the decline of the literary review

The piece below ran in Crikey today. It’s a bit garbled, to be honest, but, hey, it’s forty-three bloody degrees. The Louise Swinn piece will run in the next edition, due out on 22 March (unless the entire country has melted by then, in which case it may be somewhat later).

Many obituarists have noted how perfectly attuned the late John Updike was to a particular era in American history, with his best work (the Rabbit books) exploring the mores of the unparalleled affluent post-war society.

But it’s also worth thinking about how Updike’s own literary career reflected that time, for his death comes as popular literary fiction increasingly seems an endangered species.

A few days ago, the Washington Times announced the closure of its stand-alone book review section. Over the last years, review space has been cut in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Of the major American newspapers, only the New York Times now maintains a separate review section.

The newspaper review section developed in a time when it went without saying that the literate citizen held an opinion about the latest novel, just as he or she was assumed to know something about current affairs. John and Jane Doe scanned the book pages as they browsed the sports section: both were part of a living culture in which millions of ordinary people participated. That was the milieu from which Updike — a critically acclaimed writer yet one with a substantial general readership – emerged.

In its lament over the death of the review, The New Republic explains that:

The responsible and lively and ambitious coverage of books may not be much of a revenue stream, but it is a formidable thought stream, and knowledge stream; and it should be an honor to preside over it. When a book review is done well, it transcends leisure. It inducts its reader into the enchanted circle of those who really live by their minds. It is a small but significant aid to genuine citizenship, to meaningful living.

Which is all perfectly true – but it still sounds like King Canute giving the incoming tide a severe telling off. Newspapers themselves seem to be entering a death spiral, and today’s media moguls are likely to respond to suggestions they owe a responsibility to the culture with a John Elliot-style riposte; “Pigs arse!”

In his Autopsy for the Book Business, Jason Epstein recalls how, when he became a publisher shortly after the Second World War, the market for books consisted of thousands of independent booksellers, all of which kept in stock a wide array of classic titles. Publishers, he says, made their money from the backlist, those “titles that had covered their initial costs, earned out their authors’ advances, entailed no further risk than the cost of making and shipping the book itself”.

The sales of each title might be small but combined they added up to millions — and that meant publishers could invest in literary fiction without necessarily chasing bestsellers.

He continues:

By the mid 1970s the great downtown bookstores had begun to disappear as their customers migrated from city to suburb where population density was too thin to support major backlist retailers.

Soon people shopped in deconstructed department stores, […] where bookstores paid the same rent for the same limited space as the shoe store next door and needed the same quick turnover of inventories that sold themselves: books by celebrities and branded bestselling authors.

By the eighties, publishers’ backlists were in steep decline as thousands of titles disappeared, dumped into the huge so-called orphanage of titles, no longer in print but still in copyright, whose owners can no longer be identified.

The decline of the backlist left publishers reliant unable to nurture a difficult writer through the prolonged process of developing a readership. Instead, they need blockbusters.

Which is good news if you’re a film star or a cricket captain peddling a manuscript; if you’re a budding John Updike, not so much.

Of course, the more the industry chases celebrities, the harder it becomes to make a case for the book as a unique cultural form. Literary fiction provides an experience unmatched by cinema or television or video games, allowing you to inhabit another consciousness, visit another time, see the world in a different way. But if you merely want to hear a Hollywood starlet’s tell-all revelations, well, it’s much easier to check out Perez Hilton than read a book.

This is what the literary journalist Steve Wasserman means when he talks about “the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

At the moment, the US publishing industry fears that it’s facing the perfect storm. Last year ended what the NYT called “a relentless string of layoffs and pay freeze announcements”. With literary fiction already under siege, a recession-driven collapse of disposal income looks very scary indeed.

What’s the situation in Australia? In the forthcoming edition of Overland, the writer and publisher Louise Swinn conducts a brief survey of local writers, editors and publishers and finds them, for the most part, reasonably optimistic about the future. The book business in Australia has always had to cope with a comparatively small market, and perhaps that experience has given publishers an array of coping mechanisms.

Of course, it may also be that we’re simply lagging a few years behind.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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