Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.
Alex and Wendy believe in the algorithm. It’s the force that organizes their feeds, arranges their queues, and tells them that if they liked this song, video, or book, they might like that one too. They never have to think about the algorithm, and their feeds offer a kind of protection. Alex hates to waste his time. His time is so precious. It makes Wendy feel sad when she reads a book she doesn’t love. She might have read one of the books her friends loved. If their feeds lead them astray, Alex and Wendy adjust them. There’s only so much time, and when they have kids, there’ll be even less time. Alex and Wendy aren’t snobs. They don’t need to be told what not to like. They’d rather not know about it.
Of course, I don’t believe that Alex and Wendy exist. But as a cultural journalist, as a book critic, I’ve been put on notice that I work for them.
It is a commonplace that we live in a time of political polarization and culture war, but if culture is considered not in terms of left and right but as a set of attitudes toward the arts, then, at least among people who pay attention to the arts, we live in an era that cherishes consensus. The first consensus is that ours is an age of plenty. There is so much to watch, to hear, to see, to read, that we should count ourselves lucky. We are cursed only by too many options and too little time to consume all the wonderful things on offer. The cultural consumer (Alex or Wendy) is therefore best served by entities that point them to the right products. Find the right products, and you can undergo an experience you can share with your friends, even the thousands of them you’ve never met. Of course, individual people have preferences and interests, so filters, digital or human, will be required. Everyone will have favorites. What’s superfluous is the negative opinion. The negative opinion wastes Alex and Wendy’s time.
No doubt a consumerist mode of engagement with the arts has always been with us. Its current manifestation mimics the grammar of social media: the likable, the shareable, the trending, the quantifiable, the bite-size. It is no surprise that this set of gestures has become dominant. What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good. Film and art writing were corrupted so long ago by slavish fixations on the box office and the auction price that it’s now hard to imagine them otherwise. Literary journalism has been a holdout in this process of erosion: although literary blockbusters will tout that status when they achieve it, presence on the bestseller list has more often been seen as counter-indicative of quality, the crossover as a happy freak.
The traditional driver of literary coverage in newspapers and magazines has been book publishers’ schedules. Books have been treated both as news and as objects to be evaluated. The primary mode of engagement has been the review, placed on the page in the vicinity of advertisements purchased by the publishers. That model is outdated. Books coverage now rises or falls in the slipstream of social media. The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?
I am not making an elitist argument, though I’m skeptical of the popular and the commercial. To be interested in literature all you need is a library card. Literary writing is any writing that rewards critical attention. It’s writing that you want to read and to read about. It’s something different from entertainment. It involves aesthetic and political judgments and it’s not easily quantifiable. Negativity is part of this equation because without it positivity is meaningless. There is a new wave of writers rising in America, writers such as Yaa Gyasi with her formally daring historical fiction; Patricia Lockwood, pioneer of a digital-native lyricism; Karan Mahajan, a political novelist for a post-globalized era; Nico Walker, the opioid epidemic’s hard-boiled chronicler; and Jenny Zhang, with her incandescent rendering of the lives of migrants and their children; to name a few. (I’ve reviewed their work, so consider this my list of recommendations—you can take it or leave it.) They are being published by an ever-consolidating set of big houses in New York and an ever-expanding array of small presses across the country. These writers and their readers are ill-served by a culture that treats their books merely as props for selfies or potential gift items. They deserve critics who can deliver painstaking appraisals within a tradition of lost and found books that itself requires the constant work of rediscovery. For better or worse, the best tool we have for this work is the book review.
