America was smart to include emergency funds for the arts in its big bailout package. But if American writing is to survive, there's one group that needs to put back to work right away: the critics, writes Lorin Stein ...


On Monday the House Appropriations Committee budgeted an extra $10m for the National Endowment for the Arts and for the National Endowment for the Humanities. This is on top of the $50m in bailout money set aside for the NEA in the economic stimulus bill, which Congress agreed to on February 13th. Clearly funding the arts makes sense, not just for the cultural life of the country, but for the economy too.

This is good news for American literature. The NEA has taken justifiable pride in its "Big Read" programme, which encourages people to read national treasures such as "The Great Gatsby" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God". According to endowment officials, the programme has helped bring about a 3.5% increase in the number of adults who read at least one work of literature per year.

But if American writing is to survive--if we want readers to discover the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zora Neale Hurston of tomorrow--there's one group we need to put back to work right away. That's the critics.

Not long ago the American critical establishment stood out on the world stage for its liveliness, diversity and independence. And it sold books. More than advertising, book tours or any form of marketing, reviews were what mattered. They were and remain the best way for people to find out about a new work of literature. But today American critics are an endangered species. On February 15th the Washington Post folded its Sunday book supplement, making the New York Times Book Review the country's only big stand-alone book section.

The situation in American news magazines is almost as bleak. All the highest-circulation weeklies have slashed their book coverage in recent years. What pages remain are given over increasingly to trend pieces, capsule descriptions and author profiles--soft news, not criticism.

Clearly, the great hope for book reviews lies with the web. As an archive, the web is unbeatable: it has never been easier to find a review (or a book), if you know what you're looking for. And there's the rub. Readers must seek out these reviews to find them; otherwise they are invisible to the lay surfer. And for all the valiant efforts of on-line reviewers, networkers and bloggers, studies show that people are reluctant to do the kind of reading onscreen that a serious book review demands.

In real life--specifically, in a news culture driven by page-views and web browsers (as opposed to actual human browsing)--book reviews without a print edition tend to get buried. The less visible they are, the less they matter.
The problem faced by reviewers is one of scale. In a news culture driven by page-views and web browsers (as opposed to actual human browsing), book reviews tend to get buried. The less visible they are, the less they matter. That doesn't mean people don't want to read reviews. Every two weeks some 125,000 people receive the New York Review of Books. Many more read Francine Prose in People and James Wood in the New Yorker; indeed, recent critical works by them both have been bestsellers. The trouble is simply that there are ever fewer outlets where critics can do their work without having to compete for clicks with celebrity gossip or the latest news about the credit crisis.

The surprising thing isn't that so few people buy works of literature nowadays, but that so many still do. The recent commercial success of challenging novels, such as Roberto Bolaño's "2666" or "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao", by Junot Diaz, for example, proves that American readers are hungry for serious, original writing. Yet it has become almost impossible to find out what's actually good, short of reading the books themselves. At a moment when a book's very placement in a bookstore is almost always paid for (and when fewer of us live anywhere *near* an actual bookstore), readers are rightly hesitant to take a chance on an author they've never heard of.

For the NEA, and anyone else who wants to invest in the future of American literature, the smart money is in reviving serious, professional, entertaining coverage of new books. This could mean supporting magazines that already review--so they can review more, hire high-profile contributors and staff and grow subscriptions--or it could mean funding start-ups in the spirit of the New York Review, which was founded as a local concern during the newspaper strikes of 1963.

In either case, bailing out the critics will mean thinking clearly about the uses and limitations of the web when it comes to the commerce of culture. It will mean saving a free press devoted to books--a free press lively and big enough to do the job of separating quality from hype.

 Picture credit:
Lin Pernille ♥ Photography (via Flickr)

(Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His translation of "The Mystery Guest", by Gregoire Bouillier, is available in paperback from Houghton Mifflin. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about Norman Rush's "Mortals".)