I know readers are supposed to mourn the loss of book review sections in newspapers and magazines across the country, but at this point -- well, in fact, for a long time now -- I'm not sure what it is we're losing.
Don't we worry that as book sections decline, the standards of literary criticism are going down the drain? Hell, that happened years ago.
Do we think that freedom of speech is being jeopardized in some profound but invisible way because fewer critics are reviewing fewer books? (Ditto and thank you, Patriot Act, corporate takeovers, foreign ownership and writing that is a snore, but more about that later).
I don't think a Golden Era of literary criticism ever existed in America. It's true that at one time, say in the 1930s-50s, book review sections were the only consistent measure of literary quality. But even then, something was wrong with the idea of a chosen few dictating to the tastes of a vastly diversified America. (Who would put up with that today?)
By the time consumer reviews started appearing on Amazon, newsprint book reviews had gotten stodgy, dull, laborious and self- indulgent.
Traditional critics grumbled that consumers didn't know the difference between personal bias and literary standards, but very often there was more excitement and infectious appreciation about books in consumer reviews than in most newsprint sections edited by professionals. (I kind of blew up about this in a 2007 column called "Book Critics: Are We Driving Readers Away?")
Today, as chaotic and messy as literary opinion can get on the Internet, the good news is that that no single book review section lords it over any other. Yes, the New York Times Book Review is still placed on the top of the literary hierarchy, but man, that is one hit-or-miss operation, and what a lot of gas is expelled in the reviewing of very few books. (I watch it closely -- who doesn't? -- but under protest; see below.)
So while it's true, newspaper cutbacks have resulted in the loss of book review sections across the country, there is that other force (reader boredom, for one) coming from the Internet that has made us all impatient with the older, slower, duller, stuffier approach. Today instead of putting up with the only book review section that happens to land on the doorstep, readers are given the chance to dramatically open our horizons about books by compiling our own lists of book-reviewing sites, tailored to our personal interests and sent to us via email or RSS.
Granted, you can spend way too many hours culling through book review sites that are themselves pretty dreary and meandering before finding the right ones for you.
But look at the process another way: There's a river of critical energy streaming around us every moment of the day. We can enter that flow and snorkel around to our delight when we want to, leave it for a time or swim back to it (some editor is thinking, Look out -- runaway metaphor so I'll stop) and be constantly updated. This is not "wasted time" but rather the interwoven experience that leads us time and again to finding that great book we can't wait to dive into because so many different people from so many different walks of life and websites are funneling us new information.
I check in with only about four or five sites at a time (always subject to remixing, of course) and keep running notes in a separate file on the desktop. Here for example are a few I've been following recently:
Maybe too talky and visually a bit junky, this site tries hard to be the closest thing you'll find to a knowledgeable walk around the New Releases table at your local bookstore ... and it almost succeeds. Each title is the subject of three different reviews, and selections are lively (not academic or show-offy). The talky parts can make you wince: "We try to find full-length reviews of books that help the reader gather the information they seek to determine if the book is worth their time." But that's part of the fresh-discovery, rough-around-the-edges appeal.
Wow: If you're weary of the received wisdom of official book review sites (like the big one mentioned below), here is a treasury of refreshing and often unpredictable takes from alternative weeklies all over the country, including the Las Vegas Weekly, Chicago Reader, Santa Fe Reporter, NOW Magazine, Texas Observer and Atlanta's own Creative Loafing. It's got links to intriguing blogs, author interviews and hot stories like "Bookstores Fight Back with Instant Paperbacks" (Boston Phoenix) you might have missed elsewhere.
This great Portland, Oregon bookstore emails a book review a day that's selected from a universe of sources, so over time you get a critical take from quite a range of websites, for example from Harper's Magazine and Washington Post to Bitch, Virginia Quarterly and Powell's own staff. The approach is both quirky and sophisticated, the selections both mainstream and happily esoteric. Once you're on the Powell's site, sign up for the store's irreverent and knowledgeable newsletter with its many author interviews, industry news and updated-hourly Top Ten Bestsellers (decidedly not chain-store-generated).
The writing is personal, the reviews varied and timely, the tongue-in-cheek humor always peeking out from under the surface (see columns like "Bookslut in Training," "CookBookSlut," "Mystery Strumpet"), and a great blog page separates rumor from fact most of the time. Book Slut comes out monthly but is so packed with critical information you'll savor the month of visits it takes to explore all.
It's astounding to me that the NYTBR is still considered the core of received wisdom in our recidivistic industry, but then the mainstream is in NY, the press is in NY, the inbred-everything is in NY, and blah blah blah. I find the online version not as stiff or self-congratulatory as it is Sunday in print, perhaps because more options have been. "Paper Cuts," the NYTBR's own blog, would be dreary except for videos and occasional energized writing.
This engrossing "literary weblog" from Southern California novelist Mark Sarvas not only reviews serious books and offers original interviews but links the "best small presses," provides onsite videos, and follows "worthy readings" of authors to watch. It's so bubbling over with critical ideas and an investigative point of view that one visit can never be enough.
Well, I could go on (for years), but this is the kind of nucleus that indicates a brave new world of books is really out there: Sales may be flat, bookstores may be struggling and book sections may be dying, but the critical conversation about books continues to be robust, intelligent and adventurous. The best part is that thanks to the Internet, it's a Do-It-Yourself literary world that never stagnates, always surprises.
Patricia Holt was book review editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for 16 years.