Locating the Book Review Section

The freestanding Sunday newspaper supplement devoted to book reviews is now -- with a very few exceptions -- a thing of the past. When a paper does devote a page or two to literary coverage, it tends these days to be folded into the "arts and entertainment" or "lifestyle" sections. (After all, books do furnish a room.)

But my dim memory of the Dallas press from a quarter century ago (when there were, strange to say, two competing newspapers in one midsized city) is that book reviews appeared in the weekend sections devoted to editorials, punditry, think pieces, etc.

That is still the case with The Boston Globe, where book coverage appears in the back of the Ideas section. Likewise now with The L.A. Times.

A colleague has written to ask whether other American papers have tried this -- attaching their book reviews to the Opinion or Outlook sections, or whatever the Big Concept pages are called, locally. If so, how did the move go? How did readers react?

Off the top of my head, I couldn't think of any. But it seemed like a query best addressed by the NBCC membership -- geographically farflung and deeply informed as, of course, you all are.  [Likewise with Quick Students.-sm]

(crossposted)

March 26, 2008 3:21 PM | | Comments (4)

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The San Francisco Chronicle recently brought the book review section as a special pull-out, centered in the Insight section (in-depth political articles).

The Newark Star-Ledger used to have a "separate" (meaning that it was headlined, boxed and demarcated) books section. Now it has, at best, 1 full page in its Sunday "Perspective" section, which includes editorials and cultural commentary (almost none of which, interestingly, is ever from Jersey-based writers.

A very long post, sorry, and one that can be read at Critical Mass. But some understanding of why these things happen (it's not entirely arbitrary) may help.

Ten years ago, the Dallas Morning News' book pages were in the back of the week-in-review editorial section (now called "Points"). I always thought we seemed odd there, partly because, as the book columnist, I was on the arts staff, and my author interviews and publishing industry stories appeared in the arts pages. Yet on Sunday, I was ordered to put on my church suit and sit in the back of the bus behind all of the paper's Big Brain Conservative Solons and Earnest Chin-Scratchers pondering the well-being of humanity and the fortunes of the Republic. I frequently felt like the idiot comic relief, cap-and-bells, joy buzzer, irreverent seltzer spray and all.

What's more, because there was relatively little coordination between the two departments, I often wondered what might happen when one of the paper's Sabbath gas bags (to borrow Calvin Trillin's phrase) would opine favorably on an Important Volume of Political Lore, and in the back pages, I'd hoot at such drivel. Actually, in the course of writing about various books, I often did take shots, in general, at the editors' deeply held faith in free market cure-alls. Nothing much happened, although my departure from the paper 18 months ago did get a few cheers from local conservative bloggers. Being understood and appreciated is a cherished moment for any critic.

Four years ago, the News' sections were re-jiggered and the arts pages were beefed up. In a newspaper, how and why certain pages and sections appear where they do, when they do, can be a fiendishly complicated and costly matter involving computerized press run capacity. At any rate, the book pages made the long trek to the back of the Sunday arts section, a prison break I'd advocated for years.

But I soon discovered a serious downside: For many people, the arts section is a garish ghetto, something to be avoided or zipped through only for salacious Britney bits (thus confirming their opinion of cultural coverage as light entertainment at best, cheap shilling at worst, while sports retains its manly heroism). I had joined my peers in the culture trade -- in there with The Celebrity Apprentice and The Hills Have Eyes, Part II. When I was with the editorial columnists, even though it seemed I was waving from the back row of the senior class, many readers felt this treated books in the Pipe-Smoking, Wood-Paneled Manner they deserve, especially if we kept writing about, sigh, political non-fiction and presidential biographies. Call it the Sam Tanenhaus Halo Effect, but it's an age-old American attitude: Fiction is suspect; non-fiction is useful, educational, improving. Over the years, I even met a number of readers who asked me what hat happened to me -- they'd always read my column and then it had disappeared.

Soooo ... there's something to be said for either placement. In Newspaper World -- where hard news and political insider baseball are considered the highest forms of thought -- putting the book pages with the Big Boys means they're being taken seriously, more or less. Keeping books with my fellow clowns and courtesans in cultural coverage, on the other hand, means we can speak to our people directly, comfortably, without having to do the high school principal act ("Read this, it's good for you"). But it can also mean, in the eyes of many, that we've been trivialized.

Of course, the logical solution -- a separate Sunday book section -- now mostly belongs to the mulch pile of history.

For most of the seven decades that the Bingham family owned the Louisville Courier-Journal - from the 1930s on, anyway - the book section (which was two or three pages up to the late '70s, then one) was in the opinion section on Sunday. (The Louisville Times, the C-J's evening counterpart, ran reviews opposite the editorial page until a few years before it folded in '85.) About a decade after Gannett bought the paper in '86, it moved book reviews into the Arts section and they've stayed there since.

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This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on March 26, 2008 3:21 PM.

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