Sunday, June 13, 2010

A suspicion of ideas that are not utterly topical

Reading the opening of The Death and Life of the Book Review by John Palatella, in the June 21 Nation, I had the pleasure of doing a double-take only a couple of paragraphs in. Try this:
Seeking some solace I picked up a book, and in a matter of minutes I read the following passage:
Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.
The sense of impoverishment before an overabundance of information; of helplessness before the need to spot relevant material in a slurry of ephemera; of vertigo provoked by the realization that "the present" is becoming overwhelmingly, annoyingly accessible—many of us, I'd wager, have had these reactions after reading those year-end digests or spending just a modicum of time online. Now anyone is free to print whatever they wish. This could be someone kvetching about blogs, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube or Twitter, and in not 500 words or 300 but nine. Except it wasn't. The jeremiad was the handiwork of Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, writing to his friend Francesco Guarnerio in 1471, less than twenty years after the invention of the printing press.

This anecdote does not suggest that past is prologue but rather underscores the importance of thinking historically, of taking a long view when trying to understand changes in deeply engrained patterns in literary culture. I stumbled upon Perotti's plaint in Robert Darnton's essay collection The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (2009). Rejecting the commonplace notion that digital technology has ushered in a new era, "the so-called information age," Darnton argues that every age in which a new technology has altered forms of writing and communication has been an age of information, and that in every such age "information has never been stable." There is continuity to the history of technological transformations, Darnton suggests: what is everpresent is the experience of rupture. Anthony Grafton, another historian of the book, makes a similar point in "Codex in Crisis," from his recent essay collection Worlds Made by Words (2009): "The current drive to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical projects in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up, but in one more in a series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive and flourish." The point impresses because one of its implications is that a technological innovation, whether the printing press, the telegraph, the television or a digital device, though it delivers information in a new form, is not necessarily the root cause of problems with—or controversies about—reading and writing that have arisen in its wake.

After that beginning, I had to go on reading, even though the next sentence was "I'd like to talk about a meltdown, one that's occurring not on Wall Street but Grub Street, that storied realm of writers, booksellers, bohemians and hacks" and I wasn't certain I really wanted to read more about the current state of newspaper journalism. Actually, though, Palatella's essay turned out to be more about the declining space for book reviewing in newspapers-- noting, among other things, that the sixties and seventies saw a vast increase not only in the amount of news published in metropolitan papers, but also in the space they allotted to book reviews:
Between 1964 and 1999, the volume of news published by some metropolitan papers doubled. The dimensions of the news changed too. As Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson explained last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, during the boom years newspapers began to gravitate away from a longstanding preoccupation with government and with pegging coverage to specific political events; papers still worked those beats, but they also began to cultivate "a much broader understanding of public life that included not just events, but also patterns and trends, and not just in politics, but also in science, medicine, business, sports, education, religion, culture, and entertainment."
In looking at the shrinking of book review space in newspapers, Palatella fingers something that came up in the Global Machismo panel we've been talking about on this blog since WisCon:
The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.

"Anti-intellectual" is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, "anti-intellectual" does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word "anti-intellectual" to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard's new translation of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper's editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about "another dead, white, European male." But the paper's readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a "Talk of the Town" item that traced the book's unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. "Have you gone crazy?" the editor asked. "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America's newspapers in the 1990s," Romano reflected, "is their hostility to reading in all forms."

The taboo still exists, and it is sometimes enforced not by other editors but by newspaper books sections themselves.

The New York Times Book Review comes in for criticism here.

Along with tackling disinformation bolstering a non-reality-based ideology, I'd like to see something done about the rampant anti-intellectualism that has been such a scourge in US politics and culture.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Anti-intellectualism seems to be entrenched in US culture. One thing that has bothered me greatly over the last few years is seeing how that contempt for intellectuals has been used to drive a wedge between the highly educated (whose politics tend to the liberal) and the working class. While I often think some of my highly educated, deep-thinking, upper-middle-class friends lack a real understanding of the challenges faced by working people, I'm also amazed by the way a contempt for "book-learning" keeps working people from realizing that those rich liberals have more of their best interests at heart than the corporate interests sponsoring the likes of Sarah Palin.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I hit publish too fast -- I had more to say, though perhaps it is a different comment.

I, too, am depressed by the book review situation in the US -- though I am more optimistic about the online reviews than Mr. Palattella. (Laura Miller is the only reason I keep reading Salon, which is fast degenerating into snarky commentary instead of actual reporting.) The last straw for me was the end of the separate Washington Post Book Review -- by and away the best newspaper book review in the country. Despite a tendency to go overboard from time to time on political books -- the Post is a company paper in a company town -- that review included good work on poetry, on deep thinking, and -- the big surprise -- on science fiction and fantasy as serious literature. The reviews are still there, and online the lack of the special section is not as obvious, but there are fewer reviews and the whole enterprise does not feel as substantial.

Timmi Duchamp said...

I'm more struck by anti-intellectualism among middle class and upper-middle class people. Working-class anti-intellectualism is nothing new-- and is far less influential in its effects. (And of course, don't forget that "tea baggers" are for the most part not working-class and have received more education than the general population.) Anti-intellectualism among, especially, academics discourages me profoundly. It's probably worst among the university/college administrative class, who are doing their damnedest to make sure that undergraduates will experience college as a type of superior trade school rather than the scene of a "liberal education," which it was even in most third-tier institutions until the early 1980s, when university administrators forced the language and logic of business onto the institutions of higher learning.

Anti-intellectualism among editors, politicians, government bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, judges, etc is also incredibly pernicious. But it's widespread. Middle class people who aren't anti-intellectual have become, in the US, a rarity-- regardless of whether they are liberal, radical, or conservative in their politics.

Josh said...

Yeh, Timmi, I'm most dismayed by anti-intellectualism among artists, professors, and people who've written for The Nation (Carlin Romano's the most appalling, but there are others). It's weird when it shows up among professors and their circle: Harold Bloom isn't exactly an anti-intellectual himself, but he kind of gave the world Camille Paglia. Journalism prof Tim Ferris's latest book is pretty anti-intellectual; PZ Myers recently denounced Marilynne Robinson by styling her an "English professor" (on the ground of, what, her having taught writing at Iowa?) and his commentariat got really into bashing members of that profession. And there's still a huge market for novels that caricature "eggheads" and "academics."

Nancy Jane Moore said...

You're right about the anti-intellectualism among the supposedly educated. I am constantly appalled by the idea that the only reason to go to college is to get a better job. Though of course, in a country where the price of college keeps skyrocketing, a liberal arts degree starts looking more and more like a luxury item instead of the foundation for everything else.

I saw something the other day that really gave me pause -- I think in the NY Times: There was an article on whether people should go to college, and it mentioned that some 30 percent of mail carriers have college degrees. The author seemed to think that was terrible, since one didn't need a college degree to deliver mail. It did not seem to occur to him that people might do a job like mail delivery to put food on the table and use their mind for recreation. Besides, I immediately thought of one SF writer I know who is a part-time mail carrier. He may not need the degree to deliver mail, but I'm sure his education comes in handy in his writing!

This whole discussion puts my own education in a new light. I loved undergraduate school, where I majored in liberal arts and was able to dabble in a variety of interesting subjects. I hated law school. It took all the fun out of learning, even though it's useful to understand how the system is constructed.