In the new issue of Prospect, I’ve written an essay on the state of book reviewing in Britain. As I point out at the start of the piece, several articles on this topic have appeared in the US in recent months. Here, for example, is James Wolcott’s fantastic essay-review in the New Republic of Gail Pool’s book Faint Praise. And here is Steve Wasserman’s long essay in the Columbia Journalism Review.
The problem is much more extreme in the US, where most newspapers have drastically reduced their books coverage in recent years. A similar contraction hasn’t happened in Britain—but my fear is that it may well do soon. In the face of new threats such as blogging and an increasingly commercialised publishing scene, book reviewing has declined in authority and prestige, and it will have to fight if it is to survive in its current form.
Many people’s reaction, of course, will be: who cares? What does it matter if book reviews cease to exist? They’re cliquey and increasingly irrelevant anyway. My response would be: yes, it does matter. A healthy literary culture is one where books can be publicly discussed in a serious and informed way. I don’t think the blogosphere comes close to providing such a space at present, largely because it is completely unregulated, but also because blogs are so bitty. What you get is little snippets of opinion and gossip—the virtual equivalent of a conversation in a pub. That is a valuable thing, of course. But sustained critical evaluation of books is different—and to my mind it is even more valuable. I’m not saying that good criticism can’t happen on the internet. Of course it can. But it doesn’t happen very much at the moment. And that is why the destruction of the culture of book reviewing would be a bad thing.