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The problem with the campaign to save book reviews

“… if newspapers are dying, then blogs are the maggots come to feast upon their corpses.”

Like many biblioholics, I always fall–sometimes literally–for a good book review. I tripped on the treadmill last week laughing over Anthony Gottlieb’s review of God is Not Great, a review which not only seduced me into thinking about reading the book–a bit of a miracle, as I consider Hitchens vastly over-hyped, more personality than author, and in any event, in my case reading about atheism is like reading about sky-diving, and I would never jump out of a mechanically sound aircraft–but also silkily introduced me to new ideas, similar books, and the art of a good review.

However, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about the National Book Critics Circle’s Campaign to Save Book Reviewing if it didn’t sometimes feel like The Campaign to Trash Litblogging or The Campaign To Prove Newspapers Will Be Around Forever. In theory, it’s all about the book; but when I read that “blogs are kind of like parasitic microorganisms which feed off of a primary host”–which I thought describes all reviewing, though in nice company we call that symbiosis–I have to wonder, what exactly is this campaign trying to accomplish?

The campaign feels uncomfortably like too many debates within librarianship. Its efforts are organized around “posts by concerned writers, op-eds, Q and As, and tips about how you can get involved to make sure those same owners and editors know that book sections and book culture matter.” In other words, it’s self-referential, like those debates we have in LibraryLand about what our users want where we are really talking about what’s comfortable for us. (We don’t need no steenkin’ user studies!) In an intriguing parallel to Steven Bell’s comments about librarians’ discomfort with disagreement, some folks on the NBCC blog even got their shorts in a bunch over some well-framed dissent.

I do like reading many of the posts by “concerned writers”–at least those posts that aren’t pure vitriol, or alternatively, don’t read like book reports penned on the last day of summer vacation–but isn’t that like asking the farrier if horses matter? Why not approach readers, librarians, booksellers, and for that matter, litbloggers themselves? Why not go to the Amazon top 100 book reviewers and have them chime in? (The number 1 Amazon reviewer, Harriet Klausner, is a former acquisitions librarian.) Why not invite commentary by GalleyCat, the delightfully chatty, gossipy uber-review site? Or how about inviting reviewers from Choice and Booklist–two review sources oriented more toward a far larger, more ecumenical literary ecology than catered to by most book review sections?

The NBCC’s campaign to “save” book reviewing is poignantly painful for any of us–librarians, booksellers, motivated readers–who have fought to have under-reviewed, under-heeded great books get purchased and read before they are pulped into oblivion (and never mind the many excellent print or online journals that the book review world ignores). I do think it’s sad that newspapers are devoting less space to book reviews, but newspapers never devoted enough space to reviews to begin with, and the pecking order for what gets reviewed has had its own toxic effect on the health of some genres. (Bad enough to be a pitiful essayist, but the poets, I don’t know how they keep doing it–though Eric Miles Williamson’s post about the role of literary quarterlies was a nice addition to the Campaign.)

Perhaps the campaign to save book reviewing needs to be the campaign to rethink book reviewing. Fifteen years ago I might have agreed with Richard Schickel that reviewing “is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book.” But that was before I was a librarian, a blogger, or for that matter, much of a writer. I appreciate the rarefied world of reviews in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other traditional review sources; I have fun counting the number of literary references in a review by William Gass (42 in the one about his crazy mother, as I recall); I enjoy a review written by a writer who is clearly not just reviewing for purely utilitarian purposes but also cranking out a bit of craft. But I know better than to limit my reading world to only those books reviewed by the sources the NBCC is trying to save, and perhaps it is from the country outside that pretty parlor that the NBCC should seek not only support, but also wise counsel.

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