The prospect of running the Los Angeles Times Book Review was irresistible. I was also convinced that the moment was ripe, that Los Angeles had long ago shed the fetish of its provincialism. It was now a big, grown-up metropolis, no longer afraid to wear its neuroses on its sleeve. I also suspected, as The Wall Street Journal would report in a front-page story in 1998, that America was “increasingly wealthy, worldly, and wired.” Interest in the arts was booming. I could see that notions of elitism and snobbery were collapsing upon the palpable catholicity of a public whose curiosities were ever-more diverse and eclectic. The percentage of Americans attending the performing arts was rising dramatically. Movies like Shakespeare in Love and The Hours (and in later years Babel and Pan’s Labyrinth) that might once have been consigned to art-house ghettos were now finding both a mass audience and Oscars.
During the years I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, it lost about a million dollars annually. The pittance the section received in the early years of my tenure, from the ads supplied chiefly by Barnes & Noble and Crown Books, dried up when B&N made a strategic decision to pull the bulk of its advertising from book sections in favor of placing ads in main news sections, and when Crown Books, owned by the feuding Haft family, declared bankruptcy. Nothing that has occurred in the more than two decades since Shaw’s 1985 survey suggests that book reviews are clinging to life on anything other than the sufferance of their respective papers’ managers. And now that support, always precarious, is at ever greater risk.
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW Sunday, November 28, 1999
I wanted to edit the Los Angeles Times Book Reviewin such a way—and with such zeal—that readers might feel the heat of genuine passion for books and ideas in its few pages, which were guaranteed by the paper’s top editors at twelve tabloid-sized pages, but occasionally went up to sixteen, depending on ad revenue (of which there was barely a trickle) or sometimes on special occasions. Above all, I wanted to treat readers as adults, to shun the baby talk that passes for book chat in all too many of America’s newspapers. I wanted to deliver a section aimed squarely and unabashedly at the word-addicted and the book-besotted. To do so, I knew I would have to edit, as Nadine Gordimer once enjoined authors to write, as if I were already posthumous—otherwise I would perhaps lack the necessary courage.