Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Lament

Colin Robinson in the New York Times laments the ever-diminishing role of the book review. Newpapers have cut their reviews sections. The NYT Book Review is a third as large as what it was in the 70's. The big publishers are only publishing known quantities. The mid-list is going the way of the "middle class," he says. It's true. It's sad. But his argument is pretty hard on small presses and the more grassroots forms of book-reviewing like Goodreads and Amazon Reviews.
"The growth of these sites has been phenomenal. Shortly after its purchase by Amazon in the spring of last year, Goodreads announced it had 20 million users. Whether this is an amelioration or a reflection of an increasingly atomized culture is a question that can be filed in the same drawer as Facebook friending or dating on Match.com. Certainly the range of collective knowledge in pools of this size is incontestable. But it derives from self-selecting volunteers whose authority is hard to gauge. And though the overall network is vast, recommendations are generally exchanged within tight circles of friends. This results in another typical Internet characteristic: the “mirroring” of existing tastes at the expense of discovering anything new."
In "whose authority is hard to gauge," revolution lies. Yes, readership per book is small, atomized, and often a tight circle of friends. My book was read mostly by a tight-circle of friends. But there are at least 18 people who read my book that I don't know. Maybe more, if you count the people who bought it at readings their teachers made them attend. So what if there's no mid-list? It is not the same as the collapse of the middle-class. So what if many of these books are read only in creative writing programs? Creative writing programs are growing. Students read. Students then go on to write essays and poems and stories published in lit mags that few read but some do. Admittedly, writing and reviewing don't fully supply full time salaries writers and reviewers, but how many did they support before? How many mid-list writers were living on their mid-level advances? Can the production of more art ever be a bad thing? Isn't it great that "self-selecting volunteers" for no money write short reviews of books? Isn't it great people have tight circles of friends who will read their books? We are not big list. Not JK Rowlings or even Margaret Atwood. Or mid-list. We are just writers writing. You can't read it all, but could you ever? I remember going to Powell's in Portland and pulling book after book off the shelf. I'd buy most of them. Return half of them unread. You read what you can. Some of it's good. Most of it's worth your time, even if it's not great. Sometimes, it freaks me out, the idea that everyone in the world is writing. How will we all read it all? We won't. We'll read this and that and write a short review or read a short review and maybe we'll make one new friend, thanks to our review, that will read our book later. Our friends' tastes don't always mirror our own and, if we write more, and make new friends, our tastes will broaden.
I get the lament. The old ways are dying. I have dreams of the old ways. But the fact that there are presses out there, making books for little or no money, that there are writers out there, writing for little or no money, that there are reviewers out there reviewing for little or no money makes me think writing and reading are alive and that it's a bit of an economic revolution itself. When you do something for no money, no one owns what you do.

4 comments:

Lisa B. said...

>>But the fact that there are presses out there, making books for little or no money, that there are writers out there, writing for little or no money, that there are reviewers out there reviewing for little or no money makes me think writing and reading are alive and that it's a bit of an economic revolution itself. When you do something for no money, no one owns what you do.

I think I have said this thing, in almost these words! That means it's a thing, Nik--it's in the air, it's the zeitgeist, it is happening!

Nik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nik said...

More of tiny is better than a few big. Throwing off the chains with you, Lisa B.

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