For those of you who may have missed it the first time, here's my feature article from the June 2007 issue of The Practicing Writer.
OPTIONS FOR BOOK REVIEWS AND BOOK REVIEWERS
I love newspapers. As someone who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised there and in nearby New Jersey, I often feel as though I grew up with The New York Times. I certainly remained attached enough to the Times to maintain a subscription while also subscribing to The Washington Post when I lived in DC and to the Globe for the many years I lived in the Boston area. I'll confess that I've never had occasion to read or subscribe to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), so I've had no legitimate reason to add my signature to the petition you may have heard about recently, asking the AJC to maintain its stand-alone book section--and to keep it under a specific longtime editor's control.
Newspapers have been facing struggles for quite awhile now. And book sections aren't isolated in their suffering. Sure, I've had editors responsible for book coverage tell me they couldn't take a review pitch because space was too tight. But other section editors have said exactly the same thing, responding to other article queries. Sometimes my accepted work has been delayed (and delayed) before finally being published thanks, I've been told, to those very same space constraints.
But rumors of the demise of the book review are, I think, at least somewhat exaggerated. I'm not ready to buy into the gloom and doom scenario quite yet. For one thing, I don't believe that all the new strategies newspapers are trying--like combining book coverage with opinion writing and/or other arts and culture writing--are quite so catastrophic as some people have suggested. I don't remember how many years ago the Globe created a hybrid "Ideas" section for Sundays; I think we all weathered that change pretty well. After all, some of us believe that ideas rest at the heart of the very best books; it's a natural combination.
Maybe I'm also not quite so demoralized by shrinking book review pages in certain Sunday newspapers because, frankly, I uncover a lot of good book coverage elsewhere. As a reader--and as a book reviewer--I find encouragement and inspiration in the many magazines, literary journals, Web sites, and various "niche" publications that also provide good discussion of books, authors, and writing. Beyond that, I frequently see books reviewed and authors profiled in "other" newspaper sections (think about travel-related books you've seen covered in travel sections, food-related titles in food/dining sections, and so on).
But what if you're an aspiring or veteran book reviewer who has been alarmed enough by the recent coverage of the need to "save the book review" to believe that the end is, in fact, dangerously near? Where can you look?
Let's take two examples. Let's consider two new books and think about their possible coverage outside Sunday newspaper book reviews.
This month Random House will release Connie Schultz's ...and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man. Schultz, who won a 2005 Pulitzer for Commentary, is married to the junior United States Senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown. The book is essentially her memoir of Brown's most recent campaign.
Now, maybe the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will no longer be able to review this book. And quite possibly Schultz's own paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, shouldn't. So where else might you reasonably expect to find the book discussed/reviewed?
I'd look to regional magazines (in this case, those focusing on Ohio). Or Schultz's alumni magazine (she's a 1979 graduate of Kent State University). Or magazines or Web sites that focus on American politics.
I'd also think about venues especially interested in promoting women's writing, and/or interested in issues relating to marriage and family. And let's not forget that given Schultz's journalistic accomplishments and prominence, "trade" publications (American Journalism Review, for starters) might be relevant, too.
Are you starting to see the possibilities?
Now let's turn to the second example. If you read my blog regularly, you know there's a new poetry book at the top of my to-be-read stack right now. Third Temple (University of Tampa Press) is the latest volume by Richard Chess, who is both a creative writing professor and director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.
Since both print and online literary journals can be particularly hospitable to poetry reviews, I'll hope to see Third Temple reviewed widely in such venues. Thinking regionally again, I'll hope that publications in North Carolina will cover it. And given the particularly Jewish content of these poems, I'll also hope to see magazines, newspapers, and Web sites that focus on Jewish themes and subjects featuring this new book (for just a few examples: Nextbook.org, JBooks.com, and The Forward).
So no matter what you're hearing, don't succumb to despair quite yet. You can still do your part to sustain serious thinking and reading and writing about books, even if you have to do it outside the Sunday newspaper book review sections. You may have to think a little more creatively, and do a little more research. But if you really want to read about books, and write about them, and expand others' literary awareness, you still can.
(c) 2007 Erika Dreifus
Erika Dreifus, author of The Practicing Writer's Directory of Paying Markets for Book Reviewers, has published dozens of book reviews in venues as varied as the Boston Globe Sunday travel section, the Christian Science Monitor, Community College Week, JBooks.com, The Missouri Review, Our State, The Writer magazine, and The Chattahoochee Review, where she is a contributing editor.