It's too bad that the National Book Critics Circle has now so thoroughly discredited itself and its "save book reviews" crusade through its inability to curb its blog-hatred, since buried beneath the ignorant rantings Critical Mass has been posting is also this short piece on the role of criticism in literary journals by novelist Eric Miles Williamson, who is also an editor at American Book Review.
And while our efforts are noble at saving the book review sections of newspapers, it seems to this Board member that the battle we're fighting will ultimately be lost. Newspapers exist to make money. They are commercial enterprises. The Hearst Corporation (from which I receive checks) is not, ultimately, concerned with advancing culture or belle lettres. It wants, like any other creature, not only to survive, but, as Faulkner says of man, to prevail. . .
This said, I believe the book review is in better health than it has ever been in this country. I have in front of me a recent issue of Kevin Prufer's Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, the literary journal published out of the University of Central Missouri. It comes out twice a year, and the issue on my desk has 27 reviews totalling over 100 pages, some as long as 4500 words. None of these reviewers get paid a nickel. Also on my desk is American Book Review, for which I edit. We publish six times a year, and our most recent issue has 30 reviews, each of which is at least 1000 words. We pay fifty bucks, but we beg our reviewers to accept a subscription or a gift subscription, and most of them forgo the cash. Then there's The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Chelsea, The Southern Review, The Arkansas Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and hundreds of other literary journals published both independently and by universities. . . .
I certainly agree with Williamson that the book reviews to be found in publications like Pleiades, ABR, Bookforum, and Context (alert: I've written for three of these journals) are more fully developed and considered, are better, than most of the glorified plot summaries that pass for fiction reviews in American newspapers. Good reviews are to be found frequently enough in the literary magazines Williamson lists as well (further alert: I've also written for two of them), but unfortunately the ones on the list are just about the only print literary magazines that do regulalry publish book reviews and literary criticism. The principle, and partial reality, that Williamson champions in his post is well worth stating and defending. Literary magazines (what used to be called "quarterlies" or "little magazines") should play a vital role not just in publishing fiction and poetry but in maintaining criticism as an ongoing practice. However, this principle is not followed, perhaps is not even recognized, by the editors of most of these magazines (of which there are indeed hundreds).
(I have to say I think online literary magazines are doing a better job of providing reviews and criticism than their more-established print brethren. Why this would be true I can't quite say. Perhaps there's a feeling that print space is too valuable, more long-lasting, and thus ought to be taken up primarily by fiction and poetry. It is true that perfunctory reviews of the newest and the latest aren't likely to seem that urgent in retrospect, but good reviews that aspire to the status of criticism don't have to be mere book reports and don't have to focus only on upcoming releases. Some extended discussion of books that have already passed the window of immediate critical regard but that remain well worth readers' attention would do American fiction a lot of good right now.)
A very good reason why literary magazines ought to cultivate critics and criticism stems from Williamson's own honest assesement that "the battle we're fighting [on behalf of newpaper book sections] will ultimately be lost." It will be lost. Newspapers are well advanced in their furious endeavor to alienate as many of their natural allies (readers) as possible, and in a few years we may well look back on the idea that serious book reviewing could be sustained in American newspapers with some hilarity. Without some system of critical support, none of the writers featured in our literary magazines are going to be able to make much in the way of long-term connection to readers who might be interested in their work. The mere appearance of the work in these magazines, absent attention to it when it later appears in a collection or leads to a first novel, isn't going to suffice. Simple concern for the careers of the writers they're promoting ought to motivate litmag editors to include thoughtful reviews among their offerings.
There will continue to be resistance to the idea that book reviewers should seek the more congenial, if also more narrowly focused, space afforded by the quarterlies (or, for that matter, literary blogs). Such resistance is vividly illustrated by the very first comment offered on Williamson's post: "I'm all in favour of literary journals; but they are only read by literary people. Surely the importance of having fiction and non-fiction reviewed in daily newspapers is that books remain an essential part of everyday culture, rather than becoming the preserve of a select few." Martin Levin also voiced a similar objection in last weekend's Globe and Mail: "Here's what worries me: The malignant idea that books, and book talk, are culturally marginal, even irrelevant, to be consigned to special publications and websites. Newspaper book reviews are often the first voice in public conversations about issues and ideas and writing that matter. And that's what we're in danger of losing."
I just can't agree that book reviews have ever been, or are ever likely to be, part of "everyday culture." Like or not, book culture is "the preserve of a select few," although a "select few" in a population of 300 million can still add up to a lot of people. "Book talk" may not be entirely "culturally marginal," especially if that includes talk about nonfiction books related to current events, public policy, and history, but it's hard to make a case that book talk about fiction and poetry occurs anywhere but among the "select few" who think such works are important. Perhaps it is true that "Newspaper book reviews are often the first voice in public conversations about issues and ideas," but those conversations also take place mostly among a "select few" and again the books Levin must have in mind are mostly nonfiction. Moreover, this more rarefied view of the role of book reviews seems at odds with Levin's previous claim that "book review sections are still where casual readers, and that's most readers, go to find out what books they might possibly want to read." (I don't think this is true. I think most "casual readers" go to libraries and bookstores and look around, or get recommendations from their friends. I doubt that many such readers ever seriously consult book review sections to determine what "they might possibly want to read.")
There's something very peculiar about the notion that literary journals are insufficient because they appeal primarily to "literary people." Literary people are people who take books and reading seriously. They want to know not only what new titles have been published this week but also how these books relate to other books (including other books by these authors) and what the experience of reading any one of them was like for an engaged reader. Book reviewers who want to keep plying their trade are going to have to get over the idea that they're bringing culture and edification to the great unwashed. Even if the unwashed wanted to get clean, newspapers (and many magazines) clearly are no longer going to pay for the effort. We should be content discussing the literary with literary people.