I’ve always wondered if New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus paid attention to my weekly postings. I wasn’t planning to ask when I showed up at a downtown Book Review event this Wednesday featuring Tanenhaus, novelist Joseph O’Neill and critics Dwight Garner and Liesl Schillinger. Instead, as I promised last week, I asked him if the Book Review was at risk of being scuttled (like the Washington Post Book World) due to the extreme slowdown in the newspaper business. Tanenhaus responded that he did not think this would happen, that he could not imagine it would make sense for the Times to shut down such a popular section. He acknowledged that ad sales had been way down lately, and I noticed that his encouraging words were phrased tentatively: he did not think the Book Review was at risk, but he appeared to have been worrying about it too.
I attended this event with a small “blogger posse” including Ed Champion of Return of the Reluctant Habits and Eric Rosenfeld of Wet Asphalt (note: we don’t travel in packs because we aim to intimidate; we just like hanging out together). After it ended an embarrassing and high-school-like moment occurred in which Eric impishly asked me, well within Tanenhaus’s range of hearing, if I was going to tell Tanenhaus that I was the blogger who reviewed him every week. This made a brief handshake and introduction inevitable, after which Ed Champion asked Tanenhaus “does Levi’s critique help you?”
“No,” Tanenhaus said, quickly escaping from the ambush. “But keep on doing what you do.”
A few minutes later, Ed and I were outside the local Raccoon Lodge arguing (what else would we be doing?) about literary journalism when Sam Tanenhaus suddenly appeared, walking towards the nearby subway, and stopped to talk to us some more. Ed and I were both surprised by this, especially since Ed had his own history with Tanenhaus that dates way back to a confrontation about brownies in 2006. The three of us had a long discussion. Ed asked why the Book Review does not do a better job with translated literature and with genre categories, and suggested that Sam might profitably replace science-fiction critic Dave Itzkoff with a more clued-in reviewer like Jeff VanderMeer. Tanenhaus reacted with interest to this suggestion, which emboldened me to dig into my own bag of gripes and ask why the endpaper essay is so often forgettable when there are many brilliant humorists out there who could do more with the page. “Why don’t they send us something?” he said. “We accept submissions”. That was news to me — I had assumed that all writing assignments at the NYTBR were by invitation — and I was satisfied with the answer.
We then spent a long time discussing whether or not the Book Review would consider assigning a review to Ed Champion despite the fact that Champion had posted nasty ad-hominem attacks on various people involved with the Book Review (mainly, Sam Tanenhaus himself). Tanenhaus said this type of attack violated his journalistic principles, Champion responded that Leon Wieseltier’s attack on Nicholson Baker several years ago was an ad hominem attack, Tanenhaus responded that it wasn’t technically an ad hominem attack, I interjected that Champion’s satirical reporting style should be understood as belonging to the ribald but respectable tradition of 1960s rabble-rouser Paul Krassner, and the three of us had a grand old time shooting the shit on a Tribeca street corner for a few minutes. I still don’t think Tanenhaus is doing a great job running the NYTBR — I’ll explain why below — but I’ll easily admit that it was pretty classy of him to stop and talk to us.
I wish I could give the current Book Review a great write-up based on this Tribeca lovefest. Unfortunately, it’s a bland and flimsy issue. Maria Russo’s balanced consideration of Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories and Russell Shorto’s explication of Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air are among the better moments. Lee Siegel, as aggravating as ever, accuses A Day and a Night and a Day author Glen Duncan of fancy overwriting. This will leave every reader’s head spinning, because nobody overwrites as fancy as Lee Siegel (though I’ll admit that the ambitious Siegel scores a good phrase here when he compares Duncan’s style to “having your imagination cornered by a drunk in a Dublin bar”).
A boring and mechanical endpaper essay titled “See the Web Site, Buy the Book” by J. Courtney Sullivan epitomizes the disappointment so many of us often feel with the Book Review’s current direction. Ignoring fresh online outlets like the blogosphere and the twittersphere, this essay discusses the growing field of commercial book website development in the most cynical and marketing-oriented terms. Tell me if you spot what’s wrong with these sentences:
Publishers have long hoped that, say, a jacket by Chip Kidd or an author photo by Marion Ettlinger will increase attention and sales by signaling that a book is a big deal. In recent years, as publishing houses have encouraged writers to create a robust online presence, a new team of experts has emerged.
Funny — I thought publishers hired Chip Kidd or Marion Ettlinger because compelling cover artwork attracted readers. According to this formulation, Kidd and Ettlinger are not artists but trophies. The implication is that book publishers attempt to build successful titles by gaming the market, signaling with expensive book jackets or websites that a book is “a big deal”. I don’t blame the NYTBR for admitting this depressing truth, but many readers will find this admission more startling than the subject of the essay itself. Is it really all that cynical? Is that why publishers and agents swoon at the mention of the name Chip Kidd — not because they love his cover designs but because he makes a book smell like money? And if this is the case, doesn’t the Book Review realize how repellent this is to readers?
Under Sam Tanenhaus’s leadership, the New York Times Book Review has often adopted a weary, complacent attitude towards the book business, and towards its own place in the book business. I’ve observed that publishers, editors and agents often also express weary and complacent attitudes, which is why Tanenhaus probably plays well with other insiders in the book business. However, readers and lovers of literature do not like complacency. When I was complaining about the endpaper essay outside the Raccoon Lodge, I said that a few of the essays (say, a recent one by Colson Whitehead) had been “great”. Tanenhaus balked at my use of this word. “Great?” he said. “I don’t know if we’re ever ‘great’.”
I suppose he was expressing humility. But there is only one New York Times Book Review in the world, and I don’t see why the hell the Book Review shouldn’t strive, week after week, for ‘great’. I want a NYTBR editor-in-chief who tells his staff and his writers that they’d better be great, and who fires any staffer and slams the door on any critic who can’t aim that high. Whether or not the Book Review is in serious financial trouble — and I hope that Tanenhaus is right that it remains secure — it’s a fact that the New York Times is in serious financial trouble, and so is every other major newspaper company in America. Greatness is called for at moments like these.
Finally, I have to respond to Tanenhaus’s statement that my Reviewing the Review columns have not helped at all. Can’t I at least help as a fact-checker? Over the years I’ve pointed out many errors in this publication, as in the current issue when Vanessa Grigoriadis’s review of Norah Vincent’s Voluntary Madness refers to a “John Bly-inspired men’s retreat”. The correct name is Robert Bly, who wrote a book called Iron John. There … I helped.