Saturday, September 15, 2007

Friday Afternoon at Housing Works Books Cafe: "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage"

This post is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Saturday, September 15, 2007:

Friday Afternoon at Housing Works Books Cafe: "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage"

Yesterday at 4:30 p.m. I was in a very large crowd, perhaps 65 people, filling the Housing Works Used Books Cafe to attend the National Book Critics Circle's second of four panels in their series "The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century."

Entitled "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage," it was moderated by John Freeman, the widely-published book critic and president of the NBCC, who began by saying it was great to see that so many people left work early to come.

He thanked Scott McNemee for the title of this session, which of course comes from Samuel Johnson, who lived on Grub Street and who popularized the term as one for hack writers when his dictionary called it "originally the name of a street...much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet."

Mentioning George Gissing's novel New Grub Street, set in late-19th-century London—which contrasts a pragmatic journalist with an impoverished writer and examines the tension between commerce and art in the literary world—John noted that although the current climate for book reviews was considered bad, things may have always seemed bleak. He quoted from Gissing back in 1891:
Presently the conversation turned to periodicals, and the three men were unanimous in an opinion that no existing monthly or quarterly could be considered as representing the best literary opinion.

'We want,' remarked Mr Quarmby, 'we want a monthly review which shall deal exclusively with literature. The Fortnightly, the Contemporary -- they are very well in their way, but then they are mere miscellanies. You will find one solid literary article amid a confused mass of politics and economics and general clap-trap.'

'Articles on the currency and railway statistics and views of evolution,' said Mr Hinks, with a look as if something were grating between his teeth.

John then said things were no different in 1959, when Elizabeth Hardwick wrote her scathing Harper's essay, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," which lacerated the turgid state of American book reviews:
In America, now...a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. Everyone is found to have 'filled a need,' and is to be 'thanked' for something and to be excused for 'minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'

After briefly discussing the NBCC's current campaign to save newspaper book review sections, John introduced the panel:

Melissa Egan, producer of The Leonard Lopate Show on New York's public radio station WNYC;

Dwight Garner, senior editor of The New York Times Book Review and writer of its best-seller list column and its Paper Cuts blog;

Emily Lazar, producer of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report;

Jennifer Szalai, senior editor at Harper's magazine;

Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times (London); and

Steve Wasserman, former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, currently a literary agent and the incoming editor at, author of the recent Columbia Journalism Review article on the decline of book coverage, "Goodbye to All That."

John began by asking Erica about the literary situation in England and if newspaper book sections are livelier there.

Erica said the crucial difference between our countries is that England is much smaller and still has national newspapers that have a greater influence over literary culture. At times, that can create an insular literary culture, "as if we are all in conversation with ourselves" and outsiders may feel excluded.

The British literary community knows each other well, Erica said, and are not as dispersed as in the U.S. so that when, say, a new Philip Roth novel comes out, people compete with each other to be the first to review it.

Erica's newspaper, The Times (as opposed to the separate entity The Sunday Times), never had a stand-alone book review section until she started one in 2005. The section is 20 pages, with games and crossword puzzles in the back. She's trying to reach people who ordinarily don't read book sections.

British newspapers also sponsor literary festivals, as hers does the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, which takes place in early October. The Times provides financial support for the festival and has a say in programming, which it ties to coverage of the event. Her book section the Saturday before the festival will be all about it and other sections of the newspaper, such as the arts section, will cover other aspects of Cheltenham's guest authors. The sponsorship has proven to be a good value all around.

John said that this reminded him that authors today can't hide from the public until they've developed a loyal cult following. Before that, they have to be out on tour, plugging the book as much as they can. He asked Emily how she chooses authors to appear on Stephen Colbert's show.

Emily said they viewed the show's primary obligation to be one of entertainment; it's not a book review show, but books are a great resource for them. They rely on book reviews to help select author guests from the many books that they get (about 60-80 each day).

Of course the premise of the show is that the Colbert character never reads any of the books he's interviewing the authors about. They would rarely have a novelist on, as the audience (and Colbert) need to understand the idea of the book right off the bat. Novels usually don't have clear arguments and their show isn't about stories. They are looking for books, essentially, that contain arguments that can easily be made fun of.

