Friday, May 13, 2005

Steve Wasserman's Exit

The San Francisco Chronicle devotes most of the front of its Datebook section to the departure of Steve Wasserman from the Los Angeles Times Book Review section.

Heidi Benson reports on how Wasserman elevated the book review into a nationally admired section, in part, through the mailing of 2,000 complimentary issues each week to prominent authors and people in the publishing industry. David Kipen ponders the future of book reviews and offers some suggestion for the LA Times’ next editor. Kipen sort of sidesteps the question of whether the Internet and bloggers are cannibalizing the readership of book review sections, but he raises some good points.

"1. Does a newspaper need a freestanding book review section?

OK, that's a softball. Hell yes. So what if it doesn't break even? Neither does any book review section in the country. Neither do most sports sections, and nobody talks about discontinuing them. The L.A. Times as a whole probably doesn't make enough money, but is its parent company, the Tribune Corp., thinking of shutting it down for a tax write-off? Of course not.
The only reason to kill a book review section is if you don't know what happens to anybody fool enough to try it: Book lovers rise up and cancel their subscriptions until you bring it back. Also, and this is a promise, other newspapers committed to keeping their book review sections will ride you like a pony.

2. How should a book review section respond to the challenges posed by the Internet?

Right now, the blogging phenomenon has almost every newspaper in the country scared out of its socks. If folks can get their news and opinion free from a few pundits in pajamas, how's the morning paper supposed to keep readers coughing up their lousy 50 cents a day?
And yet book review sections should really have less to fear from the Internet than just about any other section. Smart newspapers are providing more informed opinion with their news, not less. A good book review should, at least in theory, be the most unapologetically opinionated section in the paper. Rather than sweating a little online second-guessing from the Net, a smart book section would do better to supplement its print edition with some kind of rip-roaring online clearinghouse of ideas.

3. Finally, who is a book review section really for?

In other words, should you give readers what they think they want -- presumably more reviews of writers they've already heard of -- or what you think they need? Do you skew regional, paying special attention to books with a local angle? Or do you go national, on the assumption that regional writing has matured to the point where it no longer requires special pleading?

There's no definitive answer, but California's incredible diversity may suggest one possible way to go. Considering how deplorably oblivious most American book reviewing is to the rest of the world in general, and specifically to literature in translation -- and also considering how many Westerners identify with more than one heritage -- might we finally be due for a book review section that pays equal regard to books both local and international?

Rather than waste time dusting the shoulder blades of Steve Wasserman's famous ice cream suit for prints, it's time to start asking these questions -- and now, when the decision makers might really be listening."

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