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the decline of newspaper book reviewing continues

This from the Guardian‘s book pages:

More bloodshed from the world of literary journalism. Scotland’s Sunday Herald joins the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph in peremptorily abbreviating its coverage of new books. Sunday Herald’s literary editor, Alan Taylor, a convivial figure in the Scots literary landscape, has just been made redundant and his duties handed to his colleague Rosemary Goring.

To date, the book page massacre hasn’t hit Australian shores but it’s happening everywhere else and it’s hard not to think it’s coming …

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Is there a similar trend in arts pages more generally? I am wondering if you (or others) know how reviews of films, festivals, games and so on are faring. Is this part of a general decline of newspaper circulation and readership as people shift to an online form, or is it perhaps part of the broadsheet-isation of print news? Because I would have thought there would be contradictions in how editors and business leaders of increasingly homogenised mass-circulation papers see ‘the arts': especially given that art may not be inherently progressive or challenging (think of the contemporary role of opera or ballet) and can often shore up existing ideologies and hierarchies as well as expose them. Perhaps that’s the wrong tack as the ‘commonsense’ view seems to be that literature, etc, is no longer relevant to the audience that remains. On the other hand, it would be curious to see how online reviews and journals are managing. Is it the print form itself that is being resisted or gradually becoming a quaint relic, or is it that people (sigh) just aren’t reading books so much anymore?

  2. Yes, in arts pages generally. My understanding is that newspapers are losing advertisers hand over fist and sections seen as specialist are bleeding worse than ever.
    Online reviews are doing well — think of the proliferation of book blogs — but I don’t think they have the same general readership that somehting like the NYT review pages once did.

  3. I just read an interesting book called ‘The Book is Dead’ (UNSW Press, 2007) by Sherman Young, which made me feel optimistic about the democratisation of ideas beyond traditional print media. I guess literature becomes more ‘minor’ and in that way there’s a kind of market correction going on, but perhaps ultimately more radically dispersed.

  4. What I liked about his argument was that it still argued for a continued place for slow and considered writing/reading/thinking.

  5. I agree with that. What’s happening is not the death of literature but its shift from the centre to the margins.
    That’s the point made well in the link below. It’s a response to an article by Steve Wasserman, which is unfortunately behind a firewall.

    http://www.beneaththecover.com/2007/11/19/the-decline-and-demise-of-the-newspaper-book-review/
    ‘During Wasserman’s ten years editing the LA Times Book Review, they lost about $1 million per year. The dirty little secret here is that fewer people read the book sections than any other. Wasserman estimates that the national audience for book reviews and other book coverage is a small, passionate cadre that numbers in the tens or hundreds of thousands (”Reading,” Wasserman says, is an “acquired taste”).

    When it comes to books, money is not the point. Wasserman says Abe Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times didn’t know or care if the Book Review made money. He said that “you can’t expect a payoff on reviewing books anymore than you can expect a payoff for covering foreign news.”

    It is, in other words, considered a loss-leader at best, one of several civic obligations readers expect (or used to, anyway) from their newspapers. Unfortunately, this is becoming an outdated notion, and book reviews find themselves “clinging to life…on the sufferance of their respective paper’s managers.”’

    That’s the same sort of argument that used to be made for the retention of poetry and high literary fiction on publishers’ lists — it might not sell much but it’s socially important. But the economic reforms of the last few decades put paid to that.

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