Chad Post over at Three Percent has been writing an interesting series of articles on the Future of Reading conference that took place at RIT last week. In the most recent installment, he cited “The Death and Life of the Book Review,” an essay by John Palattella of The Nation, in which the author examines the current state of the book-reviewing Union. Palattella covers a lot of ground, from the early days of book coverage in print media, to the (various) crises of The New York Times Book Review and the inception of the New York Review of Books, to the special breed of journalistic myopia that has led to extremely restricted coverage of the broad (and broadening) spectrum of literature in translation. The article is definitely worth a read (don’t skim it; you’ll be gently chastised at the end), but I’ve posted a few excerpts below to whet the palate.
First off, it is important to note that where Palattella talks about the ‘anti-intellectualism’ of newspapers, he is describing not so much an attack on all that is good and thoughtful in the world, as “a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.” That is, the measured reflection necessary not only for the production, but also for the editing of (good) literary criticism is simply not compatible with the values of an industry increasingly dependent on the speed with which it can produce new content. Palattella goes on to echo – and perhaps soften the edges of – Edith Grossman’s frustration with the limited (and often cursory) coverage of books in translation, stating that “another symptom” of the anti-intellectualism of book reviews these days is
their lack of curiosity about works in translation. Translations are occasionally reviewed by newspapers, but generally only if the author of the title under review is a Nobel laureate or a well-known personality in her native country, or when the translation rights to a book were purchased during a bidding war. Being an author from an impoverished, war-torn country or with a melodramatic life story helps too. The latter is one of the reasons the work of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño has been widely reviewed in the United States whereas that of many of his peers in Latin America has not.
This case of tunnel vision when it comes to works in translation is particularly strange given that these books – while largely absent from the pages of book reviews – are not absent from the market itself.
There is a translation renaissance occurring in the United States, in both fiction and poetry, of likes unseen since the 1960s and ’70s, when American poets translated the work of a great number of European Modernists and Latin American Surrealists. […] This bears emphasizing because great ages of literature have often been periods of intense translation; as Eliot Weinberger has said, “With no news from abroad, a culture ends up repeating the same things to itself. It needs the foreign not to imitate, but to transform.” But today’s translation revolution hasn’t been televised; it has barely been reported, at least by newspaper books sections.
And what, exactly, is the benefit to the critic of conforming to the overarching industry fetishization of speed of production in the hopes of obtaining one of the rapidly vanishing places at the critical table? More ephemeral than fiscal, apparently.
Readers are accustomed to viewing content gratis on the web, but free is not a good price for publishers, editors or writers. Of course, newspapers and magazines are partly to blame for having taught the public to expect free material online. Equally culpable are editors who justify not paying online contributors on the grounds that their articles provide them with invaluable exposure. (Try paying rent with exposure.) […] On the web, we are all interns now.
It’s a bitter pill, but Palattella offers up a spoonful of sugar – tea, not table – to help it go down, in the form of a call to arms to occupy the space left by the waning print culture of the book review (nature abhors a vacuum, after all). Although this last incitement rings a little thin (it doesn’t seem as though the author really thought through this alternative space he sets alongside the “unfederated cantons” of the internet and the anti-intellectual bent of print media), the essay overall is carefully researched, elegantly presented, and intellectually engaging.