The attendee at last Sunday’s “The Future of the Book Review” who said with happy surprise, “I really thought that this would be a doom and gloom session!” probably did not speak for herself alone. After all, this is a vocation radically transformed in recent decades by the overflow of electronic media. Only one American newspaper still has a stand-alone weekly book review section in print, and the space it allots reviews has been cut, and cut again, over the last several decades. But no gloom hung over the room on Sunday. Quite the contrary. Princeton University Press executive editor Brigitta van Rheinberg summarized the evolving landscape this way: book reviewing is increasingly democratic and diverse, the marketing of books is more influenced by their authors, publishing is more global, and books and reviews are able to garner extensive attention from an ever-widening audience.
Historian and Dissent co-editor Michael Kazin joined The Nation’s John Palattella to represent magazines of opinion and to answer questions about the substance and style of reviewing books both good and … “not good.” Do negative reviews have value? “Yes!” said Palattella. “A book review is not a press release.” Kazin too sought to steer the conversation from spread and quantity to the quality of reviews: “We need more than more.” Kazin made the case for “civility” but not “kindness,” knowing that while “no one enjoys getting a bad review, especially a smart bad review,” an informed critique can be the beginning of a good argument—an activity Kazin clearly relishes. Rather than fret about hurting a writer’s feelings (or her bid for tenure), he urged aspiring reviewers to “do them the honor of arguing back, with gusto!”
Representing academic journals was historian and Renaissance Quarterly reviews editor Sarah Covington, who gave a tactile sense of what it means to oversee 130 book reviews an issue. How to find all those reviewers? “I’ve become something of an expert in acknowledgment pages,” she confided, while confessing with endearing candor to having unwittingly asked a writer to review his own book, and to sending review requests to deceased authors.
The next presenter came bearing the newest of publications: magnificent upstart Marginalia. Timothy Michael Law began his e-journal in January 2013, looking to “create an environment where conversations about books and main ideas in the field”—literature and culture; history, theology, and religion—“could happen.” Because the journal lives online rather than in reams of paper, Law needn’t worry about print costs or what can fit on a page. Of course, he may not have print costs, but he also has “no money.” How then does the journal have 40 subject editors covering a genuinely diverse range of both subjects and sentiment? “Because we can pay in readers.” The journal now boasts 70,000 repeat readers for reviews that “cut across disciplinary boundaries.” Rather than sounding the death knell of the field, Law’s online contributions may well enliven it.
What then might you say to someone surveying a landscape in which Amazon reviews grow like weeds while paper weeklies and monthlies continue cutting back books coverage? Put on your historian’s hat and remember that we’ve been here before; information technologies have disrupted the world of books since its inception. Consider this lament from a letter read aloud by John Palattella last Sunday: “Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten.” If you find yourself sharing the letter’s sense of doom and gloom, know that it belongs not to a contemporary but to Niccolò Perotti, an Italian classicist surveying the landscape wrought by the printing press, writing in 1471.