Thursday night at BookExpo

The National Book Critics Circle, drunk on rose

Tomorrow, BookExpo, the nation's largest publishing convention, kicks off in New York's Javits Center. This comes soon after the demise of the LA Times Book Review section and a full-time books editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; the Chicago Tribune recently moved its book section to the Saturday paper in a cost-cutting move.
What are we to make of the discrepancy between fewer places for criticism while more books continue to be published--172,000 in 2005 alone?
Tonight, Bookforum hosted "The Intellectual History and Culture of the Book Review" at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York for members of the NBCC, which I was fortunate enough to attend. The crowd was an elbow patch-wearing, ethnic necklace-donning set; eyeglasses were strikingly common. They were nerds and proud of it; a guy from n+1 was there and ultimately asked, "Who are our heroes?" Need I say more?

The editor of Bookforum, Eric Banks, moderated a panel including Columbia professor James Shapiro (who teaches a class on criticism), Joyce Carol Oates, the National Book Award winner who who recently published her 53rd novel, Harvard University Press's Lindsay Waters, and Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Soon after National Book Critics Circle President John Freeman (dapper as always in a pinstripe suit) introduced the panel, Lindsay Waters rushed in with an effusive plea to save the book review. Perhaps his caffeine and passion had found each other, as he ended: "We really will be killing off the plankton if we let the book review die... that's what at stake: everything." He spoke of letting critics free and giving them breathing room, of the history of the newspaper and the integration of arts reporting and criticism into daily discourse.
Next, FSG's Galassi insisted that "book reviews are in trouble because newspapers are in trouble." That the internet is allowing us to focus on our interests and niches has created a generation of consumers who go online already knowing what they want to read, buy and what circles they want to inhabit.

While Columbia's Shapiro was more even-handed, less apocalyptic, he added that "you don't get a mentorship with a blog." He was also fairly skeptical of any of the reviews in the New York Times finding their way into the literary canon, especially with their recent reduction from 1400 to 1100 words. He was more afraid for the burgeoning generation of book critics under 30: with less pay, fewer places to work, would there even be any book critics in 20 years?

This was, in other words, a slightly skewed version of the Pop Conference at EMP, the conference of music writers and academics, which I attended last month. Gate-keepers of the old school, trumpeting the demise of the paper and its implicit authority, gave heartfelt talks about why people on the internet were ruining culture.
I was surprised, then, to hear Joyce Carol Oates applaud some of her favorite literary blogsters, stating that their tone, a new, inviting tone, was reassuring and welcoming. Harvard University's Lindsay Waters also admitted that he'd read some brilliant things online (though he also made a joke about tantric sex, which I strongly discourage unless told in conjunction with a joke about Sting).
Is her good spirit one of the reasons why she has 53 novels under her belt and seems young as ever? Though it's easy to throw your hands up and say that no one's reading anymore--or that no one's talking about it in an intelligent and sustained fashion--that's just lazy. It's not true! While that's one topic that panels at BookExpo will be discussing this weekend, there are so many people and institutions currently at work diversifying and throwing life jackets out to the publishing industry. This weekend I'll be looking into the more relevant matters of criticism, as well as taking notes on what local companies like Amazon.com and Starbucks are up to.
And at least for one night, there was a fairy tale ending. After the panel, everyone went across the street and got quite drunk on rose.

 
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