A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: “To be honest, there’s so much s—. Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.” This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney’s rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a “Snarkwatch” on their website. Yet the “snarkiness” has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer’s unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain’s favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled “Someone needs to have a word with Amis” and included the line “I won’t tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it’s terrible.” (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, “I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman’s new collection of essays.” (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don’t serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve.
For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.