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October 08, 2009

Last Review Standing

From The New Yorker:

Something Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Times Book Review, said in an interview in Oxford American made me choke on my afternoon coffee. Asked whether there was anything to be done about the gap between the number of books published (still enormous, despite the downturn) and the number of books reviewed (tiny), he responded:

Thomas Mallon, a superb novelist and critic, once told me the dirty little secret of book reviewing, including at TBR, is that in fact too many books are reviewed. It was easier to say this some years ago, when several newspapers had robust stand-alone Sunday book review sections. Today there is only TBR, and we’re looking anemic ourselves—our weekly page count has shrunk fifty percent from only a year ago. It’s a concern, not only for authors and readers but also for reviewers, who practice an art whose cultural status seems to be going the way of the German mark during the Weimar Period.

I'm not sure whether he’s coming down on the side of too many reviews or too few reviews (or just enough?), but the analogy he uses to illustrate the precarious situation of book critics is quite dramatic. Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic ended with the mark being scrapped and replaced with a new currency, but there were more dire, indirect consequences as well: the havoc wreaked by the years of hyperinflation contributed to the Nazi ascension, and, by extension, the Second World War.

Could the death of the long-form book review augur the demise of our entire civilization? The relationship between big, challenging, popular books and big, challenging book reviews is at least somewhat reciprocal. How long can one survive without the other? And what would our civilization be without books about something other than teen-age vampires angels?

If it hurts your brain to think about all this, you’re not alone. "This is the great imponderable of our literary moment," Tanenhaus says elsewhere in the interview. But he leaves room for hope: "I'm a terrible prognosticator, so I won't offer any answers apart from the obvious observation that history unfolds along lines we can never fully discern in real time."

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