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Why book review sections don’t work

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Who would have guessed that the San Francico Chronicle‘s Sunday book review would be one of the few standalone newspaper reviews remaining? (It survives as a pull-out from the paper’s opinion section.) That the review has stayed alive is more a testament to the exceptional dedication of the Bay Area book community than to any quality of the review itself.

The editors try their best, but they are up against a stiff challenge, and when all is said and done the review is not particularly readable. Its limitations underscore some of the reasons newspaper book review sections are officially on the endangered species list. Review editors will complain that the book industry does not step up with the kind of advertising support needed for the reviews to survive. But the shortfall in advertising reflects a larger failing to engage readers. When readers are engaged advertising tends to follow.

The basic problem with the book reviews is a lack of context and continuity. Reviews have typically treated books the way philatelists look at stamps or lepidoptorists butterflies — as specimens to be tacked on a page. But those collectors at least apply some taxonomical criteria to their collections. A book review section mostly does not. One issue might contain an enthusiastic review of a trashy popular novel, a measured assessment of a nonfiction biography of a dead president, a random review of a book about gardening, and a breezy report on an account of travels in Thailand,  all by different reviewers. The next issue will contain reviews on entirely different subjects, mostly by a different set of reviewers. As a result, what is produced is less a mosaic than a heap of individual tiles.

The problem is compound by an in-between length of reviews, which go beyond mere listings but fall short of being fully considered essays. Longer reviews in the TLS or El Pais provide sustained reading that to an extent makes up for the problems of continuity and context. Shorter reviews like those in Booklist or PW Forecasts cast a wider net and serve as industry news.

Sometimes a reviewer’s persona provides a degree of continuity; the New Yorker has been good at this. There is a school of reviewing that holds that reviewers should maintain a Flaubertian aloofness and not inject their personalities into their reviews. But following a regular reviewer, as is possible with the New York Times daily reviews, is one way to bridge the gap between unconnected titles.

All of these factors, together with the economics of book and newspaper publishing, make the demise of the book review unsurprising. On the bright side, the web should offer new opportunities for book reviewing, as the use of categories, tags, outbound links, and related post features can help to tie reviews together and connect them to other kinds of information on related topics.

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Book reviewer image from demi-brooke’s photostream

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2 Comments

  1. I think the continuing personalities aspect is one of the keys to a good book review. People read what their friends recommend because they know their friends’ tastes.

    The more that a reviewer can be that friend who introduces new books, the more the reader will take their advice.

  2. Sadly, I must agree with you. For my purposes, the best overall feature of the stand-alone section is that I can pull and archive them in nice, symmetric stacks for later use (or until I moved, when I would recycle them).
    Post-integration of the book reviews, I suppose I’ll do what I do for the rest of the articles in the paper, and bookmark or print them…where they will also remain in symmetric stacks, albeit smaller and messier.

    What does this mean for the NY Review of Books?

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