Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Good books, not new ones

Mark Athitakis reflects profitably on the changing relationship between blogging and criticism, the profit deriving in large measure from his spending almost no time developing any distinction between “first wave” and “second wave” bloggers. He observes that “who belongs in what wave” is perhaps “the dullest insider-baseball conversation imaginable.” Exactly. His interest in the subject is not abstract. In his comment to my post on blogging-as-essay-writing, Athitakis says that he wants to raise the economic question of book-blogging.

Perhaps the place to start is to look back upon the economic function of newspaper’s book pages, which are disappearing faster than Chrysler dealerships. And here the truth must be told. Book pages were unpaid advertising for the publishing industry. Why else would books be assigned for review, and the reviews written, before the books were even published? The book pages covered books that existed only in uncorrected proofs. (I still have the proof of the first book that I ever reviewed—Philip Applebaum’s Shame the Devil, which I wrote up for New York Newsday twenty-eight years ago. A press release from Crown Publishers was slipped into the pages. A contact name and number were provided, and a helpful plot summary and author bio were included. For someone who came to book reviewing from trade journalism, the entire package was familiar. I was used to writing up new product announcements.) The aim was to whip up interest in a book before its shelf life, estimated by Maugham to be no more than thirty days, came to an end.

Maugham’s estimate of a new book’s shelf life is a testament to the literary quality of most new books. Almost universally they deserve to be forgotten, and as quickly as possible. Even of award-winning books this is true. Last December, irritated by the chatter about the best books of 2008, I compiled a list of the year’s best books from a decade earlier. With few exceptions, they have dropped unprotestingly into oblivion. No surprise, really: Cyril Connolly once said that a book had achieved immortality if it was still being read ten years later. What this suggests, though, is that reviewers are wasting their own and their readers’ time to concentrate upon the books of the last thirty seconds. Perhaps they would perform a more essential service to readers if they rescued books that do not deserve to be forgotten.

In an earlier post, Athitakis glances at Gordon Hutner’s What America Read: Taste, Class and the Novel 1920–1960. “It’s a veritable Who’s Who of writers I’ve never heard of,” Athitakis says: “The female writers alone include Margaret Barnes, Josephine Lawrence, Margaret Culkin Banning, Caroline Slade, Maritta Wolff, and Margaret Halsey.” Hutner says ruefully that a junior scholar would have been discouraged from writing a book like his, on writers few have heard of. This is not a tragedy: most literary scholars have little of value to say to general readers. Book reviewers, however, might perhaps make it their business to bring attention to such writers.

There is no economic reason that book bloggers cannot write about any book or writer they want to. Nor is there any economic reason, except to line the pockets of Amazon and the publishers, to herd readers into the Newly Published aisles. Barnes & Noble and make it possible to roam desultorily through the collections of thousands of used booksellers. Why shouldn’t the “new wave” reviewers—that is, book bloggers—drum up business for them? The aim should be to promote reading, not publishing; and to push good books, not new ones.


NigelBeale said...

Couldn't agree with you more re: classification of book bloggers; as for really 'great' books: they tend to appear perhaps once every ten years. The rest is commercial noise.

Kat at Thornfield Hall Redux said...

I do agree with you that the publishers are losing valuable advertising. I love reading about new books, but stopped reviewing a while ago so I could read better books: classics, out-of-print lit, etc.

Coincidentally, I wrote about the Marketing and Blogging issue recently. Bloggers get pretty revved up about review copies. (Not that they don't deserve them, but...)