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February 05, 2004

Whither The NYTimes Book Review Section?

Dear Friedrich --

The chitchat in the bookworld these days is about The New York Times Book Review Section. Have you followed the gossip? Chip McGrath, who has edited the section for some years now, is stepping aside to return to writing. Who'll be named to replace him? The choice will be announced in a few weeks. Amazingly, some misguided soul has written in to ask what my thoughts about the matter are. Well, I do declare! But I certainly can't resist doing some opinionating and pontificating too.

First things first: there's been good information and sassy commenting from a number of sources, and I urge the interested to check them out: Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel at Poynter Online (here), OGIC at About Last Night (here), Cup of Chicha (here), Mark Sarvas (here), Bookslut (here), Dr. Mabuse (here), Boris Kachka in New York magazine (here) and Rachel Donadio in The Observer (here) have all had much to contribute. Christopher Dreher in Salon reports here, but you have to subscribe to read his article.

What's raised temperatures is what the Times' new Executive Editor, Bill Keller, has been quoted as saying he wants from the Book Review Section -- less space given to first literary novels, more attention paid to mass-market fiction, and more coverage of the bookbiz. Are these good or bad ideas? My mature reaction (which I promise to keep very short) is ... Well, we'll see how it plays out in practice.

I confess that some of what Keller is planning is what I'd insist on too if the Book Review Section were given to me to edit, not that anyone in his right mind would do such a thing. In some ways, and although this probably makes me one of the bad guys, I'd take things further than he would.

Just for the heck of it, I went through a recent issue of the NYTBR, which I'll assume is a typical one. Here's the editorial matter in the issue's 28 pages:

  • A letters column.
  • Full-scale reviews that covered 13 nonfiction books.
  • Full-scale reviews of six fiction books. Four are new literary titles, two are volumes of a new translation of Proust.
  • A "crime fiction" column that consisted of short reviews of five crime-fiction books.
  • An "in brief" section that gave short reviews to three new lit-fiction books and to three new poetry collections.
  • Two pages of bestseller-lists and recommendations.
  • A final-page essay. Topic: was Sherlock Holmes gay?

In all, 30 books were reviewed -- seven lit-fiction books, five crime novels, 13 nonfiction books, and three poetry books. The issue contained no news stories, no interviews, no visits, no trend pieces, no musing-and-thought pieces. A fine, professional book-review publication, but also one that I haven't felt the need or desire to follow closely for some years now.

As a piece of self-indulgence, I've pulled together the M. Blowhard guide to making the Book Review Section a vital and enjoyable read, at least one that I'd consider a vital and enjoyable read:

  • I'd de-emphasize new books somewhat, especially new literary books. Have you ever looked at a copy of a year-old Book Review Section? Nearly all of the lit-fiction that was reviewed earnestly at the time -- in a tone that suggests that the books, and the evaluation of them, are really important matters -- is impossible to recall.
  • I'd spend more time covering the activities of bookmaking and of interacting with books. The making, reading and enjoyment of books is a fascinating cultural adventure that deserves much notice -- and it doesn't all have to do with arguing over "what's good" and "what's bad," fun though that activity can be in its own right.
  • I'd pay much more attention to the fiction people really read. Why not? Even if it's lousy, there's usually something culturally or sociologically fascinating about it. Can you imagine a movies section that didn't take note of "Star Wars," "Titanic," and "Lord of the Rings"?
  • I'd open the geographical focus up by making regular efforts to connect with other parts of the country, and even (though not so often) other countries.
  • I'd provide coverage of many more kinds of books -- kids' books, "graphic novels," art books, reference books, inspired trash books ... Most of us make use of (and enjoy interacting with) a much greater range of books than most book-review sections take into account.
  • I'd talk to bookpeople: designers, printers, bookstore owners, jobbers and warehousers, managers of print-on-demand shops, the person who buys books for Costco, people who write porn online, publishers, the queen of knitting books, copyright lawyers, the editor of the "For Dummies" series, people who take part in slash-fiction sites ...
  • I'd run genuinely provocative and controversial thought pieces. Hey, kind of like some of the postings I've written and run on this blog.