While Salman Rushdie did appear recently on Colbert, it wasn't for any of his novels. They also had a recent appearance by Garrison Keillor, but he is less a literary writer to them than the apotheosis of NPR banjo-playing folksiness, something that can be satirized.

John noted that much of the news about the Bush administration, including revelations seen nowhere else, have come not from newspaper or magazine journalists but from the authors of books. He asked Steve, now at as opposed to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, about the differences between reviewing books about current events on the Web and general book reviewing in newspapers.

Steve said that the fact that newspapers have to rely on books for news about the Bush administration testifies to newspaper journalists' total abdication of their responsibility to search for the truth. As for technological change, it may make communication more swift, the human desire to make sense of our world and seek answers remains the same.

He looks for the same qualities in all reviews: the degree to which the writer is accurate and composes with style and grace and has something interesting to say. He thinks victory will ultimately go to those blogs and older forms that have these qualities in abundance.

Steve said that the proliferation of blogs and other new forms still hasn't shown that they can produce an economic model for employment of people to write about books. Zealots in their garages now can post their manifestos on the Internet without first going through a discriminating filter that editors provide.

John then turned to Dwight and asked him about his blog for The New York Times. Dwight said that blogging is sticking a live wire into one's neck. At the book review section, they don't really have much contact with readers except for the relatively few letters that come in, but when he posts something on his blog, people respond immediately. That people online are "always yapping" means that the blogger has something like a pet that constantly craves attention and it's difficult to keep up.

Dwight likened book reviews to restaurants, while blogs are more like good hot dog stands, a fun place to go for a quick bite.

John asked Jennifer about her magazine's use of long-form reviews. In view of the widely-assumed decline of people's attention spans, has Harper's thought about changing this format and going to shorter reviews?

Jennifer said that the magazines had no plans for shorter reviews, that they and their readers seemed to appreciate the 4,000-word reviews they run or John Leonard's 2,000-word columns covering a number of books. As far as shorter attention spans go, Harper's appeals to readers curious about the world around them, people who like the long form. A not-for-profit organization, her magazine doesn't have to worry so much about economic imperatives.

John turned to Melissa and said that Leonard Lopate's radio show had the same instant feedback as blogs. He asked how she finds the authors to appear on the program.

Melissa said she usually goes by her gut feelings about the book; if they like a book, they invite the author on without worrying that she might be boring. Some people are amazingly good writers but find it hard to communicate over the air. Leonard Lopate's job is to pull them out. Their show does loads of first novels, often before there are many reviews out of these books.

John asked if she ends up reading a lot of stuff, and she said they do aggressive screening since they get 40-60 books a day. They have to do a lot of skimming.

John then discussed all the multimedia add-ons newspaper book sections now contain: the podcasts, Q & A's, etc. He asked Erica about these in both her paper's print and online book sections.

Erica said we are trying to do more and more multimedia, but nobody really yet knows what the effect of these add-ons will be and if the expenditures made will be worthwhile. After all, if they decide to do a podcast, someone has to be the interviewer. They are basically throwing stuff out and seeing what sticks, but none of this material comes without costs. The current confusion about all this comes down to economic reality.

John asked Dwight if the New York Times is also heading in that direction, and he pretty much echoed Erica in saying they were throwing everything out at readers online in particular and are waiting to see what works. For him, blogs and podcasts are not as much fun as book reviews themselves.

John noted that there were fewer newspaper reviews, and while there were many blogs, blogs don't have editors. He asked Steve about this: are we losing the kind of incisive criticism a Susan Sontag-type review once provided.

Steve said newspapers and all mass media worry about the need to "retain eyeballs" and so they can neglect the pure mission of providing criticism. Many book review outlets have blurred the boundary from being critics to being spin doctors for authors or publicists for book publishers.

In a furiously visual culture, Steve went on, mass media depend upon "a certain velocity of image." He views books as the most pure form and hates interviewers who ask authors, "What more can you tell us about your book?" An honest author might answer, "I spent three years writing my book and put everything in in. If you want to know that, just read my book. It says everything I have to say."

All podcasts, Q & A's and the other add-ons are a species of higher gossip, Steve said, a kind of Rope-a-Dope or junk food, to bring in the kind of person who normally doesn't go near straight book reviews. But they have little nutritive value compared to the work itself, and the work should be the primary focus.

