MICHAEL WILD­ING on the de­cline of the books pages

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

FOR a while now the books pages have run reg­u­lar re­ports on the death of lit­er­ary fiction and the de­cline of the teach­ing of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture and such like. But what about the slow death of the lit­er­ary pages? Or, more specif­i­cally, the de­cline of book re­view­ing?

I am not here re­fer­ring to qual­ity. As an on­a­gain off- again reviewer for decades, I am not about to be tempted to ma­lign my col­leagues in the field. No, the is­sue is the one en­shrined in the old rag trade that goes: ‘‘ Never mind the qual­ity, what about the length?’’

When I be­gan re­view­ing for The Bul­letin in the 1960s, there were four pages de­voted to books. Now there is just one. But at least The Bul­letin sur­vives, un­like those other Aus­tralian jour­nals of opin­ion that once ran re­views: Na­tion , Na­tion Re­view , The Na­tional Times , and the In­de­pen­dent Monthly are all now de­funct. Nor is there any longer much books cov­er­age in the Sun­day pa­pers.

The qual­ity broad­sheets are the main re­view­ing me­dia, but they have sim­i­larly cut back on their space, if not quite as dra­mat­i­cally. It is a world­wide phe­nom­e­non. The Los An­ge­les Times re­duced its books pages re­cently from 12 to 10, the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle from six to four. The At­lanta Jour­nal- Con­sti­tu­tion even abol­ished the po­si­tion of book ed­i­tor. Of course, it might be said that my ar­gu­ment is weak­ened by ap­pear­ing in a news­pa­per that pub­lishes eight pages of book re­views each week­end plus a 28- page lit­er­ary monthly. Or is this just the shin­ing ex­cep­tion that proves the rule?

The fac­tors be­hind the shrink­age are var­i­ous. There is a sus­pi­cion of the con­cept of the lit­er­ary. When I wanted to call a novel of mine The Lit­er­ary Pages , the pub­lisher re­fused. The word lit­er­ary was the kiss of death, he as­sured me. But even if we now call the lit­er­ary pages the books pages, the prob­lem re­mains.

Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing is a bil­lion- dol­lar busi­ness, but it has rarely been a big spen­der on ad­ver­tis­ing. And with­out ad­ver­tise­ments, the books edi­tors find it hard to re­tain their tra­di­tional space, let alone beg for more. At the same time other me­dia — DVDs, mu­sic, movies, television — are com­mand­ing more at­ten­tion in the arts and en­ter­tain­ment sec­tion and en­croach on space that was the pre­serve of books.

Then there are de­sign­ers, the tra­di­tional en­emy of the writ­ten word. They love to put in more white space and vi­su­als. With the de­vel­op­ment of full- colour print­ing in news­pa­pers, and the con­se­quent need to make use of it, their mis­sion in life is ful­filled. ‘‘ A pic­ture’s worth a thou­sand words,’’ the car­toon­ist Bruce Petty used to say to me cheer­fully. I was not amused.

As space is cut back, the num­ber of books re­viewed be­comes fewer. One strat­egy has been to re­sort to shorter no­tices.

As the broad­sheets re­design their arts sec­tions into tabloid for­mat, that ram­bling spa­cious­ness beloved of old- school re­view­ers is in­creas­ingly re­placed by some­thing all too close to the sound bites of the elec­tronic me­dia. Cer­tainly those re­morse­less, lengthy The New York Re­view of Books re­views could be hard to take and rarely fin­ished. But what au­thor en­joys be­ing rel­e­gated to the short no­tices round- up?

Even the lit­er­ary quar­ter­lies and schol­arly jour­nals are strug­gling in Aus­tralia. Here the is­sue is dif­fer­ent, less the short­age of space and more the dif­fi­culty of find­ing re­view­ers. Univer­sity re­search fund­ing is now al­lo­cated in com­plex ways, with re­wards for aca­demics and in­sti­tu­tions that have landed large grants reign­ing supreme, and some re­ward for those who pub­lish ar­ti­cles and even books. But no points are given for a book re­view, whether in news­pa­pers or in schol­arly jour­nals. As for com­pil­ing re­views into a book, that doesn’t score ei­ther, since it is cat­e­gorised as reprinted ma­te­rial. So there are no in­cen­tives to write book re­views for aca­demics, who are as in­cen­tive- driven as any­one.

Does it mat­ter? Do re­views sell books? No one seems to know. It is the re­ceived wis­dom of the trade that what sells books is word- of- mouth rec­om­men­da­tion. But to get word- of­mouth rec­om­men­da­tion, you need the ex­is­tence of the book to be known. At the very least book re­views in­form the pub­lic of that. And, to quote the an­cient wis­dom yet again, ‘‘ It doesn’t mat­ter what they say, as long as they spell my name cor­rectly.’’

Yet some of the best- sell­ing com­mer­cial fiction rarely gets re­viewed at all: ro­mances, fam­ily sagas, crime and boys’ toys may­hem. Or, if men­tioned, such books re­ceive only brief, and of­ten dis­mis­sive, no­tices. I once chaired a ses­sion at a writ­ers’ fes­ti­val where the pop­u­lar writ­ers unan­i­mously lamented the lack of re­view­ing at­ten­tion their work re­ceived, and pro­duced from pock­ets close to their hearts ex­am­ples of the con­temp­tu­ous com­ments they had re­ceived on the rare oc­ca­sions their books were no­ticed. Given their sub­stan­tial sales, I was sur­prised they cared. And as far as pub­lish­ers are con­cerned, it doesn’t mat­ter. ‘‘ Just chuck them in a bin at the front of the shop, they sell them­selves,’’ one pub­lisher said to me.

There are now web­sites of­fer­ing re­views, of course. In Aus­tralia there is the well es­tab­lished www. on­li­neopin­ion. com. au. And never for­get the blogs. Their cham­pi­ons claim they democra­tise re­view­ing, tak­ing it out of the hands of an elite mi­nor­ity. The New York Times listed some that of­fer book re­views re­cently: book­slut. com; emerg­ing­writ­ers. type­pad. com; beatrice. com; mark­savas. blogs. com/ eleg­var /; edrants. com; syn­tax­ofthings. type­pad. com.

I have yet to ac­cess any of them. I spend long enough each day on my com­puter, writ­ing and email­ing. I like to re­lax in an arm­chair to read the re­view pages. And, if it’s a bad re­view, I can sim­ply rip up the of­fend­ing pa­per and cast it on the fire. Throw­ing the lap­top through the win­dow is too ex­pen­sive. Michael Wild­ing’s latest novel about the lit­er­ary life is Na­tional Trea­sure ( Cen­tral Queens­land Univer­sity Press).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.