Reviewing in an age of change

Another cheery story about the emerging literary landscape.

Columbia English professor James Shapiro’s undergraduate seminar, “The Book Review,” which teaches skills necessary for students to make it as freelance literary critics, is on indefinite hiatus.

“There are intellectual reasons to teach the course again,” Professor Shapiro wrote in an email, when the Transom asked if a rumor that he’d discontinued the class was true. “But what’s no longer there is the possibility of training a generation of book reviewers, since, as you know, newspapers around the country are shedding their book reviews, or shrinking these sections.”

He added that because so many reviewers are now blogging, freelancers are having a harder time than ever earning anything substantial from their work. “It’s depressing—in large part because I see a lot of talent pass through my classrooms, and little opportunity for those talented students to have the opportunity early on … to review and get paid for it.”

In some respects, Shapiro’s is a funny kind of argument. You could make the same case against creative writing. Why teach poetry given that most students will never have the opportunity to get paid for their verse?

Still, that’s not really the point. People don’t think about the infrastructure of literature but without a public reviewing culture literary fiction simply won’t function in the same way. Yes, we’ll still have books but literature will no longer perform the same social role, as an art form publicly discussed and debated.

Next year, Overland and Meanjin are running a yearlong joint project entitled ‘Reading in an Age of Change’: a series of essays and events examining the massive challenges facing literary culture today. The state of reviewing is part of that.

Jeff Sparrow

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

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