Looking at Book Reviews in a Blog-Filled World

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As part of its Save the Book Review Campaign and overall mission to promote book discussion, the National Book Critics Circle [NBCC] held a symposium, "The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century," last week in New York City. At the Friday, September 14, afternoon roundtable, "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage," NBCC President John Freeman moderated a discussion focusing on the state of book review coverage, its expansion to include blogs, podcasts, and other Web formats, and more. Panelists were Emily Lazar, producer of The Colbert Report; Melissa Eagan, producer of The Leonard Lopate Show; Erica Wagner, literary editor of the Times (UK); Jennifer Szalai, NBCC member and senior editor of Harper's magazine; Steve Wasserman, incoming literary editor of Truthdig.com; and Dwight Garner, senior editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Noting that criticism of book reviews is nothing new, Freeman opened the roundtable by referring to George Gissing's 1891 novel, New Grub Street, in which a protagonist complains: "You will find one solid literary article amid a confused mass of politics and economics and general clap-trap." Freeman stressed, however, that this longstanding complaint is being voiced with renewed frequency in response to the Internet's near hegemony and its effects on long-form journalism. Those invested in a book review's future, he said, need to "start the conversation, unless we want to have a lot of decisions made without us."

The U.K.'s Wagner explained that the Times, which recently created a stand-alone, print book section, is constantly trying to increase and experiment with various online add-ons. "My feeling," she said, "is nobody really knows how effective they are... or whether or not there's any money to be made doing that, or whether or not that's even the goal." She added, "Right now there are no experts out there. People are throwing things out there to see if they work."

Garner echoed Wagner. He said that the NYTBR is also experimenting with multimedia, adding, for example, his blog, Paper Cuts, podcasts, and more. "We're throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks," he said. While writing his blog was "a lot of fun," Garner noted it was not the same as a full-fledged review.

The relevance and quality of blogs were subjects that arose several times during the panel discussion. Wasserman, who recently wrote about the topic at length for the Columbia Journalism Review, railed against the "junk food" and "eye candy" content available online. In October, Wasserman will become book review editor for www.truthdig.com, a web magazine that strives to provide expert in-depth coverage on a variety of subjects to counter " the hyperlinked, blog-filled, talk-show-dominated world, discourse [that] is often a food fight."

Garner said that writing his own blog makes him feel energized, like he has a "live wire with a plug sticking into his neck," and that he was able to have much more contact with readers who comment on his posts. He described the book review/blog dichotomy as the difference between a restaurant with linen and silverware and a hot dog shack.

The panelists also offered comments on contemporary literary criticism. Szalai, who appreciates a "little humility," said some reviewers "feel that they are superior to the book." What she doesn't want to read is a "hit piece which sounds like the reviewer wants to show off." Wagner agreed with Szalai, adding she wants to see a "review of the book that was written, not the book that the reviewers feels ought to have been written."

Freeman closed the discussion by asking what everyone was reading. Among the responses were:

Emily Lazar: The Counterlife (Philip Roth,Vintage)
Steve Wasserman: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Naomi Klein, Metropolitan)
Melissa Egan: Per Patterson's In the Wake (Picador) and Out Stealing Horses (Vintage)
Erica Wagner: Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh)
Dwight Garner: Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter (Phoebe Damrosch, William Morrow)
Jennifer Szalai: Lost Paradise (Cees Nooteboom, Grove) --Karen Schechner