Wednesday, September 19, 2007

 

CJR Panel: The Case of the Vanishing Book Review

As we all know, there has been some sharp disagreement about the state of the old-fashioned book review: depending on who you talk to, it's either shaky, moribund, or in the advanced stages of rigor mortis. This has become the topic that launched a thousand panels (and I speak as an occasional participant.) But the discussion earlier this evening, which the Columbia Journalism Review sponsored at its Upper Broadway stomping grounds, was well worth attending--there was more ardor, more eloquence, and even some blood in the water.


The panel was moderated by CJR publisher Evan Cornog, an uncannily tall man who directed his first question at agent (and former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor) Steve Wasserman. What exactly was this crisis about, anyway? In a smart pinstripe suit, Wasserman prefaced his comments with a nod to the magazine, which had given him "the opportunity to natter on about this problem at great length" in its most recent issue. He presented a bouquet to books themselves, "simply the best information retrieval system" we have, and emphasized their cultural primacy: "Books tell us something about ourselves as a people. They tell us where we have been--and where we might be going."

In newspapers, however, these flourishing creatures are more and more confined to the "virtual ghetto" of the book section, or expunged entirely. Wasserman cautioned his audience against cheap nostalgia: "There was never a Golden Age of Book Reviewing.... It was always a sideshow, even at the newspapers that chose to support it." He proceeded to fire a few rounds at the usual suspects--corporate conglomeration, digitalization, knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, the loss of public confidence in traditional media. By now he had been speaking for quite a while. Hundreds of words had issued forth, perhaps thousands, which he enunciated with hardly a pause for breath. (Could he have somehow oxygenated himself before the panel?) But now Wasserman wrapped up with a final shot across the bow of our platform-happy culture. "I care very little about the means people will use to communicate with each other," he declared. "Content rules!"

Now Cornog turned to critic, novelist, and Elegant Variation blogger Mark Sarvas. Was the debate over how text was to be delivered a sterile one? Or would digital culture truly change the rules of the game? "Most people can predict what the blogger will say to that. I believe it will. I believe that train has already left the station," he replied. Sarvas, the only gentleman not wearing a coat and tie, realized that he was supposed to play the role of the rabble-rouser. Yet he endorsed almost everything Wasserman had written in his 10,000-word summa in the CJR.

On the other hand, he argued that newspapers were "dropping the ball when it comes to a synthesis between print and online." Sarvas was quick to distance himself from Web triumphalism. "I'm not a glassy-eyed proselytizer for the greatness of the Internet," he said, looking only a trifle glassy-eyed, as if he'd had one too many drops of Visine. "But I do see a generation that's completely comfortable getting its information from the Web."

Next up: Elizabeth Sifton, whose long and distinguished editorial career at Viking, Knopf, and FSG makes her a kind of gold standard for contemporary American publishing. Cornog asked her how nonfiction books fit into the ecosystem of the modern-day newspaper, and whether reviews have customarily driven the sales of such books. "Of course it's always helped to have good reviews from major publications," she allowed. "But what really drove sales was a hunger for some explanation about the anarchy of our public life."

Clearly the symbiosis between reviews and sales (assuming such a thing really exists) was of less interest to Sifton. What got her going was Wasserman's earlier riff about anti-intellectualism. "The problem of anti-intellectualism has been around for a long, long time," she noted. "Hostility to culture? Hostility to the life of the mind? This is an all-American tradition!" By now the audience was laughing. The comedy of cultural boobism had its built-in appeal, just as it did in Mencken's time. Yet Sifton had some bad news as well. Unlike Wasserman, she thought the book itself was heading straight for the dustbin of history. Books "were no longer central to print culture, and will never be again."

video

Now the baton was passed to Carlin Romano. The Philadelphia Inquirer critic began with some kind words for Sifton, even threatening to make like a senator and cede her some of his minutes. But then the back-patting camaraderie went into a tailspin. "I had some problems with Steve's article," he said, zeroing in on the tension he saw between populism and elitism. "The problem isn't anti-intellectualism in American life. The problem is anti-Americanism in intellectual life." Wham! For Romano, Wasserman's article embodied the friction between big-city snobbishness and "the reading habits and enthusiasms of the rest of the country." Romano's own affinity for the vox pop was exactly why he cherished working at a newspaper, rather than in academia or a think tank. "I like working in a place that has to be everything to everyone.... You have to come down several notches, come down from high chairs, and talk to ordinary Americans in a language they can understand."