In December, Columbia Journalism Review published an item by Sam Eichner under the headline “What’s Behind a Recent Rise in Books Coverage?” The answer was a quest for web traffic. The editors Eichner quoted celebrated the bright new modes. There would be more recommendations. There would be more rankings. There would be more online book clubs. Instagram would be harnessed. There would still be criticism but fewer “traditional” reviews. Readers want to be served in the way fans are served. Books should be treated in the manner of movies or television shows, as occasions for collective chatter, as storehouses of shareable trivia, and once in a while as containers of detachable ideas. The overall vision was that of literary journalism as a form of higher publicity. In keeping with that spirit (the spirit of the flack), Eichner channeled his interviewees—editors from the New York Times, New York magazine, BuzzFeed, and The Atlantic, touting their own publications, trying to justify their editorial decisions and keep their jobs—and explained the recent rise in books coverage:
In some ways, mainstream book coverage is coming down from its historically lofty perch to join the rest of arts coverage, catering less to the intelligentsia and more to the casual reader, who may not be interested in literary fiction or nonfiction. With so much to watch and read and listen to—and so many people chiming in on what to watch and read and listen to—it’s no surprise readers are hungering for a trusted source who can point them in the direction of books tailored to their interests. And those same readers may be looking for the kind of full-court, blogosphere press typically reserved for watercooler shows like Sharp Objects and meme machines like A Star Is Born.
Here a consumerist vision of reading is presented as a form of anti-elitism. The quaint use of “intelligentsia” suggests a suspect class of self-regarding intellectuals with an echo of Cold War red-baiting. And then a fantastic fictional character: the casual reader who disdains literary books but is eager for, say, the New York Times to tell her which nonliterary books to read when she isn’t busy watching HBO or listening to podcasts. And what does “full-court, blogosphere press” describe but hastily written, barely edited, cheap, and utterly disposable online jetsam? Such is the nature of the new “books coverage.” I was aware of the trend. Two months before Eichner’s story ran, my contract to review books at New York magazine was dropped. I had been told that although its books coverage would be expanding, what I did—book reviews—had “little value.”
One of the hazards of this approach, if not its broader pointlessness from an intellectual standpoint, became apparent a few weeks later. The New York Times Book Review’s By the Book column is a weekly feature in which a prominent author answers a set of boilerplate questions about her reading habits. It has high trivia value. The author typically has a book to promote, and the Times gets free content from a famous person (who may not be famous as an author, but it’s the fame that’s the point). In the By the Book column of December 16, Alice Walker, the seventy-five-year-old author of The Color Purple and a new book of poetry, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, said that one of the books on her nightstand was And the Truth Shall Set You Free by David Icke, a fringe figure in his native Britain but a known trafficker in anti-Semitic conspiracies involving sinister reptilian aliens who control the world. “In Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about,” Walker wrote. “A curious person’s dream come true.” In that Walker had previously enthused about Icke’s writing on her blog and had a history of anti-Semitic statements, this wasn’t exactly news. But the online magazine Tablet took the Times to task for publishing Walker’s recommendation “unchallenged.”
On December 18, the Times published an interview with its chief books editor, Pamela Paul. She explained that By the Book is an email questionnaire sent to its subjects and edited only for space and factual accuracy but not for its subjective content. “Readers have certainly learned something about the author and her tastes and opinions,” Paul said of Walker. “I think it’s worthwhile information for them to know.” Perhaps it is, but that had never seemed to be the point of the By the Book column in the past. The point was never scrutiny. The point was a transaction of fame for publicity.
Why do book reviews exist?
We know that books have historically been treated as news and as objects for evaluation. We know that publishers might want to advertise in the vicinity of book reviews, though by most accounts book reviews in newspapers have been unprofitable in modern memory. We might add that books are something many writers are eager to write about, often for only modest fees. But there is another reason that book reviews have persisted for centuries: nobody has ever figured out a better way to write about new books.
The book review is and always has been an unsatisfying form. In its newspaper iteration, it is a text of somewhere around a thousand words tasked with summarizing, contextualizing, analyzing, and evaluating a work likely more than fifty times as long. The wrongs a reviewer can commit within this space are many; clichés are pandemic. In reviews of a novel or a work of narrative non-fiction a dreary formula persists: prolix yet cursory summary topped with a smattering of more or less irrelevant biographical information yielding to polite and generic adjectives of praise (compelling, engrossing, charming) before a dip into enthusiasm-draining caveats placed into the penultimate paragraph to prove that the critic is, you know, a critic, and at last a kind conclusion to make sure we’re all still friends and no one’s time has been entirely wasted. A critic I know used to call this sort of review “the shit sandwich.” The pan can be as dubious a form: the reviewer scolding an author for not writing a book she never dreamed of writing, slapping a conventional novelist with the Kafka stick, crucifying the celebrated writer for the sins of her admirers. By comparison, heaping praise and overrating books is usually a matter of acquiescing to publishers’ presentation of their products: publicity materials exist to be recycled by reviewers.
