Thursday, September 28, 2006

If newspapers want ...

... to adapt to changing times, they should pay more attention to the kind of people I had the priivilege of spending some time with last night in Manhattan. Not just the people who were on the platform with me - though Lizzie Skurnick, Laurie Muchnick and Maud Newton are as sharp as they come (now that I've heard in detail what Laurie's gone through at Newsday, I don't feel sorry for myself anymore) - but the people in the audience as well at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. These are not just people who read, but people who are passionate about books, words, ideas. Put out a paper that consistently appeals to people like that and it'll sell out every day. And no, these are not people who are only interested in high-falutin' lit'ry issues. They are people who are interested in all that is going on - in City Hall, Yankee Stadium, the Metropolitian Opera, you name it. But they're interested in seeing these things treated with something more substantive than sound bites and cliches.
NBCC president John Freeman (full disclosure: he reviews frequently for The Inquirer) organized the panel and moderated it with characteristic aplomb (somebody get John on TV; he could be a star). The topic was the connection between newspaper and magazine books reviews and book blogs. The conclusion (roughly sketched): They're not the same and shouldn't try to be; there's no reason for any antagonism to exist between them - or between bloggers and critics - because they can both complement and supplement each other.
The word most commonly used by all participating was conversation: Thanks to blogs, literary discourse is no longer a one-way street, with reviewers having their say and the rest of us having to listen. Anybody who wants to can have their say now. So reviewers can expect that what they write is going to be, well, reviewed online. Why? Because people are interested in books and reading.
Here is, perhaps, a case in point: My review this Sunday is of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. I loved it. Laurie Muchnick did not like it at all. She wasn't going to review it, but may do so now. I hope so, because as soon as she does, I'll link to her review from my blog, so readers can see an altogether different viewpoint. Who's right, Laurie or me? I'd say neither and both. I'm right for me and Laurie's right for her. As Michael Allen has pointed out, what gives me pleasure doesn't necessarily give anyone else pleasure, certainly not everyone else. But two contrasting viewpoints will make discussion of the book richer for everybody.
I met a number of people last night I had only known, as it were, electronically: James Marcus, Michael Orthofer, Scott McLemee, Jane Ciabatteri, Jessica Crispin (didn't get a chance to chat with her, though; drat!). At dinner I had a really great talk with David Orr, whose On Poetry column in the NYTBR is one the best reasons - among many - to read the NYTBR .
Everyone last night was younger than I - but that's becoming an unavoidable circumstance - which may be why I felt younger riding home on the train that I had riding in. Or maybe it was just the fasctinatin' rhythm of Manhattan.
Update: A more comprehensive account of the event can be found, not surprisingly, at Critical Mass: The review and blog panel recap

11 comments:

  1. "But they're interested in seeing these things treated with something more substantive than sound bites and cliches."
    Amen, Frank, Amen.

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  2. "But they're interested in seeing these things treated with something more substantive than sound bites and cliches."
    Amen, Frank, Amen.

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  3. Newspapers -- and you'll know this as well as I do -- are positively hostile to ideas. Or rather, they'll accept ideas that stay meek, calm, and accepting of their once-a-week posting in some tiny half-page corner of the paper and don't try to elbow their way among the front-page stories about Survivor or American Idol.
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    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"

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  4. Anonymous2:27 PM

    We totally agree with your comment about The Da Vinci Code.
    www.hotelchelseablog.com

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  5. Wish I could have been there.

    In my opinion, blogs serve to expand the dialogue about books. Whereas a review in a paper or magazine remains fairly static, blogs can act more like a discussion. Plus blogs can cover more books than tradition media can even hope.

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  6. "Plus blogs can cover more books than traditional media can even hope."
    ==============================

    Especially as newspapers slash their cultural coverage to ribbons -- unless, of course, your definition of cultural coverage includes Project Runway.

    I have found myself thinking that as newspapers become ever more timorous and dumbed-down, one of their remaining functions for intelligent readers may be as gateways to intelligent discussion in the blogosphere, as the Philadelphia Inquirer has done with Frank Wilson and others.
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    Detectives Without Borders
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  7. Yes, Peter, I am aware that newspapers tend not to take ideas seriously. What I am saying is that this failure to take ideas seriously may do them in, because the pool of readers is narrowing to those who do take ideas seriously. So if you want to make money with reading matter, it's going to have the be the kind of reading matter those who read prefer.
    Thanks, Bryan and the Anonymous poster from the hotelchelsea blog. And I wish you had been there, too, Bookdwarf.

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  8. You were really good last night, Frank. Thanks for coming to our fair city. I loved what you said first when you said it in private and was glad when you said it publicly: that it is a good thing newspapers believe so strongly in evolution because they are proving Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest.

    As someone closer to your age than most of the people there, I grew up learning that civilized people read at least one, but preferably two or three, newspapers every day.

    It is sad that newspaper book review pages are becoming smaller and that people like you and Laurie Muchnick are losing staff.

    When my first, rather obscure, book of short stories was published 27 years ago, it got over 15 reviews in papers, including Newsday.

    Tonight I had dinner with a much more talented young writer whose first novel is about to be published; it's a fine book that deserves to be noticed, but he'll be lucky to get even one newspaper review.

    Hopefully some bloggers will ride to the rescue of good writers like my friend.

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  9. That's a heretically non-populist sentiment to give breath to, Frank. If anyone calls you on it, just say yours is one more reader's voice.

    If the pool of readers is dwindling to those who take ideas seriously, then devoting a full-color, multi-photo, multi-story front-page spread to, oh, just to choose a hypothetical example, a football player who took three sleeping pills instead of two, may drive away old-fashioned readers -- well, will drive away old-fashioned readers -- without attracting new ones.

    I hope newspapers will use blogs and online editions to give that pool of intelligent readers a gateway to the good stuff, the intelligent writers who are out there. And they are there; it just gets harder and harder to find them these days.
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    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"

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  10. I loved reading your post, Frank. Have discussed on petrona. I think there has been something weird going on electronically, maybe at Bloglines as well as Blogger, as I seem to have missed a huge chunk of your posts -- when I came to your blog instead of reading through rss, I found all these posts that hadn't shown up before.

    Anyway, never mind all that, I enjoyed your post and the debate in the comments -- and as I said on Petrona, your comments on the Thirteenth Tale are one reason why blogging is such a great medium.

    Wish I could have been there. I too am older than almost everyone I meet these days, but advanced age gives you a kind of air of wisdom, don't you think? Undeserved and spurious in my case, but I am sure not in yours!

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  11. Women are wiser than men to begin with, Maxine, so I'm probably just catching up.

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