The M. Blowhard approach to reviving the Book Review is based on a few convictions and observations: that there aren't all that many new books of immense importance coming out every week; that there are, nonetheless, about a dozen pretty-good-to-very-good books coming out every week, although they don't always arrive wearing respectable or familiar labels; and that, as I've tried to hint in previous postings, what's of worth in the world of books arises from the process of making, selling and consuming books, not despite it.

In other words: spend some time sorting the wheat from the chaff; play consumer guide; do the serious-criticism thing but only when appropriate; and, for god's sake, give some open-minded attention to context (how books are made and used, and how we actually interact with them), and be lively and interesting about it. Literature and greatness -- which some people (erroneously, IMHO) seem to think are matters that can be adjudicated here, today -- will take care of themselves.

I've written at probably tedious length about how I think that, of all the arts in America, cooking is in the best shape, and how I think the other arts could learn from cooking's success. I also happen to think that, of the various forms of artchat, food writing is in the best shape -- open-minded, attractive, able to take low and high both into account.

It occurred to me that perhaps the various other American artchat forms could learn from the success of food coverage. So I took a look at this week's NYTimes Dining In section. Here's a list of its longer stories.

  • A story about new trends in cooking classes.
  • A visit in the company of a star to a post-theater restaurant.
  • A news story about whether Szechuan food will be losing its spiciness and heat.
  • A look, with recipes, at codfish.
  • A Nigella Lawson column about comfort good.
  • A visit to a Massachusetts country store that specializes in soup.
  • A wine column.
  • Two sizable restaurant reviews, one of a high-end place, one of a neighorhood Dominican place.

I'm pretty dazzled. Good coverage; tips to tear out and make use of; recommendations; glimpses behind the scene ... It's a section devoted to the culture and experience of cooking and eating, and it's written, designed and edited in a pleasure-based, approachable way. (I could use more in the way of controversy and disruption, but that may just be my taste.) It seems to me that the Book Review Section can't and shouldn't go this far; it needs more balance between reviews and context. But it could also learn (and steal) much from the newspaper's own food coverage. I wonder whether Keller and whoever he chooses to edit the Book Review will move in this direction. Experience suggests that the practical effect of Keller's ideas -- that the effect of nearly all ideas from news-centric people -- will be to make the section more newsy and buzz-driven. But maybe not. So we'll see.

Now, on to something a little more fun, at least for me: my childish reactions and reflections.

Very quickly, here's how I feel about what's going to happen at the NYTBR Section:

* I don't care.
* I wish more people wouldn't care.
* And it isn't going to matter all that much who gets the job anyway.

To take these one at a time.

* I don't care. I've got a minor interest in the who'll-be-editor outcome, but only because I know (very dimly) a couple of the candidates. (Yo, ain't I Mr. Inside?) But it's been three years since I stopped following the book publishing industry professionally, and since I stopped following professional book reviews. And in those years I've become a much happier reader.

Looking back at my years following publishing, I find myself chewing on the thought that keeping up with the arts is one heckuva bizarre way to conduct an arts life. All those urgent deadlines, all the meaningless (if amusing) gossip, all the make-believe issues and concerns ... In my dizzier moments as a pro, I often found myself thinking that the contempo literary world's greatest work of fiction is the illusion it manages to sustain that something of literary importance is happening on a week-to-week basis, or might perhaps happen next week at the very latest. I often found myself reading the Book Review Section as if it were an ongoing soap opera, something like "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter." It made more sense to me to take it as a group-created meta-fiction than to take it as a clear-headed discussion of what was actually happening in the books world.

Too much emphasis on the importance of what's new, on what's being buzzed about, on what's hot ... Well, personally I find it unpleasant and unnatural. It runs counter to how I like interacting with the arts, which is to wander among the arts at my own pace and for my own reasons. I can enjoy getting jangled by newness, but I enjoy it no more than I like many other art experiences. In fact, one of the reasons I got into the arts was to get away from buzz, newsiness, business pressures, etc. Silly me.

