Mark Athitakis Newsletter #25

Reviews, money, ambiguity.

Front Matter

I try not to get cynical about discussions about the “future of the book review.” Yes, every few weeks bad news seems to arrive about a books editor at a metro daily losing their job, or a notable publication “retooling” coverage in some way that seems to better please Great God Google but not necessarily readers. Every few months brings another lengthy disquisition about what’s been lost, and how the book coverage that remains is too chirpy, listicle-driven, and whatnot. Reading these articles have been a regular part of my life since at least 2008, when becoming a blogger all but obligated me to process and talk about this.

I, too, feel like a polar bear adrift on a rapidly melting ice floe. But I’ve also felt like that since—-let’s see here—-at least 2008. And---again, I’m trying not to be cynical---if I’m still floating, I’d like to think that part of that is because people are still out there advocating for the value of the book review. So I’m also not as cranky as many seem to be about Christian Lorentzen’s “Like This or Die,” his Harper’s cover story despairing of reviewing’s slow slide into craven click-chasing. The proximate cause for the piece was Lorentzen losing his contract as book critic at New York magazine in favor of literary coverage that was more interview- and list-heavy. Reviews, he was told, have “little value.”

I’ve had a hard time with Lorentzen’s criticism, which is well-informed but acerbic in a way that seems to foreground his mastery of the work at hand in a way that verges on superiority to it; even when he enjoyed who he was writing about, I wound up being put off by the book at hand. So I don’t keep up with him the way I do other critics. Still, he was plainly in line with the open-minded but not-easily-impressed writers the New York book-critic gig historically cultivated: Walter Kirn, Daniel Mendelsohn, Sam Anderson, Kathryn Schulz. It’s a loss. But of what sort, in what throughline of what trend?

While I was in New York last week to help judge the National Book Critics Circle awards, I took in an NBCC panel that considered the question. The official title of the panel was “The Stephen King Solution,” referring to King’s strategy to stop a Maine newspaper from gutting its local book reviews by encouraging people to pony up for digital subscriptions. That’s not a solution in itself---there are only so many Stephen Kings, and only so many writers with King’s clout to advocate on behalf of reviews. (As I pointed out from the peanut gallery, I live in the same metro area as Stephenie Meyer, and I have to imagine she is completely unmotivated to do anything on behalf of mainstream book reviewers, local or otherwise.) But King’s action, the panel agreed, spoke to two larger themes---the virtue of readers speaking out in defense of reviews, and the need to concede that we’re in an era of nonprofit and individual philanthropy when it comes to supporting journalism, and books sections would do well to get on board.

That sort of largesse has happened before---it’s what saved Kirkus Reviews from certain death in 2010. Alas, billionaires don’t scale. That is, there are only so many billionaires whose philanthropic interests intersect with the idea of, say, underwriting a newspaper books section, the way environmental and healthcare organizations have done. My hail-mary pass from the NBCC audience was to suggest that book reviews only survive in publications if there’s a social norm that it is good and necessary to have them. War coverage and sports have a perceived value that goes beyond their actual revenue. (Have you seen who advertises in the sports section? Strip clubs, orthodontists and pickup-truck dealerships can’t be carrying the freight of traveling beat reporters for five professional sports teams.) Book reviews are a vanishingly small budget line, relatively speaking.

But a day after I said that, the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced it was removing a dozen newsroom positions. So how that kind of persuasion happens in book reviews escapes me. But non-cynical me---I’m trying, I’m trying---would like to think that the interviews and podcasts and even the listicles can create an environment where readers outside the lit-section bubble can see the virtue of thoughtful review coverage. And the new world that provoked Lorentzen’s piece isn’t exclusively chirpy; I haven’t yet run out of material to include in the “what I’m reading” section, even outside of the legacy publications. The blog era of 10-15 years ago changed books coverage in one way; the post-Buzzfeed era is changing it in another.

The same people who rolled their eyes at Lorentzen’s piece at being a same-old-same-old complaint are likely the same people who’ll tell you we must persist in the face of today’s avalanche of sociopolitical offenses, because sometimes the choir needs preaching to as a way to buck up the collective spirit. Lorentzen is nobody’s idea of a cheerleader; he’d be grossly offended at being called one, I’m sure. But his advocacy for book reviews has value, as all such advocacy does. Will it bring back the book critic job at New York? Maybe not in the short term. But I’ve learned to take the long view.

What I’m Reading

Nathaniel Rich semisuccessfully attempts to rescue Saul Bellow from his foot-in-mouth, Tolstoy-of-the-Zulus late period. Laura Demanski spotlights a handful of lesser-known Chicago books, which leaves me curious about Robert Herrick’s 1926 novel, Chimes. Jesse Singal swims in the Gowanus of YA Twitter. Leo Robson looks at the life of Stoner novelist John Williams and imagines the starchier, less pomo postwar American canon that might have been. (Though, as somebody who’s currently reading a biography of Nelson Algren, it’s a little disingenuous to suggest that we had only Strict, Serious Realism and Freewheeling Experimentation to choose from.) Lucy Ives contemplates the end of the social novel. Caleb Crain imagines a few mission statements for authors, and what they might signify for a writer who can’t identify a good one for himself. Gary Wills gently suggests we not be so very impressed with Thomas Merton.

End Notes

We all make our peace with uncertainty and ambiguity in our own way. I like how Iris Dement does.

Thanks for reading. Send contact info for book-loving big-money donors and other correspondence to I’m on Twitter. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

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