Reviewing the Review: February 1 2009

Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It’s just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It’s just the wasted years so close behind

Watch out, the world’s behind you
There’s always someone
around you who will call
It’s nothing at all
— Lou Reed, “Sunday Morning”

The litosphere has been furiously debating what it means that Washington Post’s Sunday literary supplement Book World will cease publication in two weeks. The overriding opinion, at least from the chatter I hear online, is “let it die”. This is not unanimous, of course — Steve Wasserman and Douglas Brinkley are asking for action, and the National Book Critics Circle is trying to scare up a petition to save the weekly publication. Theatre critic Terry Teachout, meanwhile, says the decision to kill Book World “means nothing to me, not because I don’t like Book World but because I read all newspapers (including the one for which I write) online”.

Many literary bloggers and critics I know feel similarly blase about Book World’s fate (though I have to honestly wonder if these bloggers and critics would feel differently if they’d been able to break into Book World themselves). Well, we’re all biased. I am in the DC area often and have spent many an enjoyable Sunday morning reading Book World, and I will surely miss the print edition. I love digital formats, but I also love good print publications — why should there be a contradiction there? It’s a simple shame that the pleasure of reading an appealing print-edition Sunday literary supplement over breakfast and coffee will be denied to the readers of the Washington Post.

The readers, the readers … oh yeah, remember them? The National Book Critics Circle apparently doesn’t remember the readers, since they put out an open call for their petition, and then reported this hilarious result more than a week later:

“Within a matter of hours, more than 100 authors and critics who had contributed to the Washington Post Book World signed a petition and sent letters of support to save Book World as a stand-alone book section. A hundred or more readers signed, as well.”

A total of 200 signatures?! Are we protesting the closing of a local library here, or a decision by one of the largest newspapers in the world, a newspaper with a circulation of 670,000? Does the National Book Critics Circle even know where to find readers?

200 signatures, after a whole week! I’m sure the Washington Post is quaking in their freaking boots. The NBCC’s failure to generate any type of public reaction at all only proves (as if this needed any more proof) how solipsistic and impotent our fine Ivy-League educated literary intellegentsia has become.

I wish our community of talented book critics had tried something more effective than a tired old petition, because the cause is a good one. Newspapers are in financial trouble right now (the New York Times too) and they will have to drastically cut costs and shift quickly to online formats. But that doesn’t mean the decision-makers on the executive boards of companies like the Washington Post or the New York Times can be easily trusted to make the right decisions about what to cut (my own experience working for major media corporations like Time Warner has shown me that top publishing executives are capable of making horrible decisions, often and repeatedly).

I believe the Washington Post is making a big mistake in choosing Book World as one of their first sections to cut. I bet many loyal readers value the supplement highly. I don’t know if the Washington Post executives have based this decision on actual research into how their customers feel about Book World (my guess is that they haven’t done any significant research) and my guess is that subscriptions will gradually and steadily drop as a result of this loss. The Washington Post just kicked many loyal readers where it hurts — they took away Sunday morning.

Naturally, I’m worried that the New York Times Book Review will be the next casualty, especially since the New York Times Company appears to be in financial free-fall and is shedding real estate and other properties. Meanwhile, there is no longer a Sunday literary supplement in Los Angeles, Chicago or Washington DC. Of course, the New York Times Book Review has always been the leader in the field, and I truly believe — I hope I’m not wrong about this — that the NYTBR’s special status and high out-of-town subscription rate will guarantee the print edition a longer life. I love digital formats as well as the next guy, but destroying the print edition of the New York Times Book Review would be like destroying Penn Station.

Then again, they did destroy Penn Station.

Either through kismet or a good inside joke by Sam Tanenhaus, this weekend’s NYTBR features three articles on Charles Darwin and “survival of the fittest”. I particularly like Anthony Gottlieb’s coverage of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, a study of “evolutionary psychology”, though Frank Wilson doesn’t. The cover review is Joanna Scott on T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Women, which tries to do to Frank Lloyd Wright what his Road to Welville did to John Harvey Kellogg. This brainy and biographically-minded Book Review also features Luc Sante on Susan Sontag’s posthumous Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963.

John Wilson walks us through Donald Worster’s promising biography of John Muir, Alex Beam stirs my interest in Henry Alford’s book of elderly wisdom How To Live, and my favorite article is probably Leah Price on Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers, two biographers who have dared to write new lives of Samuel Johnson. Leah Price is highly engaging and makes me want to rush out and read Boswell’s original Life of Johnson. However, Price does need to work harder in places to find le bon mot. It’s hard to understand what she means when she flatly reports that Samuel Johnson was “afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome” (who made that diagnosis?). And Boswell could not have been Samuel Johnson’s “groupie” because Samuel Johnson was not a group.