Literary criticism is ancient but book reviews became pervasive only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What Andrew O’Hagan has called the Age of Reviews began after the death of Samuel Johnson in 1784. The Edinburgh Review, the most often cited precursor of modern literary journals, was founded in 1802. “A crowd of literary men found employment in writing about books rather than in writing them,” Stopford A. Brooke writes in English Literature ad 670 to ad 1832, “and the literature of Criticism became a power.” This power was instantly corrupting. On these shores, in his 1846 series of broadsides, “The Literati of New York City,” Edgar Allan Poe aimed to elucidate “the distinction between the popular ‘opinion’ of the merits of contemporary authors and that held and expressed of them in private literary society.” “Quacks” inflated their own reputations through networking campaigns that a genius would never resort to, which was why a genius like Nathaniel Hawthorne was little known and poor. “We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright.”
Complaints about reviewing have tended to focus on the quality and tone of evaluation. Occasionally there is a social component, writers being both hermits and herd animals. “The literary Rotarians,” Dorothy Parker wrote in 1928, “have helped us and themselves along to the stage where it doesn’t matter a damn what you write; where all writers are equal.” In 1935, as Michelle Dean recounts in her study of women critics, Sharp, Margaret Marshall and Mary McCarthy published a five-part series in The Nation, “Our Critics, Right or Wrong”: “The history of American criticism during the last ten years,” they wrote, “has been a history of inflations and deflations: the first, raucous, hyperbolic; the second, apologetic, face-saving, whispered.” If reviewing were held up to the criteria of science, it would have gotten things exactly wrong:
Criticism in America during the past ten years has on the whole worked for the misunderstanding of works of art and the debasement of taste. The tony critics as well as the hack book reviewers have contributed to this anarchy of standards.
Note that McCarthy and Marshall refer to a world in which the concept of “standards” is the crucial issue and misevaluation the primary offense. Two decades later, in 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick argued in these pages that the space between the poles of inflation and deflation had been filled by a “mush of concession,” a phrase she borrowed from Emerson:
Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory.
Sixty years on, Hardwick’s essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” has taken on a legendary status. It’s said to have served as the founding manifesto of The New York Review of Books, which Hardwick helped start in 1963, along with her husband, Robert Lowell, Random House editor Jason Epstein, and the journal’s coeditors, Barbara Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, formerly Hardwick’s editor at Harper’s Magazine.
Fifteen years later, Hardwick’s crowd, the New York Intellectuals, had become the predominant force in criticism, in part through the influence of the New York Review. Echoing Poe, the critic Richard Kostelanetz blasted the scene for what he saw as its Mafia ethos and inattention to young talent in his 1974 diatribe The End of Intelligent Writing. One of his targets was Philip Roth, whose fame, Kostelanetz argued, was the result of collusion by publishers and critics to hype Portnoy’s Complaint beyond its merits. Kostelanetz set out a vision of the literary power structure as layers of an onion, and named names. The same year, in a letter to the New York Review, Roth suggested that one of his critics, daily Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, be replaced by a nationwide contest among undergraduates. Such polemics and feuds are the signs of a healthy literary culture, a zone where the stakes are high even if the audience is small and may reside mostly in posterity.
These arguments took place within a set of more or less stable institutions. The past two decades have been a phase of upheaval, panic, and collapse. The crisis of closures that has struck America’s regional newspapers hit their books pages first. Among publishers, authors, and critics there was much moaning and wailing, an understandable reaction given that these parties were losing valuable publicity if not their livelihoods. Having started out reviewing for the Hartford Courant, which no longer runs original reviews and only occasionally picks them up from the wires, I was sympathetic to this sentiment. But as these losses piled up, it was difficult to feel that something wonderful had been lost, even if it had real value in swaths of the country that were losing many things all at once. What mattered most were the big city papers, especially the New York Times and, as Hardwick wrote, “all those high-school English teachers, those faithful librarians and booksellers, those trusting suburbanites, those bright young men and women in the provinces, all those who believe in the judgment of the Times and who need its direction.” When the Times Book Review was listless, it started to resemble “a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday ‘Book Pages.’” As Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review from 1996 to 2005, wrote in Columbia Journalism Review in 2007:
Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.
