Book review sections around the country are facing fewer pages, shorter reviews and pressure to include best sellers. But does anyone care? Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Timesbook section, does. He says book reviews are struggling for survival.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The newspaper book review is facing a crisis - fewer pages, shorter takes, pressure to cover bestsellers, and some papers have done away with the section altogether.
Steve Wasserman is the former book review editor at The Los Angeles Times. He wrote about the plight of the book section in the Columbia Journalism Review. He says a handful of papers still devote ink to reviewing books - namely The New York Times, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle. But, barring that list, the book section is in a dismal state. STEVE WASSERMAN: Most newspapers, if they bother to review books at all, consign them to a virtual ghetto. You're lucky at most newspapers to get a quarter of a page, maybe a column, half a page, much less an entire Sunday supplement. BOB GARFIELD: You want not only more coverage but more literary coverage. What should daily newspapers, in your view, be doing? STEVE WASSERMAN: It seems to me that what newspapers ought to do is to respect the intelligence of the audience and speak to them as grownups. We ought not to pander to the bestseller list - after all, news of those books is already pretty [LAUGHS] obvious and pretty widespread - but we ought to focus on those kinds of books which, in the judgment of editors and reviewers, are neglected but are nonetheless worthy of people's attention. BOB GARFIELD: I particularly understand the urge to resist, let's say, the marketing department's desire that you do bestsellers that appeal to the broadest possible audience.
But you must agree that to the extent that you go for more arcane or obscure or more literary fiction and nonfiction that you are going to narrow the overall audience at a time when narrowing audiences are killing newspapers. STEVE WASSERMAN: No, I don't accept that whatsoever. I'll give you an example. About a decade ago, Penguin Classics decided to publish a translation of some of the work of a Mexican nun and saint named Sor Juana de la Cruz. I'd never heard of St. Sor Juana de la Cruz except I had remembered a few years before, Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican writer, telling me that my ignorance of her work would be as if in the Spanish-speaking world you'd said the word Shakespeare and got a blank stare.
So when I learned that Penguin was going to publish a translation of this influential writer, I thought, well, that's news. When I showed the cover of the book review to my minders at The L.A. Times, they looked at me in some considerable astonishment and said, Sor Juana who?
Then when I went into the executive [LAUGHING] dining room of The Los Angeles Times, the Mexican-American waiter, his eye fell upon the cover and he exclaimed, Sor Juana! And I looked at him and I said, you know who this is? He says, of course. Every schoolchild in Mexico knows who this is.
So we published this piece, and I was flooded with letters - a third of the readers of The Los Angeles Times, it turns out Spanish was their first language - saying at last, The Los Angeles Times is respecting their culture. So what's popular? What's elitist? You tell me. BOB GARFIELD: Your own piece is at pains to point out that the audience for the book review has always been tiny and sort of self-selecting. Can a daily newspaper sustain a robust book review section when there is no natural market for its contents? STEVE WASSERMAN: Most newspaper sections, if separately accounted for, do not pay their way. Nowhere is the demand raised that, say, the sports section ought to be carrying advertising by the teams they're charged with covering. And no one is raising the cry that the business section, often the receptacle of vast tabular data [LAUGHS], begin to carry advertising from the very corporations they're charged with covering.
Only the lowly book review is it thought appropriate to demand publishers provide enough advertising to justify the journalism that appears in the pages. It's ridiculous. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, point taken. But I kept feeling, in your piece in CJR, that you were on the verge of saying something that you never quite said - namely, that if newspapers would actually just market themselves right, they could turn their book sections into actual profit centers. Is that doable? STEVE WASSERMAN: I suggest that it might be possible. But it's never been done, except for The New York Times, which has three sales representatives dedicated to book review advertising. To the best of my knowledge, no other newspaper employs a single person who wakes up in the morning trying to figure out a strategy by which they could make the book review section profitable.
The readers of book reviews are among a newspaper's most prosperous and best-educated readers. That's a demographic that also goes wandering among the Ralph Lauren ads that are provided in other sections of our major newspapers. Enlightened editorial leadership, enlightened managers of newspapers, understand that. BOB GARFIELD: This is all endlessly depressing, and the digital revolution is clearly one of the culprits here. But doesn't that very same revolution open up vast opportunities for book reviews, literary and otherwise? STEVE WASSERMAN: One thing the Internet has demonstrated is that there is a considerable hunger and avidity for cultural news of all kinds, not least of which is news of books. And books, I must say, have yet to be bested as the single most accessible instrument for the conveyance of deep knowledge and lasting entertainment.
And the news of those books should be promoted, in my judgment, by the newspapers whose purpose it is to provide the news of the day. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Steve, I very much appreciate you sitting down with us. STEVE WASSERMAN: Happy to do so. BOB GARFIELD: Steve Wasserman is the managing director of the New York office of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson. He is the former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]