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Jan. 18, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 6

Features

The new tastemakers

Few newspapers review books these days. So who does?

By Christopher Shea ’91
Published in the January 18, 2012, issue


Not long ago, newspapers and magazines considered it their cultural duty to guide readers through the torrent of books that American publishers sent forth. But apart from a few stalwarts, those periodicals — struggling as they are in a Web-oriented world — have decided that book reviewing doesn’t pay. They’ve shed or radically shrunk their literary sections and laid off editors and critics, leaving readers to look elsewhere for recommendations and engaging writing about books. “Twenty times as many titles are published each year than were a quarter-century ago, and we have one-twentieth of the serious print book reviews,” notes the Los Angeles Review of Books, a new website founded for the purpose of filling that gap.

Joe Ciardiello

What’s rising in the place of the newspaper book section? James Mustich ’77 presides over one alternative: the Barnes & Noble Review, the book chain’s surprisingly highbrow online book review, whose regular contributors include Robert Christgau, invariably called the dean of rock criticism; A.C. Grayling, the British philosopher and public intellectual; and Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The Washington Post. “We started this when the decline in newspaper and magazine book reviews was apparent, but that was more fortuitous than strategic,” Mustich says. “Over the years our role as a substitute has become more conscious.”

Other fresh outlets for information about books include the free online quarterly Toronto Review of Books, which debuted in September; Goodreads.com — like Facebook for book people, with 6.5 million members (a figure that’s doubled in under two years); and even NPR, which has decided to make books a prime focus of a revamped website. “Because we are noncommercial, we feel a responsibility to step forward and fill the gap,” says Joe Matazzoni, a senior supervising producer at NPR. But he stresses it was an opportunity as well as a responsibility: From late 2009 to fall 2011, as NPR retooled its site to focus on “book discovery,” it saw its books-related traffic double, to 1.8 million monthly views.

To be sure, some traditional publications retain their power. One 2010 study found that a positive review in The New York Times Book Review increased sales by 32 to 50 percent. For unknown authors, even a negative review in the Times increased sales — though more famous authors took a hit. “You have now killed my book in the United States,” wrote Alain de Botton, on the website of the New York-based writer Caleb Crain, after Crain panned de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in 2009 in the Times. “So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900-word review ... I will hate you till the day I die.”

While other newspapers eliminated book sections, The Wall Street Journal launched one a year ago; and then there’s Oprah, whose book club turned modest sellers into juggernauts from 1996 to 2010, and who surely retains some of that clout despite her move this year to cable television.

But the decline of book-review sections has spawned a whole new literary ecosystem: a proliferation of blogs, Twitter feeds, and reviews posted by ordinary readers. Last summer, despairing of review attention, the University of Michigan Press serialized two novels on Facebook. (The Princeton University Press blogs and posts almost daily on Facebook.) Perhaps the most outlandish attempt to get attention for books comes in the form of the book “trailer,” modeled, all too closely, on the over-the-top previews in movie theaters. Potential customers of author Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter got to see an actor playing Abe take an ax to a fanged White House intruder. To what extent this fuels sales is, as yet, unclear.

When it comes to connecting people and books, Mustich makes an interesting case study. He is a lifelong literary middleman who had to reinvent himself, or at least reorient himself, after the rise of e-commerce. Growing up in West­chester County, N.Y., Mustich used to head to Greenwich Village to peruse its used bookstores. At Prince­ton, where he majored in English, he wrote some poetry. He recalls a seminar with the late professor Robert Fagles, who just had finished his translation of the Oresteia. “We went through that great trilogy of tragedy line by line with him, and that was just as good an advertisement for the excitement of text and of all it can conjure up as anything I’ve ever done,” Mustich says. Another highlight was a seminar with English professor Maria DiBattista, whom he remembers discussing the themes and tropes of One Hundred Years of Solitude, only to put down her notes and exclaim, “Oh, it’s just a great book to read! It’s why we got into this in the first place.”

In 1986 Mustich founded an artisanal mail-order book catalog called A Common Reader. He and his staff wrote loving descriptions of books they had long adored or just encountered, with few glances at the best-seller list. Books were grouped idiosyncratically, under such rubrics as “Connoisseurs and Confidence Men.” That one included a biography of the art historian Bernard Berenson, William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions, and books about art forgery and art theft. “Books become tokens of places we’ve been, people we’ve known, wishes fulfilled and maybe forgotten,” explained the July 1993 issue. “In A Common Reader, we hope you will recognize some significant volumes from your own past, and be introduced to some intriguing strangers as well.” The company also republished out-of-print books under the imprint The Akadine Press. Among Mustich’s proudest accomplishments is reviving A Mass for the Dead, a memoir by William Gibson, author of the play The Miracle Worker. Without the book, Mustich told his subscribers, “my sense of self, family, and world would be unrecognizable to me.”

“Jim and his colleagues would have write-ups of the books they were selling that were just terrific mini-essays and appreciations of a great variety of authors,” recalls Dirda, the critic, who still keeps an eye out for Akadine Press volumes in used bookstores. “It struck me that this was a company that showed really remarkable taste.”

But as online retailers like Amazon grew more popular, it became harder and harder for Mustich to compete on price. And it wasn’t a good sign that, on an e-commerce site, Mustich could click on a title he’d recommended and see that online buyers were purchasing books A Common Reader had grouped with it. “There was no reason for these books to be put together, except that we had thought to do so,” Mustich says. “In that sense, [the Internet] was an efficient and powerful enemy.” The company declared bankruptcy in 2006.

 
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CURRENT ISSUE: Jan. 18, 2012