Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Year without Book Reviews

A newspaper book review editor's office.
The L.A. Times has fired all its freelance book reviewers.  Budget cuts, the editor says.  The Guardian Books Blog is now written entirely by staff writers. Budget cuts, I imagine.

These cuts have an effect.  This year, 11 of the books I've read came to my attention from book reviews.  Book reviews, whether positive or negative, publicize books.

The New York Times Book Review is touted as the most influential book page. I no longer depend on it personally, though.  I've been burned, not by critics, but by novelist reviewers writing too kindly about other novelists.  It's not that I want unkindness, but neither do I want to rush out to buy a flawed book because I am too easily influenced by big-name reviewers. In other words, I have passed Book Reviewing 101 and have become impervious to reviews.   Book reviewing is a tough job--it's no fun reading bad books--but, all the same, we look for the reviewer's true opinion and assessment of how well the writer has succeeded in achieving his or her goal in his or her genre.

The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker still have energetic book sections.  They recognize reviewing and book news as an art, and also publish articles about old or out-of-print books.

The Guardian is eccentric, never afraid to eviscerate even a famous writer's book (and these negative reviews often send me searching for the book).  The Washington Post has an excellent crew of in-house critics.  The New Yorker is, well, The New Yorker.
Of course there are other venues.  Many bloggers take contemporary literature seriously.   But sometimes they are "compromised."  (Have I been watching too much "Battlestar Galactica?")  Sometimes they're doing obvious PR, out of naivete or to return a favor.  Some may actually be PR people.  If they're bookstore affiliates, watch out.  Every time you click on one of their links to a bookstore and buy something, anything, they profit.   It may not be by much, but it's something.  (By the way, I'm not a bookstore affiliate.)

What would I do if I had to do without book reviews for, say, a year?  I suppose I'd go back to the system I had in the old days.  Most of the new books I read, by the way, are not the result of reviews.  A few new books are bought on impulse, a few inspired by recommendations at Amazon or The Barnes & Noble Review, a few from prize longlists.   The older books I pick out according to my own system. 
We need our book reviews, though.


Teresa said...

Very interesting. I'm a big fan of Amazon book reviews, but I wonder sometimes if they have arrangements with certain publishers to really promote certain books. I'll have to see if I can find the Washington Post reviews at the library.

Ellen said...

Everyone is being fired. You know there is no budget crisis; it's all made up, engineered. There is a desperate unemployment crisis.

I don't trust book reviews and read them sometimes instead of the book or as an essay on the book or its topics. I don't read the New York Times Book Reviews though; the ones I read are LRB, WRofB and NYRB. Ellen

Frisbee said...

Teresa, I find out about many good books at Amazon, but of course they are booksellers. Caveat emptor! Their best-of lists often overlap with those of IndieNext, B&N, and other bookstores. But they also push books I wouldn't hear about otherwise. The disadvantage is not to be able to browse in person. If only we could go to their warehouses...though someone told me they use UPS warehouses!

Ellen, newspapers have been cutting back for a number of years. Our own is tiny now. There have been many layoffs (100?). Their web presence has hurt them, some say: people read newspapers online instead of paying for them. Wash Post and L.A. Times used to have separate book sections. I don't know the inside story, though. Am just stunned at the number of writers cut.

I would say you're reading good essays rather than reviews. LRB & NYBR (I don't know the other) are very good; their reviews are long and complicated, bringing in the writer's knowledge and questions instead of sticking only to the book or books.

Anonymous said...

I have been researching book reviews for what I've been reading. Since none of the books are current, it is an enjoyable process. I have used the historical NY Times database available at a local library. I don't read the reviews until I've finished the book so that they won't influence my reaction to it.I just finished reading "Love" by Elizabeth von Arnim and then Margaret Laurence's "The Stone Angel" and was able to read the reviews. The latter book especially was highly praised and I think deserved it.

Frisbee said...

I love reading the old book reviews, too. I enjoy both the authors you name.

And The New York Times is a good source, even though I'm critical.