14 Responses

  1. I agree w/ Penn J of Penn &
    I agree w/ Penn J of Penn & Teller: the Velvet’s Banana album is one of the best ever

  2. It is a sad time to see the
    It is a sad time to see the national newspapers of the the standard of THE WASHINTON POST and THE NEW YORK TIMES in the print format be subject to financial uncertainity. American literature can ill afford to see the weekly book review supplement be struck from the Sunday morning reading public’s view. The on-line replacements are predicated on the old format of intellectual discussion. The question remains whether editorial control of on-line book review content will share the intellectual curosity of the print format book lovers?

    Michael Fay,
    College Station, Texas

  3. AM It would seem the biggest
    AM It would seem the biggest issue is that so many now read papers on line, though I like the actual paper in my hands. I do think down the road there will be a fee to access on line news papers and might turn many back to the actual paper. Gee the idea of NOT having to brave New England winter mornings knowing I have to get to my local store to get the NYT because they never get in enough papers to last past 9AM for purchase and pay 5 bucks for Sunday’s paper, does make the web site appealing. I gather that the WSJ now charges for online access and I think it will be the pattern for the future for papers to survive. Actually it rather seems logical and fair anyways BUT I still like the physical paper in hand.

  4. I enjoy reading Litkicks, but
    I enjoy reading Litkicks, but I’m not a regular reader – too many other things to do. Like write books and stories, send submissions, edit a magazine, work at a job, be a parent and homemaker. Things that all of us have to do. Which calls up the essential question – why read, or do anything? I read Litkicks because it interests me, and gives me a chance to express my opinion on issues that are important to me. So is this why newspapers and their book supplements are struggling?

    Can newspapers play an important role in our lives. Can they impeach Dick Cheney for crooked oil deals with Enron; for crooked wars that make his defense contractors filthy rich and people from my hometown dead. No, newspapers refuse their responsibilities. And even if there were laws that prevented Australians from owning US newspapers and television networks, Rupert Murdoch could purchase Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and get those laws changed.

    Oh how the NYTBR railed against those crimes! Or no, I guess they just let it slide, while Condi Rice murdered Palestian terrorist children. So it went. Bottom line – if any print or on-line medium wants an audience – be important, be essential, or shut the fuck up.

  5. Newspapers can sell ads for
    Newspapers can sell ads for their online versions just as they do for the print versions, but the online version won’t take the place of arriving early at the bus stop, walking across the street for a bagel & cup of coffee & a newspaper, waiting on the bus while I read the editorial section.

  6. Levi, I think that we are at
    Levi, I think that we are at a crossroads here. The big, fat papers of Sunday morning are about to be a thing of the past. The ability to curl up with the NYBR and a cup of coffee is coming to an end.

    In France, Le Monde still publishes it’s book review section every Friday, and many a Frenchman looks forward to this. But Le Monde, too, is struggling.

    All I can say is thank god we have the internet.

  7. Almost the the right comment
    Almost the the right comment Michael.
    ‘Thank the internet we’ve got god’
    God and the online world are like that these days.
    “In the beginning was Word, and Word was with Microsoft.”
    How much ‘white light/White’ heat will that generate.

  8. My books were given raves by
    My books were given raves by Book World. But I am glad to see it go.

    There is an anti-intellectualism going on here. With me. With Joe Reader. With newspaper executives and bottom lines.

    I honestly never thought I would live long enough to see this day. But here it is. Even the sacred cow of the New York Times Book Review going up for grabs, and if you think it’s not, I have a bridge you might want to buy.

    It’s not really just an issue of book reviews and newspapers biting the dust because they’re not commercially relevant (and they’re not). The change going on goes deeper than that. This is why so many people in the book biz are so nervous. Books themselves are becoming irrelevant.

    For people in the biz, this is a cause for concern. Perhaps they can start a petition demanding that everyone must buy books or else.

    Subjectively. I think the anti-intellectualism goes to Joe Reader, too. He might be vaguely aware that the book business isn’t what it used to be, but fundamentally he doesn’t care because EVERYONE is treading water to stay afloat. What’s bizarre is that there are actually people in the book biz (if you can imagine the arrogance, I can) who feel books should be immune because books have cultural worth.

    But no. Joe Writer, Joe Editor, Joe Agent, and Joe Publicist are all passengers on the USS Sinking Book Boat.

    Personally, I am having a blast standing on the shore of the island I was banished to by these wonderful people; waving bye bye as Shelly Winters learns to swim.

