Volume III, Issue 1 -- February, 2002
Beyond the complete review
I. The Availability of Book Reviews
II. Terrorism and Turmoil
III. Film and Drama
IV. Books to Come
The complete review pretty much goes its own way. Many current and recent books are reviewed, as is even the occasional bestseller, but considerable space is also devoted to titles that are generally only of marginal interest. Out of print books, titles that haven't been translated into English, and the stunningly obscure (reviews of not one but three translations of Kalidasa's Meghaduta and reviews of the works of Taban Lo Liyong, to name just some of the highlights from 2001) all have a place at the complete review. Still, the world at large also imposes itself on the site.
Outside events did affect the site -- none more so in 2001 than the shift (and, generally: reduction) in book reviews available from other media sources. Other worldly irritations also couldn't be held at bay: from anthrax scares clogging up the mail to computer viruses clogging up our e-mail.
Some upheavals passed the site by largely unnoticed. The general economic downturn, especially in the United States, had no apparent effect (positive or negative) on traffic to the site (or purchases of reviewed titles via Amazon.com). The disruptions in New York and Washington D.C. in mid-September resulted only in a brief decline in traffic (lasting about a week -- and nowhere near as severe as the seasonal Christmas-New Years downturn).
None of the year's events led to any appreciable shifts in user interest and focus: it was by and large the same reviews (and author pages and articles) that received the same amount of attention throughout the year. (The sole exceptions were the deaths of authors Gellu Naum and Juan José Arreola, both of which led to a surge of interest in the reviews of their books.)
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I. The Availability of Book Reviews
The most disturbing development in 2001 was the reduction in availability of book reviews, especially from print mass media outlets. The complete review Quarterly addressed this issue in an earlier article Withering Reviews (crQ, May 2001), but it bears repeating.
Numerous book review sections in major periodicals (including The New York Times Book Review and the Boston Globe) were truncated, no longer published as stand-alone sections, or otherwise reduced in significance. It was a popular (and devastating) trend nationwide. Press and media coverage suggested there was considerable dismay about this turn of events (though some editors claimed no one noticed/cared/protested whenever book review coverage was curtailed), but little was done to rectify the situation. A shining exception was the San Francisco Chronicle, which acknowledged the errors of its ways and managed to patch things up.
Overall, newspapers (at least in America) seem to be following the lead of the large-circulation American magazines in whittling away their literary coverage. (The magazines -- led by Time -- greatly decreased their book review coverage over the past decade or two; currently there is little more than token coverage in any large circulation weekly.)
With the reduction in the number of reviews made available comes the danger of missing significant books (or rather: of missing even more than they already do). To compound matters one now finds, for example, The New York Times devoting review space to books by authors such as James Patterson (29 November 2001) and Clive Barker (25 October 2001) instead of providing coverage of books with at least some literary merit.
(The complete review also continues to be disappointed by what it perceives as too great an emphasis on coverage of non-fiction books, rather than fiction (and specifically fiction that might be called "literary" or "serious" (i.e. not the newest James Patterson)); see for example our survey, The New York Times Book Review - Summer 2001. See also, for example, how the new year begins: The New York Times Book Review of 13 January 2002 has 9 full-length reviews of 11 non fiction titles, as well as 5 "Books in Brief" reviews of 6 non-fiction titles. Total non-fiction titles reviewed: 17. And fiction titles ? Three -- yes, just three -- reviews (all, admittedly, full length). Oh yes: and 4 brief Science Fiction reviews. So there are actually more science fiction titles under review than plain old fiction titles -- and way more non-fiction titles. Looks like some editors feel pretty confident in saying that literature is dead -- or at least not worth their time, or space in their book review section.)
Many print periodicals have -- admirably -- made much of their literary coverage (especially book reviews) available on the Internet. The complete review tries to link to as many reviews of all the books under review at the site as possible, and so we welcome the availability of other review-sources on the Internet. We hoped that, along with the continued growth of the World Wide Web, more reviews would be made available. Instead .....
