Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The crisis in newspaper book reviews

Novelist Richard Ford has never read a literary blog, but he's ready to critique them anyway.

In a May 2 New York Times story about the decline of the book review in papers across the nation, Ford remarks that "“Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership, in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

While I'm reluctant to second-guess one of our greatest living authors (and a fellow Mississippian, as well), such high-brow stereotyping of the blogger lacks understanding and gratitude for the contributions the blogosphere has made to the book industry, and to individual authors such as Mr. Ford.

The crisis of the newspaper book review was a topic of conversation on yesterday's Talk of the Nation, when John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle was a guest. Economics are at the root of the problem, with publishers struggling to cut costs in the face of market uncertainties, in part brought on by Internet competition. Seemingly no one views this as a welcome development, and no one with an ounce of sense is about to claim that the blog can replace the traditional book review.

But book bloggers are a major force for good for the publishing industry, and for authors. Motoko Rich of the Times mentions the case of the short story collection This Is Not Chick Lit, which was largely overlooked by print reviewers but received a great deal of support and attention in the blogosphere. The result? The book "is now in its sixth printing with 45,000 copies in print."

I hope that Mr. Ford, a man of great sagacity, will reconsider and sample at least a few of the book blogs where 'guys sitting in their basements' have been promoting his work for years. I myself stand second to no one in my love of the old-fashioned book review, and I hope for its rescue.

However, if it goes the way of extinction, the blame will fall on the newspaper publishers who have abdicated their responsibility to the literary community -- a responsibility that the literary bloggers seem happy to assume.

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