Reviewing the Review: December 16 2007

I wrote last week, following the announcement that NYTBR editor-in-chief Sam Tanenhaus would be adding the Week In Review news/opinion section to his responsibilities, that this announcement seemed to signal Tanenhaus’s eventual exit from direct responsibility for the New York Times Book Review. Ron Hogan of GalleyCat and Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review saw it differently: Hogan takes the Times’ press release at face value and does not predict that Tanenhuas’s role at the Book Review will change, while Orthofer hopes for a change but does not expect one.

I stand by my analysis, and I’m surprised that my colleagues Hogan and Orthofer (as well as others who have covered this news) are resisting the obvious interpretation of this announcement. First of all, I’m not in the habit of taking any press release from any corporation at face value. My inner Kremlinologist wakes up the moment any private organization issues a statement to the public, and it’s simply second nature to me to analyze news of a high-level personnel change in a media organization for the meaning behind the words.

I am also very familiar with the corporate culture at companies like the New York Times. I have never worked there but several friends of mine have, and my years up the street at Time Inc. give me some idea how the gears turn inside a company like the New York Times. Sam Tanenhaus has, probably on his own request, been “kicked upstairs”. NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller is quoted in the New York Observer: “One of Sam’s talents is to assemble and inspire a great team, give them strong conceptual guidance, and let them show their stuff”. What more do we need to hear? Tanenhaus may continue to oversee the New York Times Book Review with “conceptual guidance”, but running the NYTBR is a full-time job, and it seems highly unlikely that Tanenhaus will continue to directly call the day-to-day editorial shots at the New York Times Book Review in the new configuration.

Various smoke signals also indicate that (despite the energetic efforts of myself, Michael Orthofer, Ed Champion, Jim Sleeper and other commentators who find Tanenhaus’s track record with the NYTBR unsatisfactory) the New York Times management was happy with Tanenhaus’s performance, and Tanenhaus requested or insisted on this change. If this is correct, I salute Tanenhaus for making the right decision. He never seemed to have much taste for literature anyway — as far as I can discern, his contemporary fiction reading focused on sanitary bores like Richard Ford, so it’s no wonder he’s not having a great time at the Book Review.

Who will eventually fill this role? I’ll go out on a limb and venture a guess. Wall Street demands that every public media corporation must have a convincing internet strategy, and companies like the New York Times have been scrambling to emphasize their convergence with new media. This points us toward NYTBR senior editor Dwight Garner, who has done a great job launching the Book Review’s blog Paper Cuts earlier this year.

I could be way off, of course; the Times could also bring in an outsider, or might promote another NYTBR insider like Barry Gewen. But Gewen would not seem to be comfortable as the “public face” of the Book Review in the way the affable Dwight Garner would (this was where the nervous and humorless Sam Tanenhaus also ran into problems). So, my bet is in: Dwight Garner will gradually assume increasing direct responsibility at the NYTBR and will sometime in 2008 be announced as the new editor-in-chief. Based on Garner’s performance with Paper Cuts, I would welcome this change.

* * * * *

Well, jeez, I’ve just used up all my column inches auguring the Tanenhaus promotion, so I’m going to have to breeze quickly through the articles in this weekend’s Book Review. (That’s okay with me; I’ve been working hard on various projects and I can use a break). So, let’s rock:

Edward Hirsch provides a captivating introduction to an epic poem I’ve never read, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, newly translated by Simon Armitage (prior translators, I am here informed, include J. R. R. Tolkien, Ted Hughes and W. S. Merwin). I like Hirsch’s explanation of the plot, and of the “bob and wheel” rhyme mechanism that drives this work.

Siddhartha Deb reviews a new story collection by Nadine Gordimer, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. I wish the reviewer explained the book’s odd title, but I appreciate her honesty when she praises one story and then tells us that few of the other stories in the book are as powerful.

I’ve criticized Rachel Donadio’s writing often in the past, but she turns in a great essay this week on novelist J. M. Coetzee’s complex relationship with his home country of South Africa, where his writings have bristled against popular notions of post-Apartheid racial harmony. Donadio even finds a highly apt T. S. Eliot quotation (he was also an expatriate) for her strong closing sequence.

P. J. O’Rourke also turns in a good piece on Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture. I’m not exactly sure why O’Rourke reads so much social/political significance into this book (he loves it when Clark debunks some left-wing truisms about the global ethics of coffee consumption) but I give him credit for being repeatedly funny:

Clark talks a lot about the determination, drive and persistence of the Starbucks corporation. But if those were the sole qualities of success, toddlers would rule the world.

The one big clunker this week is John Patrick Diggins’ messy analysis of a work of religious philosophy, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Diggins’ writing is thick and furry and questionable in many spots:

Some 19th-century New England Transcendentalists may have felt the presence of God in a blade of grass, but they sought to escape the Abraham who would have murdered his own son at God’s command, along with America’s own killer of innocence in the name of authority, Captain Ahab.

Captain Ahab is a killer of innocence in the name of authority?

There are many reasons to read the profound meditations in ‘A Secular Age’, but waiting for God to show up is not one of them.

Sloppy mechanics: I know what he’s trying to say, but “waiting for God” is an activity, not a reason.

To insist that the “will of God” can be seen in history, one would have to deal with with thinkers from Thucydides to Tolstoy, who saw “design” as the domination of reason by power and freedom by fate.

I have no idea what he’s talking about, really.

This Book Review also includes numerous articles about politics, neoconservativism, neoliberalism (a term I’m not sure what to think about, here identified with Bill Clinton’s approach to economics) and religion. I’d like to sort this all out but it’s beyond my scope for this weekend.

4 Responses

  1. I’d say you’re right, Dwight
    I’d say you’re right, Dwight will take on more responsibility and I’d say that that will not be a bad development. The NYTBR has in fact been rather good to us over the years both under Chip and Sam so I’ve remainded fairly silent in much discussion of the choices there, I’ll confess, selfish wimp that I am. My sense BTW is that the poetry coverage is VERY much Dwight’s thing,

  2. To me, The Guardian book blog
    To me, The Guardian book blog is far more interesting than the NYTBR. I recommend readers of the NYTBR try The Guardian instead, see if you don’t like it better. Paper Cuts is good; I suppose there’re a lot of good lit blogs. But they all feature one person’s opinion. The Guardian features a wide variety of interesting voices and perspectives.

  3. As I said at edrants, I agree
    As I said at edrants, I agree with you that before long Tanenhaus will drop the NYTBR gig and focus completely on Week In Review. The way I see it his brief at Week is probably to steer it in the direction of the kinder, gentler neoconservatism (as manifested in David Brooks, f’rinstance) that the Times brass seems to dig (as opposed to the grouchy, grumpy paleoneoconservatism, shall we say, of Norman Podhoretz). And I’m guessing that Dwight Garner’s got a good shot at the editorship if Keller has taken to making such a promotion in-house.

  4. I’ve unfortunately had to
    I’ve unfortunately had to serve several stretches in corporate America to pay the bills. Your assessment of public announcements from corporations is quite correct: their purpose is *never* simple information. Like pathological children and adults, they always lie – even when there is no reason to do so. By the time these people get to the top, it’s a reflex.

    Disturbing question: do they get to the top, at least in part, *because* they lie as a matter of course? (My take: Yes.)

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