The New York Times Book Review and its marvelous archive (over 50,000 reviews, they used to advertise) were one of the splendours of the Internet -- despite the fact that one had to register in order to get access to The New York Times' site and use the archive. Then came 2001, and the decision in Tasini vs. The New York Times, a judgement which led The New York Times Company to make radical cuts in their archive. (See our article, Tasini v. The New York Times (crQ, August 2001), for a discussion of the consequences of the actions by The New York Times Company). The archive is still impressive, but it is nowhere near as large as it was a mere year ago.
Others have done far worse: several periodicals which previously provided free access to their entire archive now demand payment (as well as registration). Among those that made drastic changes in 2001 to what book reviews are freely accessible are:
The decision of these sites to restrict access to the vast majority of their content to users who are willing (and --equally significantly -- capable) of paying for the privilege is an enormous loss to Internet-users, and a great disappointment. Sites are, of course, free to do with their intellectual property as they wish, and these sites are just joining a long list of sites that already restrict access of most of their material to paying customers (everyone from the Times Literary Supplement to The Washington Post). But it is sad to see that, after allowing users to freely use their archives, they have opted to limit access. (No site, to our knowledge, increased access to book reviews during 2001, giving users access to material that previously had only been available pay-per-view.)
- The Times and The Sunday Times. Both have completely overhauled their site. They now require that you register and they demand payment to view archived articles. These once great resources have thereby become unbearably cumbersome, irritating, and expensive. We don't bother using them any longer.
- New Statesman. Reviews from the current issue remain freely available, but they expect you to pay to look up anything in their archive, limiting the site's usefulness.
- The New York Review of Books. They overhauled their site, making it exemplarily easy to use. A number of articles -- current and old -- remain freely accessible, but most of the archive is pay-per-view now -- i.e. beyond the reach of most users.
Other sites threatened or went through with other changes which also lessened their user-friendliness.
Other sites remain unchanged, but don't look like they have much of a future:
- Booksonline (at www.booksonline.co.uk). The site run by the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph devoted solely to their book coverage was apparently swallowed up by the generic Arts-page on the main Telegraph-site. The archive still seems to be there and books still get reviewed -- but getting at book-related information has been made considerably more arduous and time-consuming. Very disappointing.
- Evening Standard. Ominously their main book-review page is now devoted to Books and Videos, and the shift seems to be strongly towards the latter.
- London Review of Books. They conducted a consumer survey during 2001 (full of loaded questions), and will apparently soon be making more of their archive available (good) but at a price (bad -- very, very bad)
Of course, other literary-related sites did even worse: remember the short-lived, heavily advertised Steve Brill money-pit known as Contentville. (Note that they expected to survive on the pay-per-view model. Note how that worked out. Maybe a lesson for all those switching to pay-per-view models ?)
- Lingua Franca. Their measly archive of book reviews can still be found, freely accessible, on the Internet. But with the demise of the print version of Lingua Franca there won't be any new material here.
- Salon. Much of the site -- though not the book reviews -- has already been switched to "Premium" service (i.e. pay-per-view) in what will surely be a vain attempt to keep the site going. Book coverage slipped in 2001 (due to budgetary constraints, no doubt), and it is hard to imagine that this site -- delisted in 2001 from NASDAQ's national exchange, and now reduced to penny stock status -- can survive 2002.
Still, there were also a few rays of hope on the Internet horizon in 2001 -- with a few sites making previously unavailable book reviews accessible:
Mention must also be made of the few leading media sites that have not yet been corrupted by visions of pay-per-view riches and registration requirements, notably BooksUnlimited (the book-site of The Guardian and The Observer), The Independent, and the San Francisco Chronicle. These continue to provide excellent review coverage -- and have great archives which are easily searchable and freely accessible. While BooksUnlimited does continue to make us livid with their annoying pop-up screens, these are now clearly the best mass media book-review sites on the Internet (the only other serious contender being The New York Times, but their offensive registration requirement makes using them very unappealing).
- The New Yorker. Okay, this is a real feeble addition -- only the current week's reviews are available, and the archive is essentially empty -- but at least it is something that wasn't previously available.
- Review of Contemporary Fiction. The brightest addition of 2001. They've only made the book reviews from a few issues available so far, and it is a bit cumbersome getting at them, but it's still a lot of reviews of interesting books that are suddenly available. Once they get the entire collection up (as one hopes they will) and maybe organize it (with a nice index, or at least an on-site search-engine) this will be a great resource.