Plain American, as Marianne Moore once called it, which dogs and cats can read: who wouldn't mind seeing the book section written in such a style? Yet one man's scrupulous clarity is another's lunchbox literalism, and Wasserman was clearly itching to return fire. He had to wait while the moderator addressed a question to Peter Osnos, a longtime correspondent and editor at the Washington Post and most recently the founder of PublicAffairs Books. Like Romano (who once lived in his attic), he seemed to be batting for the populist team. Public radio, with its surprising outreach, was his model rather than the preachy pulpit of the book section. Indeed, if he were currently editing such a section, he "would not commission 800-word reviews. I would try to create a word-of-mouth community, arranging for interactive discussions. What are the books that people are reading, and why?"

Now it was Wasserman's turn. "When I hear the word elitism," he said, "I reach for my revolver." Romano: "That's quite a role model." Wasserman: "Well, I only reach for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays." Sifton: "That's what Dr. Goebbels did, too." We had reached an important threshold in any panel discussion: one participant had compared another to the Nazis. All in fun, you might say, but Wasserman kept up his attack, accusing Romano of reverse snobbery. What he was prescribing was "criticism as baby talk." And Osnos, too, was guilty of a category error. "Criticism is not a species of selling," Wasserman scolded him. "It's something entirely other."

video

Back and forth it went, in a modified Wimbledon fashion: lob, smash, backhand. Finally the question shifted to whether the real distinction wasn't between good and bad writing, rather than mandarin and yahoo. Sifton cited a remark by the poet John Hollander, later codified as the Hollander Principle: "Most people are not very good at their jobs." To which was swiftly added Sifton's Law: "The audience for a first novel is 100 times the number of the friends of the author and publisher combined." Yet Sifton admitted that the Internet had screwed up all conventional wisdom about readership and potential reach. It was a brave new world out there--possibly a jungle, depending on your point of view and position on the food chain.

Now Osnos jumped back in: "My question is, what are we going to do about this situation?" With his gray hair and gold-rimmed glasses, he looked supremely respectable--at times, it appeared that Joseph Pulitzer himself was reaching out of his oil portrait to give Osnos a comradely squeeze on the shoulder. Yet his pragmatic talk brought out a hardboiled, Dennis-Farina-like note in his voice. "Who is the audience? Is it ten million? Twenty million? Fifty million?" He could have been talking about a plea bargain. Perhaps he was.

It was time for the Q-and-A session. Audience members lined up at the microphones. Sarvas, describing himself as "the young pup at this table," argued for a golden mean between Wassermanian gatekeeping and Romano-style populism. The climax: a 22-year-old Columbia student declared that nobody in his generation read any books, hence the very idea of reading a book review section was "an absurdity." In fact, he continued, he and his peers didn't even watch television, because every time they turned on the tube there was a story about Iraq. (What about Entourage?) Half the audience must have been wondering whether this guy was a plant: a cautionary figure in tennis shoes, a glimpse into the radiant future. Dude, if you’re reading this, text me right away and let us know you were kidding.

Comments:
My notes indicate that Mark said "young pup," but otherwise a fine report.
 
One other thing: I typed "crisp pinstripe suit" in my report, but abandoned it at the last minute!
 
Hi Ed. Thanks on both counts for stopping by--I liked your report as well! Punk, pup: we may have to go to the videotape for that one. As for that crisp pinstripe suit, well, mea culpa. It's a cliche. But that's what Wasserman was wearing, no?
 
Gentlemen - from here in Pittsburgh, I was taken aback by Mark S. describing himself as a young "punk" -- "pup" is far more likely.

Thanks for the video! So platform-appropriate.
 
You mean to say, Mr. Marcus, that you videotaped the whole thing? I was armed with merely a Moleskine, sir! How 21st century is THAT?

As for Mr. Wasserman's sartorial tastes, I considered the "crisp pinstripe suit" in contrast to the purple, but thought it an undignified stroke. Nevertheless, he did indeed wear it and I did indeed type it in.

And as Ms. Kellogg rightly notes, there is no way that Mr. Sarvas would ever describe himself as a "young punk." :)
 
I heard "pup." James, this is a terrific wrap-up. Got me laughing all over again.

jane
 
Nah, I didn't videotape the whole thing, just those characteristic sound bites. Otherwise it involved some furious jotting in yet another Staples steno book. But the smart money seems to be on pup, so I'll change it in the text. I must have been confusing Mark with myself, a middle-aged punk if there ever was one.
 
Steve Wasserman has my vote for the best-dressed man in publishing.
 
Oh yes, Steve is a sharp dresser. The canary suit and the purple suit seem to have disappeared--I have a hunch they've been acquired by the Vatican Museum--but pinstripes are the new black, I'm told.
 
Carlin is a great book critic, no doubt about it, but he frequently reviews books for The Inquirer that are anything but populist: he favors dense philosophical tomes (he's ABD in Philosophy from Princeton, I believe). So there's a way in which he's using the newspaper as a means to get more academic & often quite arcane books to a popular audience. It's a twist on the concept of "populism" no one on the panel who hasn't been reading the Inky for years would recognize.
 
