Reviewing the Review: January 25 2009

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.

10 Responses

  1. Hmm, your reaction to “See
    Hmm, your reaction to “See the Web Site…” (I use website, but there you have the difference in style guides…) was far milder than mine. Mine was more along of the lines of “What year is this?” I think the most eyebrow-raising aspect of the piece was the price being paid — largely by authors! — for these designs. It felt like the author had discovered this magic new thing: the author website. Or the book website (which, wow, people are paying that kind of money for book site? Ouch.

    It felt very much 1998, with book trailers. What a strange thing to read in the NYT.

  2. Very interesting, but not
    Very interesting, but not great. It would be great if you could convince Tanenhaus to have an open forum on-line book review. Sorta like The Guardian, whereby writers respond to hundreds of comments about their articles. That’s how you get people involved and excited about books – sharing ideas, being a part of it. Not just the dull-witted recipients of dull-witted essays; but a vibrant, raucous community of reader-writers where everybody gots a piece of the action. Paper Cuts doesn’t quite fit that bill, it’s too staid, or impersonal, or standoff-ish. Too much of “here’s what we think, and we we really don’t much care whether you comment back or not.” In the internet age, the interactive give and take is what’s all about.

  3. Kassia … that too!

    Kassia … that too!

    Mikael, I do think that technically Paper Cuts is that open on-line forum. And it’s probably the best move they’ve made since I’ve begun reviewing them, though most of its potential is still unrealized (enough with “what books are shelved next to yours”, for instance) …

  4. Wow, none of you can get this
    Wow, none of you can get this right. He said, “No, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t keep doing it.” And gave the impression that he’d never read or even heard of your reviews.

  5. In forty years of reading the
    In forty years of reading the Book Review Self-Congratulatory Travesty, I have never once heard of a single instance of the thing publishing work that was not solicited. I absolutely believe Tanenhaus said it. What I don’t believe for a second is that he meant it.

    Because I blog at Paper Cuts regularly, I hear from the various editors who post there. They email me with these laughable (nervous) messages about how they are always being attacked. The tone is one of exasperation. Their public face (indifference) and their private face (anxiety) represent a disconnect.

    Personally, for the first time in my life I’ve been following economic reports (not my usual gig) that cover the financial health of the paper. The New York Times is in far more of a financial crisis that they would have you know. To have to be bailed out by a Mexican investor who does, indeed, want at the very least input into editorial, makes Rupert Murdoch seem objective.

    The paper will pull out of the slump. It will require hedge fund razzle dazzle but they will do it. They are trying everything including but not limited to the sale of their new building and/or the sale of the Boston Globe. They are making a valiant effort at going contemporary with ONE major exception. The Book Review.

    The construction of and management of the paper’s BLOGS has received an intense focus by management. They are painfully aware that Paper Cuts suffers from the same ills the Book Review suffers from.

    In essence, they don’t really have blogs (there is little dialogue and reciprocity is nonexistent and it’s a problem when readers do not respond immediately with the word “Bravo”). Nevertheless, it’s getting better. The new technology staff has made big inroads into the corporate power structure. It’s change or die time and they know it.

    The Book Review clings to the rocks.

    All of the blogs at the New York Times (most of which are public relations gimmicks) have loosened up to include POVs from readers who do not necessarily agree with the POV of any particular piece of writing. With ONE major exception. The Book Review. Paper Cuts is an in-house love fest. ALL dissenting opinion is perceived as an ad hominem attack. The very term “ad hominem” is used there to describe (I see it in every single email I get from these people) everything that comes their way. They honestly don’t get it.

    The editorial intransigence at the Book Review has not gone unnoticed by management. They are painfully aware that as the paper has changed, the Book Review changes are superficial. Usually, this perception on the part of critics of the paper goes to the Good Old Boy Club rhetoric that has kept them afloat for generations but not this time. This time their editorial intransigence goes straight to management’s struggle to understand and define exactly what a blog is.

    Reciprocity is the idealogical issue. It is anathema to journalistic tradition.

    Where the editorial content at the paper’s other blogs has morphed to become (very slowly) more contemporary (and inclusive), the blog at the Book Review is the one stubborn hold out. It represents the state of the Book Review in general. I have been told they only publish half the posts they receive. The half that is congratulatory. That is not what a blog is about and management knows it.

    But there is an extraordinary reluctance to interfere at the Book Review. No one knows why because it has been a closely guarded issue. Bringing Motoko Rich on from Real Estate was seen as one move that could perhaps help in terms of a reporter who was not a part of the old network but what was supposed to be a fresh voice with real insight quickly became peppered with strings of: “publishing insiders say.” This is not journalism but journalism is not what the Book Review does, and it is not expected to do.

    I don’t write that as an attack. Ask anyone in editorial management. They will tell you that a Book Review is necessarily subjective and they are correct. However, you cannot divorce this from the reality that a BLOG is also necessarily subjective and can, indeed, exist side-by-side a book review. Lit Kicks does spectacularly.

    That the Book Review section has not made any of the fundamental design or philosophical changes the rest of the paper has struggled with has made the Book Review a paper unto itself. This chasm between the Book Review and the management of the paper will not go on indefinitely because it’s a corporate issue and in those meetings there are two side.

    One side brooks no change. To date, they have lost at every turn of the paper.

    The other side is only concerned with one thing and that is money.

    The side that tolerates no change is going to bite the dust.

    Management at the New York Times understands the Book Review has not kept up. My own personal, subjective opinion is that they are playing a very typical corporate game which is called give them rope. If they allow the Book Review to fail, and that does not mean editorial; it means advertising revenue, they can either revamp the whole thing or get rid of it.