John quoted Updike when he said that the perfect book review would quote the book under discussion in its entirety.

Then John asked Emily about the relentless plugging of books and whether Colbert satirizes that in his author interviews, making fun of the current system of book publicity.

Emily said the Colbert persona is so misinformed, his guests have to constantly correct him about his assumptions regarding their books. Keep in mind that their show's demographics skew toward very young viewers who probably read fewer books. If they were more conventional in their author interviews, their audience would get turned off.

She said Colbert can sell books that no one else is paying attention to. At work she has to deal with books in a "circus atmosphere," but at home, as a reader, she wishes her work self didn't have to resort to these circus tricks to bring attention to books.

John noted the paradox that while technology is making it easier to publish, it's also making it harder to find time to read. He then turned to Melissa and asked how she gets listeners to the radio show involved when so much else is competing for their attention.

Melissa said the show asks for the listeners' direct involvement, and uses it, in the form of email questions and comments to Leonard Lopate during the show; he incorporates these into his interviews with guests and also takes phone calls from listeners, who can talk to the authors who are guests.

The radio show also has contests, such as a recipe swap, and it recently had a contest for drawings using googly eyes in connection with a new book by Amy Sedaris; the contests often draw as many as 400 entries from all over the country.

John said that Steve Wasserman was a recent guest, discussing the decline of book reviewing, and he noted that soon after the interview, it could be downloaded and streamed online and that people could post comments about the show.

Melissa said that people suggest ideas for segments and guests constantly, that they use many of these ideas but only if they agree they are worthwhile.

John asked Jennifer if young reviewers, who grew up in a different mass media environment, write differently than old-time critics like Irving Howe. She said every generation takes a somewhat different approach, but young Harper's contributors are also their readers and are comfortable with the long form; reviewers in their twenties for them are happy to write 4,000-word reviews. While most twentysomethings may have a different attitude toward reading than people in their twenties did forty years ago, that's not true of the young reviewers Harper's publishes.

John turned to Dwight and asked about the Times Book Review, noting that many older book reviews the paper had in their online archives, unless they were by critics like Helene Vendler or Edward Hirsch, were often quite badly written in comparison with today's reviews.

Dwight said that he's pleased when he can go back and find reviews of old stuff, like John Gardner novels, that still stand up, but he agreed they have higher standards today. Back in the day, when he was coming up, young book reviewers could hone their craft in alternative weeklies, which have drastically cut or eliminated book coverage by now. Blogs, with a lack of editors, don't help a writer develop in the same way.

Steve Wasserman said that he doesn't understand then why the chain bookstores and some others seem to have tons of literary quarterlies. Even if these are subsidized and read by only fifty people, can't talented writers get their start there? All the quarterlies actually seem desperate to find fresh, excellent material, so talented young writers still can get published today.

Steve mentioned a UCLA student who a few years ago approached him after a panel like the one today who asked if he would look at her stuff. He did and liked it, and Cristina Nehring has gone on to produce superb work for Harper's and other magazines and has a book contract with HarperCollins. Of course, not all people with literary aspirations have as much talent as she does, and they will not succeed, and that's a good thing.

Steve affirmed that there were lots of outlets for writers with talent although he admitted they pay abysmally. Erica said she would agree, though England is a more closed world and sometimes she gets people writing her saying the British literary world is a kind of conspiracy to keep certain people down. She wishes she had more space to publish more writers who can genuinely contribute to the literary discussion.

John stated that novelist and poets write for their own enjoyment and don't feel terrible if their stuff doesn't get published, but nobody sits home and writes book reviews for their own pleasure. Without enough outlets, potential book reviewers are frustrated.

John said this frustration leads to the acerbic quality of some, but not all, literary blogs, who feel they must shout out to get heard. Some have compared them to the English essays of the eighteenth century who were similarly acerbic. Is this an apt comparison?

Steve said that at the risk of psychoanalyzing anyone's rage, he believed it was better that these people get their anger out with words on their blogs rather than climb up to a tower and start shooting people willy-nilly. Their rage is a perverse acknowledgement of how deep people's feelings about literature are.

