Monday, March 23, 2009

Hey! Editors of Online Editions of Book Reviews ...

What is your problem? Do you want people to NOT read your section? Because that's where things are going. Are you under orders to kill the demand for quality book reviews by doing everything in your power to make sure that people don't read them?

I used to love the New York Times Book Review. In the days before online newspapers I used to walk across to the book store across the street and buy just the Book Review, not the whole NY Times. I read it cover to cover, slowly throughout the week. Now I'm lucky if I read one or two reviews from it.

The problem isn't that I've become an impatient online reader. The problem is that the editors of the online edition seem determined to make me think twice before forging ahead into even sampling a book review.

Let me give you an example. The NYTimes recently reviewed Blurring Boundaries by Janet Burraway. I had never heard of this novel before - no advance notices had reached my radar. So I wasn't looking for the review. On the main page of the NYTimes book section I read this:

In Janet Burroway’s novel, a newly widowed woman deals with questions of race, love and home.

Well that just didn't grab me, so I skipped over it. What do I have in common with a newly widowed woman? I've never been married. And "deals with" questions of race, love and home. That is so broad as to be uninteresting.

I realized, however, when I got to the end of the page that there wasn't a single review that interested me last Sunday. Not a single one. And that just couldn't be. It was perfectly possible that there would not be a single book that was reviewed that I would end up wanting to read, but it was just impossible that I wouldn't want to read a single review.

So, being one of those persons who will dwell on a question until I come up with some kind of answer, I recreated in my mind the world of the 1990's when I read the Book Review cover to cover. I read reviews of books I wasn't even remotely interested in reading. Why?

Because I actually started reading the review, I sampled the review, and the writing of the reviewer sucked me in.

So I went back and clicked open the actual review of Blurring Boundaries and read these words written by the actual reviewer, Susann Cokal and not some online editor:

In Janet Burroway’s latest novel, “the fundamental news has to do with pain, fear, sadness, or the mere and lucky lack thereof.” This thesis holds true whether the news is personal or political. Dana Ullman, the appealing central character in “Bridge of Sand,” is on her way to a funeral — her husband, a state senator, has died of cancer — when she sees smoke “hurling itself up” from a Pennsylvania field. It’s Sept. 11, 2001, and United Flight 93 has just gone down. Dana’s bereavement immediately becomes a non-event, eclipsed by national catastrophe.

Now THAT made me want to read the rest of the review. And maybe even the novel.

Interested in my new thesis that online editors are killing the book review page by writing their own elementary school level summaries of book reviews, I went to The Guardian and chose a book I had never heard of, Constable in Love by Martin Gaynford, which I presumed from the following blurb was about the painter John Constable:

Martin Gayford's portrait of Constable is a gift to the artist's many admirers, writes Andrew Motion.

So, is this a sort of "Shakespeare in Love" version of John Constable's life? Ho Hum. Who cares about his love life? Ordinarily I wouldn't click on that link. But in the spirit of experiment I did and read this from Andrew Motion:

Constable in Love. The title's a problem. Partly because it's cheesy, making John Constable sound more submissive than he was, and partly because the book does not contain a full account of what being in love meant to him. It's the history of his courtship - admittedly a very long-drawn-out, complicated business - and gives no more than a sketch of his subsequent marriage (which all the evidence suggests was just as loving as the preamble).

Well, I'm still not interested in the book, but went on to read the rest of the review.

I headed over to the Globe and Mail, and selected Alice in Newfoundland, a new novel by Jessica Grant that, again, I knew nothing about. The blurb said:

Diane Baker Mason reviews Jessica Grant's sprawling comic novel, Come, Thou Tortoise.

Unless someone was looking for a "sprawling comic novel" why would one bother to click through? But I did and read Diane Baker Mason's first paragraph:

I don't believe I've ever read anything quite like Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise. In fact, I'm not even sure what it's about. I disagree with the book jacket's assertion that it may be a “small mystery,” and I'm puzzled by the assertion in the publicity materials that its main narrator, Audrey Flowers, is “IQ-challenged.” Audrey might have been told by her school at one point that she had a “low IQ,” but that's not credible. Audrey's brilliant. She's hilarious. I could read about her all day.

And, again, I read the entire review.

In the days of print, paper was expensive, ink was expensive and the labor to run the printing presses was expensive. And presumably paying well known people to review books cost some bucks too. So maybe it would have made sense to limit the blurb on the "cover page" of a book review section to one sentence written by an editor. But in these days of digital the only one of those costs that still holds up is the cost of paying the book reviewer (and, of course, the editor). And if your main cost right now is the person writing the review - why not lure people into reading those words with a sample of those words? That's how people read the print edition of the book reviews - they thumbed through and read the first paragraphs.

There is no just no reason not to give us the first paragraph of the review and a little link that says "click here to continue reading".