The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

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From The New Yorker:

Long before the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the devastation of newspapers and media outlets of all kinds, book reviews around the country had already started to disappear. Papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post eliminated their standalone sections; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Dallas Morning News let their book editors and staff critics go; coverage evaporated in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Orlando Sentinel. News outlets that once reviewed more than five hundred books every year—and, in some cases, three times as many—now rarely cover them at all.

That national crisis came for the Volunteer State just over a decade ago. Tim Henderson, the executive director of Humanities Tennessee, the state’s affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, remembers noticing fewer book reviews and fewer publications, but also talking with struggling local arts and culture writers. “When we saw the disappearance of arts coverage across the state, it was obvious we should respond,” Henderson said, “but not how.”

Humanities Tennessee eventually created something called Chapter 16: a part-digital, part-print publication that covers literature and literary life in the state by doing what almost any other outlet would—running reviews, profiles, interviews, and essays—but also by doing what almost no other outlet could afford to do: giving away its content for free, not only to readers but to any publication of any kind that wants to reproduce it. “We knew there was an audience for this, and we serve readers, not a bottom line, so we wanted to find a way to provide this free of charge,” Henderson said.

That is why, every week, as many as half a million people read something from Chapter 16, and it is why, although the outlet calls itself “a community of Tennessee writers, readers, and passersby,” it offers what might be a model of sustainable arts coverage for the rest of the country.

. . . .

 “The creative talent was there, and the readers were there,” Gerbman said, “and we felt like it was our responsibility to showcase it.”

Years before, Gerbman had driven the Tennessee novelist William Gay to and from a reading in Clarksville. They got lost that night on the way home, and a long conversation turned longer; in the course of it, Gay, who had spent much of his life hanging drywall and painting houses, and hadn’t published anything until he was in his late fifties, got to talking about his sadness that Tennessee didn’t show as much pride in or offer as much support for its writers as neighboring Mississippi. “That struck me,” Gerbman said, remembering Gay, who died in 2012. A few years later, she thought of his words again, when the novelist Inman Majors came home to Knoxville for a reading and confessed his disappointment that no newspapers in Tennessee had covered his book.

“There are so many working writers here, publishing books and doing good work, and we felt it was important for people to see that,” Gerbman said. The founders of Chapter 16 made it the publication’s mission to try to cover every book by a Tennessee author, every book about Tennessee, and every book by any author coming to Tennessee for an event at one of the state’s more than two dozen independent bookstores and nearly one hundred colleges. Even their name reflected that regional pride: Tennessee was the sixteenth state to join the Union.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

And here’s a link to Chapter 16