It might have been, if a renewal had followed collapse, and for a while it seemed one would.
That decade saw the rise of the book blogger. The early book bloggers—typically amateurs, many of whom have gone on to become authors and critics for mainstream outlets, among them Mark Athitakis, Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, Levi Stahl, Tao Lin—were an anarchic bunch, pursuing their own idiosyncratic enthusiasms and antagonisms (Sam Tanenhaus, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, was a frequent target of their ire, envy, and, occasionally, awe). Constricted neither by convention nor by editors, the bloggers, at their best, popularized worthy but obscure writers, circulated the most interesting criticism that caught their eyes, and devoted tremendous energy to indexing the literary scene. They were passionate. At their worst, they aired uninformed opinions about books they hadn’t read, but mostly their work was a tonic. Group blogs such as The Millions (recently purchased by Publishers Weekly), Electric Literature, and HTMLGIANT became forums for recent MFA graduates and geographically isolated aspiring writers to work out their ideas in public and form their own communities. As with blogs generally, book blogs entered a decline as social media became the zone where people ventured their considered or (increasingly) stray thoughts. But the DNA of the book blogs survived as literary institutions began pouring their resources into their online manifestations. The Paris Review Daily, NewYorker.com, and this magazine—which for a time ran an excellent blog, Sentences, by the critic Wyatt Mason—absorbed some of the modes of the book blog. Literary Hub, a venture largely funded by the publishing industry, preserves the style of the book blog while also serving as a clearinghouse for book excerpts, personal essays, and even fiction, which has rarely been a popular form online. In 2013, BuzzFeed entered the books space with a declared policy of running only positive coverage. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” its books editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, told Poynter. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”
I met Fitzgerald around that time at a party, and I’m fond of him. His pro-book policies seemed harmless, and when BuzzFeed went out of its way to crown a book, as it did with Alexandra Kleeman’s 2015 novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, he and his team did so with an eye for hip new talent that would appeal to their presumably youthful audience. But it seemed to me that by ruling out the negative and becoming in essence a cheerleader for certain books, BuzzFeed had embraced a formula of literary irrelevance by disavowing a spirit of disputation. Who cares what you think if your every word is a compliment?
About fifteen years ago, as happens from time to time, there was a movement in the literary world against “snark” and toward a new niceness. Dave Eggers, author and publisher of McSweeney’s, spoke of wanting to send a message to younger people that “books are good, that reading is good . . . and that anyone pissing in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world is mucking it up for everyone.” I don’t think that negative reviews, even snarky ones, are toxic in the way that Eggers characterized them, nor do I think the new books coverage is toxic. If we run with Eggers’s ecosystem metaphor, the new books coverage is more like litter. Endless lists of recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe, especially, as is inevitable, when they aren’t drawn from the work of critics but compiled by poorly paid writers who haven’t read the books they’re recommending, a standard practice in preview lists. Proliferating recommendations become what Hardwick called “a hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.” Readers are better served by the algorithm, which never pretends to have an actual opinion.
What is the difference between television and literature?
In his 1980 New Yorker essay on the rise of television culture, “Within the Context of No Context,” George W. S. Trow made a distinction between “the grid of intimacy,” that is, the grid of social life—and the place where books are read, a grid of author and reader—and “the grid of two hundred million,” a zone of common experience, roughly the size of the US population at the time, engendered by television. What Trow called “the Aesthetic of the Hit” was something like “love,” which television sought to create in its viewers to keep them watching:
The love engendered by familiarity. False love is the Aesthetic of the Hit. What is loved is a hit. What is a hit is loved. The back-and-forth of this establishes a context. It seems powerful. What could be more powerful? The love of tens of millions of people. It’s a Hit! Love it! It’s a Hit. It loves you because you love it because it’s a Hit! This is a powerful context, with a most powerful momentum. But what? It stops in a second. The way love can stop, but quicker. It’s not love. There is a distance so great between the lovers that no contact is ever made that is not an abstract contact.
