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BOOKS & IDEAS

Battle of the book reviews

May 13, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — IT'S time for a truce.

When members of the National Book Critics Circle recently picketed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- protesting the elimination of its book review editor -- a war of words broke out between book reviewers and literary bloggers.

The quarrel, which got surprisingly nasty, spilled into newspapers, magazines and blogs, amid concerns over recent cutbacks at other big-city newspaper book reviews, including the Los Angeles Times. The boom in books-related blogging, it seemed, was a slap in the face to more seasoned literary voices as they watched their own outlets shrink.

"If you were an author, would you want your book reviewed in the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books, or on a web site written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biogafriend?" Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, wrote in the Washington Post. "The book review section ... remains the forum where new titles are taken seriously as works of art and argument, and not merely as opportunities for shallow grandstanding and overblown ranting."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 127 words Type of Material: Correction
Literary bloggers: An article about literary bloggers in Sunday's Calendar section said that a quotation from Michael Dirda rhetorically asking whether authors would prefer reviews in major print publications or online came from a piece in the Washington Post. Dirda wrote it for Critical Mass, the National Book Critics' Circle's blog. The quotation that begins "It's okay for the lit blogosphere to exist as a version of your mom's book club" was attributed to lit-blogger Edward Champion. It should have been attributed to lit-blogger Colleen Mondor. A reference to an e-mail exchange between Dirda and Champion referred to it as taking place "in the aftermath of their testy online exchange." Their e-mail exchange took place in the aftermath of testy online exchanges among several critics and bloggers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 20, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 125 words Type of Material: Correction
Literary bloggers: An article about literary bloggers last Sunday said that a quotation from Michael Dirda rhetorically asking whether authors would prefer reviews in major print publications or online came from a piece in the Washington Post. Dirda wrote it for Critical Mass, the National Book Critics' Circle's blog. The quotation that begins "It's okay for the lit blogosphere to exist as a version of your mom's book club" was attributed to lit-blogger Edward Champion. It should have been attributed to lit-blogger Colleen Mondor. A reference to an e-mail exchange been Dirda and Champion referred to it as taking place "in the aftermath of their testy online exchange." Their e-mail exchange took place in the aftermath of testy online exchanges between several critics and bloggers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 128 words Type of Material: Correction
Literary bloggers: An article about literary bloggers in the May 13 Calendar section said a quotation from Michael Dirda, rhetorically asking whether authors would prefer reviews in major print publications or online, came from a piece in the Washington Post. Dirda wrote it for Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle's blog. The quotation that begins, "It's OK for the lit blogosphere to exist as a version of your mom's book club," was attributed to lit-blogger Edward Champion. It should have been attributed to lit-blogger Colleen Mondor. A reference to an e-mail exchange between Dirda and Champion referred to it as taking place "in the aftermath of their testy online exchange." Their e-mail exchange took place in the aftermath of testy online exchanges among several critics and bloggers.

Lit-blogger Edward Champion fired back, ridiculing the notion that only printed book reviews matter: "It's okay for the lit blogosphere to exist as a version of your Mom's book club -- it's okay for us to talk books and authors and compare notes on favorites, as long as we keep our place," snapped the San Francisco writer, who runs the Return of the Reluctant website. "Have you got that? We must not think for a minute that we contribute anything beyond serving as accessories to the real literary discussions.... We should buy books but not dare to offer well thought opinions on them."

The accusations flew back and forth. But now there is a growing sense that enough is enough -- and that the friction between old and new book media obscures the fact that the two are in bed together now, for better or worse. Often the same people who churn out literary blogs are reviewing books for mainstream reviews. (Champion, for example, has a review appearing in this week's Los Angeles Times Book Review.)

Many believe there's a healthy synergy between the two. Maud Newton, who runs one of the more respected literary blogs (maudnewton.com), was puzzled by the idea that the two are somehow competing. "When bloggers disagree with or agree with an article about books in the mainstream press, it drives traffic to the newspaper," she said. The cutbacks at newspaper book reviews are unfortunate, but hardly the fault of bloggers.

"This was truly a false dichotomy," Mark Sarvas, who runs the L.A.-based blog the Elegant Variation, said by phone. "The two sides needn't be in opposition, certainly not at this time. There is a vast ecosystem of information about books out there, and all of it needs our support."

Enough books to go around

INDEED, more than at any time in the last 40 years, there is a bounty of news, features, criticism and gossip about books in newspapers, magazines and journals, blogs, radio and TV, podcasts and an ever-growing number of book clubs and festivals. It's by all appearances a flourishing literary moment in a culture that traditionally values other forms of entertainment, and it raises the question: Why should two key elements of that mosaic, litbloggers and book reviewers, be trading shots at all?

"This may be a counterintuitive thing to say, given all the gloom and doom we keep hearing about the future of books, but I think we're entering a very robust period for publishing," publisher James Atlas said. "For me, the big problem is not that no one pays attention to books, but that no one pays enough to the books that I publish. There is intelligent book talk going on at so many levels. It includes much more than reviewers and bloggers."

And Sarvas said: "There will always be bloggers who poke at newspapers and editors who resent that poking. But the best of the blogs take a deeper, more nuanced view about coverage, and the best newspapers think about how to leverage what the Internet offers. We need to bring more readers into the discussion, instead of cutting them out."

In recent months the Los Angeles Times cut the size of its Book Review and redesigned it to share space with the Opinion section. Reviews have also been cut in San Francisco and St. Petersburg, Fla.; the Chicago Tribune is moving its review to Saturday, where it will reach fewer readers. In all of these cases, publishers cited a lack of ad revenue generated by book reviews. And it is perhaps natural to posit a cause and effect -- that as the space for traditional newspaper book reviews shrinks, the online world will grow.

"Once technology is discovered, you can't stop it," said Atlas. "We're going to have e-books. We're going to have print-on-demand business. We're going to have a lot more discourse on the Web, and it will become more sophisticated as literary gatekeepers arrive to create some order. The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like it or not."

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