* I wish more people didn't care. The Book Review Section, like the Times generally, matters to the extent we let it matter. Might we not be better off letting go our fixation on it? Do you find it as strange as I do how seriously many people take the section -- as though it were some revered public trust? It's a very professional review of books, but I find reading it like being stuck back in some nightmare English class where everyone's smart and eager -- the antithesis of why I bother with books in the first place.

The fact -- the pleasing fact -- is that, despite its tone and pretentions, the Book Review section doesn't carry the weight it once did. God knows it's still a big presence in the reading-and-writing world. But these days it's one player among many. The cultural conversation has opened up in a dramatic way, and much of that energy has gone elsewhere; it has gone electronic. IMHO, of course. But, to use myself as an example (you won't catch me doing lots of legwork), where my bookchat needs go, I've largely abandoned traditional publications. Occasionally I'll eyeball a review or some news in a traditional outlet -- but even when I do, chances are good that I'll have found it via something like Arts & Letters Daily (here) or a cultureblog.

On the computer, I can check out the English and Aussie book discussions, but I can also interact with honest-to-god, real-people book lovers -- and interaction's fun. (Being lectured can be too, but as you know I'm a much bigger fan of conversation than I am of debate.) Amazon reviewers and culturebloggers often seem more direct and honest about their reactions than many pro reviewers do, and far less in the grip of in-group squabbles and tiffs. They often know the kind of book they're writing about well; they can be amazingly savvy about what goes into a romance, or a sci-fi story, or a mystery. Where nonfiction goes, many are super-knowledgeable about subject matter -- Greek history, PERL, jazz. And they tell you flat out what they think and how they feel, often making worthwhile comparisons and offering tips for further reading.

People writing about books online seem unburdened with self-consciousness, ego and disguised ambition -- they've got all the virtues of knowledgeable amateurs. The pros? Hmm. Often there's lots of hard-to-interpret, behind-the-scenes agendas at work. Fact is, I don't really care about the fuss that Dale Peck is causing, or what Laura Miller or Judith Shulevitz are up to. They're smart and they're good. But they aren't good enough -- Blackmur, Trilling, and Leavis they aren't -- to make it worth the time it takes to decode what they're really up to. And much of their energy and attention often seems to be going into in-group battles that don't interest me anyway.

Comparing notes with people you enjoy and respect: isn't that what talking about the arts is all about? Well, maybe not entirely, but it's an important element in the process of exploring the arts, and it's an element that's been missing from the pro bookchat outlets for far too long. I'm far happier surfing Amazon or checking in with Yahmdallah (here), or with Deb and Will (here), or with Brian (here) than I am opening the pages of the Times Book Review Section.

Plus -- super-major point coming up, IMHO -- people online aren't just discussing books like real-live human beings, they're reading and interacting with books like real-live human beings. Sorry about the excess of emphasis there, but it strikes me as an underdiscussed point. I've done a little professional book reviewing, and while it can be a groovy and fun thing to do, it can be a bizarre and awkward thing to do too. Typically, the idea to review a book doesn't come from you. Instead, you're given a book and are asked to review it. Presented with the possibility, you decide whether you can summon up interest, and whether you can be fair. Then you try to do your best by the writer, the publication, and its readers.

OK, sure: what's so bizarre about that? Well, the honest fact is that, in the case of most of the books I was paid to review, I never would have chosen to read them on my own in the first place. In many cases, I wound up very pleased to have read them. But I'd never have picked these books up of my own volition. Left to my own devices, I never read on assignment. Instead, I follow and indulge my own interests and pleasures, and do so as they arise.

Good reviewers can take this reading-for-assignment dilemma into account and make adjustments for it; I hope I managed OK myself. But having to contend with it at all still alters the reading experience -- at the very least, you're making an adjustment, even if you do so successfully. People who chat about books online aren't reading on assignment; they don't have to make any kind of adjustment at all. They're already following their interests and pleasures; they're reading as they see fit. And when we -- I'm saying "we" here now rather than "they" because I've switched teams -- when we choose to write about what we've read, we do so because we're moved to do so, not because someone has asked us to.