The internet collapsed this distance, not between television’s creators and its viewers but among the viewers themselves. Now viewers can discuss TV shows as they are being broadcast, introducing a new grid of mass quasi-intimacy between viewers in their living rooms and the program on the tube. This new grid emerges nightly on Twitter, which instantly transforms into such a forum whenever a popular program comes on. It also partakes of a genre native to the internet: the TV recap.
Why would someone who watched a television show on a Sunday night want to read a summary of it on Monday morning? I’ve often been puzzled by this question. Episode by episode, television doesn’t require much in the way of interpretation. Any program that did would be too recondite to stay on the air, the work of David Lynch being a glorious exception. But the TV recap has become a popular form because it extends the love between program and viewers. The love is still false.
Forty years ago, Trow could be confident that he was writing to an audience that disdained television even if his readers watched more of it than they would have liked to admit. Too much time spent in front of the tube was discussed as a national epidemic and a plague on the nation’s children. Three or four generations have now grown up watching television, and sometime in the first decade of this century, the stigma of loving television too much evaporated. The canary in the coal mine of the new reverence for television was, of course, The Sopranos, at once a supremely satisfying work of entertainment and the most overrated cultural artifact of our time. It’s true that by the going standards of television, The Sopranos offered superior acting, combining professionals and strikingly real-looking amateurs, and superior writing and production values. Packed with constant (and obvious) allusions to classic Hollywood cinema, it combined pulp and melodrama around a simple moral quandary: Could Tony Soprano, head of a crime organization and a psychotic murderer, still, as a loving if philandering husband and father, be considered “a good man”? The show did its own work of interpretation in the endless, and increasingly tedious, therapy sessions that passed for its novel twist on the mobster genre, even though they weren’t particularly novel. Subtext was eliminated. You might think this would render further commentary superfluous. In practice, it just made it easier, right down to the vacuous question of whether Tony was whacked in the show’s final scene. Interpretation became a form of transcription, the recap a bridge between the grid of intimacy and the grid of two hundred million.
A thousand recaps bloomed. It became customary for outlets like Slate to publish online discussions of episodes the day after they aired. The practice of recapping spread to ever more venues, including the New York Times, and to ever less sophisticated programs. The journalists who engaged in it seemed to have finally found a way to combine their two favorite activities—watching television and doing their homework. That the television shows were perfectly comprehensible and didn’t require much actual exegesis didn’t matter, because people clicked anyway. Enjoying television, once something considered slothful, became a respectable activity among the chattering classes, and one could hear a sigh of relief. It was the sound of the meritocracy letting itself off the intellectual hook.
“Those of us who love TV have won the war,” the New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2015. “The best scripted shows are regarded as significant art—debated, revered, denounced. TV showrunners are embraced as heroes and role models, even philosophers.” It’s understandable that critics should want to act as boosters of the medium they criticize, especially in the case of television where even in the age of streaming, a program’s failure to gain an audience will result in cancellation. But in the case of television the result has been a pervasive overinflation. “Left to their own devices,” Kyle Paoletta recently wrote in The Baffler,
our most prominent television critics seem solely interested in defining the best and the greatest, as determined by increasingly esoteric criteria. Such parlor room conversations would all be in good fun, were their effervescent tone not so clearly impairing the ability of the critics to view their subject with even a modicum of distance or restraint.
That tone is spilling over into the rest of the arts, where the transformation of business models or perennially gloomy surveys—purporting to show a general decline in, say, reading—create a false sense of imperilment.
Bringing books coverage “down from its historically lofty perch,” modeling it on coverage of television, and emphasizing human interest in authors will alienate its only viable audience: people who are interested in books. No book in the short term will ever have the audience of any single TV show. TV critics occasionally make claims for “scripted television’s raiding of literature,” as Matt Zoller Seitz of New York has: voice-over narration, occasionally unreliable; chapterlike episodes; multiple perspectives; a distinctive voice. What complicates a work of entertainment is basic to a work of literature. Readers of book reviews are often reading about a book not only as potential readers of that book but to partake of an intellectual world that constantly scrutinizes more books than any one person could ever read. Often the attraction is the writing in the criticism. Profiles can have similar effects if written in the spirit of appreciative criticism. But writers are not famous like actors, and shouldn’t be under the burden of being as interesting as their books, and the authors of the most interesting books never will be. Most Q&As with young authors simply bend their idiom to a coded language of salesmanship. Pity them in their pantomime of likability.
