Rebranding the Review: June 8 2008

An ecology activist climbed the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan this week, but the best part is that a few hours later another guy heard about it and rushed over to do the same thing. Which just goes to prove: you can’t scrounge a minute of fame in this city without somebody else jumping into the spotlight. Same as it’s always been.

Have you noticed that the New York Times Book Review has been bursting out more and more into its own (successful) brand? A new 15-minute weekly radio show on WQXR-FM is no small potatoes, especially since it reflects the NYTBR’s decision to define itself outside the shrinking newspaper category and become a multimedia brand. These are hard times in the newspaper business, but the Book Review has an identity and industry presence beyond that of its parent paper. Who remembers that New York Magazine was once the Sunday magazine supplement for the dying New York Herald Tribune? The New York Times is hardly dying, but still the NYTBR is doing the smart thing by positioning itself on its own terms and promoting the Book Review brand directly to the world.

I’m thinking not only of radio here, but of internet publishing. It’s a surprising fact, and possibly a discouraging one to independent bloggers like me, that Paper Cuts, the New York Times Book Review blog, has a higher Technorati ranking than any other literary blog. It also often maintains a higher Technorati ranking than any other New York Times blog. We like to make fun of the stodgy NYTBR here in the ‘sphere, but who’s laughing last?

NYTBR’s directors may be more savvy than they look, especially since the publication trades heavily on its “traditional” image in contrast to all that crazy internet stuff out there. But behind the “gray lady” aura and the retro ink-on-the-fingers chic, it’s entirely possible that these executives are more focused than they want readers to know on playing both sides of this equation. The online edition of the NY Times competes for online ad dollars with Google and Yahoo, and does so from some position of strength. Like I said, more savvy than they look.

And maybe this is one reason why, in case anyone is wondering, I still keep my eye on the New York Times Book Review every week, even when I have to fight off waves of ennui to remain interested. Some LitKicks readers have suggested to me that this old media brand isn’t worth the attention, but I’m not falling for that easy answer. They’re on the radio, their blog’s Technorati ranking kicks my ass … no, the NYTBR isn’t losing its relevance anytime soon.

Quality-wise, it remains a mixed bag. The best article in today’s issue, David Gates’ explanation of why he just can’t endure another self-satisfied Salman Rushdie historical fantasia, rings completely true with me:

I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous.

I also like Robert Pinksy’s flights of pathos in connecting Kathryn Harrison’s true-crime story While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family to Oedipus Rex, Dante’s Inferno and the book of Genesis. Joanna Hershon’s The German Bride, which is on my to-read pile, wins the approval of Deborah Weisgall, and Elinor Lipman’s clear writing almost persuades me (as if I had time to read more novels!) to add Sylvia Brownrigg’s Morality Tale, the study of a marriage in crisis, to the pile as well.

There’s no awful writing in today’s issue, but there are some deeply flawed critical stances. Bryan Burrough completely dismisses a modest biography of a Wyoming kid who dies in an oil-field accident, The Legend of Colton T. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller, for imagining scenes and dialogue in a non-fiction book.

Call me a strict constructionist, but I wanted to yell, No, no, no, you can’t do that! Not if you want to call a book nonfiction. That’s not artistic license. It’s cheating. Not cheating in the sense that plagiarism is cheating. I don’t belive Fuller has committed a major literary felony here, but it’s clearly a misdemeanor, even if she comes out and admits it.

Burrough seems to lack confidence in his own emphatic position here, and he well should, because Fuller’s book is written the same way good nonfiction has been written since, probably, the days of hieroglyphics. Nonfiction books almost always invent dialogue and imagine scenic details beyond the realm of what the author can authenticate. There is absolutely no reason to single out this book, especially since the book does not market itself (I went to a bookstore and checked) on its veracity but on the quality of its storytelling. Nowhere on the book’s cover does it proclaim “A True Story!”. The words “nonfiction” and “biography” appear only in the finest print on the title page. Alexandra has not committed a misdemeanor or a felony; she has attempted to write a book the way books have always been written. The sins of James Frey should not condemn the world’s eager readers to a new publishing standard whereby nonfiction books are drained of all their imaginative blood and broadly vetted by lawyers. I can hardly imagine a worse fate for the important field of nonfiction publishing.

Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Snuff is likewise dismissed wholesale by Lucy Ellmann, who refers to Pahlaniuk as a “shock jock” and clearly can’t stand his scummy, nasty book. What her review doesn’t tell us is whether Pahlaniuk has written a good scummy, nasty book or a bad scummy, nasty book. And that’s exactly what Pahlaniuk’s readers will want to know.

10 Responses

  1. One nonfiction biography that
    One nonfiction biography that I think is not drained of its imaginary blood worth a mention is ‘The First American, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin’ by H.W. Brands. I had no idea that Ben Franklin was such an eccentric, witty, clever and extremely likeable human being, who was also an extraordinary writer. H.W.Brands should have earned that Pulitzer prize.

  2. We’re missing the point. It’s
    We’re missing the point. It’s the same old argument that has no resolution except what you believe – “Steinbrenner’s an idiot – he coulda kept Soriano and got more pitching, instead of ARod.” “Yeah, but he’s got millions of dollars, whatta you got?” What I got is what I believe in; no proof except a line from “Buffy Ste. Marie – “he knows what he knows, like the trees do” whatever that’s worth.

    The role of the critic, editor, publisher is to advise the public as to what is art and what isn’t; what is essential, and what isn’t. It is a position of trust. Do the workers at NYTBR consider this their calling, their life’s work? Or is it a stepping stone to advance their own writing careers. Or is it just a job, that which puts food on the table. Who knows… Maybe they’re just shills for the big publishing houses; or another voice piece for corporate America.

    I don’t care about their Technorati rating, whatever that is. I care whether they turn over every stone to find the absolute best writing – the art, which is essential for us as a society. If they don’t do that, street people can use the book section of the NYT for a sleeping bag; and trees will not have died for nothing.

  3. Jennifer, if I could travel
    Jennifer, if I could travel in time and meet one person, I would choose Ben Franklin. Nobody tops him in skills, accomplishments, and personality!
    You should read The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. It’s fiction, but Franklin is featured prominently.

    Levi, your Chuck Pahlaniuk comment is the perfect example of what you’ve been saying about the role of critics. I’m trying to remember those three guides to literary criticism that you talked about before (I think you added a 4th one).

  4. You spend years waiting for
    You spend years waiting for King Kong, then two turn up.
    Only in America.

  5. Levi,

    Thanks for the link to

    Thanks for the link to Papercuts! Yikes! 🙂

  6. For a rather [revealing] look
    For a rather [revealing] look at our, rather, “ahem”, forefather Ben, take a look at Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (by Bill Bryson; 1994).

  7. oh, and just for grins, i,
    oh, and just for grins, i, too, scaled the gray slimed walls of the lady

    but as a copyboy

    I made it all the way to the fourth floor
    and fled the newsroom

    i am fleeing there today

  8. Bill and Jota,

    I will put
    Bill and Jota,

    I will put them on my list! I would have responded to Bill’s comment earlier, but I feared that Levi would discourage the chatter.

  9. In his review of While They
    In his review of While They Slept, Robert Pinsky writes of Kathryn Harrison’s “prolonged incestuous violation by her father”. Did I miss something? Harrison was twenty years old when she took up consensually with her father–hardly an eleven-year old getting fingered by daddy while she says her prayers. I thought Harrison’s Exposure (1993) was the most interesting novel of the 1990s; but if Pinsky’s interpretation of events are a reflection of Harrison’s take on things, then I’m writing her off as a self-exploitative phoney on par with Canada’s happy little former child-whore, Evelyn Lau. As for Pinsky, it’s time he turned off Oprah and started thinking rationally (again?).

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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!