Back From the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing

Jane Ciabattari
From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The ten-year-old alternative monthly Brooklyn Rail, which reaches some forty thousand readers in New York City, takes advantage of its location in a literary hot spot as well as of its nonprofit status. “The Rail can do things the old-fashioned way, which is a great luxury,” says books editor John Reed. The journal’s online content, its social networking, and its events are all ancillary to the printed word. The book section includes twenty reviews an issue, with a typical mix including two features (such as the recent interview with Matvei Yankelevich, one of the founders and editors of Ugly Duckling Presse), six middle-length reviews, and a half dozen or so shorter reviews. True to the independent nature of the Rail, small press poetry and fiction are highlighted. “It’s been the mission of the section to champion underdogs,” Reed says.

Many book-review editors of the surviving newspapers around the country, from Seattle to Minneapolis to Chicago to Dallas, are also using a local or regional focus—and emphasizing local literary talent—to keep readers involved. Colette Bancroft, book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, cites the newspaper’s coverage of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! as the perfect example. “Swamplandia! was a trifecta for our pages—a first novel with a lot of national buzz, a literary novel (a genre our readers have a lot of interest in), and a Florida book by a Florida writer,” says Bancroft, who publishes four or five reviews each week (she writes three, and uses wire or staff reviews for the others), and brief “notable” mentions of another three books.

Karen Long, book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is also careful to consider her local readership. “A full third of Plain Dealer readers don’t use cyberspace in any of its guises,” she says. “So as a locus of late adapters, I think of my job as a balancing act that does not forget this core readership amid the excitement of the techno-chatters.”

In addition to twelve to fifteen reviews in the print edition each week, she posts to the newspaper’s website daily and publishes between five and ten online-only pieces per month. Like many other reviews editors today, she sees the section as a service to readers. “My motto is Reader First,” she says. “I work hard to capture the regional books and voices, both in the book selection and the review assignments.” 

But Long is also aware of the challenges she faces and maintains a levelheaded view of the future. “My overarching goal,” she says, “is not to be the last book editor of the Plain Dealer.”

Jane Ciabattari served as president of the National Book Critics Circle from 2008 to 2011 and is currently the organization’s vice president/online. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian,, the Daily Beast, the Paris Review, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. 

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