The San Francisco Chronicle gave Steve Wasserman, the out-going editor of the LA Times Book Review, a nice going-away present this morning: a front-page, Datebook section story ("Editor Who Put West Coast on Literary Map Hangs up his Spurs") along with a commentary by Chronicle Book Critic David Kipen.
Obviously, they are a lot more fond of Wasserman in SF than we are down here in LA. The folks at LAObserved have an interesting theory:
It was a no-brainer that Kipen would comment on the end of the Wasserman era
(and a surprise that I’m mentioned), but why the newsfeature? I don’t know, but
perhaps Chronicle top editor Narda Zacchino played a role. She started the
Festival of Books while a senior Times editor, and may even have hired Wasserman
at the review, I don’t remember for certain. Wasserman’s first job at the Times
was as the assistant to her husband, Robert Scheer (then a staff writer, now a
The Chronicle credits Wasserman with “turning the Sunday section into must reading for book lovers north and south, east and west.” They must have received a different edition up there than we did down here. Though Mike Davis, author of the fabulous CITY OF QUARTZ (among others), agrees with them:
"Wasserman may not be my cup of tea, but, objectively, he turned a book
section that most people threw out into undoubtedly the best book review section of any paper in the country. I’m often infuriated by specific reviews, but it is the most exciting book review section in the country.
They only pay passing attention to his detractors, with quotes from my brother Tod and former LATBR editor Digby Diehl.
"Steve Wasserman tried to impress his literary taste on the city of Los Angeles," author and blogger Tod Goldberg said. "But I don’t think it meshed with what people in L.A. were actually reading. L.A. is a company town and that company is Hollywood. I don’t think the review needs to be focused only on Jackie Collins and popular literature, but it needs to find a voice that is both popular and challenging."
The L.A. Times Book Review was launched as a stand-alone section in 1975 under editor Digby Diehl, whose mentor was the paper’s longtime book critic, Robert Kirsch. Though he applauds the vigor of the book festival, Diehl is a critic of some aspects of the Review.
"I’m sure there are many authors who are very grateful to Steve for the kind of books he reviewed, for his emphasis on very serious subjects and his wonderful treatment of a lot of books that wouldn’t get much attention outside of academic reviews," Diehl says. "I just don’t think that’s a good use of space in a Sunday newspaper."
Diehl’s tenure coincided with the birth of chain bookstores, which boosted ad sales for the book review. ("I made well over a million dollars a year for the L.A. Times," he notes.) Today, newspaper advertising from publishers and bookstores has all but disappeared.
The plummeting ad dollars the LATBR generated should speak volumes about how well read the section really is. They may be reading it north and south, east and west, but they aren’t reading it in L.A.
To be fair, though, Wasserman deserves our city’s undying gratitude and respect for creating the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which has truly changed the face of the Southern California Lit Scene. His Book Review may not have been memorable, but the Book Festival is his real legacy…and I, for one, hope it endures for a very long time.