There are those who think heaven would be working behind the big desk in the Oval Office, and others who think it would be patrolling second base at Dodger Stadium. But Sallie Bingham says: "The best job in the world is the job of book review editor on a local newspaper. The reason it's such a good job is that nobody cares."
Bingham knows whereof she speaks. She is book editor of The Louisville Courier-Journal, and she produces one of the best "local," or "provincial," Sunday book pages in the United States. But because, she says, "I sometimes wonder if anyone outside Kentucky reads my book page at all," she recently used the forum offered by the "My Say" column in Publishers Weekly to air her gripes. They are legitimate ones, shared by every person who attempts to hold high the sputtering torch of literature in the "provincial" press, and they deserve a serious, respectful hearing.
The page Bingham edits appears in a newspaper that has a Sunday circulation of well over 300,000. Readership surveys, she writes, show that the page "is read by 118,000 people regularly," which is an impressive figure indeed, considering that book review readership usually shows up in surveys at 20 percent of total circulation--or, alas, lower than that. No doubt this relatively high readership is a reflection of the Courier-Journal's long tradition of treating its readers seriously; a readership accustomed to responsible reportage and news analysis is likely to be a readership receptive to equally responsible and thoughtful coverage of books and the ideas that they contain.
Like countless other newspapers out there in the "provinces," the Courier-Journal provides its readers with news and reviews of books as a service from which it can expect no return except gratitude; book publishers rarely support this attention to their products with advertising dollars, and local bookstores "have neither the means nor the inclination to advertise their wares," as Bingham puts it. But this lack of advertising support seems to bother her a good deal less than the lack of "attention from the people who publish books." She believes that the local book page is an endangered species, and asks:
"How can regional book pages survive without cooperative advertising, without notice and without encouragement from Eastern publishers? Most newspaper publishers are not interested in running a book review page as a local charity. At the very least, when the next space cut comes, it would help to be able to claim that so-and-so at Knopf or Harper wrote to say that the book page, as a local phenomenon, has some virtue. How otherwise can we persuade our bosses that it deserves to exist?"
Well, let's hope that it won't take a word from New York--a condescending word, no doubt--to persuade the people who make such decisions that the Courier-Journal's book page is worth keeping and cultivating; those 118,000 Kentuckians should, and surely do, mean more to the Courier-Journal's management than a nod of recognition from "so-and-so at Knopf or Harper." But Bingham's basic point is absolutely correct: that the "provincial" book page plays an important role not merely in the publishing business but in the maintenance of a national community of readers, and that this role goes almost entirely unrecognized except by the people who edit and read these pages.
When you get right down to it, the definition of "provincial" is preposterous on its face. The San Francisco Chronicle, with a Sunday circulation of 675,000, is "provincial"; so are the Houston Post (440,000), the Miami Herald (525,000), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (500,000) and the Detroit News (825,000). Not merely are these newspapers of substantial circulation, but the cities in which they are published are, in Bingham's wry description of Louisville, "relatively cosmopolitan." But as viewed by most of the publishing industry, these cities are mere backwaters.
In that industry, it goes without saying, New York is the sun around which the rest of the universe revolves. Boston is all right because many publishers and editors either went to Harvard or wish they had. Washington qualifies because of the New York-Washington power axis, a.k.a. the Eastern shuttle. Philadelphia is tolerated, though barely, because it is simply too nearby to be overlooked. Similarly, Chicago and Los Angeles are just too big to be passed over, but heaven knows New York wishes they could be, inhabited as they are by those peculiar subspecies, medius Americanus and homo surfboardus.
In the view of all but a handful of people in the publishing industry, New York and these satellite cities are culture, sophistication and literacy--the Book Market, if you will. Everything else is the "provinces," so there is no need to pay any attention to what's going on there, even when what's going on is some of the most interesting book coverage in the country. Granted at most a page a week, rarely able to pay their reviewers more than a free book, regarded in the newsroom and the accounting office as journalism's stepchildren, many of these "local" book editors nonetheless rise above neglect and condescension to uphold the standards of serious reading and writing in ways that should bring blushes of shame to an industry that is trying to package books as if they were tubes of toothpaste.
To be sure, the worst of the "provincial" book pages are most charitably described as terrible, especially on the smaller newspapers that offer their readers nothing except canned reviews; some of these newspapers have even been known to reprint dust-jacket copy verbatim and to represent it as original work. It is probably safe to say that the average book page is about as professional as the average newspaper, which is a compliment of decidedly limited dimensions.
But there are many "provincial" book pages that routinely publish material of first-rate quality. For such pages to exist, two essential ingredients are required: newspaper editors and/or publishers who recognize their responsibility to the intellectual life of their communities, and book editors who know and love books. As Sallie Bingham writes, "There is a place in this country for local reviewers, who can sometimes catch the particular spirit of a book and relate it to their own region," and the number of "local" book pages that do a responsible, imaginative job of meeting that need is impressive. That the publishing industry gives them almost no encouragement says, when you think about it, more about the publishing industry than about the "provincial" book pages.