Book Reviews | March 2011 | Deb Burst

National Critics Circle President Sings Praises of New Book Review Mediums

The New Orleans Tennessee Williams Literary Festival was a huge success staying true to  Williams' relentless drive for perfection. One of my favorite sessions are the master classes where experts from around the country offer their expertise in various literary genres. Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle, award-winning fiction writer, prolific book reviewer, widely published journalist and occasional literary blogger has watched the transformation of book review mediums from a front row seat. Inside the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street, lovers of the written word gathered for a lesson on how to cut through the clutter and keep abreast on new books hitting the literary market.

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While print publications and books find their place in the fast-paced world of technology, Jane Ciabattari sees it as an opportunity to reach larger and more diverse audiences. From 140 characters to 6,000 words, book reviews can be found on Twitter feeds, Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook, literary websites and blogs. The New York Times, the granddaddy of book reviews, still offers its healthy collection both in print and online, while new online outlets such as the Daily Beast and bring their own style of reviews.

During the class she sang the praises of our new found technology. The younger readers are reading more with the new tablets and computer based equipment. There's more access to book reviews and new releases, from the unbiased reviews on to pre-publication reviews on Publisher Weekly. After all, said Ciabattari, how do you think the library and NPR know what to review. Readers and writers have become more comfortable with the mediums and more creative.
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Goodreads offers social networking similar to Facebook but more like a cyber bookclub, literally a world-wide audience of readers who can share their opinions on a diverse group of books. Facebook has writer fan pages and Twitter boasts a summer read book review.

"We are a growing nation of passionate readers," Ciabattari explained. "We all love the written word and don't care about the format."  

There are 700 members in the NBCC, and most bios reflect huge changes. More members work for online publications versus print and there's less staffers and more freelancers. Each year the NBCC selects awards in six categories drawn from books nominated by members of the board of directors. It's a year long process narrowing the list from January to March with the winners announced in April. Their blog, the Critical Mass, presents commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors. For a list of the finalists and winners visit

An author and reviewer, Ciabattari offered insight on some of the lessons learned through the years. Virginia Wolfe actually wrote novels and did book reviews at the same time. One of the biggest lessons is sometimes good writers write bad books. And there's not really an original idea that no one has done before. "But then you don't have to knock the world's socks off either," said Ciabattari smiling.

As many newspaper book review sections are dwindling, some veteran book review columnists have found new careers with local NPR stations and PBS television.

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New Orleans own Susan Larson, the former New Orleans Times Picayune book reviewer and author of "The Booklover's Guide to New Orleans," and co-author of 10 romance novels, now has her own her radio show titled the Reading Life on the New Orleans NPR station WWNO. Larson focuses on local and national authors and books of all genres. She is also a regular panelist on WYES, the New Orleans public television station, in a weekly arts and entertainment program. 

"Every writer needs someone to read our stacks of books and get the word out," said Ciabattari. "People want a familiar voice, authority, someone they trust."

As newspapers continue to cut their book coverage, online magazines and newspapers are filling the gap. Last fall the Wall Street Journal went one step further and launched a weekly pull-out book review section with a mirror version online. The WSJ presents thorough reviews with some reaching 6,000 words--proof the art of writing has never disappeared, just the mediums that cover it. The "Brooklyn Rail" is a political, artistic and literary magazine based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The free monthly print and web magazine features generous reviews, literary essays, art criticism and political opinions and interviews.

Libraries are also keeping up with technology expanding their branches offering access to computers for internet research and larger special collection sections with archival material for reserachers and the ever popular genealogy enthusisiast.

To weed through all the information, Ciabattari recommends using Muckrack which features top RSS feeds and links. Another suggestion is to pick out your top 5 blogs for all your literary information, and make sure Fine Books & Collection is in that number.

Jane Ciabattari, NBCC President
Freelance Writer/Critic
36 West 75th Street, 5A
New York, NY  10023