Remember when every blog had a regular links post feature? Now no one does them because everyone gets their links from Twitter and Facebook. But since I’m not hanging out there, I decided to revive the links, at least occasionally.
The Columbia Journalism Review writes that book coverage is increasing in major US publications. Which is great! Until you read the article and realize that “coverage” is an amorphous category ranging well beyond reviews and analysis. For the New York Times this means:
“In the past, 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?’” Paul says. “Now the question is, ‘Does this book merit coverage? And if so, what does that look like?’”
For New York magazine the new direction sounds even grimmer:
[The] strategy, which cuts across Vulture, the Cut, Daily Intelligencer, Grub Street, and The Strategist, incorporates far less “up and down” reviews, opting instead for highly specific recommendations, debate-inciting rankings, and reviews that take into account a reviewer’s personal point of view and say something more about the culture.
This sounds closer to book industry hype than it does to talking about what is between the covers and in the text.
This New Yorker article gets at what I mean in an article about the English-language debut of Dutch-origin dwarsliggers, or Tiny Books. These are very small books, about palm-sized, with small print on onion-skin paper. The first English release is of John Green’s YA oeuvre and is presumably perfect for holiday gift-giving. Overall Waldman is kind of positive, but she gets at the non-reading aspect of the format’s appeal:
But dwarsliggers embody twee in another respect: as displays of individualism, idiosyncrasy, quirkiness. Such exhibitions privilege cosmetics over function, the vague intellectual mystique surrounding the fact of bookness over the book itself.
Honestly, they look kind of cute to me. And maybe they are easier to read if you are OK with tiny print. But mostly these kinds of trends smack of desperation in an era where people are reading fewer books (even if they’re reading more content overall). These approaches are self-consciously designed to create and capitalize on book-adjacent issues, to make books “relevant” as a social media topic rather than to encourage reading.
The thing about reading books is that it’s an inherently anti-social and anti-technological activity. When you are reading, really reading, it’s just you and the text. You have to stop reading to do anything social, including activities that are about the book. The key word here is “about.” If it’s about the book, it’s not the book. The point of a book review is to get you to read the book (well, it’s to get you to buy the book, but the main function is to give you information to point you toward buying/reading). The point of books coverage is to get you to read book-adjacent content.
The great and successful misdirection of “bookish” platforms like Goodreads and Book Twitter and (heaven help us all) Book Instagram is that when you are there, talking about books and book-related topics, you’re not reading books. It’s the 21stC version of reading enough reviews to be able to join in cocktail party chatter about the latest It Book.
Of course I do this too. When the “Of Blood and Bone” title-appropriation kerfuffle broke out, I rubbernecked on Twitter threads and chat-board discussions of it. And Goodreads is my go-to site for book-related conversations and to get book recommendations. But the more I’m there, the more I realize how quickly conversations can veer from the book itself to book-adjacent topics. And even in my litfic backwaters, heated differences of opinions and didactic pronouncements are never far away.
It may not sound like it from what I’ve written, but I love talking about books. That’s why I first sought out the online romance world two decades ago. And talking about books has always been accompanied by talking about book-adjacent stuff. Years ago, a romance blogger who had become very visible very quickly told me that her highest traffic came from posts on links, kerfuffles, and erotica. And my experience at DA suggests that it was true there for at least the first two of those three categories. Today, with fewer “tentpole” books everyone reads and more market fragmentation within genres, reviews are even less likely to draw traffic. So “coverage” it is.
But apparently even the commodification and monetization of fan-service-oriented, author promo, and pseudo-review coverage has limits. One of the more boosterish venues has been USA Today‘s Happily Ever After blog. It recently announced that it’s shutting down:
Some might feel this is a sad ending for HEA, but it’s really not. We’ve had an awesome time promoting everything we love so much about the romance community. The past seven years have been like one long, sometimes raucous (and sometimes kinda naughty) party, and we couldn’t have enjoyed it more. So please try not to feel bad about this ending – it’s a happy one, and that’s what HEA has always been about.
I guess HEAs do come in a variety of shapes and sizes.