In an environment where “sweet, bland commendations” have become the norm, Hardwick’s essay still has lessons to teach us. “Simple ‘coverage’ seems to have won out over the drama of opinion,” she writes.
“Readability,” a cozy little word, has taken the place of the old-fashioned requirement of a good, clear prose style, which is something else. All differences of excellence, of position, of form are blurred by the slumberous acceptance.
But Hardwick was describing a failure of critics. Today it’s criticism itself that has been deemed insufficient because reviews aren’t engines for traffic. “In the past,” Pamela Paul told CJR,
when a book came into the Book Review, the question we would ask is, “Does this book deserve to be reviewed? Should we review this?” . . . Now the question is, “Does this book deserve coverage? And if so, what does that look like?”
But if a book doesn’t merit a review, why cover it at all?
The edifice of “books coverage” that has been constructed around the work of critics looks a lot like the coverage of television—a tissue of lists, recommendations, profiles, Q&As, online book clubs, lifestyle features, and self-promotional essays by authors of new books—an edifice so slapdash it could be blown away in a week. And if the house collapsed, nobody would miss it.
A typical issue of The New York Times Book Review contains about a dozen full-length book reviews, plus several capsule reviews. By its very nature, it’s the sort of publication that will be entirely satisfying to no one if it’s doing its job right: appealing to readers of different political persuasions and varied tastes while assuming a certain baseline of literacy. Meanwhile, the paper’s three daily critics write at least once a week (they are three of the best working anywhere). By a low estimate, that’s about seven hundred and fifty book reviews a year. So what’s the problem?
When new imperatives emerge, familiar things have a way of suddenly disappearing. In his 1999 book My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950–1998, Trow wrote:
The New York Times today is seeking to know its reader’s mind. Its reader’s mind is now a mystery, and the New York Times is terrified that the mind of the generation growing up now—the generation that will someday replace its current readers—is a complete mystery.
In the two decades that have passed since Trow ventured that diagnosis, the mystery and the terror have only become more acute. Traffic seemed to be one answer to the mystery, but in many contexts traffic has proven to be an unreliable narrator, a fairweather friend, or an outright fraud. The most infamous case has been the widely touted “pivot to video” led by Facebook, whose declared emphasis on video led many media companies to redirect their resources to camera-ready content while shedding writing staff. When Facebook pivoted away from video a short time later to emphasize its users’ personal content in its news feed, it turned out these investments were made in vain, and a few fledgling media companies that had made the pivot were shuttered, auctioned off, or, in the case of BuzzFeed, laid off hundreds of staffers.
In 2014, the New York Times produced an internal innovation report. The report was quickly leaked, and since then its lessons have been widely summarized as “become more like BuzzFeed.” It’s not an unreasonable summary, but it’s simpler to look at the text of the report itself. A section under the heading “De-emphasize Print” includes these three imperatives:
—Shift the newsroom’s center of gravity away from Page One. Creating additional measures of success, using metrics like traffic, sharing and engagement could help.
—Ask our editors to read more like our readers. Each desk should have at least one staff member monitoring its report on the mobile web, and on our mobile and tablet apps. Eventually this will become second nature.
—Make digital a key part of evaluations. Reviews should include sections for digital as well as print performance. This should be the case for the whole newsroom, particularly for leaders. Has their desk developed a smart strategy for social media? Are they open and enthusiastic about experimenting? Are they making smart, digitally focused hires? To do this, we must first communicate digital expectations to our employees.
