Li’l Lionel Trillings Will Have to Fend for Themselves

Columbia English professor James Shapiro’s undergraduate seminar, “The Book Review,” which teaches skills necessary for students to make it as freelance literary critics, is on indefinite hiatus.

“There are intellectual reasons to teach the course again,” Professor Shapiro wrote in an email, when the Transom asked if a rumor that he’d discontinued the class was true. “But what’s no longer there is the possibility of training a generation of book reviewers, since, as you know, newspapers around the country are shedding their book reviews, or shrinking these sections.”

He added that because so many reviewers are now blogging, freelancers are having a harder time than ever earning anything substantial from their work. “It’s depressing—in large part because I see a lot of talent pass through my classrooms, and little opportunity for those talented students to have the opportunity early on … to review and get paid for it.”

Professor Shapiro noted that many Book Review alumni have ended up with jobs at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Slate. “So far as I know, there aren’t many courses like this taught around the country, which is a shame,” he said. “If you look at most of the major fiction writers from the 18th century until today, you’ll see that many, probably most of them, reviewed extensively. I’d probably go so far as to say that Coetzee, Toibin, Banville and Joyce Carol Oates—four of my favorite contemporary novelists—wouldn’t be as good at their craft if they hadn’t reviewed and continued to review. And I suspect that they would say much the same.”