* It doesn't matter much. Please, let's be grownups. The time is long past when someone like John Leonard could come in and run something like the Book Review Section largely (or even 50%) as he saw fit. It's fun to imagine what a crusading renegade could do at a place like the Book Review Section. But it's a game, an idle pasttime; it's been a long, long while since bigtime publications gave away parts of themselves for others to have fun with. Perhaps the time has come to leave nostalgia and fantasies behind and to get on with facing what's current and real. These days, if you aren't with your boss' program, then you're wished well and shown the door. Whoever Keller chooses is going to be hired to help his/her boss (Keller and probably some others) realize their vision of what the Book Review Section should be. The new editor will have some wiggle room to play with, but not all that much.

But what I've really been itching to do in this posting is to sketch out how mainstream book reviewing generally happens. So gangway.

Preliminary warning: good work is often done by editors and reviewers, and all credit to them for it. They also happen to be working within a system, albeit a loose one, and it doesn't hurt to understand what the elements that make up that system are.

When I've talked about this in the past, what I've usually found is that people make one of two assumptions. Some people picture the pro bookchat world as consisting of worthy, brainy, literary people bravely assuming and executing their literary duty. Others seem to think that it's all a matter of pull, connections, conspiracies and sway.

The facts as I found them? A bit of each, and much else too. To move from macro to micro:

First, what is a book review section? A basic fact is that in most cases they don't make money. (I don't know specifically about the Times' section, although years ago I was told it doesn't make money.) They aren't what businesstypes call "profit centers." So why do newspapers and magazines bother running them at all? Idealism may play a role; or maybe books coverage is something audiences expect. More realistically, perhaps, books coverage is something that someone in the publication's hierarchy has decided enhances the publication as a product. A book-review section is a product-enhancer.

Who's really in charge? Well, the organizations that run mainstream book review sections have become more personality-and-news driven than they used to be. That means that the people making decisions about what role they want a book review section to play tend to be empirical, news-and-buzz-driven people. They aren't ironists or literary sophisticates. They also usually aren't very irreverent, and they have a conventional sense of what books are. They often can't see the reason to read about a book that isn't going to sell many copies or make much of a cultural dent -- which describes 99% of all lit fiction.

In short: a mainstream publication's book review section is something that the news-and-bottom-line-driven people who are creating, packaging and selling a media product see fit to include in their product for fairly predictable reasons: expectations, convention, prestige, and cachet. Would the Times be "The Times" if it killed the Book Review Section?

It can also help to remember that a book review section is an organization in its own right, with a cast, a history, and a hierarchy. It's staffed, as every other place is, by people with strengths, agendas, ambitions and weaknesses. Using my case as an example: Who decided that the books I was paid to review were worth reviewing? On what basis was that decision made? And who decided that I might be a good choice to review those books? Beats me -- but choices were made. It's lovely to picture a group of intelligent, selfless, concerned people doing their best for literature and culture, and certainly some of that is at work in the field. But ego, ambition, panic, happenstance, connections, and luck play as big a role in book reviewing as they do at any workplace. What's the section expected to review? What does the business itself think is hot? Have we done too many books about music recently? Who have we shunned? Is upper-management mad at us right now? For what?

There's a lot of selling that goes on. An idea or impulse or judgment might have to make its way through seven or eight little decision-making moments, and at each step it has to be sold: someone has to make someone else think that it's important to cover this book or that story: this is something that needs to be done -- the pitch gets made over and over.

(Note: I'm skipping here the winnowing that occurs at the book publishers, but it's a similar process. Material has to be sold within the organization -- by one element in the organization to other elements within the organization -- long before the organization will get around to trying to sell it to the public. And much that happens in the business can best be explained by reference to careers and personalities. This person, who's on her way up, likes this kind of book, and moves in these circles. I want to attach myself to her, so ... )

The Times is a special case, with extra pressures and stresses. It has a big staff. (A typical newspaper might not run any original book reviews at all. And if it does, it might only have one "book review editor," who writes some reviews himself and commissions others from freelancers.) The organization is notoriously serious-minded and self-important. The NYC trade-publishing industry is fixated on the Times. Book authors are often people who grew up clinging to the Book Review Section and who feel vindicated if and when they get recognized by it; they live for that moment. And writing-world wannabes and clubmembers love being asked to write for the Times. It's a feather in your cap; relatives and friends take note.

