The LA Times Book Review has been slightly more readable and a lot less snooty under editor David Ulin, but it’s still dull, uninspiring, and a bore to look at. And the advertisers are bored, too. Like most readers, the advertisers are ignoring the section entirely. Publishers Weekly notes that there were only two ads in the Feb 25 issues — one for a ghostwriting service, the other an announcement of a David Mamet signing at Borders.

Both LAT editor James O’Shea and book editor David Ulin said the paper is committed to providing extensive book coverage, including reviews. But while O’Shea said he had rejected a suggestion from his predecessor that he kill the Sunday book review, he hinted that it may not remain a stand-alone section.

Whenever I left town on business, I used to have my wife save the Book Review sections so I could read them when I got back. A few months ago I told her not to bother. I don’t even read the section when I’m in town anymore.

(Since Ulin took over, the blog critics of the Book Review have been notably silent. Perhaps because Ulin is, I am told, a more likable guy than his predecessor and shrewdly hired several of the bloggers as freelance reviewers, effectively silencing them. Another former critic of the Book Review just sold his first novel and, perhaps, doesn’t want to upset any reviewers. All I know is that they’ve shut up…and the Book Review isn’t much better than it was before)

I’m all for radical change at the Book Review, because as it stands now, the Fry’s ads are more fun to read and more interesting to look at. They need to make it livelier, more relevant, and a lot more visually appealing. If that means bundling the reviews with an existing section (like Calender), then so be it. I think the only thing that has kept the throwaway Book Review alive this long is that killing it would have reflected badly on hugely the successful (and wonderful!) Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the prestige of the Times book awards.

10 thoughts on “LAT FLAT”

  1. I have to disagree with you (and in full disclosure to those reading from outside the family, Lee and I do disagree on things…and in further full disclosure, I’ve written a number of reviews for the LA Times including one Lee missed because he’s not collecting the paper while away). I think David Ulin has done a great job pairing reviewers to books and, in particular, focusing on west coast writers for the majority of the review writing. Likewise, I’ve found the reviews in the daily calendar to be more interesting than in the past — and featuring better reviewers — and that Ulin is finding books that others simply haven’t yet. Plus, there’s less of that awful celebrity pandering that happened before (ie, Kelly Lange reviewing fiction) and more decisive reviews (I thought Will Beale’s on the new Robert Craise was a good case in point this past weekend, where he actually poked and prodded a bit at an author who is quickly becoming one of those Untouchable writers within the genre). From my perspective, I can tell you that the level of editing that goes on is significant and exhaustive and has made me wonder why more people don’t edit as much. I was an outspoken critic of the previous editor, there’s no doubt, but I’m not of the opinion that I’ve been shrewdly hired to silence me, plus it’s not as if I’m revieiwng hundreds of books a year — I think I’ve done 4. It’s just a better book review now with more vibrant writing.

  2. Tod,
    I agree that the book reviews in the daily paper have been better. But the Sunday section is a snooze. Speaking purely from a layout and graphics viewpoint, how can anybody at the Times look at Book Review and honestly believe it will be appeal to anybody? Does it violate some unwritten rule to publish a Book Review section that’s visually interesting? Haven’t these people every looked at a webpage? Hell, haven’t they looked at Newsweek or Time Magazine lately (or even the redesigned Publishers Weekly)? The section looks like nobody gives a damn about it… so why should we?
    Maybe they should scrap the Sunday section altogether and just put more reviews in the regular Calendar section.

  3. I thought Will Beale’s snarky review of the new Crais book was a good example of how NOT to assign a review. To me, it came off as a guy trying too hard to poke sticks at a much better-known writer, and to show how cute he could be. This might be an inherent problem with having novelists review books so close to their own work, but it smacked a little of jealousy to me.
    I’ve panned Crais in the past when I thought it was appropriate, but for this book, his best in years, it seemed odd. The tone of the review struck me as disrespectful, which I didn’t think either Crais or the book deserved.

  4. I have to agree with Tod (with the additional proviso that I have contributed reviews to the LATBR). While the inclusion of Steve Almond is, to my mind, a great mistake (wait a minute: I thought I was BOUGHT AND SILENCED by Ulin!), because Almond is, bar none, a piss-poor literary critic, the overall level of thoughtful criticism has improved, with a broader spectrum of fiction covered and, as Tod writes, far more suitable review assignments than under Wasserman.
    Lee: I’m curious. Are you referring only to the LATBR’s aesthetics? Or do you think Ulin’s offering softer content these days?

  5. It also occurs to me that claiming that the bloggers have been “effectively silenced” because they’ve been hired as writers is about as crazy as some of King Wenclas’ conspiracy theories.

  6. Lee wrote: “They need to make it livelier, more relevant, and a lot more visually appealing.”
    After decades of reading, I now find most books to be boring, irrelevant and visually uninteresting.
    Add to that the fact that there are actually very few entertaining critics, let alone great ones, so what we have is the mediocre reviewing the mediocre (or worse). No wonder the LAT Book Review is so inert. I have to go to Britain’s paper The Guardian for decent reviews, which can be accessed online.
    I’m delighted these days when I can find a book that compels me to finish it.

  7. I’ll admit, David, that Beale’s review wasn’t going to win him a Pulitzer (comparing the book only to movies seemed an odd choice), but I didn’t find it snarky. I thought it was fair and actually quite favorable, plus they’ll be using the quote “Robert Crais is the dopamine purveyor of private-eye fiction,” on the front of paperbacks for the next 20 years.

  8. You know, Tod, I think you’re right. I just went back and re-read it, and it doesn’t seem as bad as I remembered it being. I withdraw my earlier comment.
    I didn’t notice all the movie references, though… You’re right about that, too — a little iffy.

  9. LAT FLAT Revisited

    I was wrong. Well, at least this week I was. No sooner to do I criticize the Los Angeles Times Book Review for being flat and boring, then along comes this week’s issue, which I found thoroughly entertaining and informative.


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