I was chided by my buddy Brian for devoting most of my previous post to the “mean book review” and not going into the dumbing down of the book review. To elaborate, along with ratcheting up the level of controversy, the New York Times Book Review is going to shift its focus away from more esoteric and literary fiction. In its place expect to see more non-fiction and more popular fiction reviewed. Also, the reviews themselves may become more bite-sized: “why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?” Now, I happen to think that the New York Times Book Review isn’t a terribly engaging read in its current incarnation. Typically, I pick it up to see which new books are being mentioned and read reviews of any books that I might have already read or that I am particularly interested in for some reason. All the reviews are essentially the same length and I find that they usually don’t keep me engaged if I’m not already interested in the book that’s being reviewed. I agree that there’s a problem, but I don’t think that the solution is capsule reviews full rancorous banter. Once you start down that road it’s only a matter of time before you start issuing Entertainment Weekly-style report card grades so that we can skip the reviews entirely. I would suggest that they devote at least a few of their pages for longer format reviews where, sure, the book is being reviewed, but it’s really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the topic at hand. The New Yorker and the Atlantic do this and they are among the most consistently readable and interesting reviews that I come across. John Updike’s review in the New Yorker of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is an example of this. Believe it or not, the review wasn’t altogether positive, but Updike managed to convey, nonetheless, the essence of the book, and I was able to tell from the first few paragraphs of his review that I wanted to read the book. Another New Yorker book review moment: I can’t even remember the name of the book that Louis Menand reviewed when I realized that I was far more enamored by the writing and breadth of knowledge of the reviewer than by the book being reviewed (which I can’t remember anymore anyway). Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club came out soon after and proved to be even more engaging than that first review that had turned me on to his writing. Those are good “book review experiences,” and if the New York Times Book Review could manage to provide one or two of those a week, they might find the positive change that they were looking for.
An update at Poynter Online has Times executive editor Bill Keller saying, “We’re not turning the Book Review into Mad magazine.” And here’s the article that got me started on all this in the first place.