Dear readers:
For our sixth anniversary in May 2010, The Caribbean Review of Books has launched a new website at www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com. Antilles has now moved to www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/antilles — please update your bookmarks and RSS feed. If you link to Antilles from your own blog or website, please update that too!

Monday, 10 November 2008

"The starting point for our national conversation"

The New York Review of Books--which has inspired dozens of other book-reviewing periodicals around the world, including, yes, the CRB--is forty-five years old. (See the anniversary issue online here; the entire first issue of the NYRB, dated 1 February, 1963, here.) Yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle ran a profile by Heidi Benson of the NYRB's editor and co-founder, Robert Silvers. (The UK Guardian also published an excellent profile of Silvers in January 2004. I recall reading it three or four times at least in the months before we launched the CRB in May that year.) One paragraph in the middle of Benson's piece caught my attention:

Today, the idea at the heart of the New York Review of Books - that a thoughtful, vigorous survey of the books of the day is more than the sum of its parts - couldn't be more bracing or more relevant. At a time when newspapers and publishers are confronting transformational changes, it is good to remember that books are still the starting point for our national conversation.

What a wonderfully optimistic and civilised idea. It recalls Arthur Miller's notion of "a good newspaper" as "a nation talking to itself." The CRB is not a newspaper, of course, but a literary journal (though remember Ezra Pound's pronouncement: "Literature is news that stays news"). But I've always thought of the reviews, essays, poems, stories, and interviews published in the CRB's pages as a kind of conversation (see the introductory note in our first issue)--an energetic debate not just about Caribbean literature and art, but also about our history, culture, politics, and philosophy, a conversation full of questions about who and what and why we are, about how to define the Caribbean, how to define our present reality, about all our possible futures. A conversation grounded in the belief--the hope--that the Caribbean, however you draw its boundaries, is a nation.

Books are, as Benson writes, the starting point. They are still, in the digital age, the most durable and dependable repositories of knowledge, the most trusted medium for recording our intellectual evolution. That's why "a thoughtful, vigorous survey of the books of the day is more than the sum of its parts." A book review serves the very practical purpose of helping the reader decide whether a new title is worth his or her money and time. But of course it does much more. I wish I could remember who it was that suggested book reviews are the primary mechanism for translating new ideas from the academy into the wider world. Intelligent, honest, informed book reviews help sift fresh ideas from stale, introduce new language to fill epistemic gaps, provoke us to rethink our certainties. That's what I've always hoped the CRB could do.

Nearly five decades after independence, a decade into the twenty-first century, this role, this function, this conversation seems more urgent and necessary than ever for the nation of the Caribbean. At least it seems so to me. But more and more of late I worry that I'm deluded or irrelevant or simply wrong. This worry grows more acute as the year draws to a close and I consider the CRB's finances. For publishing is a business in which hopes and ideas and ideals all too easily founder on the shoals of dollars and debts. We run a modest operation here at the CRB, but some costs are unavoidable. We have to pay our printers. We stubbornly insist on paying our writers. We pay to send the magazine to readers all over the Caribbean and further afield--postage is absurdly expensive. We pay to run the CRB website, which contains our entire archive.

The CRB has never in more than four years turned a profit, never in all that time managed to pay proper salaries to its editorial staff. It has always depended on the energy of volunteers and the financial generosity of donors (Media and Editorial Projects from the beginning, the Prince Claus Fund over the last year)--and of course on those of our readers who support the magazine by subscribing.

It's tiresome to talk about money matters, and probably more tiresome to hear it. But this too is part of that "national conversation." Literature and art and ideas need certain kinds of engines in order to thrive. Books and journals are expensive to produce. How do we fund them? Who pays the bills? At the moment, I don't quite know how we'll pay the CRB's bills in the coming year. And I wonder who it will matter to, if the magazine simply ceases publication.

This is not a plea for sympathy, dear readers. Rather, I'd like to hear your thoughts on all the above. I'd like to discuss whether a magazine like the CRB is important enough to Caribbean intellectual life for us to make the effort to keep publishing it. There are three ways you can join that discussion. Leave a comment below, of course. Email me directly, if there is something you'd like to say in private. Or speak with your wallet. Subscribe here. Give a gift subscription. Encourage a friend or colleague to subscribe, or your library, or your academic department.

I believe the work the CRB is doing is valuable and necessary, especially in a time when the whole Caribbean as we know it is "confronting transformational changes." Do you?


Geoffrey Philp said...

I've voted with a subscription.

John Robert Lee said...

Thanks for those inspiring links to NYRB (and the other links and news you provide regularly.) In the meantime you and your team and regular reviewers are doing significant, commendable, valuable and NEEDED work with CRB. In my opinion, CRB is now the leading review of Caribbean Literature anywhere. Your early stated aim to keep reviews accessible and readable without compromising rigorous criticism has been achieved and must continue. (You remember Dana Gioia's famous essay 'Can poetry matter' in which he calls for what you have done with CRB?) Don't give up. I have already sent your Nov. 10th post to several friends encouraging them to SUBSCRIBE. I'll continue to do so. Our beautiful and more than talented Caribbean is hard ground for the creative spirit for whom the use of our intellect and imagination is the centre of our life, in our own yard. But we of this (Obama) generation must persevere as others have done, for those coming after us. Hold up Editor brother!!!! And I say - SUBSCRIBE! to those reading this.
John Robert Lee, Saint Lucian writer