Monday, May 21, 2007

Bye bye, book reviews?

A columnist in the book review section of our local paper recently bemoaned the loss of book reviews in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution getting rid of the books editor.

Now, I can understand that this would be upsetting to the writer. As their job goes, so goes my job...?

That was not how the writer put it, though. To quote, "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 didn't realize the purpose of reviews was so exalted. I thought it was to critique books. Books about ideas, sure, but also books that aim to entertain. Clearly, I have been wrong all these years. Book reviews are So Much More.

Although...maybe that's the problem. Maybe other people were thinking like me. But there were never any reviews of what they read for entertainment, or might want to read, if only they'd read a review about it.

Perhaps if newspapers carried more reviews of popular fiction instead of oh, say, marginalizing whole genres, they might have more people reading, and caring about, the reviews. Then the book reviews would not be "consigned" to "special" publications and the web (which is apparently a sort of purgatory for ideas, which comes as news to me).

When was the last time you saw a romance reviewed in your local paper? If it was recently, and not around Valentine's Day, lucky you. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Nora Roberts books I've seen given a full review in print. Heck, I can count it on one finger. Because it's one.

As one reviewer who formerly scorned a popular fiction writer noted, "Maybe if we pay a bit of attention to what people are actually reading, rather than what we tell them to read, we might learn something."

And you might still have a book review section in your local newspaper.


Leah Braemel said...

But there were never any reviews of what they read for entertainment, or might want to read, if only they'd read a review about it.

Good point, Margaret. I got tired of all the artsy fartsy stuff they'd recommend.

Although I'm starting to wonder about my own tastes - I can't get through a Pulitzer Prize winner - The Shipping News - thought it unreadable, yet everyone else seemed to love it. And the same with Carol Shield's Stone Diaries - if ever there was a book about 'Life sucks and then you die' this was it. And yet the critics loved 'em both.

Margaret Moore said...

I just wish they'd review a broader range of books, and if they wonder why book reviews seem to be treated as irrelevant, maybe they need to look at what they're reviewing. Can't we have both, "literary" and "popular"?