November 23, 2020

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The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

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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 review 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. From the beginning, Henderson and his colleagues hoped that Chapter 16 would become a template for other states and regions where arts coverage is disappearing but grants, donations, and, above all, readers still exist. “This is a model people should really be looking at,” Serenity Gerbman, a program director at Humanities Tennessee, said. “We really think it’s the future of local journalism.”

Since 1989, Humanities Tennessee had been running the annual Southern Festival of Books, in Nashville, and, for almost as long, it had been trying to figure out how to sustain that event’s audience during the other fifty-one weeks of the year. When the Great Recession decimated newspapers and bookstores around the state, they grew worried about the state’s literary life—not only local authors with books in need of readers but Tennesseans in need of new things to read and critics with fewer venues for their work. The nonprofit news outlet ProPublica was two years old at the time, and Humanities Tennessee thought something similar could succeed locally—only instead of focussing on investigative journalism, it would focus on books coverage, archived in a central place and distributed to as many outlets as possible, in order to provide the sorts of pieces that the local newspapers themselves no longer could. “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.

That mission makes its contents unusually eclectic. “In some ways, we’re extremely narrow, and other ways we’re extremely broad,” Maria Browning, a fifth-generation Tennessean and the editor of Chapter 16, said. “Maybe we’re covering an academic book or a genre book that no one else would review, but it was written by a Tennessee author” or “some big best-seller because the author is passing through Tennessee on their tour.” Search the archive of Chapter 16 and you will find an interview with John Prine that his wife conducted when the musician’s songbook, “Beyond Words,” came out; reviews of Karl Marlantes, Elizabeth McCracken, and Richard Powers; and Q. & A.s with the writer Kwame Alexander about basketball, with the Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin about civic virtues, and with the historian Keisha Blain about working-class women who shaped the Black nationalist movement before Black Power.

When Chapter 16 started, its founders worried that there might not be enough books to cover. It turned out that there were too many Tennessee-related books and events to write about them all, and so their editorial choices reflect the books they feel are of greatest interest to their audience; there is no prohibition on negative reviews, but there is a preference for pieces that constructively criticize or thoughtfully celebrate. “We don’t trash books,” Browning says, “but we never lie. We care about our authors, but also our readers, so we’re truthful.”

Within a few years, Chapter 16 had become a daily publication with at least one new piece posted on its Web site every weekday, forty-five weeks of the year. Today, Browning says, most of those pieces run in print in at least one of the state’s major newspapers, and they sometimes appear in multiple outlets, including blogs, out-of-state dailies, or tiny local weeklies. All of them are collected into a weekly digital newsletter that is sent out to a smaller group of subscribers. For its media partners, the publication was an easy sell: free books coverage, written to your specifications, tied to events in your city or authors from your neck of the woods, whether that is Memphis, Chattanooga, or anywhere else in the state. For readers, it is a gift, although sometimes an invisible one: hundreds of thousands of people who read reviews or interviews syndicated from Chapter 16 in its regular partner publications—the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Nashville Scene, and the Chattanooga Times Free Press—may never notice the tagline indicating where it originated.

The Institute for Nonprofit News has more than two hundred member media organizations, from East Lansing Info, in Michigan, to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, in Memphis. Most of them focus on investigative reporting; Chapter 16 is one of only a few nonprofit media outlets in the country dedicated to coverage of the arts. Initial and ongoing funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but Chapter 16 is also an independent affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, which has promoted literacy and libraries since 1977. Most states decided to open a physical center, but Humanities Tennessee opted to do something different: theirs would be a virtual center, so that anyone in the state, regardless of Zip Code, could access it at any time. Initial and ongoing funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The first step was hiring Margaret Renkl, who was about to lose her job as book editor at the Nashville Scene. An Alabama native, Renkl has lived in Tennessee since the eighties; she knew the literary landscape well, and she knew that other writers were losing their writing gigs the way she was in a shrinking trade. She spent six months planning an editorial calendar and putting together a roster of critics, most of them freelance refugees from publications that were scaling back or shuttering.

The editorial salaries have always been the largest expense, but Chapter 16 pays all of its thirty contributing writers competitive rates. Still, Humanities Tennessee invests only around a hundred thousand dollars a year on the project, a fifth of what its annual book festival costs. “It’s such a good use of public money,” Renkl said. Now a contributing writer at the Times, she left Chapter 16 before publishing her own book, “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” Wondering why other states have not followed Tennessee’s lead, Renkl said, “It’s unparalleled in how many different constituencies it reaches and helps.”

One of the most grateful of those constituencies is the state’s independent bookstores, since the coverage that Chapter 16 provides to its media partners helps drum up audiences for their store events, thereby selling books and cultivating a common literary culture across one of the longest states in the country. For Star Lowe, who opened Star Line Books, in Chattanooga, a few years ago—she was forced to close the store this summer, after revenues fell on account of the pandemic—the publication is a lifeline to what she calls Tennessee’s other “bookies.” “Memphis may as well be in Egypt if you hail from Kingsport,” Lowe said. “It’s easy to feel a disconnect, so I love that I am able to feel linked to my neighbors across the state when I open my Chapter 16 newsletter.”

Another grateful group are the critics themselves. Emily Choate, who started as an intern at Chapter 16, has been contributing reviews for eight years now. She lives just north of Nashville, in a town called White House, and told me that learning the art of criticism while interning for the editorial staff helped her build a freelance career, which sustains her life as a fiction writer. “To be a Southerner writing in Southern publications about Southern books—it’s a really beautiful responsibility,” Choate said. She also says the community around Chapter 16 is what inspired her to think locally, and made her want to be involved with other regional literary projects, like the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, whose members gather under the motto “We come from our personal podunks and gather in our common Peauxdunque.”

Not all of Chapter 16’s writers are locals: Hamilton Cain was raised in Chattanooga but has lived in New York for three decades now, working first at the Strand, then in book publishing for a few houses, and now as a full-time book critic for magazines and newspapers around the country. He found out about Chapter 16 when it reviewed a book he wrote, “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He’s been writing for the outlet ever since. (His writings include a review of my book, last year, before an event for Union Ave Books, in Knoxville.)

“It’s great to be plugged into what I most love and miss about the South: its literary traditions,” Cain said, connecting Chapter 16 to a long lineage of literary history in the Volunteer State, including the New Criticism, which grew out of a collective of writers at Vanderbilt University. For Cain, the publication is essential not only for what it does inside the state but also its role as a beacon to those outside of it. “I think Chapter 16 has pushed back on the contraction in the industry, and on what people think about Southern culture,” he said. “It says we’re cosmopolitan, we make things, beautiful and literary things, even though we’re not New York.”

Like Cain, David Dark, a lifelong Nashvillian, first learned of Chapter 16 when it reviewed one of his books, “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.” Two years ago, Dark, who teaches religion at Belmont University, wrote his first piece for the site, about the philosopher James P. Carse, in advance of Carse’s planned visit to Belmont’s campus. It was the first of many pieces about religion and politics that Dark would write for Chapter 16.

At a cocktail party last year celebrating the publication’s tenth anniversary, Dark looked around the room and realized just how eclectic and creative a crew it was—people he had previously seen one by one at events from across the decades and around the state, gathered together in one place. “I always tell my students to amplify the oracle, to amplify whatever thoughtfulness you find, to sponsor the culture you want to see more of,” Dark said. “And that’s what Chapter 16 does.”

Casey Cep


2020-11-22 06:00:00


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