After weeks of rumor-mongering, hand-wringing and aborted attempts at "petitions", what the literary world's suspected for some time has finally come to pass: The Washington Post will shutter the standalone Book World in print effective February 15 but, as per Motoko Rich at the NYT, "will continue to be published online as a distinct entity. In the printed newspaper, Sunday book content will be split between Outlook, the opinion and commentary section, and Style & Arts."
Now, if you've been following my Twitter feed, you'll see that I'm not exactly shedding tears over this news. Sure, there's plenty of symbolism over losing a standalone print section, but let's look at the facts: book coverage is hardly disappearing. Book World will continue to exist on the web as a dedicated section. Between Style & Arts and Outlook, there will be a total of 12 pages dedicated to books (down from 16) and there are the daily reviews, Bob Thompson's profiles and publishing industry pieces, plus other book related articles. More important is that no one from Book World is being laid off and they will still be paying for freelance contributions.
So I won't belabor the "oh noes! Literary culture is DOOMED!!!" point, because former LATBR editor Steve Wasserman has the old fogey argument pretty well down in Rich's piece: "Maybe it’s just foolish and sentimental nostalgia on my part," he said, "but somehow one likes to think that the republic of letters actually deserves the recognition of a separate country." Why? No, seriously, why? Books are one aspect of culture. Why should books coverage then be separated out from the greater world instead of being fully engaged? And, in fact, that's the very point David Ulin, the current book editor of the LA Times (where, full disclosure, I write a whole lot lately) makes: "One of the issues with book culture in general is it tends to be a garrison culture and identify itself as contrary to mainstream culture, and that in may ways is a self defeating premise." He added: “You could argue that putting books into the general mix opens more people to that conversation."
Which brings me to Meg Wolitzer's take, one that encapsulates the Way of Old and the Way of Now: "There is a lot of great online coverage, but you go and look for it. For people who get it on their front step, books are honored there and the loss of that seems like a big mistake." The common thread that puts Wasserman and Wolitzer on one side and Ulin on the other is this: for so long, literary culture has been a passive endeavor. One that prescribes what readers should read, what books should be paid attention to, a trickle-down effect that hopes, pleads for people to magically "discover" what is the best of books.
But now we're in the opposite age. Instead of passive intake, this is a world of active consumption and discussion, where people seek out what they want, when they want it at their own discretion. Looking for guidance and seeking things out aren't mutually exclusive, but readers should be - and are - suspicious of entitlement and suspicion that comes with books coverage being wholly separate from the larger world.
Book World's "demise" comes on the heels of yesterday's death of John Updike, truly one of the last great "true all-around man of letters", and not long after the death of John Leonard. Both those men understood how vital it was to engage with culture and beyond, to help those who were just starting out and to see the joy and the humanity in all that they wrote and read about. There's a void, but instead of crying over the spilt milk of a bygone age, let's move forward to engage, to excite, to entice, and to hold the reader in thrall to all possible things.
Stop salvaging; start suggesting. Stop whining; start writing.
[See also Terry Teachout's take: "So enough with the anguished kvetching already. Let's turn loose of the past and see what we can make of the future."]