Locating the Book Review Section: Dallas

by admin | Mar-28-2008

In response to Scott McLemee’s Wednewsday post, NBCC member Jerome Weeks aka BookDaddy sent this report on the changes in the book pages of the Dallas Morning News during his time there:

Ten years ago, the Dallas Morning News’ book pages were in the back of the week-in-review editorial section (now called “Points”). I always thought we seemed odd there, partly because, as the book columnist, I was on the arts staff, and my author interviews and publishing industry stories appeared in the arts pages. Yet on Sunday, I was permitted to put on my church clothes and sit in the back of the bus behind all of the paper’s Big Brain Conservative Solons and Earnest Chin-Scratchers pondering the well-being of humanity and the fortunes of the Republic. I frequently felt like the idiot comic relief, cap-and-bells, joy buzzer, irreverent seltzer spray and all.

What’s more, because there was relatively little coordination between the two departments, I often wondered what might happen when one of the paper’s Sabbath gas bags (to borrow Calvin Trillin’s phrase) would opine favorably on an Important Volume of Political Lore, and in the back pages, I’d hoot at such drivel. Actually, in the course of writing about various books, I often did take shots, in general, at the editors’ deeply held faith in free market cure-alls. Nothing much happened, although my departure from the paper 18 months did get a few cheers from local conservative bloggers. Being appreciated and understood is always touching for a critic.

Four years ago, the News’ sections were re-jiggered and the arts pages were beefed up. In a newspaper, how and why certain pages and sections appear where they do, when they do, can be a fiendishly complicated and costly matter involving computerized press run capacity. At any rate, the book pages made the long trek to the back of the Sunday arts section, a prison break I’d advocated for years.

But I soon discovered a serious downside: For many people, the arts section is a garish ghetto, something to be avoided or zipped through only for salacious Britney bits (thus confirming their opinion of cultural coverage as light entertainment at best, cheap shilling at worst). I had joined my peers in the culture trade—in there with The Celebrity Apprentice and The Hills Have Eyes, Part II. When I was with the editorial columnists, even though it seemed I was waving from the back row of the senior class, many readers felt this treated books in the Wood-Paneled Manner they deserve, especially if we kept writing about, sigh, political non-fiction and presidential biographies. Call it the Sam Tanenhaus Halo Effect, but it’s an age-old American attitude: Fiction is suspect; non-fiction is useful, educational, improving. Over the years, I even met a number of readers who asked me what hat happened to me—they’d always read my column and then it had disappeared.

Soooo ... there’s something to be said for either placement. In Newspaper World—where hard news and political insider baseball are considered the highest forms of thought—putting the book pages with the Big Boys means they’re being taken seriously, more or less. Keeping books with my fellow clowns and courtesans in cultural coverage, on the other hand, means we can speak to our people directly, comfortably, without having to do the high school principal act (“Read this, it’s good for you”). But it can also mean, in the eyes of many, that we’ve been trivialized. Of course, the logical solution—a separate Sunday book section—now mostly belongs to history.—Jerome Weeks




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