Home / Word Down: Book Expo in the Shadow of Print Death

Word Down: Book Expo in the Shadow of Print Death

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Book Expo America is always interesting. I just attended my third, which was my first in the shadow of print death. Okay, so 30,000 attended the May 31-June 3 book trade show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, and, as usual, there were tons of books available for the snatching. But it seemed there were fewer “big” books being touted, and no matter your position in the literature field, the fact that the outlets for book reviews — if not books — are shrinking, created anxiety.

Consider: Teresa Weaver, former book editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, was laid off and, fortunately, landed as book editor at Atlanta magazine. Starting June 25, she’ll be doing the entire book reviewing there, so that’s one market down or, at least, highly constricted. At the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where I’ve been publishing reviews for years, the book section has been running reviews — mainly short ones — by staffers and wire for the past two months. The book section editor at the San Francisco Chronicle just told me that that paper, which has always had an eccentric, really wonderful book section, is laying off 100 of 400 editorial employees. At the Boston Globe, another outlet of mine for years, the space given over to book (and, for that matter, other arts) coverage is shrinking, too.

Because of that shrivel, a disconnect hovered over Book Expo. The gap between the publishing industry and the print outlets is widening, and online hasn’t stepped in – at least not in ways similar to the traditional print model. Sure, bloggers are legion, and plenty of blogs and websites deal with books. But the standards, authoritativeness and legacy of older print models are waning, giving people like me — who were raised on print and who work within its milieu with expectations to be paid professional rates for their opinions — the willies.

At the same time, there was plenty to warm one’s literary cockles at Javits. My inner groupie was pleased to get these autographs: Pulitzer Prizewinner Richard Russo (whose novel, Bridge of Sighs, is due out from Knopf in October); Lee Child (his recent Delacorte book is Bad Luck and Trouble); Stephen Hunter (the mystery novelist and Washington Post film critic’s The 47th Samurai will be published by Simon & Schuster in September); and Walter Mosley (Little Brown will publish his Blonde Faith in October). I also got imminent books from Alice Sebold (The Almost Moon, Little Brown, October) and Philip Roth (Exit Ghost, his latest Nathan Zuckerman installment, due from Houghton Mifflin in October). I had two boxes of books shipped home. Reading will not be an issue.

Neither will ethical questions like ones raised during a panel on book reviewer ethics. Moderated by assiduous, entertaining Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano, it featured the colorful Christopher Hitchens, the acerbic Francine Prose, Harpers Magazine book editor John Leonard (who wore his liberal heart on his sleeve) and Leonard’s more measured counterparts at The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review, David Ulin and Sam Tanenhaus. (For a podcast of the whole panel, check out website of the National Book Critics Circle.)

Flamboyant Londoner Hitchens believes “in the gutter ethics of Fleet Street,” noting that he once praised a book written by an enemy simply because it was so good he had no choice. None of the panelists had great difficulty with writing about their friends, an issue that queers most daily newspapers – for good reason. Leonard noted that since he’s been writing about books for decades and has been a liberal even longer, essentially all he knows and likes are literati of similar bent.

“Who else am I supposed to be friends with?” Leonard asks. “I’ve been in this business for 40 years. Ethics questions when it comes to book reviews are such small potatoes when it comes to the corruption of the culture.”

Prose said she’s sent back review books that she doesn’t like because she doesn’t want to ruin careers. She also reviews books by friends. “The ethics question objectifies book reviews,” she said. “They’re matters of opinion, matters of taste … the primary objective of the book reviewer is to write interestingly about the book.

“I think the most unethical thing to do is write about a book boringly.”

Tanenhaus, who runs arguably the most influential book review periodical in the country, said that the reader is the key. A champion of the uneven novelist Jonathan Lethem, Tanenhaus noted that when he took over the Times book review a few years ago, relationships of any degree between a reviewer and a book writer were suspect. Should Lethem be barred from reviewing Ian McEwan because the two once had lunch? No, said Tanenhaus, adding he considered Lethem’s lead review of McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (skewered earlier that same week by New York Times literary hatchet lady Michiko Kakutani) a “superb essay.” It was published in Tanenhaus' mag June 3.

Ulin said disclosure is critical and necessary. “I do draw the line at having friends review friends,” he told about 100 people packed into a Javits conference room rendered nearly uninhabitable by spotty air conditioning. “It’s cleaner not to have that.

“I don’t trust a critical voice that isn’t willing to be negative,” he added. “Can you praise or criticize a book even though you don’t want to?” Ulin also said he thinks book review sections should “champion” authors.

“I no longer really want to tear somebody to shreds,” said Leonard, a self-styled “old man” of 60. “Keep silent or lose the friendship and write an excoriating review.”

I didn’t attend many other panels, but I’ve been reading a lot about this Book Expo. Karen Long, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer book section, reported that HarperCollins teamed up with MySpace this winter on a teen writing contest, soliciting kids older than 13 to compete to write the best paranormal plot. The contest generated more than six million page views and an upcoming book, Reflection Perfection. That’s certainly a novel way to build a market. What the quality will be is a question.

I did, also, go to the $50 author luncheon June 2. It featured Alan Alda, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, DefJam founder Russell Simmons – and Valerie Plame Wilson, the former CIA agent whose outing led to the conviction of “Scooter” Libby for perjury. The panel was a motley, predictably liberal crew. Plame, her blonde bouffant at odds with her outrage at the government, was the star, receiving a standing ovation from a crowd whose revulsion toward the Bush administration was palpable. Simon & Schuster, which is scheduled to publish her autobiography, has joined her in a lawsuit against the CIA, CIA chief Michael Hayden and National Intelligence Director J. Michael McConnell. The suit claims the CIA is withholding information about Plame’s dates of service even though those dates already have been aired. Plame’s book, for now, is in legal limbo.

Simmons, who’s pushing his Do You!, a Gotham Books tome about the interface of spirituality and business (what, you didn’t know there was one?), was unexpectedly engaging and refreshingly casual; Alda was avuncular and funny; and Krugman said that this country stands, potentially, on the threshold of a New Deal, adding he hopes George W. Bush will be “seen as the Herbert Hoover of the 21st century.”

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Alec

    A great post that reveals a lot about the sad state of the book reviewing industry.

    RE: Leonard noted that since he’s been writing about books for decades and has been a liberal even longer, essentially all he knows and likes are literati of similar bent…. “Who else am I supposed to be friends with?”

    Prose said she’s sent back review books that she doesn’t like because she doesn’t want to ruin careers. She also reviews books by friends….“I think the most unethical thing to do is write about a book boringly.”

    This kind of thing is just pathetic. Book reviews are cutting back in part because unruly readers, in an excess of democracy, are writing their own reviews in blogs and elsewhere on the net and on sites like amazon.com. Many of these reviews are worthless, the lame gushing of fans, obviously partisan slams or raves, or the ignorant ramblings of people who are not even talented amateurs with a minimal grasp of the author’s works. But the best of the amateur reviews are the best considered opinions of people who are fully engaged and who enjoy reading.

    Instead of responding to the challenge presented by the Internet and the decline of newspapers, the critics you mention here — except for the marvelously iconoclastic Chris Hitchens — are content to stew in the fetid juices of their own sense of superiority. That Leonard honestly believes that he is a champion of culture, despite confessing his ignorance of and lack of interest in anything outside his narrow literary coterie instead reveals him to be a tired old fool who should be retired.

    The best critics are always those who do not want to belong to some cozy, insular insiders club, and who maintain an intense curiosity about life and the possibilities of life and literature.