Ron Rosenbaum

"Folding-in":The sad disappearance of Book Review sections

So I’m out in L.A. at the L.A. Times Book Festival. it’s an impressively massive affair,: they estimate that over the course of two days upwards of 100,000 people came to the UCLA campus headquarters to visit vast acreage of tents featuring author panels, poetry readings, book signings, specialty bookstore venues.

I was invited there to be on a panel entitled “Biography: Icons on the Page”, even though my books, Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars aren’t conventional biographies, but rather (in part) critiques of biographical myths (the Shakespeare book is not about Shakespeare’s body but about the body of his work). I wasn’t sure I belonged but since the L.A. Times had named my Shakespeare book one of the “best books of the year”, when they called I wasn’t going to say no.

And I was honored to be on the same panel as Taylor Branch, an old acquaintance and author of the amazing three volume biographical history of Martin Luther King and the America he transformed.

I’ll never forget reading the first volume of Taylor’s monumental work on King when it first came out. I’d read a portion every morning and find myself literally weeping at the depiction of the possibility of goodness in human nature, a possibility I’d largely given up on, a possibility reading about King restored my faith in.

It was, as they say, usually in other contexts, “read it and weep.”

And speaking of “read it and weep” in other contexts, it seemed so ironic to me and some other writers sitting around the green room at the L.A. Times Book Festival that the very newspaper sponsoring this remarkable annual event had recently declared plans to “fold in” its respected stand-alone Book Review section into some “Outlook” style general cultural section.

However they rationalize it it’s a loss, it’s diminishment, it’s an insult to the people of L.A. who turned out in such great numbers for the festival to disprove the cliche that L.A. is a city full of non reading airheads. It’s such an act of disrespect for the impassioned readers of L.A. that confirms a false stereotype about the paper’s customers and will inevitably diminish the role of books in West Coast and–because the L.A. Times Sunday book section had a national reputation and respect–diminish our national culture as well.

And The Chicago Tribune is about to do the same with their book section. Same owners, same stupid anti-intellectual idea. Done out of a bungling bottom line misguided, consultant-driven cost saving strategy that’s part of national trend. A trend that ignores the fact that a Sunday newspaper is mor than the sum of its parts and if you start lopping off its parts or “folding them in” you get less than the sum of its parts and readers know it and it just accelerates the decline of what was once a valuable product.

I say bungling and misguided because it has almost always been my experience in working for a good number of print publications that the business side of these places was full of incompetents who didn’t know how to do their job and when a their bungling inadequacy produced a fiscal crisis they’d always blame it on failure of the editorial side, people who worked their hearts and brains out to produce a great product that the business side “wizards” for all their MBAs couldn’t figure out.

They never understood the value of the real connection with readers (because they rarely read it or anything else) and how to use that powerful connection to sell ads. Instead they’d waste tons of money hiring even dumber “media consultants” who give advice like the foolish “fold-ins”. A strategy which is guaranteed to diminish the market further. Brilliant!

Alas it’s so often true that the people who go to work on the business side of Old Media were never the sharpest knives in the drawer. If they were out to make money they should have gone to work for investment banks, or become entrepreneurs, but frankly they demonstrate time and again they’re not bright enought to cut it there and so they make editors and writers the fall guys for their culturally destructive on the failures.

Shame on them.