by Eric Banks | Jan-20-2010
It’s fair for critics to feel slapped around a bit lately: The economy has pummeled print media, and readers’ habits have changed in ways that force reviewers to question what they do and how they do it. These upheavals have occasionally sparked some knee-jerk thinking that one must pick sides: Newspapers versus blogs, old-guard critics versus upstart commentators. But the NBCC needn't choose one over the other, nor pretend to be some kind of peacemaker between warring tribes that aren't fighting much anyhow. Its chief task is to support good books and good book criticism wherever it emerges, doing whatever it can to defend the value of thoughtful writing on writers. (And yes, that means monetary value too.)
I've been written about books for a decade, contributing reviews to the Washington Post, the New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, among other publications. As arts editor at Washington City Paper (Washington, D.C.), I worked to preserve the paper’s books coverage during a period of extreme belt-tightening. As a member of the NBCC, I've contributed guest posts on Critical Mass, including a well-received series of interviews related to Richard Price's 1992 novel, Clockers.
In January 2008 I launched a blog, American Fiction Notes (americanfiction.wordpress.com), that’s dedicated to covering my favorite category of literature with, I hope, some wit and intelligence. Approaching blogging as a reviewer has taught me the different demands and rewards of both kinds of work. It's also exposed me to a vibrant group of critics and readers who remind me daily that there are still plenty of people who have a passion for taking books seriously. I would be grateful for an opportunity to join the NBCC board of directors to find new and better ways to serve them.
When I first worked as a book critic for a newspaper in the early 1990s, book reviewing hadn’t changed much in decades. The venues for book reviews – newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals – were authoritative and traditional, not to mention off limits to anyone but professional writers. Many of the book critics I knew had been in the profession for years. No one got rich at it, but it was possible to make a living writing about books.
When I became a full-time book critic again at the St. Petersburg Times three years ago, everything had changed. The notion of newspaper book pages as gatekeepers of literary opinion had been upended. Whether there will still be such a job as newspaper book editor -- or even newspapers--in the future is a very real question. I’ve seen book critics at other papers cut from staff, space for book coverage and reviews dwindle, and my once-generous freelance budget dry up. My beat now includes not just reviewing books and interviewing authors, but covering the book business and the technology -- online retail, author Web presence, e-readers -- that is changing it in myriad ways.
Yet the conversation about books has never included so many voices; the Internet has created thousands of niches for reviewers of every kind. It’s wonderful that anyone who loves books can enter the conversation, but it’s scary that those of us who write about books for a living (or want to) struggle to find a way to maintain book criticism as a profession.
Embracing that paradox – celebrating the passion for books while finding a way to uphold professional standards of criticism – is, I think, the main challenge the NBCC faces, and one that I would welcome as a member of the board.
The cutbacks in book review sections and the lay-offs of arts critics have affected us all.This is a time to pool our resources and
“communicate with one another about our common concerns” as well as welcome new voices and ideas from the membership at large.
Looking over the list of the current NBCC Board, I note that fifty percent live in the greater New York City area. For us folks who toil in the literary trenches in the vast heartlands, there is scant representation. And while our concerns and demographics are uniquely different, there are few resources geared to our specific needs. We are an endangered species: the lone voice crying in the wilderness. The readership and demographic in my community is Latino. Finding methods to reach the largest minority in this nation of immigrants is challenging and rewarding. And yet persons of color are disproportionately underrepresented on the board.
Last year, I organized a successful NBCC Good Reads event in San Antonio that attracted A-list writers and an SRO audience.I was book editor of the San Antonio Express-News from 2000-3 and literary editor of the Spanish language daily Rumbo from 2004-6. My reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, C-SPAN, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Texas Observer, El Pais, and La Bloga, the California literary blog.I am presently a contributing writer and critic for the San Antonio Current. My reviews often include both online video and traditional print versions.
I believe in innovation and invention to solve problems. I believe in being part of the solution. Therefore, I submit my name to serve on the NBCC board. I ask for your consideration. Mil gracias.
I ask for your support for a first term on the NBCC Board. Our field of reviewing and public discourse is at a crossroads as publishing venues splinter between print and pixel. I see NBCC as an essential catalyst to influence the national conversation about the future of American literary culture. I run to help lead that conversation.
Since 2003, I've been the poetry columnist for The Oregonian. My column is the longest-running newspaper column about poetry in the country. In 2005, I resurrected the historic Poetry Northwest from dormancy, broadening its focus to include dialogue about poetry’s relationship to civic life. Since 2008, in line with my belief that poets be fully engaged in political life, I became a contributor to Politico’s cross-party, cross-discipline daily conversation about politics and policy among current and former members of Congress, governors, mayors, political strategists, and scholars. In 1999, I founded the Attic Writers' Workshop, a literary studio that provides writing classes for some 300 writers yearly in Portland. I've also published four books and edited one anthology that received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. I’ve taught at Stanford University, Wake Forest University, George Washington University, and elsewhere. In addition to serving on the jury for literary prizes, I've organized literary events, symposia, and readings. I've published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Hungry Mind Review, Slate, New Republic, San Francisco Chronicle, Speakeasy, Parnassus, and Poetry.
My background as administrator, columnist, editor, educator, literary journalist, political writer, and poet who is as comfortable with Twitter same as a Royal portable make me a good candidate to focus on 21st century issues of building NBCC’s Internet visibility, building coalitions with cultural organizations, foundations, and government entities, and growing membership through active recruitment.