    What does this mean for literary blogs. It means book publishers will become more inclined to spend advertising dollars (what ad revenue there will be and it won’t be much) as they attempt to reach a more focused audience. This will be great for blogs and really bad for the New York Times. The shift has already begun and no one sees this river changing course anytime soon.

    Their indifference will be their undoing. It’s a tragedy. The management at the New York Times knows very well that advertising expenditures at the publishing houses and corporate entities that have so far kept the Book Review afloat are being almost entirely eliminated. Where dollars were spent in the past, we are talking spare change. Corporate publishing is cutting back not with a razor, but with a sword. My subjective view is that the book review is at the brink of collapse.

    Bloggers have an important part to play here as management figures out what to do. This goes way beyond Tanenhous. If bloggers want to see the Book Review survive (I do not know that it deserves to survive but that is not germane to the argument) they can at this time have a dramatic impact as management at the New York Times wrestles with how to keep that part of the paper relevant to the extent it attracts revenue.

    It won’t be easy. Bloggers in odd ways, too, have some kind of responsibility to keep hammering away at them not in terms of specific views of specific books — the subjectivity of that is a given — but what remains AMAZING in this time of transformation is the disconnect between their new cutting edge, hard-working staff of technological design wizards, and the grey old ladies who have managed to keep the Book Review isolated and antique.

    The New York Times Book Review has always been instrumental in terms of not simply reviewing books, but in terms of what gets published. There isn’t single publishing house in New York where editorial control has not been pulled into the control of publicity. Suddenly (sudden for publishing), it’s publicity that has no cash. Editorial has been here for some time.

    To wit: New York Times Book Review material bouncing (with reference even) against-and-to the New York Review of Books. In the past, this would have never happened. But change is a contentious and hungry beast. The people who work in this part of the New York Times are dancing as fast as they can. Whether they are dancing fast enough remains to be seen. — Tim Barrus, Shinjuku

  6. “Great?” he said. “I don’t
    “Great?” he said. “I don’t know if we’re ever ‘great’.”

    –Wow, that is sad. At what point do you think Tanenhaus gave up? Wonder what his contributors would think of that statement?

  7. Interesting analysis, Tim —
    Interesting analysis, Tim — thanks. You make some good points here.

    Eric, you’re probably right about his exact phrasing. And in the long conversation that followed, Tanenhaus did make it clear that he doesn’t read my blog or Ed’s, but also made it clear that he was aware of both blogs from things he’d overheard, and seemed to believe that we were both highly negative about the Book Review. I wish he did check out my commentary more often, because he might be surprised at how often I praise the publication.

    Finally, Elizabeth, I know, I know! I’m glad you see it this way too. Cynicism does run rampant in the New York publishing milieu, but that doesn’t mean we should give in to it.

  8. Tim: That’s some fascinating
    Tim: That’s some fascinating inside baseball. I wish I could say that I was surprised by your report, but I’m not. Motoko Rich is a good reporter, but there seems to be a fundamental divide between what the daily books beat is doing and what the NYTBR is doing. What Levi and I didn’t report in our respective accounts is that we did try and make a case to Tanenhaus that he needed to include more passionate coverage, predicated on unusual perspectives. Sure enough, this very topic brought out the “ad hominem” charge and led to me eventually point to Wieseltier’s review as an example of the same.

    Here’s the thing. I would be happy to articulate to Tanenhaus in-person precisely what he needs to do to remain current. I’ve actually done this with other books editors who haven’t dismissed me as a raving loon. But what possible incentive do I have when he remains editorially intransigent to present realities? The notion that a differing perspective is an “attack” is laughable and immature, and it fails to take into account that all the voices can indeed be corralled under a mighty tarpaulin tent that encourages lively opinion and civil disagreement. That’s what John Leonard did so well during his heyday. Leonard, unlike Tanenhaus, was a uniter. He advocated emerging voices: both with the authors he covered and the reviewers he assigned. And the NYTBR, as a result, was a talked about publication. Tanenhaus, by contrast, is, as you say, propping up the remaining edifice of the old guard. Most of the younger reviewers who have made it into the castle have done so by capitulating their voices or playing ball — in a way that feels less about journalism and more like a Sloan Wilson novel. And while the older members of the old guard have some guarantee of getting the “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” treatment (see below examples), there is no such guarantee to the new members. Troy Patterson’s shameful review of Mark Sarvas’s novel, with the needless aside about where he stood in the NYTBR’s food chain (“That you are reading a review of this novel in these pages is a testament to the author’s success as a blogger.”), demonstrated that policy quite well.

    If what you say is true, it’s interesting now that management does apparently want to see the NYTBR become a central place for books again. But I’m likewise amazed that the NYTBR has absolutely no connection with its history. Nothing, for example, in the NYTBR about Leonard’s passing. That kind of attitude is disastrous for a publication hoping to merge its past achievements with the ever-shifting needs of the present.

    At the B&N event, Tanenhaus boasted that the editors read the first 20 to 30 pages of every book they assigned for every review, and that the editors never tried to persuade a reviewer to write a review a particular way. But when Tanenhaus assigns Bill Keller’s TREE SHAKER to a reviewer, or has John Dean review Mark Felt’s A G-MAN’S LIFE, I don’t think that any reasonable person can persuasively argue that there isn’t an unsettling editorial implication at work. Tanenhaus and his crew aren’t dummies. And if they would simply own up to these egregious editorial deficiencies and welcome those who criticize their work — people who may provide fresh and much-needed douses of water upon their face — without this stubborn recalcitrance, they might actually start to exist in the 21st century.

  9. Aren’t you splitting hairs
    Aren’t you splitting hairs regarding why publishers hire certain artists and photographers? Of course they hire them because they are talented, and to make the book more appealing to consumers. The two go hand in hand.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!