28 August 08 | Chad W. Post

Critical Mass — the official blog of the National Book Critics Circle — always has great (though depressing) coverage about the decline of book reviews in America. And yesterday, they ran a piece by Mark Athitakis (Arts Editor at the Washington City Paper) on book reviewing in alt-weeklies that’s very cogent and interesting.

As he points out at the start, alt-weeklies are facing a lot of the same circulation and money issues that daily papers are. And the alt-weeklies — which I still think of as a steady outlet for reviews of non-mainstream books — are cutting back in books coverage as well. But the door still remains “slightly ajar” for a book critic to get into these papers, and his article has a number of recommendations to critics on how to enter said door.

The recommendation that I find most interesting is this one:

3. Zig When Everybody Else Is Zagging. Given the thinning of book-review sections at daily newspapers, alt-weeklies have a great opportunity to pick up the slack. (Alas and thank goodness, my local daily, the Washington Post, remains a bright light when it comes to book coverage.) Look at your local daily and see what they’re not doing.

Let me guess: Not a lot of coverage of books from local presses, especially ones from university presses that could easily have wider appeal. Probably few independent presses. Not much on books in translation. Or on graphic novels. And not a lot of fun: No imaginative roundups, no visual thinking, no attempts at literary treatments of the current news, no attempts at humor that go beyond being sagely droll.

And yet freelancers occasionally seem baffled, even offended, that I have no interest in running a review of a much publicized book. A straightforward 1,000-word review of Netherland, even a nicely turned one, is never going to appear in City Paper. I assume my readers don’t need another one of those.

Right on. This kind of diversity is exactly what we need more of. From a customer’s point of view, it seems like the book industry (which is actually bigger than ever) is collapsing in on itself, with only a dozen books at any point in time being read, discussed on NPR, reviewed widely, and displayed at bookstores. It’s my belief that we naturally want to resist this sort of narrowing, but that book trade economics make this difficult. Alt-weeklies are historically one of the places that help expand awareness about books and culture, and hopefully, even in this age of consolidation and shady buy-outs, they’ll continue to wave this flag.


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