Earlier this fall, I interviewed book critic and author David Ulin at Elliott Bay Book Compahy about his exceptional book The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. We talked about a wide range of subjects, including how we reacted as readers to the election of Donald Trump and whether anyone has written a truly good post-Trump novel. But this excerpt of the discussion, about the future of book reviewing, is particularly relevant to the interests of Seattle Review of Books readers.
Since you have a long and storied history in the field, what do you think is the state of a book reviewing in 2018? Does book reviewing have a future?
Has book reviewing ever had a future?
[Laughs.] Does book reviewing have a past?
I used to joke around when I was doing it for a full-time living that I had unerringly found the lowest-paying, lowest prestige corner of publishing. I had just gravitated right to that, and I was someone who actually — perversely — supported my family as a freelance book reviewer for a long time.
"Supported." I use that word very loosely. When I was freelancing I was reviewing ten or 12 reviews a month because that was my main bread-and-butter gig.
There's two aspects to it, right? With the art of book reviewing, you know that nothing has changed as an abstract. Certainly where it's available and how much it's available has changed. But the inquiry, the essayistic practice and engagement of the writer with a material? I think none of that has necessarily changed.
I think actually in some ways book reviewing or book culture is as robust as it's been in a long time because of the variety of, of web venues that have stepped up. It's impossible to make a living, which is a big problem — the web venues don't pay, or don't pay comparably to the print venues. And the print venues never paid that well to begin with. But I do think there's a lot of places for literary conversation to take place — maybe more places, and certainly more diverse places, than there were ten or 15 or 20 years ago.
I go back and forth on this: I don't miss the gatekeeper model particularly, although I do kind of like the authority of critics. But I think that that authority has to be earned by the critic — not by virtue of who the critic is writing for, but by virtue of what the critic is putting on the page. And so I think if anything has happened is there's more of an onus on the critics to establish their own authority, as opposed to relying on the authority of the institution that they work for.
I think we're clearly getting on about midnight, at this point, for the book review section. But I'm interested as a reader and as a writer in the proliferation of other non-book-review-section-type venues where the conversation can take place.