The Challenge to Book Culture

On the face of it, it would be hard to imagine a more depressing cultural subject right now than the future of book culture. Publishers are hurting badly; droves of independent bookstores have closed down; Borders, a major chain of booksellers, has filed for bankruptcy and is currently dumping the dregs of its stock at its flagship store on 57th Street and Park Avenue; floundering newspapers have cut loose their reviewers and, at best, folded their book review sections into their shrinking pages. The newspapers themselves may not be far behind. The Great Recession delivered the coup de grace; advertising revenue is in free fall. Ask any editor, any author, any media maven: it is not a pretty picture. The executive editor of the New York Times wonders whether there will still be a print edition five years from now.

On the other hand, some would argue that this worst of times is also the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, to online booksellers like Amazon, to the ubiquitous Google digitizing whole libraries, books have never been so readily available, including rare books, out-of-print books, and, thanks to the famous “long tail,” older titles once hard to find, since bookstores rarely stocked them. Loving the serendipity of browsing in bookstores, actually fingering the merchandise, we forget the frustrations of the fruitless search, the books we could not find. Browsing online we find it’s all there yet tantalizingly out of reach.

Without fetishizing the physical properties of the book, which after all do not reach back to the tablets on Sinai, we can acknowledge the difference between reading print, flipping pages, plunging ahead or backward, and reading on a computer or miniature electronic device. There is something of a generational divide here, but screen reading, while near-miraculous for retrieving hard-to-find information, is less than ideal for the focused attention of literary reading. As storage devices books indeed are cumbersome. We can be grateful for the amazing horizontal connectivity of the Internet without slighting how shallow those connections often are. It gives us the world at a glance but often no more than a glance.

In the case of book reviewing, or critical writing of any kind, cyberspace offers a few advantages, but to my mind they are outweighed by the drawbacks. There is that vast storehouse of material that can be retrieved, such as reviews, old and new; biographical information; profiles of writers, movie directors, artists, composers; but also, for reviewers, something genuinely new, a vast grey hinterland between publishing and not publishing. The Internet is an open grid for bloggers, commentators, cranks, obsessive enthusiasts who have made cults of individual writers, but not least of all for the fabled man in the street, the consumer now empowered to talk back, to emerge from anonymity, or take cover in anonymity, to make his or her peeves and passions known.

To put it simply, the professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor’s exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated. What works for a website like Trip Advisor, which gives us unfiltered but welcome criticism of hotels and restaurants, most assuredly does not work for literary reviewing, which demands taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument. Barring this, we’re stuck with the thumbs-up, thumbs-down school of reviewing. Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence. The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing.

But what about bloggers, you may ask. They may not be professionals but they certainly can be devoted and persistent. Blogging has a style of its own, most commonly diaristic, spontaneous. As with online reviewing in general, it has opened the culture to a vast spectrum of writing and opinion, most of which no one will ever read. I enjoy casual blogging myself as a relief from the formal essay, with its carefully honed prose. I plan to post these very remarks in a blog, and would be gratified if they found a few readers. But it’s striking that there are twenty successful political blogs for each effective literary blog. With all due respect to Critical Mass, the valuable website of the National Book Critics Circle, there’s not a single must-read literary blog I turn to on a regular basis. The ones that I do read are linked to print magazines like The New Yorker, The New Republic, or The Atlantic, or the ones actually modeled on print magazines, such as Slate and Salon or gateway sites like Arts & Letters Daily. But will the online extensions of print journals still thrive when the magazines themselves go under, as some surely will when they run out of millionaires nostalgic for the old print culture who are willing to subsidize them. What will happen to online journalism, especially investigative journalism, when it destroys the print journalism on which it feeds, or to aggregator sites when they find themselves aggregating only from other websites?

As writers of books and as reviewers ourselves, what do we expect from a book review? In the case of a movie review we’re usually content with learning what it’s about and deciding whether to see it. Because books are literature we hold book reviewing to a higher standard. We expect much more than plot summary or summary judgment. We expect it to be really written, exacting, to rise to the level of its subject, to display an understanding of the medium, a personal point of view. We would be outraged if new novels were rated with a certain number of stars, as movies commonly are. We demand incisive judgment, not mere consumer guidance. Book reviews should be a province of writing, not of marketing – or polling. Criticism is a refined art, not a popularity contest. We expect it to be done with style and intelligence.

The last thing we want to do is idealize the old middlebrow culture with its genteel book industry, its banal bookchat and boosterism, its highly stratified culture – a pyramid capped by a small cadre of little magazines and rigorous critics. But we may miss its respect for the written word, the life of the mind, the culture of the past. The Internet accelerated a democratization of culture which had long been under way, a shift toward visual media and popular music that consigned literature to the outer margins. The revolution initiated by the movie screen and the TV screen is being brought to high definition by the computer screen. Here critical writing has a small niche but will it acquire a real presence? Deployed with technical savvy, it can become a form of resistance, a rampart of personal vision within a relentlessly homogenized culture, ever in thrall to the fashions of the moment. Thanks to its open grid and easy access, the same technology that marginalizes literature and drowns out criticism leaves room for dissent, for the still, small voice that may yet find ways to be heard.

These remarks were prepared for panel on “The Next Decade in Book Culture,” with special emphasis in criticism and book reviewing, at the PEN World Voices Festival, April 27, 2011, cosponsored by the National Book Critics Circle.