Book reviews — or, more generally, books pages — are disappearing from the newspapers. The process is more advanced in the US; here, if you want a vision of the future, take note of the increasing anorexia of the Saturday Age. Yes, the Oz has ALR as well as its own reviews but it’s hard to imagine the ALR experiment continuing once its external sponsorship lapses. As for News Corp generally, well, its profits on newspapers fell 40 per cent in the last year; expect to see the knives out soon. The newspaper format is in crisis and, when it comes to cost cutting, pages dedicated to books are an obvious target since, by and large, they don’t generate much advertising revenue (the publishing industry is scarcely cashed up at the moment).
Now, literary optimists have responded by suggesting that the gap will be filled by the growing number of lit blogs. Here’s a representative version of that argument:
I can never muster any significant sympathy for this decline. I don’t read any of the newspaper book reviews except for The Guardian. I’ve never tried the Globe & Mail’s, except for one lame mystery round-up. Literary journals I can get behind, sob over, picket at corporate towers, you name it, I would probably do it. Newspaper coverage? Not so much. The sort of reviewing they offer doesn’t interest me. Bloggers pretty much have me covered with the synopsis + concise commentary reviews, the book round-ups, even the casual mention of what’s on their bedside table. With the diversity of books covered among them all, and the wide taste of some readers, I can read their thoughts on romances, fantasies, mystery and literary fiction, all in one place. What’s left? Author profiles and gossip. Hmm. I could live without those.
Of course, in some ways, the industry will transition from newspapers to blogs without skipping a beat. It’s already happening, in fact. As well as sending out new titles to the main papers, these days publicists also include the main blogs in their lists.
But the familiarity of the process disguises how fundamental the change really is. That is, the point about a newspaper (at least in the Australian context) is that it orients to a broad readership. A newspaper derives its authority from the presumption that its absorbed by the community as a whole. It is an organ of the public sphere, addressing itself (in theory, at least) to populace in its entirety. The various supplements (arts, sports, food, etc) are skewed to special subjects — but special subjects about which it’s assumed the ordinary reader will have some interest. The books pages were never intended to be simply for writers or publishers or literary festival goers; they were predicated on the idea that the well-rounded citizen needs to know something about the latest novel or popular history.
I think I mentioned this in an earlier post but Meg Simons, in her book The Content Makers, points out that, at their peak, newspapers in Australia really did reach just about every household in the country. But that was in the late seventies — and since then they have been in slow but steady decline. The problem for newspapers isn’t the internet per se; rather, it’s a long-term social fragmentation that makes the notion of a single public sphere increasingly problematic.
The digital revolution exacerbates that trend — or, perhaps, allows it to become more evident. The internet doesn’t relate to a single public so much as it fosters a proliferation of niches. Which is why online book reviewing is quite different from a newspaper book section. A review in a Saturday paper would traditionally reach even the non-bookish — or, at very least,alert them to the existence of a particular title. Without meaning to be too cynical, that was partly its function: to allow people to nod along to conversations about books they hadn’t read. The book section, by its very existence, reinforced the idea that literature mattered (or should matter) to the informed public, that it was more than an exotic hobby for the cognoscenti.
It’s very difficult for a blog to function in the same way. The Crikey blog network provides a good illustration. In some respects, the Crikey blogs relate to the email bulletin in the same way that the Saturday supplements relate to the daily paper: you have the core product and then you have sections relating to particular interests (sports, movies, the environment, books, etc). Yet that similarity is deceptive, precisely because the internet is so easily shaped by individual preferences. I regularly read Angela’s lively book blog. But there’s a number of the others that I don’t see at all because the subjects don’t interest me. If they were in print form, I would at least have to page through them to get to the stuff I wanted to read, a process that means, for instance, that I have a basic knowledge of AFL even though football bores me stupid. The traditional newspaper, then, is like a multi-course meal, where you can skip the soup and the dessert but you can’t help but see what others are having. The internet is a smorgasbord, where you load up the plate by yourself and, if you don’t like salad, you never have to see a lettuce leaf at all.
In many respects, the changes are all to the good. The public sphere created around the old newspaper was, in many ways, bogus. The traditional press barons were not philanthropists; it’s often been noted that the point of a newspaper was to represent a particular interest as a universal one, to turn private aspirations into the concerns of the public, and so there’s nothing to mourn about the inability of a small number of media dynasties to determine our agendas.
Nonetheless, we are still facing something fundamentally new, the ramifications of which are still becoming apparent. One suspects that even the most popular litblogs are read, almost exclusively, by book lovers. They may well do a very good job in helping those people decide which titles they want to read but it’s doubtful that they attract new readers in a way that a newspaper review might. The shift from print to the internet may then represent a turn inward, a step away from literature as a public discourse and towards literature as a private hobby.
What follows from that? To be honest, I’m not really sure. If this is a particular manifestation of a general social trend, any solution extends beyond what you or I might do on the internet. Nonetheless, at the most abstract level, the response needs to centre on the rebuilding of new forms of connectivity. If we care about writing, we need to find ways to make literature relevant to the world around us, to link the books we review to the concerns of others, and to build the litblogging readership into something more general. To mangle an old imperialist, we might ask: what do they know of literature they who only literature know? The task then, is to find ways to recapture the generalist spirit of the newspaper experience, even while using the phenomenal new technology of our times.
Mind you, that’s easier said than done.