Editor Sam Tanenhaus and several others from the New York Times Book Review presented a panel discussion in Bryant Park today, offering me my first real-life glimpse of this staff since I began reviewing the Review over a year ago. A large crowd had gathered for this outdoor event, titled “The Art of the Book Review,” filling the large tent (I understand many who arrived after me were turned away). Literary criticism is hot!
I wouldn’t say the panel discussion was quite hot, though. Sam Tanenhaus was the opening speaker, the moderator and the closing speaker, and he kept the conversation focused on journalistic and procedural issues rather than literary topics. Much of the talk revolved around the question of how the NYTBR achieves objectivity when so many book critics, book review editors, publishers, agents and authors socialize and do business together. This is a relevant question, but its also a mundane one that carries its own answer (you try hard to avoid conflicts of interest — what more is there to say?) and leads too easily to bloodless platitudes (e.g. “this is an art, not a science”).
I’d rather see these guys riff on fiction and poetry than painstakingly explain procedural issues, and I was glad when Tanenhaus passed the mic to panel members John Freeman and David Orr, who both managed to light some sparks with talk of Elizabeth Bishop and Margaret Atwood and various literary topics of the day. But mostly the event felt sanitary and dull, and I could all too easily imagine this management team in a well-lit corporate office, turning out their product week after week. More passion and spontaneity wouldn’t have hurt.
I’m glad the editorial team pointed out that they are fallible, though, because otherwise I’d have to yell louder about the cover article of this week’s issue, which is allegedly about Robert L. Beisner’s new biography of President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson. But Henry Kissinger is the special guest star reviewer of this book, and this is bad luck for Dean Acheson, since Henry Kissinger clearly sees Dean Acheson as a metaphor for himself and spends most of the article pondering abstract questions of reputation and history that are noticeably relevant to his own career as well as to Acheson’s.
Kissinger tells us that “Dean Acheson was perhaps the most vilified secretary of state in modern American history.” I think a more objective look places him at number two, with Kissinger in the top spot (and Acheson only gets the second slot because Condoleeza Rice has never been powerful enough to be worth vilifying). But there’s hope: “History has treated Acheson more kindly.” Later: “His values were absolute, but he knew also that statesmen are judged by history beyond contemporary debates, and this requires a willingness to achieve great goals in stages, each of which is probably imperfect by absolute standards.” I wonder why this is the only aspect of Acheson’s long and complex career that Kissinger finds interesting. Kissinger never breaks his straight face as he lavishes praise on Acheson, but I know I’m not the only reader who finds this review a transparent display of self-flattery.
The cover article is the only major dud in this week’s issue, though, and I’m very satisfied with a wide variety of other reviews including captivating pieces by Meg Wolitzer on Richard Bausch’s Thanksgiving Night, Elissa Schappell on Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Girl/White Girl and Alice Truax on Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, a new collection of short stories I’m hoping to read soon.
I’m also interested in checking out Greg Hollingshead’s Bedlam, a historical madhouse story. I almost never read science books, but I may make an exception for Colin Tudge’s The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why they Matter, based on Elizabeth Royte’s interesting summary.
I spent over three hours with this weekend’s issue, which proves at least one thing: these editors haven’t quite mastered the art of rocking a crowd, but I guess they know a few things about the art of publishing a weekly book review.