Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Dust Biting

Another one bites the dust.

At one point, ten years ago or so, I used to write an occasional review for the Washington Post Book World. My books were frequently reviewed there and I'm sure the strong interest in books within our nation's capital was given a boost, as were my books, by this lively section of a lively newspaper.

As more and more of the print culture migrates to the Internet, I feel a sense of nostalgia mixed with dread. Just as established publishing houses act as "filters" for literary works, deciding which books get published and which get rejected, the prominent reviewing newspapers worked as a kind of propellant to this process. Gathering up a host of good reviews from Boston, Chicago, Washington, New York, LA, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas and Atlanta and Miami could move an unknown writer into the limelight and good reviews could get the book into the hands of hungry readers who would otherwise be lost in the vast chaos of choices.

Obviously, these filters could also dismiss, snub and otherwise diminish writers' careers as well. But without them, without the book reviewing institutions participating in a discussion of books, I see a very murky future. Throwing a book out into the vast and choppy seas of the Internet to be reviewed by people with no other credentials than a keyboard is a scary proposition.

Personally I've enjoyed and learned from reviews written on Amazon and and other amateur reviewing sites, but I've also seen the level of discussion at times drift downward into silliness. Newspaper reviewers can be as silly and irrelevant as anyone, and sometimes they can be susceptible to the influence of a clever marketing campaign from the publishers or they might yield to pressure from publicity people within the big houses.

Anonymous, amateur readers aren't subject to the same barage of emails and hype put out by publishers. On the other hand, established reviewers 'earned' their jobs and are held up to editorial scrutiny. They have editors who oversee their work and provide feedback. The lone wolf reviewer on Amazon, smashes out his review, and presses send and that's the end of it. And for better or worse that review will be attached to that book as long as the Internet lasts. Some reviewers for Amazon write so many reviews that it is physically impossible for them to have read the book they're reviewing with any care. Some books, some writing do require thoughtfulness and patient reconsideration to do them justice. Dashing off a first-impression with the "my opinion is equal to anyone else's opinion" arrogance often marks these Amazon reviews as superficial and intellectually immature.

All in all the changes the literary/reviewing world are undergoing strike me as exciting. A kind of democratization and liveliness of discussion that energizes and opens up the book world to everyone. But with the loss of so many smart, gifted and highly sophisticated reader/reviewers who wrote for the newspaper book pages, the discussion overall will suffer. I didn't always agree with the major book reviewers, but their often provocative reviews of my books and others I was interested in left me energized.

1 comment:

Bill Webb said...

I worry just as much about the readers. What effect will the sound-bite, web page, sidebar culture have on reader's attention spans and the time they feel is appropriate to spend on real books and literature?

We are now faced with an entire generation of kids who are used to putting a thought into 140 letters or less and getting immediate gratification and feedback. How will that effect enjoyment of the craft of words as well as the content?

The times, they are a'changin'.