Thursday, July 10, 2008

Book Reviews ... and a Literary Reality Show?

by Julia Flynn Siler

In the fall of 2007, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) ran a lengthy essay by Steve Wasserman, a former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, titled "Goodbye to All That."

It offers a fascinating glimpse into the dire state of newspaper book review sections and Steve began by tallying the vanishing coverage at major newspapers. To darken the picture even further, he then went on to correlate that with the exploding number of books published every year.
Mrs. Magoo readies for her closeup; next stop, stardom as a cyber-TV celebrity book critic?
(Photo courtesy Mrs. Magoo)

In the mid-1980s, he reported, about 50,000 books a year were published. Today, the total is three times that number. But the pages devoted each week to reviewing books has steadily shrunk, with entire sections folding in the wake of anemic ad revenues from book-related advertising. During the time that Steve edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, from 1996 to 2005, the section lost about $1 million annually, he wrote. The New York Times Book Review, likewise, has lost money for years and likewise remains a loss-leader for the paper, he reported.

While book review sections in newspapers have been gasping for breath, the fresh air of the blogosphere has encouraged a healthy explosion of literary blogs. And one of my favorites is a blog called "Mrs. Magoo Reads."

Visiting her website, you'll find that Mrs. Magoo has been a very busy lady in recent months. She's reviewed dozens and dozens of books and movies, and also interviewed more than a dozen authors. Her voice is fresh and her taste in books and movies leans towards the classics.

You might also notice that Mrs. Magoo seems to love young adult literature. And that makes sense, considering that she's a precociously bright 12-year-old who's just finished seventh grade.

Mrs. Magoo doesn't mention this fact on her site, as is her prerogative. But she does mention the media attention she's about to get. This Friday, "View From the Bay," a weekly television show broadcast on the San Francisco Bay Area's ABC Channel 7/KGO-TV, will present a segment on Mrs. Magoo and her family (including a shot, my sources tell me, of her father making his famous chocolate chip pancakes).

The episode airs Friday, July 11th, from 3 to 4 p.m. PST. I'm planning to tune in, since I've had the great pleasure of knowing Mrs. Magoo since she was a four-year-old. Her mother, Liz Epstein, is a book group moderator who runs "Literary Masters," a new company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

No wonder the Epsteins joke that their next step as a family is a literary reality show! And Mrs. Magoo's enterprise in setting up a website, encouraging writers and publishers to send her their books, and interviewing authors, is a good sign for those who worry that our kids aren't reading as much as we did.

Not everyone thinks much of the literary blogosphere. One of the most amusing parts of Steve Wasserman's CJR essay is a reference to one critic's decrying of "hairy-chested populism," promoted by the rise of blogging.

"Criticism -- and its humble cousin, reviewing -- is not a democratic activity," according to the critic quoted by Steve. "It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is a work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities."

Try telling that to Mrs. Magoo. But then again, she's probably too busy reading books and reviewing them to sit still for such nay-saying.

Julia Flynn Siler is the author of the New York Times bestseller The House of Mondavi. She will host a wine tasting and talk about her book at Book Passage at the San Francisco Ferry Building on Sunday, July 13th, at 2 p.m. For more information, please visit:

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