For book lovers, these are not welcome moves.
Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief of the inchoate LA Review of Books, took the occasion of the LA Times reduction to write about the goals of the new publication (and to announce that they had brought onboard two columnists recently The Times recently laid off). In short the LA Review of Books aims to maintain a space for the kind of serious book reviewing that has been in decline over the last couple of decades.
This, I think, is an admirable goal, and I would certainly like the site to succeed. Still, two questions remain unanswered it Lutz's essay.
1. Why will the LA Review of Books succeed where mainstream reviewing has failed?
2. Will the writing and reviewing in the LA Review of Books mirror mainstream reviewing or will it do something else?
While the first of the questions is about money and the second about content, they are deeply linked. The unknown here is the market for literary journalism.
The LA Review of Books, Lutz says, will employ a hybrid model to generate revenue, which will include advertising, merchandise, subscriptions, affiliate incomes, fundraising, and grants. This already is acknowledgment that, as a commercial enterprise, literary journalism is untenable; you do not need grant money and non-profit money if there are buyers for your product.
That is, unless your product is really different than what has already failed. From what I can tell, the style of the first 100 posts in the LA Review of Books does feel considerably more modern than, say, coverage in the NY Times. The topics are more diverse, the writing more personal and freeform, and the general spirit more experimental. Unfortunately, I doubt that it is any more viable as a commercial product.
What I think Lutz doesn't really see (and that Edward Champion pointed out in his response to Lutz's essay) is the problem is not that there isn't cultural space for book reviewing and journalism, it's that it is happening everywhere---from book blogs, to Amazon, to GoodReads, to #fridayreads.
One of the reasons that book reviewing had a home in newspapers in the early 20th Century is that there was no where else to turn. Now, reviewing is everywhere.
My sense is that the kind of writing that the LA Review of Books wants to preserve needs preservation for a reason--it is no longer able to survive in the main of American cultural life. And that's not saying it isn't valuable, only that it needs propping up by extra-commercial forces for it to survive.
What I would like to see, and I readily admit that I don't know what this would look like, is writing about books that engages with readers to the point that those readers (and the advertising dollars their attention brings) can support it directly (one possible example is Martha Southgate's essay about The Help in Entertainment Weekly). This would not only mean a future for professional literary journalists, but also that what they write can be culturally current and accessible.
The long and short of it is that people still read. What they want to read about what they read is still very much a mystery and the crux of the problem for contemporary book reviewing.
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