What he dislikes about the Internet is that its neat aesthetics confer an unearned authority on the scribblings of ranters. You used to be able to tell a "nutter" by the bizarre formatting of addressing on their envelopes, their disregard for margins, their crazy scrawl. It was so much easier in the old days to spot an unhinged person. Now the Internet makes it harder to tell; all opinions, at first glance, appear equal. This is terrifying, so you've got to read online stuff carefully.

John asked Dwight how he reads the Internet, and Dwight said that at the Times Book Review, they don't really look to litblogs for literary criticism but for news of the publishing world and gossip. To look at literary criticism, they search the online book sections of other newspapers like The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etc. Although they don't provide real literary criticism, Dwight said, blogs do have the virtue of distinctive voices.

John said that the NBCC blog Critical Mass can get famous writers to send them articles without paying them – a somewhat depressing situation if you think about it – but people don't read them, like a great essay Richard Powers did for them. Most of the traffic to the organization's blog comes from some link by another site, like Arts and Letters Daily.

Jennifer said she looks at litblogs for news as well, but she might not want online criticism because she herself is not used to reading long pieces on the Internet. Probably young people feel differently. She uses the Web to "get a sense of what's out there." But there's a lot of glut, and sometimes good things are hard to find.

Emily said some of the reviews of her husband Jonathan Alter's book seemed so petty. When reviewers aren't thoughtful, they lose credibility. She noted that some reviewers discredit an entire book because an author got one or two facts wrong. Then she said she was speaking more as the wife of an author than a TV producer.

Jennifer said there are real problems with book reviewers who want to feel superior to the books they are assigned.

When Emily said snark is more entertaining, Jennifer said that reviewers must communicate their critical experience in encountering work. It's bad to be condescending to the books under review; particularly with fiction, reviewers need to have a little bit of humility. Being a showoff results in the worst reviews, and editors need to guard against letting condescension creep into their publications' reviews.

Emily said she wanted a review of a book that was written, not the book the reviewer thought ought to have been written. Dwight said he was a fan of Emily's husband Jonathan Alter's writing and said that his columns are tough, and so he should expect tough reviews of his own work.

John asked Dwight if they often had to kill poorly-written reviews. Dwight said they rarely do this; instead they try to fix it. It looks bad if the Times Book Review kills a review because it seems as if they are favoring a writer and don't want her to receive negative criticism. They hate cheap shots, but some hits and fair hits.

Steve said that to him, a worse sin is the widespread prevalence of indifference in book reviews. "I'd embrace a crime of passion, however wrongly directed," he said, "over the indifferent complacency I see in many reviews."

Steve said he wanted to feel a presiding sensibility informing a book review, a sense that the reviewer holds readers in high regard and understands the high stakes of a review. He wants reviews that embrace the strange, the unknown, even the perverse – writing like that would go a long way toward gaining eyeballs for book review sections.

John asked Melissa if discussions on the Leonard Lopate radio show ever get combative or confrontational, and she replied that emotions are sometimes important, though if you're interviewing Henry Kissinger, you must approach him with respect. They try to have on only people that Leonard respects, and if the conversation gets heated, that's fine.

John then turned to Emily and asked her role in scripting the interviews; if they've got on a Swedish writer with a skeptical view of global warming as they did recently, what's their strategy to make the interview entertaining?

Emily said lots of writers make good foils for Steve's Colbert character, and it's Steve who usually figures out how. She couldn't do it for Keillor and would have passed on him as a guest, but Steve said he'd out-folksy him. Steve loves the challenge of interviewing guests his character would really have nothing to say so. The more difficult the interview, the better Steve likes it.

John said they were nearing the end of the hour session and asked each panel member what they were currently reading. Some of their answers:

Emily: Philip Roth's The Counterlife

Steve: Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism ("be very scared")

Melissa: Akiko Busch's Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here

Erica: Carol Gould's Spitfire Girls: A Tale of the Lives and Loves, Achievements and Heroism of the Women ATA Pilots in World War II

Dwight: Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
Jennifer: Gyula Kruda's Sunflower

With that, John closed the session by thanking the panel and the audience, reminding them that at 5:45 p.m., there would be another panel, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: Can Criticism and Promotion Coexist Today?"

Unfortunately, someone's grandmother was waiting for me at Sal's Pizzeria in Williamsburg and so I could not stay for it.

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