Book-review coverage from other sites, including Internet-only sites (like the complete review), continued without (to our knowledge) major upheavals in 2001. Most sites appeared to be able to continue providing their services. No big new players appeared on the scene -- and, fortunately, none seem to have disappeared either.
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II. Terrorism and Turmoil
Terrorist acts were all the rage in 2001. From the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime in March to the suicide attacks in the United States in September to the December attack on the Indian parliament -- as well as the usual murderous Palestinian-Israeli activity -- terrorism was practiced on a larger scale and responded to with greater force than ever before.
The reprehensible Taliban regime was routed in Afghanistan. Tensions on the India-Pakistan border rose -- though war was, for the time being, averted. Suspected terrorists were rounded up all over the world (though not the apparent al-Qaeda ringleader, Osama bin Laden).
The September attacks in New York and Washington -- and then the American response, both domestically and then in Afghanistan -- attracted particular notice and were a focus of public attention. These events completely dominated news coverage worldwide in the fall and winter of 2001.
A common refrain (especially in often insular America) was that after the attacks on American soil the world had changed, that things would never be the same again and could never be seen the same again. Indications at the complete review suggest that, at least in some respects, this is not true.
The complete review is hardly a barometer for public opinion (or the state of the world); still, some insights into public attitudes can be discerned from usage statistics at the site. The complete review has a very international audience -- though, because of a lack of Internet access, it does not reach many people in, for example, Africa and the Middle East. Most traffic does come from the United States and Europe. After the attacks in America in September there was a brief decline in user-interest -- noticeable but not very large. Remarkably, usage returned to "normal" levels very quickly, with people just as interested in the books covered on our site as they had been earlier in the year. (In fact, traffic to the site rose strongly towards the end of the year -- though this seems to be a seasonal trend, largely mirroring similar increases the previous year (and coming to as abrupt an end with Christmas).)
There was also no perceptible shift in what information users sought: people did not turn either to lighter or to more serious material at the complete review. Elsewhere there was reportedly a great increase in interest in books about relevant topics -- Afghanistan and Islam, in particular -- and such books are said to have sold well in bookstores and seem to have been widely discussed. The complete review offers only a very limited number of reviews of any titles dealing even just generally with these subjects, but interest in these reviews did not increase dramatically after September.
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III. Film and Drama
Two of the highest grossing films of 2001 (and the beginning of 2002) were based on popular works of fiction -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or, in the UK, and the Philosopher's Stone) and The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring. The Rowling and Tolkien books these movies were based on (and others in the respective series by these authors) -- consistent best-sellers even before the films appeared -- sold spectacularly well in 2001, with especially the Tolkien books apparently benefitting greatly from the release of the film. No title by either of these authors is, however, under review at the complete review, and so these film-releases had absolutely no effect whatsoever at the site. (However, elsewhere on the Internet the vast number of Tolkien and Harry Potter-related sites seem to have thrived.)
Other films that appeared in 2001 that were based on books reviewed at the complete review include Iris (based on John Bayley's memoirs of Iris Murdoch (see our review)) and Raoul Peck's Lumumba (based, in part, on Ludo De Witte's The Assassination of Lumumba (see our review)). Neither of these films appear to have led to any appreciable increase in traffic to these reviews -- though it must be noted that our review of De Witte's book only appeared long after the original release of Peck's film.
The spillover effect from heavily publicized movies back onto books is in some respects heartening, even if the complete review did not benefit from it. Still, both the Harry Potter titles, as well as Tolkien's books have been consistent best-sellers for extended periods of time -- long pre-dating their movie releases, in fact. While the Tolkien books, in particular, showed a large increase in sales that can be attributed directly to the movie, overall the correlation between the appearance of a new film and the interest in book-review coverage of the book it was based on appears to be relatively insignificant. (That, at least, is the experience at the complete review -- albeit based on only a very limited sample.)
