Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Web Killed The Literary Review—And It’s Not All Bad

Newspaper literary reviews are mostly a thing of the past, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says ELLEN WHYTE

WHEN TIM BERNERS-LEE and his team launched the Web 20 years ago, it was a crushing blow to the literary book review. They probably didn’t mean it: at least, there’s no record of Tim saying, “That’s gonna fix those guys at the Lit Supp once and for all.” Even so, it signalled the beginning of the end for the Sunday literary review page.

The Golden Days
To be fair, the classic literary review has always been the province of the few. To take apart someone’s work, and analyse content, themes, style, and the degree of craftsmanship, all within the context of past works, or related works by others, is a lot of work. However, academics and writers who live by the terms publish or perish take on the job because gingerbread apart, there is some lovely gilt.

First, a review counts as a publication, and it keeps your name in the public eye.

Second, a favourable review is a great way to pay back friends and supporters. If you can sneak in references to your own works, all the better!

Finally, a bad review is a marvellous opportunity to put down your rivals. If you are in the mood to really rub someone’s face in the dirt, but you want to look as if it isn’t simply spite and jealousy, you can do what Plato did when he was rubbishing poetry as being a poor form of rhetoric: you can pretend the attack isn’t at all personal; it’s done purely in the spirit of honesty/philosophy/beauty/truth.

For 2,500 years or so, reviews were restricted to academic journals and niche publications sent to private subscribers. But when newspapers began to sell in huge numbers to the general public, newspaper editors began commissioning pieces too.

Although the vast majority of readers just want to know whether a book is a jolly good read or not, and are hugely bored by the technical analysis that is the backbone of the review, newspaper editors like literary reviews because they add a bit of gravitas to the papers. When people at parties chide you for muckraking in order to boost sales, it’s nice to be able to point to that incredibly insightful piece discussing the latest gem from the poet laureate.

By the 1920s, literary reviews formed the backbone of Sunday supplements. They were particularly popular with readers who hoped that a bit of culture would combat soul-destroying corporate or domestic tedium, or at least enliven conversation at the next dinner party.

Editors were happy to commission Big Names to write reviews, as this attracted even more readers. The extra expense was covered by extra adverts from companies hoping to cash in on the lucrative niche market that could afford to attend dinner parties. It was a strategy that served both art and Mammon.

Hello Web, Goodbye Gravy Train
When email and online bulletin boards appeared, media magnates weren’t too fussed. Cinema and TV hadn’t made a dent in sales; the Net wasn’t viewed as a big deal either.

If you’re a dinosaur like me, you’ll remember that the creation of the Web turned the Net from a nerds-only playground into a new form of mass media. It took a few years for the message to reach the old guard, but when The Drudge Report website broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1997, even the crustiest of hacks had to acknowledge there was a new kid on the block.

Newspaper owners rushed to stake out and defend their territory on the new playing field, but shot themselves in the foot. While other industries added online sales channels to sell their content, media magnates took products that cost a fortune to create and gave them away for free.

Thanks to this inspired bit of leadership, sales plummeted. The global financial crisis of 2008 proved the coup de grace. Many newspapers collapsed. Those that survived had to trim sails in view of trimmed sales. Literary book reviews were among the first casualties.

The 21st Century Review
Being connected worldwide 24/7 means we’re flooded with information. Living life at a gallop is having all sorts of weird effects. It seems kids are reaching puberty a year or even two years earlier than previous generations. Some studies even show that we are walking faster!

It also means attention spans are getting shorter. Newspapers have moved from the broadsheet to the compact format. They’ve also cut back on longer pieces and added more pictures. Also, every piece must look good in print and online. As reading online is harder on the eyes than reading print, there has been a general scaling back on word count. Articles of 1,200 words used to be common, now the big pieces run at 900.

Magazines have had to trim word count to suit today’s audience too. Back in 1997 the average Malaysian magazine feature consisted of a main piece of 1,400 words plus a sidebar or two of 250 words. Today the whole shebang comes to 1,200 words tops.

Another blow to the traditional review is that newspapers have trimmed niche products in favour of content with mass appeal. Literature wins prizes but it seldom sells well. Newspapers therefore focus on the stuff readers are interested in—popular fiction, cookbooks and self-help tomes.

In short, the page that used to be devoted to analysing a single book is now a half page promoting half a dozen books. The modern review is generally comprised of a teaser, sometimes taken directly from the press release, a mention of previous works written by the author, and a picture of the book cover.

The other half page is devoted to an author interview because readers enjoy reading about the people behind the books, especially if it’s a good rags-to-riches story like J.K. Rowling or if the author is seriously sexy. If Johnny Depp were to write a book, he’d be guaranteed slots in every paper in the world, even if his book were titled “Johnny’s ABC for Toddlers.”

All this is pretty sad for the classic reviewer who is less likely to snag a juicy commission from a newspaper. However, the new status quo has some benefits for authors and publishers.

Check Out the Upside
Although styles have changed, newspapers still feature books and are likely to continue to do so. Plus, the popularity of the Web means authors and publishers can set up their own websites to connect with the world. In addition, some independent bloggers are now commanding significant audiences.

The latest news from Forrester research group is that in the last five years, daily web usage is up 117 per cent, while listening to the radio is down 18 per cent, reading newspapers is down 17 per cent, and reading magazines is down 6 per cent. TV is the only medium to remain exactly as it was pre-2004.

Although figures show that print products are declining, it is very hard to tell what works best. Comparing circulation figures to hits, a newspaper is still going to reach more people than a popular blog. However, not everyone reads the whole newspaper. A blogger who has a solid audience of regulars may be a better bet for generating sales, especially if they reach out over Twitter and Facebook as well.

The sensible thing for authors and publishers is to cover as many bases as possible. It also helps to spring for a nice lunch when wooing editors who have the power to assign an author feature. Bloggers are also partial to lunch, but being altogether humbler beings, they may settle for coffee and cake.

You might also cast an eye over William Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, where he details how pussyfooting, sucking up, bribery, catfighting and blackmail were part and parcel of the literary salon scene at the turn of the 20th century. The status quo may be changing, but Willie Maugham’s strategy tips are timeless.

ELLEN WHYTE is the author of Katz Tales: Living Under the Velvet Paw (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) and Logomania: Where Common Phrases Come From and How to Use Them (MPH Publishing, 2010). Visit her blog at lepak.com.

Reproduced from the October-December 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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