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Convince your allies first, and if they are your enemies, too, then you win!

Your Humble Blogger has been more or less following the argle-bargle about newspapers and their book review sections, and the petition, and all. It was very odd when it became (from the blogosphere’s point of view) a kerfuffle about how the National Book Critics Circle hates bloggers. Or something. You can read Colleen Mondor about it all, if you want to, or you can read about it in the New York Times.

The thing that YHB finds interesting about it all is that as a rhetorical strategy, the NBCC should have known better than to badmouth the bookosphere. Even if it’s true that somehow the proliferation of bookblogs and Amazon reviews are leading newspapers to consider gutting their book review sections, and that seems totally bizarre, but even if it’s true, the source of the problem is not necessarily helpful in finding a solution. The solution, the NBCC has figured, is to put pressure on the newspapers. But who will exert that pressure?

Somehow, they failed to figure out that the group in the best position to organize and carry out a pressure campaign are the bookbloggers. First of all, these are people who care about books, who like to read reviews, and who (at least some of them) fantasize about being paid actual money to review books. A gang of bloggers who went whole hog behind a pressure campaign could ... well, ask Dan Rather. No, seriously, it could only have helped. Even if they were the problem in the first place. And, really, I suspect that almost all the residents of Book Blogovia think that it’s great that people are paid money to write reviews, that editors assign and edit reviews, and that newspapers publish them. If they supplanted newspaper reviews, they did so inadvertently, and would love to give them a hand up.

There’s something deeper in all of this, though, and it’s a cultural shift that is interesting and (to me) a bit scary. And that’s the fact that a lot of things that used to be done in major cities simply because there was a cultural consensus that cities, to be major cities, had to have them, are now losing a great deal of support. There was, I think, a sense to that be a decent city, you had to have an opera house, a couple of rival newspapers, some theaters, a symphony, a concert hall for popular concerts, a baseball team, a park (and some smaller parks), some public art (particularly statuary), a library, a museum, etc, etc, etc. Not that people in the city were supposed to enjoy all that stuff. It was supposed to be there. There was cultural pressure to have it, and then there was cultural pressure to live up to it. To go to the museum, to the opera, to the ball game, to read the newspaper, to vote, etc, etc, etc. Most people probably didn’t do most of that stuff, but lots of people did lots of it, and the result was that that stuff was there for the people who wanted it.

Now, I think that a city like Atlanta or Hartford or Albany or Iowa City doesn’t have that inferiority-complex, or that aspiration to become Athens. That sense that they should want to aspire to be Athens. They should have an opera house if there are enough people who like opera to support it, and if opera brings in revenue for the town, and if it doesn’t, then it’s a good thing they don’t have an opera house draining the town’s resources. The newspapers don’t have to have book reviewers on staff, because (in part) they aren’t trying to live up to an image of what proper newspapers are like. It turns out that book reviewers are expensive, and although it may not be exactly sustainable to make a profit by continuing to cut costs faster than revenues are dropping, still, in the short term, profits are being made. The argument that a newspaper without a weekly book review section simply isn’t a proper newspaper has no power.

And the thing is, it was all bullshit anyway. I mean, of course it was easier to push the homogenous sense of What a City Should Be when everybody who mattered in the city was white, affluent, and Protestant. That whole image of what a city should be, going back to the European cities that informed the image, and back to the images of the great cities of antiquity, were all based on economies of oppression and slavery. I am aware of that. I know, furthermore, that when we expanded the expectations out to classes that had not previously been obliged to meet them, we didn’t (as a culture, as a society) expand the resources to meet those expectations. And I know that the resources that would allow those expectations to be fair are hijjus expensive. I know all that.

And yet, they are my expectations, it’s my culture. There are parts of it that suck, sure, but I want there to be a weekly book review section in the newspaper that I take every day. I want there to be an opera house in town, and I want the newspaper to pay somebody to write good, knowledgeable reviews of the operas they stage, and I do not want to read those reviews or see those operas. I just want them to be there.

And I think that the people who share that desire, the people who should be on the side of the book critics, are not on the side of the book critics, because the book critics are acting like a bunch of jerks. Which is too bad, really.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

this a little related to something i overheard in my head the other day, about all investment now basically being foreign. the great cities and great architecture of our time is imaginary — hedge funds instead of cathedrals, stock exchanges instead of plazas, digital cable instead of boardwalks.

this seems like a source of the trio of physical neglect, institutional decay, and income inequity. the unearned income portion of the world's population is sort of treating the physical world as its crash pad. i was laughing because there i was, watching the matrix again, and the people were reading screens filled with alphanumeric cascades, and i thought, look: it's a stock ticker. it's the same.

so, i think the pretty people have moved on to prettier things, and i know i've said this more than once, but they need to come back to earth now. it's time.


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