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?

Actually, yes.

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.

0 Responses to “thoughts on the loss of print book reviews”

  1. metagnat

    Having studied journalism at the graduate level recently, I agree with you that the news business (especially the paper part) has serious problems. I definitely agree with you that the loss of book reviews is not that much of an issue, especially in this day and age when, as you said, you can find opinions aplenty from people whose taste is similar to your own on the web.

    While I do agree that the role of reviewers as arbitrators of what is and is not quality is outmoded, I think that reviews in general (whether they come from professional reviewers or not) are important in this information-saturated time. There’s a lot of signal out there, and a lot of noise and there are only a few ways you can tell one from the other, and one is to find someone you trust who’s listening to all the data (or even just a particular corner of the data) and trusting their opinion about what part is the signal.

    It is not really a viable option for everyone to do their own filtering on every topic. This is part of the role that reviewers and, for that matter, newspapers in general play in modern society. While the business model of the newspapers is outmoded, the service they provide is still a valuable one – that is, finding signal and bringing it to their readers’ attention.


    • Marie Brennan

      You’re absolutely right about the need for filtering. What I find interesting is the growth of online venues that provide exactly that service, but non-professionally — that is, nobody’s making their entire living off that job, though they may earn some amount of money for it. I’m not convinced that quality invariably suffers from it being a part-time occupation or hobby for the contributors. With a good group of people, and a smart person holding the reins, you can get awfully good results.

      Personally, I get most of my political news at this point from Daily Kos. What’s interesting to me is that I feel a slight impulse to find some other site to read at the same time, as a cross-check against the DK perspective. How many people, now or in the past, feel/felt the need to read multiple newspapers for the same reason? Even if you lived in a two- or three-newspaper town, you probably only read one. Yet newspapers still carry the aura of objective, unbiased reporting that a website like DK doesn’t — even though I recognize how much of an illusion that aura is. Maybe it’s just that DK is more open about its bias: they don’t feel the need to pretend to be anything other than liberal.

      • kniedzw

        I get most of my political news via a combination of the following:NYT headlines,CNN five-minute summary,BBC Newspod headlines,PBS NewsHour stories,NPR five-minute summary, andWait Wait Don’t Tell Me.Granted, none of these news sources are on the Right, but most of them are fairly respected and generally neutral.

  2. ckocher

    It’s not only book reviewers that are being lost, it’s any kind of topic specific reporter or writer. Many middle market newspapers used to have a music/entertainment writer or two, a health/science reporter, a gardening/home improvement reporter. Now all of these are disappearing, replaced by a general features reporter who will have very little of the in-depth knowledge of any specific topic and less of a real connection with the readers who follow a particular topic. The cuts happen for the reasons you list – fewer subscribers equal less ad revenue equals cuts in staff.

    Now – does this really matter in the long run? We do have the internet now, and no shortage of people posting about the books or music they like. But I do think that there remains a place for an entity, newspapers included, to be a focal point of information for a wider audience. Instead of the audience having to read twenty different websites or blogs, they go to one source. This is the role that traditional newspapers played in the past, and it’s a role that they are trying to define for themselves with the shift to new media (my husband is a newspaperman and it’s a very nervous and uncertain time for him right now).

    I’m in the process of starting up a blog initiative for work (I work in public broadcasting) and our goal is to keep our audience informed about things we think they care about. Is this any better than a fan review or mention? You can debate about the quality of writing or knowledge of a subject but I think it’s going to boil down to how well are you serving your audience, and you have to start with that by defining your audience. I don’t see your average, blog providing that service to a large number of people. I think that’s where the role of certain traditional media will focus.

    • Marie Brennan

      The ironic thing is that, by cutting jobs and making one person cover a lot of topics they know little about, they’re giving me less reason to want to subscribe.

      I wouldn’t expect an average blog to replace a newspaper, no. But newspapers contain a lot of info I never much cared about, that I would just end up chucking in the recycling bin anyway; back when I read the Dallas Morning News in high school, I generally looked through about three of the smaller sections, and even now, when I would take a greater interest in the local, national, and international news than I did then, I still wouldn’t end up reading most of it. In some ways, I think I’d rather go to a small number of websites with a dedicated interest in particular topics than browse through a big roundup of stuff in search of what I care about.

      I did, for a while, subscribe to the NYT e-mail service; I have no idea why I stopped getting it, and haven’t bothered to check (which is an interesting point right there). But I liked how I could ask for particular sections and leave out the ones I didn’t care about. That’s a model I see as worth pursuing; I might even be persuaded to pay a small sum for it.

  3. wrathchylde

    I work for a newspaper so the decline is affecting me firsthand. They recently laid off 70 people where I work; they’re cutting back on everything. I’m sort of split on it. Of course on the one hand, my livelihood is affected; not good for me. There is of course the shift from newspapers to online media. But what worries me is the decline in literacy overall, or at least in pleasure reading. The book pages wouldn’t have been touched if they were a main draw.

    • wrathchylde

      sorry, that’s a bit rushed, I’m at work and typing quickly 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s more or less what I mean about looking at this trend as a barometer. But that gets into an extended discussion of the book publishing business and what it’s doing with itself that I just don’t feel up to tackling right now. (I have some brain with which to think, but not all of it is back on line yet.)

  4. houseboatonstyx

    Well, with all the pixel-stained books coming up, maybe pixel-stained reviews are a good thing.

    Seriously — I see it as a diversity thing. An excellent book for a small audience would have trouble getting reviewed in the NYT; not enough interested readers. On the web, that small audience can find the review easily enough, and if the book is good enough, someone will write and post a brilliant review.

    I’d trust amateur reviews — for the love — above a tired jaded professional. If a review is literate and readable, it carries its own credentials.

    • Marie Brennan

      On the web, that small audience can find the review easily enough

      I don’t think this is necessarily true — unless you mean that small audience is looking for a review of that particular book, in which case yes, googling will turn it up. The bigger issue is that the public doesn’t know to go looking for the review if they haven’t already heard of the book. But I think we’re in the process of developing better tools for steering people toward such things — recommendation algorithms that work off your existing interests, etc.

  5. kniedzw

    Well, from a genre perspective, you’ve got Gary Wolf, John Clute, and … who else? Not many folks. There’s the NYRoSF, of course, and then there’s Strange Horizons and the IRoSF, but beyond that, I’m not aware of a huge number of genre-specific reviewers who actually get published.

    Of course, you can always point to places like The New Yorker, which I keep feeling like I should read, but it’s never held my attention as much as even The Economist did when I subscribed there.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d rather look to Strange Horizons for my book reviews than the local paper, or even the NYT. When it comes to genre books, they have more credibility in my eyes.

      • kniedzw

        …which is interesting to me, since Strange Horizons doesn’t have small core of regular contributors. They’re all specfic readers, obviously, but they’re not necessarily frequent contributors who you can always get to know well.


        • Marie Brennan

          Okay, what I said was misleading.

          I’d look to SH before the NYT, but I’ll look to and and various other folks like that before I’d look to SH. I’m really more interested in word of mouth from people I know than any particular publication.

  6. anima_mecanique

    Well, at least there will be fewer reviews where a fantasy book is compared to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings despite sharing few qualities with either.

    I think I saw no less than three or four mainstream reviews of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that called it a ‘Harry Potter for grownups’. It does get tiresome.

  7. calico_reaction

    I’m a part of the generation newspapers have failed to attract.

    Me too. And I have to agree with a lot of what you say, though I tend to browse through various book journals and review sites. I don’t read them fully, but I skim, looking for something to catch my eye.

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