thoughts on the loss of print book reviews
We are entirely moved out (of the old place) and moved (transported to the new place). Now we just need to finish moving in, i.e. unpacking.
As a result, I have some brain with which to think. And I’d like to talk about something that came up on Deep Genre, to whit, the increasing tendency for newspapers and the like to cut out their book review sections.
This seems problematic insofar as it can be read as a barometer of public interest in books — which I’m not convinced it is — but as a phenomenon in its own right, you know what? It doesn’t bother me.
I’m a part of the generation newspapers have failed to attract. I’ve never subscribed to one, though I will read the NYT or some such online when interest strikes. (This is an enormous problem for newspapers as a whole, and one they don’t yet seem to have found a good solution to. Their circulation numbers are dropping steadily as their older readers die off and they fail to replace them with young ones. And they’re cutting their book reviewers partly as an attempt to cut costs and keep their businesses afloat.)
So I’ve never looked to newspapers for book information because I’ve never looked to newspapers for much of anything. One of the few exceptions, when I was growing up, were movie reviews, and therein lies my second reason: I regularly saw the newspaper reviewers pan movies I quite liked, so while I would still read them for entertainment value, their opinions didn’t mean all that much to me. They failed to convince me of their credibility and authority. Why, then, should I care what their book reviewers had to say? I can find book reviews online if I want them.
But, you object, are the two really comparable? Am I really willing to accept the opinion of BookLover612 as just as valid — or moreso — than that of the professional reviewer?
If I’m looking for in-depth critique, especially of an academic sort, then I won’t look to BookLover612 or somebody writing for the local newspaper. But if I’m looking for an opinion piece — which, face it, is what most reviews are — then the criterion that matters most to me is, whether the reviewer’s taste is like my own. This is more likely to be true of a person I find online than in the paper, if for no other reason than because I read genre fiction, and mainstream publications often give my books short shrift — condescending reviews when we get reviews in the first place. Honestly, I get most book opinions from friends, not from authority figures of any kind. And if I look to strangers, I’ll look in places where I know they like the books I like. (The danger, of course, is that this becomes insular, that I’ll never be exposed to anything new. But given the range of places from which I get these opinions, and the impossibility of anybody’s taste being identical to my own, I think more that I get exposed to a fluctuating fringe of stuff that’s an easy step or two from what I already like, instead of so far afield that I won’t bother picking it up.)
In the end, what I feel we’re losing here is a level of cultural arbitration: a limited set of authoritative voices telling people what they should and should not like. It’s an uncharitable interpretation of what newspaper book reviews are/were, perhaps, but that’s the major thing I can see newspapers giving us that random blog reviews can’t. And even then, we still have loci of authority, with organized review sites and the like.
So it doesn’t really bother me. But I’m curious to hear what other people think.