MICHAEL WILDING on the decline of the books pages
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).