. But, yeah, they’re not buying ads, so they obviously see it differently, or else they simply can’t get their acts together to support an important publication that has long helped them.

Unfortunately, the articles this week are exactly what we don’t need: lots and lots of Obama. It’s an “Inauguration 2009” special, but I stopped watching inauguration chatter on TV about three weeks ago (which means I’ve mostly stopped watching TV news, since they talk about nothing but). I’m very interested in and enthusiastic about President Barack Obama, but I’d rather wait for him to do something before I read all about him. I’m also just not in the mood for a NYTBR that reads like a Week In Review section. Despite appearances by the likes of Gary Hart and Alan Brinkley, nothing in this special section compels me, so I’m just going to take a quick look at the fiction offerings today and then make a paper airplane with the rest.

Fiction? Kathryn Harrison loves Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite. I can’t remember Harrison ever giving a novel a bad review, so this fact alone doesn’t mean much, though her explication of Phillips’ book is appealing and piques my interest. Sylvia Brownrigg’s summary of Hugo Hamilton’s Disguise is probably as close to Hugo Hamilton’s Disguise as I’ll ever get. I’m very interested in the archeological milieu of Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, in which historians and oil-minded geologists mingle in the land now called Iraq, and Christopher de Bellaigue’s summary makes the book sound pretty good.

At least a translated novel (by acclaimed translator Edith Grossman, no less) called A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Munoz Milona shows up in this NYTBR, though Colin Fleming doesn’t much like it.

Finally, there’s an endpaper by Ross Douthat titled “When Buckley Met Reagan” about which I can only say: not William F. Buckley again. The ship is sinking around him, and Sam Tanenhaus is still stuck on the good old days at Yale.

Will Sam Tanenhaus be the editor who presides over the demise of the New York Times Book Review? I sure hope not. Maybe I’ll have a chance to ask him myself this Wednesday at a Tribeca NYTBR live event also featuring Joseph O’Neill, Liesl Schillinger and Dwight Garner. The topic is “Best Books of 2008” but I hope the conversation will stray to more interesting areas, like whether or not we can rest easily about this publication’s future. I hope Tanenhaus will say something at this event to put the obvious fears to rest.

4 Responses

  1. Levi, here’s an idea: the
    Levi, here’s an idea: the Literary Kicks Review of Books. It would be a massive project, but I think the demand is there for quality reviews, and it seems that the big paper journals are opting out of the whole thing. I for one would be willing to put forth a review or two. It would come out on Sunday, like the NYTBR. Of course the amount of work it would take to do this would be incredible. The NYTBR has a full staff and mucho bucks. I imagine LitKicks as run by you on one computer late at night as you sit in your Mets t-shirt, surrounded by piles of books and loose papers, but still putting out a major post almost every day. Still, it could be interesting. After the big urban dailies give up on lit, the slack is picked up by the internet. What a change to the literary power structure!

  2. Interesting stuff. The
    Interesting stuff. The concept of – what’s the purpose of reviewing books anyway? It would be – to inform as many people as possible, what they need to read to make life on earth better. Like, no war in Gaza, for instance. Or like, if there are children in the world dying of malnutrition or lack of basic medicines…then it would be sinful or criminal to be a rich capitalist.

    So in that regard, reviewing books wouldn’t be just some fucking game of – I’m trying to make some money here, selling books, so’s I can get better quality whores in my jacuzzi. No, it would actually mean something. It’d be important. I wonder if NYTBR understands that. Because if you don’t make your audience aware of what your purpose is, then what the fuck are you doing?

  3. Michael (Norris) — what a
    Michael (Norris) — what a great idea! I’ll volunteer an occasional review myself. Put the LitKicks offering on a separate web page, cool format, etc, or (dare I suggest?) offer a print version as well. The LitKicks review couldn’t possibly suck as bad as the NYTBR and would probably be far better.

    I’ll get on the horn to the Baumans Tuesday.

  4. It’s a nice thought, Michael.
    It’s a nice thought, Michael. But I’ve been down the entrepreneurial route before, and like you say, it’s a hell of a lot of work. I think LitKicks will be sticking with the simple blog format for now …

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