Saturday, February 17, 2007

A New Book Review? Sign Me Up

It has been quite a while since I've found myself moved to agreement or even interest by anything at The New Republic. So I am pleasantly surprised to be endorsing this call for the creation of a new US book review publication, perhaps modeled on the UK's Times Literary Supplement. Here's the rationale:
The American Association of University Presses estimates that the 95 university presses in this country publish about 10,000 books a year. The New York Times Book Review, not to mention the book reviews at The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal devote a tiny fraction of their reviews to these works of scholarship. The Times reviews ten or less non-fiction books a week and those are overwhelmingly published by the New York trade publishers who advertise in the book review and who publish books aimed at a mass public.

The New York Review of Books is published 20 times a year. At a rate of about 25 reviews in each issue, it offers about 500 reviews annually. They are a mix of works from the major trade presses and scholarly presses. The New York Review for many years has been known for its leftish and left-liberal politics as much as for its serious book reviewing. Hence it encourages its featured writers to write essays that are often longer on political opinion than on elaboration of books under review. While some of the book reviewing in the New York Review is excellent, it does not see its primary mission as that of informing a non-specialist audience about developments in the world of scholarship. The book review section of The New Republic, to which many of us have contributed and admire greatly, is in my perhaps biased opinion, the best in American letters. But space allows our finest editor, Leon Wieseltier to commission only two or three books for review each issue or about 150 to 170 a year.
This leaves about 9,300 scholarly books every year that no one outside the scholarly disciplines hears about. A good many of these works are not intended for a non-specialist audience. Indeed, some would be incomprehensible to anyone outside the respective academic discipline. Others, while comprehensible may be about narrow topics that are crucial for the advance of knowledge but are not of interest to anyone outside a relatively small circle of experts. Still others are poorly written or penned in impenetrable prose that may be a parody of critics view of political correctness. Some, we can acknowledge, are poorly or inadequately edited as well.

England's Times Literary Supplement reviews between 1,000 and 1,500 books a year. If you consider that this figure includes books published in England as well as the United States, this is also a very small fraction of works published in a year. But the TLS does regularly select what its editors regard as important works in the various academic disciplines. A reader of the TLS will have some idea of what some of the important works of philosophy, history, political and social theory, literary criticism and economics have been in a given year. Non-specialist readers in the United States do not have a publication which offers them comparable depth and breadth of coverage.
As a book writer, editor, and reviewer (for Publishers Weekly), I have long been mildly depressed by the lack of coverage of the breadth, depth, and diversity of American publishing. Many interesting, useful, important books frankly sink without a trace. (I am not thinking primarily of the books I work on.) Those that do get coverage, especially in the mainstream popular media (like the New York Times Book Review) often do so because of cronyism, log-rolling, nepotism, or just the herd mentality that somehow designates particular books or topics as "the" subjects of the week.

As a result, the image most of us get of the US publishing industry is a shallow one--and this encourages the publishers themselves to make increasingly shallow choices. I've certainly witnessed plenty of pressure on authors and editors to tart up serious books in the hopes that sensationalist headline stories will somehow enable them to break through into media consciousness. It's quite possible that considerations like this influenced, for example, the use of the word "apartheid" in the title of Jimmy Carter's recent book about Israel and Palestine. If an author has no "revelations" with which to grab attention, it's tempting to court controversy--even ginned-up controversy--rather than accept the almost-immediate oblivion that is the fate of 95 percent of new books.

I remain a fan of The New York Review of Books. I find it a good way to keep tabs on subjects that are outside of my areas of expertise but in which I am interested--topics like painting, non-Western history, music, biology, physics, etc. etc. But I agree that the tone of NYROB has become predictable. And as Linda Hirshman points out later in The New Republic's collection of articles on the topic, the neglect of female scholars and authors by all the existing outlets, including NYROB, is a serious problem.

If anyone with a little time and money steps forward to launch a new book review, whether in print or online, I'll be among the first in line to offer my services as a reviewer. Let's do it.

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