An Interview with Martin Levin, Books Editor at The Globe and Mail

How do you assign reviews? Do you have a running list of reviewers to whom you give assignments? Can writers pitch to you? How does it work?

I read all publishers’ catalogues, issued several times a year, and often meet with them to go over the lists. I make a master list of titles for the season and then, on the basis of several considerations (reader interest, internal interest, balance, space, etc.) start assigning. I have a very long list of reviewers, some generalists, some specialists and, of course, some simply better than others. We will accept pitches, but I always want to know why we should: i.e. is there a special interest or expertise? We firmly discourage a personal relationship or history between reviewer and reviewee, though mild acquaintance is usually fine.

The Globe and Mail reviewed about 1200 books in 2011 (that figure includes Quick Reads and Buzz books). That puts your paper in the lead for numbers of books reviewed despite the fact that the books section appears to have shrunk over the years. Tell me about what has happened to the space for books under your tenure.

I joined the Globe in 1996 with a mandate to expand the Books section during flush times. When the Post launched, we decided to switch to a stand-alone tabloid format, á la the New York Times Book Review. That lasted for nine years, during which time Globe Books was among the world’s top books section. Then, the decline of print began to set in and the section began to shrink for entirely economic reasons: fewer ads, in part because books’ publishers are facing the same sort of technological/economic issues.

The way in which we talk about books in the national literary press is changing because so much content and readership is moving on-line and onto blogs, for example. Where do you see the print review in ten years in terms of its importance in the national discussion of books?

Impossible to predict. The way things are going, it doesn’t look good at all for print. The blogosphere has opened up room for a great deal more unmediated discussion. In many ways, that’s been good—there are some fine and stimulating sites. But so much of the talk is a reflection of the general net commentariat: loud, ill-informed, unsophisticated, even angry. I imagine that within five years, it may look very different.

Our organization, CWILA, counted reviews at the Globe by gender and found that about 60% of books reviewed in the entire paper (not just the books section) are written by men, which is better than the National Post, by the way. Do you think about such parameters as gender and/or race when picking which books will be reviewed? 

I really try not to, but a number of years ago Francine Prose raised this issue, especially regarding the New York Times, and I found myself doing year-end assessments for a couple of years just as a measure. (We came out quite well.) One difficulty is that a great majority of non-fiction (aside from memoir and self-help) is still written by men and, to a large extent, though hardly exclusively (I have a number of women reviewers with expertise on Asia and Russia, for instance), men make up the potential reviewing corps.

Do you think that an editor should pay attention to the gender of authors when choosing or assigning books?

I want to be cognizant of such issues, but certainly not have them determine things. When I began, we’d have a book by a black writer reviewed by a black writer, and so on. I can’t see why. For one thing, it’s ghettoizing. For another, I totally reject the idea of appropriation of voice; let the quality of the work determine the worth. And perhaps most importantly, the implied message in such cases is that only persons of the same sex/race/class would be interested in reading the book. Our reach should be as broad as possible.

Do you think the gender of the reviewer matters?

Sometimes, certainly, but mostly not. In fact, a counter-intuitively assigned review can sometimes bring a fresh and unexpected perspective. The last thing I want is cheerleading.

Finally, what does the Globe pay its reviewers per review?

The standard fee is $250, occasionally a bit less for shorter reviews. We pay more for bundled reviews.

Published on June 2, 2012

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