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Can/Should Book Reviews Be Saved?

“Maybe it’s time for those of us who have worked as critics for a living to evaluate what’s happened to our profession,” writes former SF Chronicle book review editor Pat Holt in the return of her online newsletter, “and why we may be driving readers away.” The rest of the newspaper world has joined the 21st century, she says, but “not only have we gotten stuffy, dreary and plodding… our standards are dropping.” She suggests a radical overhaul of the entire “book section” concept that includes more publishing industry coverage, more attention to book clubs, and more reporting on how books shape contemporary cultural issues. “Let’s get out there and pound some tables about books,” she exhorts. “Let’s put our hearts and souls on the line, not to pander to base tastes but to start a true critical discourse with audiences and make book reviews in all their forms as riveting to read as they are essential.”

Holt’s not the only one willing to suggest that trying to prop up the existing format is a wasted effort. Over at PersonaNonData, the doomsayers get a firm putdown: “The prevailing view is that if books are not supported by reviews in these publications then books will be less read. This is nonsense.” The argument here is basically that newspapers need to follow their audiences, rather than beg and plead for audiences to stick around to watch their antiquated efforts—with a sidebar proposition that publishers should take advantage of the increased opportunity blogs give them to reach readers.

Meanwhile, Jeff B. of Syntax of Things has had enough of book reviewers’ anxious resentment. “It makes one wonder why these folks waited so long to begin their campaigns to save the review sections,” he snarks.* “Did they not see this coming when their newspapers became part of the mega-conglomerates? Why weren’t steps taken then to assure that what they were doing was significant enough to warrant preserving?” The petition floating around the ‘net to save Teresa Weaver‘s job, he says, is so much “pissing in the wind.”

*When they came for the classified ads, I wasn’t trying to sell something, so I said nothing…

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