The next ten years, according to the NBCC

Posted by @ 1:31 pm on March 23rd, 2010

Here, you’ll find a panel discussion with some NBCC people on the “next ten years” of book publishing. Whereas the title of the panel misleads (you’d think the panelists would talk about book publishing but they end up talking more about being book reviewers/critics), it ends up being a fairly provocative discussion, one that both excited and angered me.

Some highlights:

1. Mark Athitakis begins the panel quoting DFW’s new book. The web is a seemingly egalitarian space. It offers “everyone” a chance to publish and review. This model engenders a “grassroots” or bottom-up opportunity, for the “people” to decide what is “good” and ought to be read, as opposed to our top-down model now, with a handful of publishers dictating what gets mass distribution. DFW argues, however, that the web ultimately will offer us too many opportunities, and that before long, we’ll be asking for “gate-keepers” to tell us what is good and where to find it.

2. Colette Bancroft, books editor of the St. Petersburg Times, extends the DFW conversation by arguing that the web enables EVERYONE to be a critic and the heyday of the gate-keeper is slowly going away. I like this idea, though I’m not sure I buy it.

3. Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed gives a shout out to the “youngins.” Apparently, he knows some young people who read, unlike most of the other panelists there. In particular, he mentions The New Inquiry and Rumpus, which I don’t need to link because everyone here probably reads it.

What I liked:

1. A smart discussion about the split between book reviews and Amazon/BN reviews. The panelists agreed that professional critics are becoming more obsolete because of the explosion of consumer reviews, but Athitakis smartly reminds the audience that reviews serve to enhance conversations about particular texts and they are, by no means, a way of actually dictating sales. Also, art is subjective.

2. Athitakis (I liked him & what he had to say. A lot more than the other panelists.) makes the argument that critics used to develop a relationship with their readers, such that readers could rely on certain critics based on mutual taste, but because newspapers & journals have slashed space for reviews (with some exceptions, of course), this is no longer a possibility. Instead, we have blogs and websites. I’d agree. I look more to what reviewers say here on HTML Giant & some other websites much more than book reviews in say, the Chicago Tribune.

3. An audience member made a flippant point about young people today not reading anything but vampire novels. McLemee offered a clever anecdote about a teenager he knew reading 2666 in two days.

What I didn’t like:

1. Elizabeth Taylor. I disagreed with almost everything she said. At one point, she made it a point to disclose her opinion that even people who aren’t critics might have interesting things to say. This smacks of self-importance. This smacks of a desire to maintain her role as gate-keeper. I could go on, but I’ll stop myself.

2. On more thing on Elizabeth Taylor: in her opening remarks, she said her readers (of the Chicago Tribune) are not the same people who read NBCC books. Am I to assume, then, that people in Chicago (and anyone else who reads the Tribune, which I used to, by the way) don’t read “literature”? Hmm. Problematic.

3. Whereas I respect and appreciate what these critics say, many of them seem out of touch with how much conversation about literature and art is actually happening outside of their newspapers & the NBCC. Furthermore, their roles in the engagement of conversation seem dated, moving towards being obsolete.

Final words: The panel didn’t really address where they think book publishing is going in the next ten years. So let’s make the conversation where it didn’t exist before: Where do you think book publishing is headed? & where does the critic fit in?

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