James, thanks for this incredibly vivid account! I feel as if I'd been there. Odd, not really knowing about the personae (except Mark Sarvas, natch) as I'm on the other side of the ocean, but the debate rages across the blogosphere and in the UK papers too, with all its red-herring terminology of 'elitism' and 'populism'. (Funny, I typed that as 'poopulism'...)

One thing I'm emphatically not interested in is people, whether in print or online, who can't find anything more 'value-added' (how's that?) to do than enthuse about their latest fave read. Simplicity and clarity are greatly to be valued, of course. But they should serve the expression of elegant or interesting thought, insight, perception. Aren't most people agreed about this at least?

On a slightly different but related note, I read in today's Daily Mail that Nigella Lawson has been accused of writing recipes that are 'harder to follow' than those of other (interestingly, male, as if it matters) cookery writers: is she 'elitist'? Further on, the article elucidates this, saying that 45% of her recipes can't be followed without GCSE (the exams you take at 16) English and maths levels.

You have to wonder what it is that, as a society, we're aiming at.
 
I'd like to address the previous two comments. Re: Carlin, yes, his espousal of vox-populism is slightly complicated by his large cerebellum, his large vocabulary, his degrees in philosophy and law, etc. Here is a snippet from a recent column: "Unlike many modernist writers, Gombrowicz acknowledged and remained in direct intellectual dialogue during his life with philosophers from Kant to Deleuze. He struggled, in his thought, between the limiting demands of art, and a strong existentialist belief that real life defies control, self-definition and orderliness." That's plenty clear. But it's not Tuesdays with Morrie, it it? Of course this makes me wonder where my own work fits in on the pointy-headed spectrum. Am I more opaque than Carlin? Loftier than Nigella Lawson? Help.
 
No help to offer here, James. It's a funny conundrum--how elitist a writer am I? how populist?--since we all want to be both, somehow: to be elitist because that indicates, perhaps, that we're smart and to be populist because that indicates, perhaps, that we have reached an audience...

In any case, I'm so sorry to have missed the event & thank you for your account!!!--Anne
 
You're very welcome, Anne. I should add that in my heart of hearts, the elitism-versus-populism conundrum is itself a sideshow--for writers, if not for editors. Most writers can't really dial their diction up and down so easily. Trying to sound brainier than you are is a disaster. Talking down to your audience is even worse: a five-megaton embarrassment. So I write in a natural tone of voice (natural for me, anyway) and assume that any interested party will be able to understand what I'm saying. Of course I'd love to have a large audience. But chasing after some fanciful version of the American demotic isn't going to get me there.
 
Well, this is all very interesting, but it ignores two side effects of less original reviews in less publications. (1) Book reviews are a training ground where new writers can display their talent and discuss books and topics of interest. (2), It is generally thought that reviews do affect book sales, which is why reviewers (and I used to be one) are innundated by books from publishers of all kinds. (It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a reviewer to get off a publicists mailing list. Most review copies end up being donated, given away or sold off because there is no room to run a review.)

Less space for book reviews means that only brand name authors with big publishers get reviewed and that new writers or those who publish in non standard ways, such as online, tend to be shut out of the review process.

It has never been a perfect process, but is an essential part of what passes for news in this nation.
 
Having cut my own teeth as a book critic, I agree that reviewing functions as a farm team for many writers at the beginning of their careers. But with dwindling readership on one side and increased demand for profits on the other, I'm not sure newspaper publishers will want to keep subsidizing this AAA league. As for the relationship between reviews and sales--I'd call it arbitrary. Obviously every bit of attention helps, but the incessant white noise of our contemporary media drowns out much more than it once did. And not every reviewer is willing or able to bellow at the to of his or her lungs. I'm not endorsing this situation. I am suggesting that we're stuck with it, and will have to adapt.
 
"We had reached an important threshold in any panel discussion: one participant had compared another to the Nazis."

Though incorrectly, re: the (oft misquoted) "culture/revolver" line, as it turns out! Dr. Goebbels never said such a thing (neither did Goering). Somewhat of a retro urban myth.

Re: Carlin Romano's populism: petite demagoguery...just another head on the hydra that sprouted B.R. Meyers...and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The notion that America has *always* been anti-intellectual is true, and misleading, at the same time; my grandfather was an "anti-intellectual" and he could read Latin; in my day, the anti-intellectuals were reading Vonnegut, Sexton, Plath, Hughes. It's my sense that the phrase "anti-intellectual" will finally have come of age when the majority of the people who answer to the description haven't heard of, and can't pronounce, the term. And we are *certainly* getting there.
 
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