Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Read-in" to Save Atlanta Book Editor Job

Does hell have no fury like a book critic scorned?

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., the National Book Critics Circle has planned a “Save the Book Review" protest in front of the Atlanta newspaper’s head offices. The rally was prompted by the firing of Theresa Weaver as book editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution after nine years on the job.

So do the Atlanta police need to break out their riot gear? Probably not. “We’re asking protesters to bring a book and read silently or aloud, as they wish," said John Freeman, the president of the National Book Critics Circle. He anticipates more than one hundred people to participate in the “read-in.” The organization has already accumulated more than 4,500 signatures on a petition to save the book position of book editor at the paper; signatories include literary luminaries such as Salman Rushdie and Richard Ford.

For its part, management at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have promised not to cut books coverage -- which encompasses approximately two pages on Sunday as well as a single review during the week, though the editorial responsibilities for book review editing will be given to an editor with other duties. The paper will also continue as the principle sponsor of the Decatur Book Festival, which was inaugurated last year and attracted some 50,000 people to readings by more than 100 authors.

Weaver said has applied for a writing position at the paper and will hear on June 11 whether she has been given a new job.

The Atlanta “read-in” is the outgrowth of a larger “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing,” In the wake of the a series of editorial decisions at newspapers that have seen book sections shrink at papers such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune.

The impact of reduced coverage of books in newspapers has the greatest impact on publishers, who rely on the book pages for what essentially amounts to free publicity. Michael Taeckens, publicity director of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a highly regarded publisher of mostly Southern literature, was especially aggrieved by Weaver’s firing. “Teresa has always been an advocate of new and undiscovered writers, which has been essential to awareness of Algonquin's authors.”

Robert Miller, president of Hyperion Books, a division of Disney, concurred. “With hundreds of thousands of books published every year, book reviews provide readers with guidance that they sorely need, he said. “In a world without book reviewing, only the authors who are already established will continue to sell. We need book reviewers to help us introduce readers to the authors of tomorrow.”

Author George Saunders, who was an early signer of the petition to save the book editor’s job at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, views the reduction of pages in newspapers to book reviews as a symptom of a larger trend toward anti-intellectualism in the culture. “Somehow we've taken to distrusting literature and, for that matter, all things cerebral or difficult or seriously critical. I'd argue that part of the reason we rushed into Iraq, for example, was that as a culture we've forgotten how to have a good, articulate, no-holds-barred argument that is able to invoke all levels of discourse: religion and morality and the whole nine yards - and not just materialist pragmatism or jingoism or the ritual incantation of catchphrases.

Ultimately, it’s all about the money. As advertising pages in newspapers dry up, editors are forced to look at which sections are profitable. Book review sections don’t generate nearly as much advertising as sections on real estate or automobiles.

Freeman says he understands the financial pressures newspapers face, but argues that it’s in the newspaper’s own self-interest to keep book sections. “What book sections do more than anything is foster reading, which, if newspapers have any hope to maintain their own readership, they would do well to promote books in their pages.”

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