It has been said many times that reading and writing are solitary activities. As if to dispel any illusions about life with the printed word, 30 years ago I spent a summer in the basement of the Harold Pratt House, where the Council on Foreign Relations is located, rooting through file boxes and sorting the letters of editors and writers in the archives of the journal Foreign Affairs. When I arrived at my new job as assistant editor at the New York Review of Books, I was shown to a room the size of a closet with no windows where they put the new people. Solitary confinement, they called it.
At the Los Angeles Times, deadlines came thick and fast; staff writers worked (and still work, what’s left of them) in cubicles; editors lined the halls in glassed-in offices. When I arrived at the LAT Book Review, then editor Sonja Bolle held weekly meetings to discuss assignments. Some editors were appalled at the length of the meetings; others came to hear what was new in the world of books and culture in general.
Two weeks ago I received a call from the book editor of the Los Angeles Times, informing me that my entire income, after years of writing reviews and features for the paper, would be eliminated, effective immediately. I was not to take it personally; it was the fault of “the bean counters.” Of course, the paper, like so many, has been battling total demise for several years, and in the world of newspapers, book reviews, once indispensable, then elegant, had become a luxury. I might not like that progression, but I understood it.
What I could not understand was the terrible clumsiness verging on cruelty with which people were “let go.” A year and a half ago, my editor said, “trust me,” I can continue to pay you as a contract worker. After he had stepped down as editor to become the staff writer, he hired a full-time blogger/Web writer. My new editor, on announcing months later that the paper no longer wanted to use temp agencies, said, “trust me.” He would keep me on as a freelancer.
It didn’t shock me that cuts were made. What shocked me was how many people with decades of experience were being let go in favor of people with relatively little experience in journalism, let alone book reviewing.
The column I wrote, “Discoveries,” covered books published, primarily, by small presses and unknown authors whose books do not get reviewed elsewhere. Each week, I would alert my editors to upcoming books, big and small. Every so often, a book would be so unusual, so landscape-changing, that I would write a longer essay.
What a great job you have, people told me for years. It was hard to believe, at first, that I could help people find books to read, much less pronounce on the relative contribution to literature of one author over another. But as years went by, I began to almost smell various ingredients in books: the literary influences (a dash of Stegner, a pinch of McPhee, a soupçon of Woolf), money as a motivation for writing, layers of editorial advice between the original voice and the final book, and, yes, dreams of movie rights. Reviewing became a kind of instinct: would this be a writer who would stick with it, mature (one hates to say it) like a beautiful bottle of wine. Or would they go up in a blaze of glory—a one-book wonder? Readers are in it for the long haul. They are poised to support writers for hundreds of years; to talk about them, pass books on to their children, give friends the perfect book at the right moment. The business decisions, impersonal or no, do not reflect this commitment.
When PW ran the story of the freelance cuts in the Los Angeles Times book section, letters and e-mails poured in. Writers like Brando Skyhorse and John Minichillo, whose debut books I had reviewed, wrote to me, offering sympathy and advice. Booksellers like Stacey Lewis at City Lights wrote to me. Publishers like Denis Johnson (and Nathan and the rest of the staff) at Melville House and James Meader at Picador, and agents like Sandy Dijkstra wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters. You are “indispensable to the culture,” wrote James Meader (speaking of Richard Rayner, who was also cut, and myself). “Your review of Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor helped to launch her in the U.S.”
Reading and writing may be solitary activities. We are not gushers—after all, so much of the work involves not just tapping, but organizing and measuring emotion. The page, an extra step, helps a lot. But there, after all these years, in a crisis and when I needed it most, was my community, my culture. Book publishing.
Susan Salter Reynolds was a columnist and features writer at the Los Angeles Times for 23 years. Before that, she was an assistant editor at the New York Review of Books.