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Who Gets to Be A Book Reviewer?

Illustration by A. Fortis of Finding Wonderland

As the controversy over the firing of Atlanta Journal-Constitution book review editor Teresa Weaver began to swell, and disgruntled printies became to grumble about how bloggers were destroying their livelihood, Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production asked perhaps the key-est key question, prompted indirectly by n+1‘s famed anti-blog sentiment: “Does an increase in critics cheapen the notion of criticism itself or democratize it?” That query prompted Roger Sutton of The Horn Book to attack “[b]logrolling in our time,” suggesting that bloggers review their online peers with a weaker critical standard than that applied to other authors because of their relationships—and then said that any review that came from a blog that had taken part in an author’s online promotional activities was, in his mind, “fruit from the poisoned tree.” Then Colleen Mordor took the debate to a more abstract level, wondering how to define a professional book reviwer, and just what besides money separates them from the “amateurs” online.

Writing for the Guardian, NBCC head John Freeman raised a fascinating if dubious statistic concerning the rate at which the corporate interests who own America’s newspapers are slashing away at their cultural coverage: “For every lit-blogger who has been serving up opinions daily since 1998,” he writes, “there are five books editors who were around when Toni Morrison’s first book landed on their desk in 1970, and are no longer.” Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? But think about it: How many lit-bloggers were doing what they’re doing in 1998? I know Sarah Weinman and I were around, but we were doing much different things back then…and even my literary website wasn’t daily. (Seriously, if you were bookblogging back then, tell me.)

Freeman also comes up with the artsiest justification yet for saving the book review section: “Book reviews are one of the few places in a US newspaper one can stop to appreciate the beauty of language, the pleasures of knowledge.” Well, yes, and in an ideal world, the entire newspaper would be a celebration of elegant prose. But is that really a solid enough defense—that book reviews are a charming oasis of style in the utilitarian environment of news gathering?

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