Surprisingly, there was a stronger correlation between the production of plays and increases in traffic to specific reviews than any other event (including anything from movie releases to international disasters). The reign of Tom Stoppard's play, The Invention of Love, as the most popular review at the complete review overlapped neatly with its Broadway-run. An always-popular review (the tenth most popular in 2000, the fifth most popular in 2001), the additional boost to the top it received can apparently be attributable almost completely to its presence on the New York stage. Other frequently-performed plays -- a number of Yasmina Reza's works, and David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize winner, Proof -- were also popular reviews, clearly benefitting from audience-interest in the actual performances. (Peter Weiss' perennially popular Marat/Sade is the only review reaching a large number of users of a play that wasn't prominently or at least widely performed in 2001.)
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IV. Books to Come
Among the troubling consequences of the events in the United States in mid-September was the reaction of authors to it. The events understandably led many people -- authors, it often seemed, more than most -- to re-evaluate their priorities, and to consider what is significant (in the world, in their lives, etc.) and what is not.
Commentary on the events (and their implications and consequences and whatnot) proved terribly popular: everybody had an opinion, of course, and authors -- more than other segments of society -- were provided with a great deal of space to convey those opinions. Some of these observations perhaps were of cathartic value, either to the authors themselves or to some parts of their audience. Most, however, seemed hasty, ill-informed, and self-important. Few even had much literary value.
The events (specifically the occurrences of 11 September, in both New York and Washington D.C.) themselves were extraordinarily well-documented by the news media. Television, radio, Internet, newspaper, and magazine coverage was -- at least initially -- impressive and comprehensive. Authors -- supposedly adept in the use of words --, however, proved largely incapable of offering any additional or alternative perspectives. Platitudes, simplifications, and a great deal of exaggeration dominated in their outpourings.
The heat of the terrible moment may serve as something of an excuse. One hopes it is also the explanation for the many authors who spoke of abandoning their current efforts, of feeling their writing was trivial, of wanting to write something of significance and import.
Most writing -- especially fiction -- is trivial. Much is essentially worthless. But the majority of published authors do at least serve some small role, filling niche needs of entertainment. And little is worse than when these authors try for grander things, tackling the human condition and the world in all its complexity. One hopes those that spoke of such aspirations have since realized (or been told by their agents and publishers) that it is beyond them.
Still, inevitably, the events of the fall of 2001 will bring with them a flood of books. Non-fiction will dominate: survivors' tales, detailed accounts, biographies, hagiographies, memoirs, analyses, forecasts of the future, and much more. Some will be worthwhile. The overwhelming amount will be terrible. We shudder at the thought of any of it.
There will be fiction as well: it sounds like material that is too good to pass up. Some authors will get it right, managing to convey what happened well, but tragedy -- especially tragedy that still sits so close -- is difficult material to handle. We wish authors would, for the time being, just leave it be.
There are other upcoming books we could do without. Former President Bill Clinton's memoirs rank very high on the list (a book Alfred A. Knopf threw away millions on, and one that can't possibly be of interest to practically anyone), as does his senator-wife's book. (In fact, we continue to be wary of all celebrity autobiographies.)
There are a few tales that we do look forward to eventually finding in book-form. They are, not surprisingly, stories of failure.
Of great interest is the story of the Enron-collapse, a spectacular scandal with far-reaching and immediate effects throughout the United States. For now (January, 2001) media coverage offers a good overview of the company's many misdeeds (and those of Arthur Andersen), but this is such a complicated (and consequential) mess that it will take some time until it becomes clear who did (and who knew) what -- and how they got away with it. Sounds like a great book to us. (We're just wondering how many of the parties involved will be in jail by the time the first comprehensive book on the collapse of Enron is published; incredibly, at this time, men like former Chairman Ken Lay are still free -- and Arthur Andersen is still allowed to conduct audits.)
On a more trivial note: we would probably enjoys books describing the sad and very brief lives of such publications as the recently-silenced Talk magazine, as well as such Internet sites as Contentville. It is not so much that we revel in their failure (we always think: the more the merrier -- though, quite honestly, we thought Talk had died years ago), but that we are interested in what the people running these things were thinking (just as we are interested in what the folk at Enron -- and Arthur Andersen -- were thinking).
Finally, we also hope to eventually find a book documenting the whole Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey debacle (see also our notes on the affair, A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host), a most entertaining pseudo-literay debate that says a great deal about life and literature in America.
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