Reviewing the Review of the Review: May 15 2010

Five years ago on this day, Sunday, May 15 2005, I decided to start reviewing the New York Times Book Review on Litkicks. Early that morning I posted the first entry in what has become an enduring series, and a big part of my identity within the literary scene.

I had no idea what I was in for when I began this. I remember sitting in my living room wondering what to blog about that calm Sunday morning, and I remember turning to Caryn and saying “I think I’m gonna review the Book Review every weekend”. “Sounds like quite a thrill,” she said, and I was off.

I knew very little about the inner workings of the NYTBR at this time. I didn’t know, nor did I care, that its editor was named Sam Tanenhaus (though I had been aware of, and respected, its earlier editor John Leonard). I had no idea that friends I hadn’t met yet like Ed Champion, Michael Orthofer, Jim Sleeper, Chad Post and Scott Esposito paid keen attention to this publication. But I suppose my timing was good, because a highly public dust-up was about to emerge between traditionalist book critics (like John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle) and a few barbarians at the gate (a group I suddenly found myself a member of). The New York Times Book Review often became the focus of the argument, and its admittedly unsuspecting chief Sam Tanenhaus the straw man every good argument needs. I can’t deny that I enjoyed jumping into this fray. It was fun. Nobody got hurt, though a few egos got bruised. I was proud to find myself in the starting nine on the Barbarian team, a team I’d never tried out for, and I think we played a good game.

Reviewing the NYTBR never felt like a big deal to me, and I don’t think these weekend columns have ever been especially popular with Litkicks readers. In New York City publishing circles or literary cliques, however, I suddenly found that I was “the guy who reviews the Book Review”. I’ve sometimes complained that Litkicks readers won’t let me stop being the “beat generation guy”, but on the island of Manhattan I’m not the beat generation guy — I’m the guy who reviews the Book Review.

Mind you, I don’t always get respect for this. In fact, many people lump me, Champion and Orthofer together as the “complainers”, often implying that we couldn’t get our reviews published in the Book Review, so we starting trashing it instead. Well, I can’t speak for my fellow complainers, but I never wanted to write for the New York Times Book Review, nor have I ever wanted to be a literary critic. I’ve dreamed of seeing a book I wrote on the NYTBR cover, sure — but I’ve never dreamt of seeing my byline there.

So why do I do this every weekend? Well, I could paraphrase a once-famous comedian named Louis Anderson, a fat guy, who said “Yeah, I sweat. Sorry, but if I don’t, I’ll explode.” I review the Book Review because I’m going to read it and I’m going to have opinions about it, so either I’m going to keep these opinions to myself or I’m going to let them out. I choose to let them out.

But I remain dismayed that I am still seen as a Book Review “hater”, even though I clearly love the publication and even though I probably praise its articles just as often as not. I have a very sentimental affection for this publication, which I’ve been reading since I was a little kid (one benefit of growing up with literary parents). I hope everyone recognizes that my tone here is generally friendly, and in fact the once-famous comedian I feel most inspired by when I write this column every weekend is not Louis Anderson but the great Mort Sahl, who had a unique routine: he would walk on stage with a newspaper (often the New York Times) and riff on the day’s events. The improvisatory experience was clearly part of the appeal of Mort Sahl’s routine, and I hope it’s some of the appeal of mine.

But it’s an important point that Mort Sahl wasn’t really interested in the newspaper itself. His barbed jokes were not directed at the New York Times, but rather at the Vietnam War, the Ku Klux Klan, Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, Richard Nixon. Likewise, when I write about the New York Times Book Review, I’m really not that interested in the New York Times Book Review. I’m interested in the books that are being reviewed, and in the way individual critics engage with these books. Riffing on these articles each weekend gives me my own chance to engage with these books, and with these critics and these authors. It also helps me keep current, since I’m otherwise all too likely to be stuck in the 19th Century to remember to pay attention to the new books on the shelves.

I thought about stopping the Reviewing the Review routine on this 5th birthday. But I’m still enjoying it, so I’ve decided I’m going to keep going (though I’m skipping the actual write-up this weekend — you’re on your own). I hope you’re still enjoying it too. The archives can be found on the category page, of course.

9 Responses

  1. Dude, keep doing the review.
    Dude, keep doing the review. It is one of the main reasons I read your website.

  2. When I instituted the
    When I instituted the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch, it came from a similar place. Why does The New York Times Book Review — which should be the first place to find book coverage (as it was during the John Leonard days) — so fundamentally lacking? Admittedly, these folks aren’t listening to us. It’s a stubborn task for anyone to believe that we could have any influence with a rag that isn’t particularly interested in anything aside from mostly soporific writing. But goddammit, this is a weekly review section that once championed debut fiction (under Chip McGrath), that had the good sense to coax Stephen King (on Harry Potter) and John Waters (on Stephen Tennant) to get audiences readings the weekly section, that once treated countercultural and alternative figures with some modest respect (no longer; witness the recent Pico Iyer hit piece on Vollmann), and that once had a staff which actually felt some passion about books. Is it “hate” to expect Tanenhaus’s vanilla crew to produce anything similar to these glory days (which, incidentally, extended beyond Leonard)? I don’t think so. We care to some degree about the NYTBR’s vitiated state. But it’s also clear that Tanenhaus and company aren’t going to listen to us (although I was happy to put Jeff VanderMeer’s name into Tanenhaus’s ear and see some modest results). And certainly there is no way that I’ll ever appear in the NYTBR’s pages under the Tanenhaus regime. The only sane option is to stop caring. And yet the optimist in me does sometimes come out in a post.

    Add me in the camp of readers who do enjoy reading your Reviewing the Review posts. I don’t know if we do much in the way of good. But there’s one thing you can say about the so-called vanguard: we have a corresponding set of virtues behind our seemingly harsh (and is it really so harsh?) critiques.

  3. Levi: Congrats on 5 years, I
    Levi: Congrats on 5 years, I am always pointing people your way. You do a great job. Don, Lilliput Review/Issa’s Untidy Hut.

  4. Stop reviewing the Review?
    Stop reviewing the Review? C’mon, Sunday wouldn’t be the same without your insights.

  5. Just as reading and reviewing
    Just as reading and reviewing the Review is your way of forcing yourself to engage with the contemporary literary world, so too are your reviews a big part of my own engagement with it. Countless times I’ve had my attention turned to an article or review I otherwise might have skipped over, and I have thereby run across writers and critics and literary dustups that I might have never noticed otherwise. Thank you for writing these, and I hope you see fit to keep doing so.

  6. You help feel connected to
    You help feel connected to the scene. Thanks.

  7. Honestly, sometimes I enjoy
    Honestly, sometimes I enjoy reading your Review of the Review, but most times not. Just depends if the NYTBR (not your review) is interesting to me or not. It usually isn’t.

    I still read your review every week though, and you always do a pretty good job. It’s nice to have for those of us who don’t put reading the NYTBR on our own personal itinerary.

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