    Revenge never tasted quite this good. There’s a lot of junk (flotsam, bad books, Danielle Steel) out on the water. I hope these dreadful people do not swim to my island. If they do, the only job here is washing dishes. No one would hire them to so much as tend bar.

    But it can’t mean us!

    It can. Trust me.

    Does anyone really think that when the crunch is over, the world of books will make a come back and we’re all going to bow and scrape to the same people again. Sam can learn how to bus dishes like everyone else.

    Better yet, he could just drown with the rest of them.

    The whole LANDSCAPE is changing. If anyone tells you they know what it’s going to look like even a year from now, they’re trying to sell my bridge.

    It’s extremely ironic that the very people who commodified the idea of the book are now the same people whining that they’re out of work. The book snobs are only going to contend it’s not they’re fault. They’re victims, right.

    No. It is their fault.

    It is their fault because they did EXACTLY what hedge fund managers did. Call it greed. How intellectual is that. They took a business and instead of applying any sense of fairness to what a book and the person who wrote it are actually worth, they turned the thing into a horse race. They only wanted thoroughbreds. Everything was a gamble. A few people made a LOT of money. The rest of us just worked our nuts off for very little.

    Please do not bring this system back. It deserves to die a very painful death. And it can begin with the critics who wrote at book reviews.

    All the book lover types scream at me that it just ain’t so — it is so — it was never about what you wrote. Book lover writer-types CANNOT bring themselves to believe that because their high school English teacher told them that it was about what you wrote. It was about who you were. It was about CLASS. It was about ACCESS. It was about MONEY.

    I could have disguised myself as a Harvard physicist who went on to courageously conquer alcoholism, but Harvard physicists were not fashionable that year. You wanted RACE. So I gave you RACE.

    You gave me awards.

    And rave reviews in papers now biting le dust because they deserve it.

    I could have stood out in the middle of Fifth Avenue with a sign: SOMETHING IS ROTTON IN THE STATE OF DENMARK (publishing).

    But no one would have cared.

    What MORE can exemplify that something is rotten at the core of publishing than the failure of publishing.

    Millions of dollars were thrown at twenty writers and twenty agents and peanuts went to the rest.

    And we were told (and we knew it was true) we were lucky to get what we got.

    All bets are off. The race horse model has failed. The only people in the stands are the addicts.

    Culture (whatever that is) needs a new and different model for the idea of the book.

    Something tells me they’re going to get exactly that.

    I stand here on my island’s shore drinking Margaritas. If you think I am going to fling some drowning publicist a rope to pull her in, you have no idea the extent to which I am enjoying watching these idiots die. I told them they would. I was right. Tim Barrus, Paris

  9. Good comment, Tim.

    Good comment, Tim.

    Mikael, you wrote,”Can newspapers play an important role in our lives. Can they impeach Dick Cheney for crooked oil deals with Enron; for crooked wars that make his defense contractors filthy rich and people from my hometown dead. No, newspapers refuse their responsibilities.”

    Newspapers have never had the ability to impeach federal elected officials. Um, this is the job of the House (to impeach) and the Senate (to have a trial). So I don’t know what you mean or what this has to do with the Book Review.

  10. Hi Levi,

    Re: Dr. Johnson,
    Hi Levi,

    Re: Dr. Johnson, you ask: “Who made that diagnosis?”

    From wikipedia: “The diagnosis of the syndrome was first made in a 1967 report, and TS researcher Arthur K. Shapiro described Johnson as “the most notable example of a successful adaptation to life despite the liability of Tourette syndrome.” Details provided by the writings of Boswell, Hester Thrale, and others reinforce the diagnosis.”

  11. Hmm, Michael, thanks for that
    Hmm, Michael, thanks for that response! I stand informed. I do feel naturally skeptical about the application of a term like “Tourette’s syndrome” to a historical figure, but this does answer the question I asked.

  12. “It’s hard to see that
    “It’s hard to see that Nasdijj deserves congratulations for restraining certain impulses — or for admitting to them — when those impulses are, to begin with, so inappropriate…
    Two scenes are especially troubling. In one, sensing it’s what Awee wants to hear, Nasdijj tells him that their cuddling is indeed sex. In the other scene, while Awee is out on a date of sorts, Nasdijj longingly rubs his adoptive son’s underwear against his face.” – Book World review of “The Boy and His Dog are Sleeping”, 2003

    Geez. If that’s a rave, I’m not sure I’d want to hear a pan. Tim’s extravagant attacks on publishing would be funny if he weren’t so desperate to get back in the limelight…

  13. Truthy, ’tis true.

    Truthy, ’tis true.
    Some people complaineth too much.

    Didn’t Mozart have ‘Tourettes’?

    Tim, where’s the romance of winter online, come to think of it; where are the people.

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