Monday, August 4, 2008

Minding the gap

Last week, The News Hour noted that with the termination of the Los Angeles Times' standalone Book Review section, only three newspapers still had separate book sections: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times.

The News Hour invited Steve Wasserman, a past LA Times book review editor, to comment on the demise of book coverage in print and the explosion of literary commentary online.

Wasserman took the position that this demise is catastrophic: "Despite the robust nature or at least very excited nature of the conversations on the Internet, the best criticism still being written today is being published in magazines," he said. "It will be a long time before the Internet gives us a forum in which people unsupported by institutions can deliver us that kind of literary criticism."

In these few phrases, Wasserman makes himself both right and wrong.

He may be correct that the caliber of online criticism does not match the best of what is in print. I say "may be" simply because I don't follow this world, either in print or online. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And he may also be correct that it will be a long time before this caliber exists online. Again, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. (Though I suspect that at least some independent online reviewers would challenge him on that, perhaps including Kassia Krozer, editor of Booksquare.com, who was also on the show.)

Where he's wrong, though, is in the big picture. Just because there will be a gap between the demise of quality print-based reviews and the rise of quality online criticism doesn't mean the demise of print is a calamity. It just means exactly what he said: There will be a gap.

This is what happens when one industry dies and another emerges to take its place. It takes a while for the new industry to pick up all the slack left behind by the old industry. Whether you think that's a calamity or not depends on your viewpoint. I'm pragmatic, so it doesn't bother me. The gap is only temporary. I have faith the new industry will take on the old roles. I have faith.

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