Something the report doesn’t say is that for certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it to CJR’s Eichner, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”
I began writing this essay in December, at the height of the season of “Best of 2018” lists. Between their dual function as year-end honors and holiday shopping guides, such lists will always be with us. In the Times, they’ve achieved a sort of mania. Beyond its standard “100 Notable Books of 2018” and “The 10 Best Books of 2018,” there was an “Off the Book Lists” set of recommendations from Times staffers of books that didn’t make the “Notables” list. If so many deserving books were left off, then why not expand the “Notables” list to one hundred and twenty? Next came a set of recommendations from the authors on the “Best Books” list. The new year brought no respite from lists. What is the utility—to anyone—of an item like “Hot Books for Cold Days,” published by the Times on January 18 and consisting, after a one-sentence introduction (“As the mercury plunges, you could pile on extra sweaters, huddle beneath an afghan, drink hot tea—or you could get lost in a book that will transport you to sunny, sweaty places”), of short, undistinguished quotations from nine very popular books (including Stephen King’s Cujo, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement) to the effect that it’s hot outside in the summertime?
In its pursuit of traffic or its spirit of experimentation or its efforts to make its editors read like its readers, the Times seems to have lost its sense of its audience’s intelligence. How else to explain an item like “How to Tap Your Inner Reader” by Gregory Cowles, an editor of the Book Review? A tag attached to the article reads: “This is part of ‘A Year of Living Better,’ a monthly series of how-to guides for subscribers that will help you improve your life, community and world.” Cowles, a fine critic on occasion (and my editor on my single contribution to the Book Review), takes to his task without condescension, though I can’t imagine (having been asked to write a few shopping guides myself) he enjoyed it: “Finding time to read generally means making time to read, and that means making it a priority.” Indeed. The self-help approach is apparent in another regular Times feature, Match Book, an advice column that answers letters from readers seeking specific book recommendations (What should members of my philanthropic society read? Can you recommend books about Maine? Fiction about music? Spiritual poetry?). As we know from spending any time on the internet, or from Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts—the classic American newspaper advice columnist novel—the world is full of desperate people. Who knew they were so desperate for book recommendations? Aren’t those easy to come by in any bookstore or on Amazon?
When it’s not busy making recommendations—duplicating the efforts of pervasive algorithms, albeit with the air of a human touch—the Times’ books coverage is anti-intellectual in more traditional ways. “You’re organizing a literary dinner party,” says the Times to recipients of its By the Book questionnaire. “Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?” The presumption that reading is best experienced as a polite, middle-class affair and not a solitary activity is a different form of the flight from scrutiny. The Times has always been afflicted by what Gary Indiana called a “worship of conventional success and its symbols,” and this creates a problem when it covers authors, because compared with an actual celebrity or a Hollywood showrunner, an author’s success will always be marginal. If the first question to be asked about an author is, How did you make it? quite likely the answer is the author wrote books that Amazon put at the top of its list of recommendations. Another Times column, Cover Stories, examines the packaging of books as if the packaging were the thing itself.
In December, an article in the Times ran online under the headline “Late-Night TV Hosts Give Publicity-Starved Novelists the Star Treatment.” Here are the modes of the Times’ literary imaginary: the way novelists wish they were treated (as stars) and what they crave (publicity). Seth Meyers, over the course of five years, has welcomed “a few dozen” literary authors as guests on Late Night, “many of them far from household names,” and this has given him and the like-minded Daily Show host Trevor Noah “an enormous amount of influence in the publishing world.” Watching Meyers interview an author for four to six minutes, you get the sense that he might have read his guest’s book, or at least skimmed it closely enough to get a sense of what it’s about and where and when it’s set. Surely, as the Times reports, authors can expect a spike in sales and interest in their books, but the point of these interviews seems to be the burnishing of the image of the host. You can trust these comedian-intellectuals to interpret the news for you. They even read books!
