The LA Times Book Review Is Dead, but There's a Takeaway

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The Los Angeles Times published its last standalone Book Review (LATBR) on Sunday, July 27. It must have been difficult reading for subscribers who’ve been lamenting the loss of the LATBR since news of its demise broke on July 21. L.A.Times book coverage, what remains, supposedly will be grafted into the larger paper. Cue my unimpressed cheer.

It’s not that you couldn’t have seen this coming. Over the past year, death knells have been sounding ad nauseam for every subsidiary of the printed word. Newspapers are dying; publishers are struggling; essayists are flopping; book reviews are becoming extinct. No one is reading, at least not as much as they used to, and with less patience.

It’s still remarkable to witness one of the Goliaths fall–if only for how it exposes the flawed sense that something so established couldn’t be flushed away so fast. A July 7th memo from the Tribune Company‘s chief innovation officer seems to rail against just this outcome. “Heard a conversation about how Book reporting doesn’t generate revenue and may have to go away,” writes Lee Abrams. “WAIT! Maybe Book reviews and coverage are one of those things that don’t generate revenue right now, BUT–are trademarks for newspapers and elicit high passion from readers.”

Abrams is on to something, until he offers a less-than-innovative plan for revamping book sections–which are “maybe too scholarly”–by including more popular, retail-oriented picks. If the Tribune Company messed up in axing the LATBR, at least it got one thing right: Abrams’ fix wouldn’t have made anyone any less upset.

We want our culture, and we want it uncompromising. In a public letter, four former editors of the Review condemn the decision as a “philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of [Los Angeles] and the region.” All around the literary blogosphere, folks aredismayedattheloss of cultural cachet, angered that the Tribune Company could fail to see the edifying nature of the section. A less-literary book review only would have prompted a different strain of disgruntled hand wringing.

Maybe it’s not reasonable to petition a for-profit organization to recognize and uphold the cultural value in a non-revenue-generating section. Maybe it’s not even fair. Even the letter-writing editors concede that problematic reality, closing their reproof with the one threat that matters: “Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review…will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.”

If the demise of the Los AngelesTimes Book Review has one thing to offer, perhaps it could be a kick in the derriere, a reminder that we’re on our own out here (and that big, stalwart publications can and will drop the ball). Scott Esposito, editor of the Quarterly Conversationputs it nicely. Esposito is reflecting that as the LATBR folds he’s begun paying his contributing writers:

I think there’s a corollary to this, and it’s that just as periodicals have certain responsibilities to their contributors, so do readers have responsibilities to their periodicals. That is to say: I’d like to strongly encourage everyone who reads online book reviews, literary journals (and here I’m grouping in print publications like Rain Taxi that continue to support good criticism), literary blogs, and whatever else out there is fighting to keep intelligent literary discourse alive, to support the publications they read. I’m not just talking money here, although I’ve never met someone who didn’t appreciate a little cash; I’m also talking buying a subscription when you could read it for free on the Web, offering in-kind support and/or volunteering, offering submissions and contributions to places you like. Even something as simple as buying through a site’s Amazon links adds up in the long run.

Image by Kris Bautista,licensed under Creative Commons.

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