Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Steve Wasserman on book reviews in newspapers

Steve Wasserman, who for years was the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, has a fabulous cover essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, here, on the decline of book reviews in American newspapers. It is a superb essay, well worth reading.

I have a particular interest in book reviews - I like to write book reviews, have done so in various publications for many years, and take the whole enterprise seriously. Steve is one of a small handful of genuinely gifted and wonderful editors I have been privileged to work with - John Ryle at the TLS, Tod Lindberg at Policy Review, Scott Malcomson at the NYT magazine, Luis Gago as editor and translator at the Madrid Revista de Libros, and a number of editors in various departments at the TLS under Ferdinand Mount and Peter Stothard over the years being the others - and the LA Times Book Review was an amazing thing under his leadership. I'll have more to say about this when I am slightly less pressed; I wrote about book reviews here on this blog a while back. But read Steve's article.

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ps. Rereading with amusement Steve's account of the LAT editor's response to Steve prominently publishing a review of a new translation of The Charterhouse of Parma - "Stendhal, Steve? More dead, white European males?" or his decision to publish Octavio Paz on Sor Juana ... there are not a lot of book review editors at major newspapers, even when they existed, who would have the chutzpah to run a special section on ... dead classics - in translation. My own contribution to that was a major piece on the infamous Story of O. Here. Later, I wrote Steve a major review essay on pedagogies of reading, which was a very brave piece for someone, like Steve, who is a man of the left, and who was crossing a very large number of committed progressives by running a piece like that, like stepping into a minefield called "no child left behind" - true, the mayor of Los Angeles loved it and called me to say so, so did the state superintendent of schools, and so did the most important empirically based researcher in reading pedagogy in the United States (at NIH in Bethesda); Steve, however, got lots of hate mail for that one. Here.

And somewhere in there, Steve asked me to review a book about Mormonism - my childhood, long lapsed religion - in view of wanting to be fair, objective, not someone with an agenda one way or the other but an understanding of the religion and the culture - but knowing that his editor and publisher were both practicing Mormons and quite sensitive on the subject: not a moment, in other words, for the (very great) Christopher Hitchens. I think I did a fine job in that instance, thank you very much, something that was both personal and analytic. But Steve gave very shrewd editorial advice in shaping that piece to balance the personal parts and the parts that went to the whole culture and the book, advice that allowed that piece to work. Here.

So when I say that Steve is one of the great editors in America, I mean it, and that he knows in his CJR essay whereof he speaks.