With sadness I report the closure of one of the world’s great stand-alone book reviews, the Revista de Libros de la Fundacion Caja Madrid. For the past twenty years, it has served as the leading literary review in the Spanish-speaking world – edited in Spain, and possessed of a genuinely global grasp of intellectual and cultural affairs. It united deeply informed review essays together with unparalleled contemporary Spanish prose – exquisite and lapidary. I was honored to serve as the Review’s political sciences editor. I also authored several essays for it, on the United Nations and global governance, Francis Fukuyama on neoconservatism, Philip Bobbitt on terrorism and the state, that were translated into a Spanish that made me out to be much smarter than I am. (The translator, the Revista’s Luis Gago, won awards for his translation, most recently, of The Rest Is Noise.)
The Revista closed because its patron, the Caja de Madrid, is one of the regional Spanish thrifts that has run into trouble – Spain having a particular economic trouble in that its national banks weathered the crisis well, but its regional thrifts financed Spain’s construction boom and bust. The economic trouble is linked to a particular political trouble in that the national banks were well supervised by national authorities, while the regional thrifts benefited from the perennial conflicts between national authority in Spain and the regions. I suppose that if I were, say, British, and given my general views on the necessity of a demos for democratic governance, I would probably be a Euroskeptic. But in fact the European project has pulled off several near-miracles, one of which is the integration of post-Franco Spain back into, well, civilization. Elite cultural institutions like the Revista are part of that consolidation and its closure is an enormous loss.
The Revista’s closure prompts me to one general comment about book reviews. The collapse of so many stand-alone book reviews as well as newspaper book sections has left a gap in the intellectual genre of criticism. The kinds of book discussions that we often have in blogs is great – inviting authors to present their new books in blog posts, or online roundtable discussions with an author of a new book. These are terrific new ways of presenting the ideas in books made much more accessible by blogs and online resources. But they also have limitations, and one of the most important of these is, to put it baldly, the presence of the author directly on the stage of discussion. Offering a comment on a book in which the book’s author will immediately respond changes considerably the sensibility that one brings to making the comment.
The book review as a genre of “criticism,” by contrast, depends upon a critical distance from the author in order to focus upon the book. It is hard if not impossible to do if the author as a living presence is hovering nearby. All these genres, the new and the old, have their places, but it is harder than it used to be in part for lack of outlets, especially when the new online resources see their advantage in the ability to bring the author into the discussion directly. I’m unusual in the academic world in liking to write book reviews; I like to read books and like to write about them. And I like reading and writing the sophisticated, polished reasonably short book review essay as its own genre. Most academics see book reviews as a waste of time – not taken seriously in the academy, and are not worth the effort. I agree that is all how it is – but alas, if I were honest about the writing I’ve done that I most like, it’s the highly polished, sentence by sentence edited and revised, review essays I’ve written for the Times Literary Supplement in particular. I don’t think it has ever done anything for my academic career, even in the handful of cases when the essay was widely noted in the academy, but I think it’s much of my own best work and the stuff I most like.
So I was excited when the Lawfare national security law blog invited me to become the book review editor; short of becoming editor of the TLS or the Boston Review, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. But Lawfare is not really a blog; it’s a highly edited online journal, run by a long-time journalist with serious editorial skills, and the editors agreed that we should aim in this particular subject area to reinvigorate the traditional book review essay, at whatever length. I’m really pleased with this; reviewers have enthusiastically welcomed the instruction to write as though for a traditional book review, and to expect serious substantive and copy editing. My larger point, however, is that the traditional book reviews cultivated a particular genre with a particular sensibility. The best of the genre had a certain analytic toughness, and it has been harder to come by with changes in media platforms.