“To get authors back into the mix says this is not esoteric stuff, this is part of pop culture,” the novelist Rebecca Makkai told the Times of her appearance on Late Night. And who could begrudge an author her six and a half minutes of fame, even if the potential of any novel truly to enter pop culture, unless it’s adapted for the screen, is slim to nil? The American novelists who counted as celebrities and appeared occasionally on television—Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth—are all dead. So is David Foster Wallace. The elders—Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon—are covetous of their privacy. Jonathan Franzen is the nearest thing to a going celebrity in American literature. A Times Magazine profile, “Jonathan Franzen Is Fine With All of It,” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, appeared on July 1, 2018, a few months in advance of his new collection of essays, The End of the End of the Earth. Once upon a time, Franzen balked at going on television and accepting Oprah Winfrey’s imprimatur. It wasn’t the highbrow thing to do. Seventeen years later, he has become the literary embodiment of the Times’ television and digital anxieties: What does success mean if it doesn’t happen on a screen? The profile treats Franzen’s novels as an afterthought, his new essays as a peg, and his devotion to bird-watching as a personality quirk. In the Times’ crosshairs he is a walking internet meme and a failed television writer.
A showrunner for Franzen’s adaptation of his 2015 novel Purity calls to tell him the project is off. Star Daniel Craig calls to apologize to the author for abandoning the project to make the next James Bond film. Poor Franzen: the 2012 HBO adaptation of The Corrections also fell through. Will he ever win? In the absence of Oprah’s Book Club, sales of his novels have fallen from the low seven figures to the low six figures. Boo-hoo. Nor can he win online, where,
though critics loved him and he had a devoted readership, others were using the very mechanisms and platforms that he warned against (like the internet in general and social media in specific) to ridicule him.
Well, it’s true that Franzen is often ridiculed on the internet and that his literary success hasn’t translated to Hollywood, but those are two of the least interesting things about him. “Gratuitous haters don’t want to read a whole book,” Brodesser-Akner writes. “Most of the people who have complaints with me aren’t reading me,” Franzen tells her. In fact, Franzen has plenty of critics who’ve read him very carefully and argued about his books on formal, thematic, and political grounds, but you wouldn’t know that from this profile. Good news, however, arrives in the end. Showtime calls, and the Purity adaptation might be back on, in “capsule” form, whatever that is. Franzen is also working on a new novel, which, he declares, will be his last. Now there’s a scoop.
At the end of his life, after he’d stopped writing, Philip Roth made a habit of talking about the impending death of the novel, which was sure to transpire within a couple of decades of his own. Screens were sapping the public’s attention. “There was never a Golden Age of Serious Reading in America,” he told Le Monde in 2013, “but I don’t remember ever in my lifetime the situation being as sad for books—with all the steady focus and uninterrupted concentration they require—as it is today. And it will be worse tomorrow and even worse the day after. My prediction is that in thirty years, if not sooner, there will be just as many people reading serious fiction in America as now read Latin poetry.” Franzen, for his part, says he’s turned to Hollywood because ours is “an age when the novel is in retreat and people are looking for reasons not to have to read a book.”
No adult needs a reason not to read a book, and novelists are always fretting about the status of their vocation. I don’t need to convince myself that we’re living in a Golden Age of Serious Fiction to keep writing about it. I wouldn’t say we are in a time, to paraphrase the TV critics, of Peak Novel, but with a new generation just arriving, why should we pretend to be? The novel is a durable form no matter how many times its death has been declared. Hollywood is chasing after writers of books as at no time since the 1930s. They are content’s ground zero, for better and worse. The effects this will have on our literature will be the task of critics to chart. Book reviews are the front lines of culture and politics, where ideas are tested before they harden into dogma in the mouths of pundits. As Hardwick wrote, they are the zone where “the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting, should expect to find their audience.”
Now let’s think of Wendy and Alex in a different way, as the sort of people I know to exist. You probably know them too. You might be a lot like them.
Wendy and Alex have never stopped reading since they were children. Reading books, watching films, looking at art—these are simply things they would never not do, whatever stage they are in their lives, however much money they do or don’t have. They know how to find out about what they might like and what they might not like, whether this information arrives in their mailbox or their inbox or through one of their feeds (which feature as many strangers discussing Marcel Proust or Clarice Lispector or the Norton Anthology of Poetry as they do media outlets). Neither Wendy nor Alex thinks much about the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, but they can tell good writing from dull writing. Good writing casts a spell, but spells can be hard to find. They know the names of critics and love the clang and clack and click of minds you hear in a well-wrought piece of criticism. They’re attracted to disputation and to esoteric books. They too never have enough time, but they’re not too concerned about wasting it. They like to figure things out for themselves.