Panel Hop: The Case of the Vanishing Book Review

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Yesterday, Bwog staffer Lucy Tang sat in on the Future of Book Reviews panel and realized that all Columbia arguments center around elitism.



Steve Wasserman (former editor of the Los Angeles Book Review)

Peter Osnos (founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs)

Elizabeth Sifton (editor and senior vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Carlin Romano (books editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Mark Sarvas (literary blog The Elegant Variation).

In the cover story of this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, Steve Wasserman laments the disappearance of book reviews in today’s newspapers. To further explore this conundrum, the panel featured him alongside four other renowned names in book and journalism circles. Evan Cornog played both moderator and pacifier for the night.

Steve Wasserman opened the debate by blaming the United States for its aversion to books. He bemoaned the secondary nature of pieces relegated to book review sections, citing newspapers’ continual emphasis on advertising, an area where book review sections often limp behind. Accusations of an “anti-intellectual ethos” were bandied about as he criticized the U.S.’s “general contempt for the bookish,” asking the audience whether there was still room for “serious criticism in a mass society” (I could guess what he thought).

Sitting amidst the panel, Mark Sarvas stood out as the youngest, though his bald spot suggested that he wasn’t exactly the voice of Gen Y. Sarvas immediately recognized the age gap and quickly dispelled any ideas that he would be the “rabble-rouser.” However, he staked out the “new media” territory in his praise of Salon and Slate, two popular online magazines that devote space to book reviews. Though books remain crucial and paper won’t ever disappear, Sarvas placed the internet at the forefront of literary criticism: after all, we’re used to it. It’s only a natural progression.

Expanding on Wasserman’s sentiment about the plight of the intellectual, Elizabeth Sifton explained that the “very all-American” just don’t care about books. Taking on Sarvas,  she disparaged the internet as “narrow” compared to the possibilities of books. Hitting a more relatable topic for students and belittling academia at the same time, Sifton claimed most students do research online (obviously, she never suffered University Writing.)

Carl Romano pointed out the elitist strain in Wasserman’s article, citing its “enormous snobbery.” He coined the term “New Washangeles” to describe the latent anti-Americanism in intellectual life. As a writer for a “general-interest newspaper” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Romano condemned typical book reviews as “stilted” and “pompous.” He explained that the average American reads a book occasionally, but book reviews are relegated for the elite intellectuals. The language in those reviews holds little interest for readers in small cities, and if book reviews are to remain relevant, they must find a public appeal. 

Peter Osnos jumped on Romano’s egalitarian approach to book reviews. For Osnos, it was extremely important that book reviews create a community. He suggested a word of mouth feature, in which readers are encouraged to share their current reads. Despite The New York Times Book Review‘s credibility, its audience doesn’t include vast America. Instead, Osnos saw a new literary community, a community where Oprah is the harbinger, she who has already catapulted William Faulkner, Elie Weisel, and Toni Morrison into book club conversations. He then likened book reviews to public radio, a mainstay of American culture, because it managed to revamp itself to stay current. He didn’t know how book review could do the same–but he insisted that they must follow public radio’s lead.

In response to Romano and Osnos, Wasserman fervently denied their accusations of elitism. “Whenever I hear the word elitist, I want to reach for my revolver.” Instead he turned the argument and insinuated those two are elitist for doubting ordinary readers’ ability. Tensions rose as he specifically focused on Romano, aghast that as an editor, Romano saw the need to “dumb down newspapers” for people.

The remainder of the panel deteriorated into an argument about the elitist nature of book reviews. Throughout, Sifton piped in about the publishing industry being marred by consumerism and capitalism and Sarvas continued to cast literary blogs as the heir to paper book reviews. An hour and half with little resolved — now back to the library.



  1. rjt  

    Grammatical nitpick in the italic intro: "center on," not "center around."

  2. other bad news  

    Robert Jordan is dead. And I don't think he finished.

  3. was this  

    supposed to be some kind of commentary on the failed state of book reviews itself?

    this waste of the only 4 minutes i have in the mornings left me wholly uninspired.

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