“Publishers used to worry about getting a bad review. Now publishers worry about not getting any review at all,” Hyperion publisher Bob Miller noted as he presented the 2008 AAP Honors award to the National Book Critics Circle, with president John Freeman accepting on behalf of the NBCC. AAP president Pat Schroeder had noted earlier, “Since its founding more than three decades ago, the NBCC has played a central role in this country’s literary dialogue, but never has its voice been stronger or more urgently needed.”
Here are NBCC President John Freeman’s comments:
“It’s a treat for us to accept an award that was previously given to National Public Radio and Brian Lamb and Oprah Winfrey. (I know this is my moment to tell all the guests to look under their seats for keys to a new car, but I’m afraid to tell you…). You guys know where the cab stand is….
Thanks also (and especially) to Pat Schroeder and Tina Jordan, who have been instrumental in building a bridge between you, the publishers, and us, the critics.
In truth, this moment has been a long time coming. We have much in common, after all:
(The obvious thing being that people need to read to enjoy what we do).
We also face similar pressures. Both publishing and book sections have groaned under the expectations of consolidated media.
Both of us face a reader with more choices than ever about how to entertain themselves.
And both of us have a history of crying wolf.
That’s right, if you listen to book critics or publishers over time, the end has always been nigh.
It is a quiver in both our arrows: for publishers, it allows you to say this new title is what can to turn things around.
For the critic, this posture allows us to be the cynic in your ear. The one, as Susan Sontag once joked, ‘to stick around, just to see how bad things will get.’
And in truth: there’s been enough bad news:
-a reading report from the NEA that shows we’re doing a terrible job at keep young adults hooked on reading
-deep cutbacks in book sections around the country
—a climate of electronic frenzy. We work all the time, now, because technology allows us to.
But there is, buried in these details, an opportunity – one that has something to do with new media, and everything to do with the inherent pleasures of reading:
Literary culture can reach more people than ever before.
I’m not going to get all Pollyanna and start talking about a paperless future, how books will fly around by jetpacks and clean you’re apartment and spitshine your shoes.
Although perhaps the Kindle will one day do all these things.
What I mean is—we now live in an age when a guy in Saskatchewan can wake up in his jammies, stumble over the dead moose in his living room, and order himself a copy of a chapbook of poems and have it there in two days if he likes.
Or download it as an e-book.
Or google himself up some reviews of it, just to whet his appetite.
And that’s what reviews do – in Edmund Wilson’s phrase, they make you readier for the reading.
Thanks, partly to the internet, there are fewer boundaries to readerly pleasure than ever before: a savvy reader can read dozens of newspaper book sections around the globe in English.
They can hear authors read, receive emails when their favorite one comes to town, they can watch youtube clips of them at events.
They can even get their books signed at an event in New York when that author is in, you guessed it, Saskatchewan.
But what happens when our cultural landscape is structured only to reward (and encourage) those who are already pretty darn ready to read?
This fundamental worry – this crucial issue – is what has guided the NBCC in the past two years.
It is why, much as online book sections deliver so many nifty features, we were so vociferous about the print cutbacks which leaped forward last year.
So we decided enough is enough – it doesn’t have to be this way (in part, because much as they whine, some of these newspapers are making plenty of money)
So we expanded the circle to include the people already in it. We invited our former finalist and winners, critics, booksellers, and a few publishers to chip in on campaign to save book reviews.
We posted over 100 essays and interviews on our blog in two months about this issue.
I flew down to Atlanta to take part in a protest in front of the offices of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who had essentially fired their book editor.
I talked to people passing by on the street, and they liked the book section just fine.
We staged over a dozen panels in five states discussing the ramifications of what happens when one form of getting news – whatever they say, over 115 million people still get their fingers inky from a newspaper every Sunday – begins to let go of its commitment to treating books as news.
But complaining isn’t enough, protesting isn’t enough. Wagging fingers, isn’t enough.
We realize unless you add something to the culture – you’re simply fighting a losing battle with that horrible phrase, ‘market trends.’
So the NBCC has become much more than a prize-giving organization, solely concerned with criticism and critical practices.
In my opinion, it has to be – there are more prizes than ever.
Our website and blog, Critical Mass, became, essentially a book supplement, running interviews, essays – on our former finalists and winners – drawing on the expertise of critics, from J.M. Coetzee to Doris Lessing to John Updike – to tell our readers what works of criticism to read.
We set up nearly 50 events over the course of last year.
Nearly 20 of them involved our bestseller list – the NBCC’s Good Reads, which funneled the recommendations of nearly 600 critics and former finalists and winners of our book prize into a top five list.
This past month, we had discussions in Sacramento and Seattle, Portland and Philadelphia –
And we did all of this with volunteers, and our membership dues.
Think what we could do with a little money?
It is in this enormously helpful spirit that the AAP has presented us with this award, and the chance to accept it ourselves.
There are those who say we shouldn’t be there. That what we should only be evaluating, and judging, parsing and handing down edicts.
But since when has reading worked that way?
Writers, the great writers, coax us into a story, challenge us, woo us, seduce us. This is also the job of book critics.
We live in a talk-back culture now, for better or worse, and rather than climb higher up into our garret, the critic – more than ever – needs to be on the street.
The critic needs to be in touch with the reader.
This award from the AAP means a lot to the NBCC. It will make it that much easier for this big, sometimes amorphous organization to keep our one ear to the ground, the other to our own hearts, so we can tell the people we all care about (the reader) – to borrow a title from one of our recent book finalists—what is the what.