The NBCC is at once the professional organization for literary critics and reviewers, and an organization designed to bring attention to books: we must keep both functions in view. We members write at many lengths, for many audiences, all over the nation and on the Web, and our sense of what counts as literary has expanded and changed; we have more ways to write about books we admire (or books we loathe) but we are losing familiar ways to get paid. We need to keep calling attention, not just to the problems, but to possible solutions, on the Web, in the academy, or through some otherwise reinvented journalism; and we might think about ways to expand our universe of potential members, seeking a larger presence (for example) in the most thoughtful precincts of genre fiction, as well as within the academy, where writing for nonacademic audiences is more and more often seen as a worthy goal.
I've written for newspapers, quarterlies, websites, and biweekly opinion journals; for the New York Times Book Review, Boston Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Yale Review, the Washington Post, the London Review of Books, Rain Taxi, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the TLS, among others. I also teach (since 2007, at Harvard). Most often I write on contemporary poetry; I've also reviewed, repeatedly, graphic novels, science fiction, books of literary essays, and books about rock and roll. I lived and taught in Minnesota for seven wonderful years before moving back to New England, so I have some sense of how the arts can flourish far from both coasts: we are a national organization and should act that way. We've been doing good things: I hope it's my turn to help.
Publishers are struggling, magazines are folding, and only one major American newspaper continues to print a stand-alone book review. Yet books are published in greater numbers every year, and those books continue to find passionate readers. Book reviews, too, may be more plentiful now than before—though many are in new and surprising venues, online and otherwise.
The NBCC can and should play a more vital role than ever in this changing literary world, helping readers find the best new books—and the best new book criticism—and helping reviewers find new, worthwhile outlets for their writing, as well as a community of fellow critics. With some of the most familiar venues for book criticism no longer around, the mission of the NBCC not only remains essential—it has become more so.
I’ve spent the last few years working as an editor at PEN American Center, which, like the NBCC, is a literary nonprofit that works to promote and support literary culture. Many of the lessons I’ve learned at PEN—about membership organizations, literary awards, nonprofits, public events, fundraising—have direct bearing on the work of the NBCC, and I’m eager to share the knowledge, experience, and contacts I’ve gained with another organization I adore.
I wrote one of my first reviews for former NBCC board member Oscar Villalon, then at The San Francisco Chronicle. I’ve since written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Bookforum, The Believer, The Barnes & Noble Review, and other publications—thanks in no small part to the connections and the confidence I acquired as an NBCC member (not to mention the increasingly invaluable NBCC Freelancing Guide compiled by Steve Weinberg). The NBCC has buoyed and supported me in numerous ways, and I’d like to help it do the same for others.
Three years ago, I was honored to be reelected to the board of the National Book Critics Circle after a six-year hiatus. I wasn’t surprised to find the board to be a different place from what I had remembered—after all, the world has changed dramatically in the last decade. In our profession, we are facing a host of challenges: how do we keep adapting to the new technology? Will reviewing remain financially viable? How do we promote the very idea of critical thinking in a world that seems to care mostly about what’s hot and what’s not? The board is already wrestling with these issues, and I’d like another three years to contribute my efforts.
I’ve no simple solutions, though I think we start by continuing to raise the profile of the awards and of the organization itself (which I’ve worked to do as awards vp and press contact), by following an active course of programming (I’m on the programming committee), and by strategizing for the future (I’m on that committee, too). Personally, I want us to reach out aggressively to the membership, particularly our new or younger members, to see what we can do to sustain (and, more acutely, rethink) this profession. In addition, as we all stagger under the weight of heavier workloads and tighter deadlines, let’s talk about how we might revamp operations generally to make this organization ever more efficient, more provocative—and more relevant.
Do books still matter? Hell, yes—whatever the format. From blogs, tweets, newsletters, professional conversations, and wrestling matches over books with my daughter and her friends, I can say that there are lots of readers out there—and they want guidance. More than that, they want a conversation; let’s make sure we’re part of it.
As I'm a reviewer and the lead blogger at the LA Times' Jacket Copy, some might think I've got a deck chair on the Titanic of book culture – but I can see the sun. Books still matter. A book is a testament to expertise and a gesture toward permanence. The format may vary – traditional books, ebooks, Moby Dick texted to your phone – yet books remain essential.
The challenge is noise. Where people once turned to a book section, now they can go online and visit the website of a traditional news outlet, follow Twitter, click a link on Facebook, check into a news aggregator, read a blog, use Digg, etc. The critical voice may be needed more than ever, but we've lost our foothold. Where will our work be published, and how will people find it?
There are several promising new literary websites and a few exciting print ventures. But in addition to pointing to venues, the NBCC can explore new points of amplitude. We can be smart about using (ever-evolving) online tools to extend the reach of our voices and conversations, and we can support the notion of criticism in general.
If I'm an early adopter, I'm also a cynic. Those who say publishing is dying, or fear storytelling is being relegated to visual media, or caution that our multitasking skills are eating away at our ability to concentrate to read may well be right. If so, the NBCC can still select the best books of the year and try to draw attention to them. But I think we can find opportunities to amplify critical voices over the chatter. I hope you'll give me the chance to undertake that project on the NBCC board.
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