Friday, May 06, 2005

The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Steve Wasserman, the editor of the Los Angeles Times book review section, quit his job this week, and his resignation has prompted all sorts of comment in the blogosphere. It seems that book lovers around southern California had strong feelings about The Man in the White Suit ( his famously affected attire) and his long helm at the review. (Wasserman will now return to New York to work as a literary agent).

The talk made me wonder about the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review and its editor, Oscar Villalon. San Francisco regards itself as a literary town. On any given night, an interested reader can find an author talking at a bookstore. Toss a coin and walk into A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books, Book Passage, Modern Times, or A Great Good Place For Books, among others, and you will find a worthy literary event.

Yet I hear very few people talking about the Chronicle Book Review. And virtually no discussion about Villalon's vision for it, which was definitely not the case in Los Angeles.

If you run Wasserman’s name through Technorati, a blog search engine, you get dozens of web hits. The same is not true for Villalon. (One of the hits is a Ghost Word post of a panel discussion featuring Villalon talking about the book review).

Scott over at Conversational Reading does a thumbnail review each week of the contents of the Book Review and often wishes the Chronicle reviewed more fiction – and fewer memoirs. Most weeks, Scott only hands the Chronicle a decent, not outstanding grade. (Another Bay Area literary blogger, Ed at the Return of the Reluctant, reviews the New York Times Book Review each week, either rewarding or denying editor Sam Tannenhaus a brownie.)

It’s hard to gauge the influence of the book review. How much does its reviews drive sales, particularly for its bestseller list? But I know it has loyal readers. When Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein eliminated the pullout, stand-alone book review from the Sunday Pink section a few years ago, readers rose up and complained so loudly that he reversed his decision.

Are we more polite in San Francisco? Are we less critical than our fellow Californians? Is the book review already doing its job? Is it just that Villalon is a genuinely nice person who often agrees to appear at charity events and makes apparent his appreciation for lesser-known books?

Does anyone have any ideas why LA seems more passionate about its book review section than SF does?

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