In the past few years, as revenue flees from print on paper, newspapers have worried their declining circulation figures and have had to make cutbacks. We’ve seen shrinkage and reallocation of space for book reviews at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even here, in the city where America’s literary culture was born, at The Boston Globe (which cut a page from the Ideas section last year and reduced the Books pages).
A flashpoint of sorts was reached this spring when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced that it would eliminate its book-reviews editor and rely on wire-service reviews exclusively. The decision prompted swift response from the National Book Critics Circle, which spearheaded a picket protest of the paper. The ensuing crossfire (mainly online, as it happens) between bloggers and print critics was intense and acrimonious enough to suggest that more than the disposition of a few column inches is at stake.
The controversy has to do with the fact that people in various quarters, literary bloggers prominently among them, are proposing that old-style print reviewing — the word-count-driven evaluation of select titles by credentialed reviewers — is outmoded, and that the deficit will be more than made up by the now-flourishing blog commentary. The blogosphere’s boosters pitch its virtues of variety, grass-roots initiative, linkage, and freedom from perceived marketing influence (books by major trade publishers, which advertise more, sometimes appear to get premium treatment in the print book review sections).
I’m hard put to repudiate these virtues of the blogosphere. But can it really compensate for losses in the more clearly bounded print sector? The bigger question, if we accept that these are the early symptoms of a far-reaching transformation, is what does this transformation mean for books, for reviewing, for the literary life?