The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) hosted a series of doomsday discussions over the weekend on the future of book reviews – do they have a function, why don’t people read them, what do we do about the blogs, etc. As usual, everyone seemed pretty worried, particularly former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman, who spoke Friday night at the Housing Works bookstore on Crosby Street as part of a panel called “Grub Street 2.0.”
Mr. Wasserman, who lamented the decline of American books coverage this month in Columbia Journalism Review, accused lit blogs of dragging down the discourse and cluttering the marketplace of ideas with hollow, thoughtless sound bites. His co-panelists –Dwight Garner of the New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Szalai of Harper’s, Colbert Report producer Emily Lazar, Leonard Lopate Show producer Melissa Egan, and Times UK literary editor Erica Wagner—shared Mr. Wasserman’s concerns, if not his alarmism.
So far so predictable. Then, just as the post-discussion wine and cheese party was getting underway, a heavy-set, distinguished-looking man walked in the front door of the bookstore and strode towards the stage. “Is that Salman Rushdie?” someone said, eyeing the back of the man’s bald head. “Yes,” came the answer. And it was!
NBCC president John Freeman introduced the author, and Mr. Rushdie took the microphone. “It’s difficult if you just look at the newspapers now,” he said, “and remember how much more attention, how much more space was given to books in the very recent past. Many newspapers used to give three, four times the amount of space to books than they now do.”
He went on: “It used to be much easier to start out as a young writer because you could be sure that a book would get review space all over the place.” These days, Mr. Rushdie said, it’s only the established ones who get any coverage. “The problem is: how do you draw attention to books by new writers who are not well known, who don’t have name recognition – who, you know, don’t look beautiful on the cover of a magazine? That’s 99 percent of all writers! That’s the reason why this is important.”
Then Mr. Rushdie went off-message: “I think it’s rather unfortunate that some of the coverage tries to pitch print reviewing against the new media. I think they complement each other very well.” To those familiar with the ongoing debate in the book world about whether lit blogs are destroying western culture–as Rushdie's listeners were–his meaning could hardly have been clearer: Blogs aren't the enemy.
As Mr. Rushdie finished, the room erupted in applause. Two minutes later, he was gone.