There's also the fact -- which never struck me as strange 'till I was in the midst of the game -- that book review sections largely concern what's new. I don't know about your interacting-with-books habits, but new books take up at most 25% of my book-attention when I'm left to my own devices -- and most of the new books I amuse myself with aren't the new books the business is pressing on me. I make my own decisions; they're books I'm tickled by or am curious about, or are books that are by authors whose work I know, or that have to do with subjects I'm currently interested in. The other 75% of my booktime I spend with non-new books.

The result is a strong emphasis on what's new and what's news. There's a strong tendency to oversell. There are a lot of pressures from authors, publishers, and bosses; there are the intra-organization pressures to be dealt with. There are questions of timing and balance. There are crowds of people waving their hands at you hoping to be noticed. There's the fact that whoever you do choose to review a book probably wouldn't have read it if you hadn't asked her to.

Likely consequences of this process: self-consciousness, humorlessness, lack of perspective, overinflation of importance, a kind of hustling urgency -- it's a miracle that professional bookchat and book reviews are as good as they often are. Online, the people who swap impressions, news and reactions often aren't as professional as the people in the book review pages, or as knowledgeable about how the business works. Often, though, they're at least as intelligent; they're better-informed about the subject matter; they're genuinely passionate about what they're reading; and they're more direct about how they respond and what they think. They also tend be real people with real lives -- instead of being bookworld obsessives, careerists and wannabes -- so they're able to bring some human perspective to bear on their pleasures and judgments.

One final point: books don't play anything like the role in the culture that they played 30 or 40 years ago. A lot of good and worthwhile books are being made, but much of the cultural energy has shifted to other media; many of the bright kids who in previous generations would have devoted themselves to lit these days go into movies, television, magazines or the Web. It once seemed important to know what Mailer and Vidal were fighting about, or to learn about V.S. Naipaul's insights into terrorists. But today's younger people seem to see books as nothing more than one media option among many. So it doesn't make sense to me to try to "sell" the book thing by pretending it has an importance that it no longer has for many people. Why try to stare down a tidal wave? It seems -- to me, at least -- much more sensible to accept the fact that books no longer stand atop the media heap, and to sell them by basing coverage of them on such qualities as interest, pleasure, and attractiveness.

Hey, I just took a break and noticed that Terry Teachout has made some simliar points, here. I'm looking eagerly forward, by the way, to what Chip McGrath does now that he'll have time for writing again. He's brainy, observant, amusing and open-minded. I recall fondly a piece he wrote for the Times about how good the writing is on many TV shows.



posted by Michael at February 5, 2004


Michael, thanks for writing about this. You have a good perspective. I especially appreciate your observation that the NYTBR matters to the extent we let it matter. I think the States, maybe the world, would be better off moving the entire NYT newspaper to the second tier of opinion-making importance.

Despite that, however, I wonder--from my decidedly amateur point of view--if the NYTBR, or any newspaper's book section wishing to build a following, could gain our attention by employing 3-5 interesting people who will write boldly about the literature they love and argue in print with one another--a panel of columnists who champion their books and call them as they see them.

What I understand about the NYTBR is that it offers information about a book without helping you decide whether to buy it. With a few bold writers passionate about literary matters, you could print a paper which urges readers to buy certain books and even offers conflicting recommendations, one reviewer loving, another disliking the same book.

Posted by: Phil on February 5, 2004 10:29 AM


Hey, thanks for the plug.

A few times a year I get e-mail from some one who wants me to review their book; I usually tell them no because it simply isn't the kind of book I'd usually read and I'm unlikely to give it any kind of meaningful (or positive) review.

But once in a while I say yes. And you're right, books I'm reading only because someone asked me to review them are different Even when the subject or genre is right up my street, it's much harder to fall into them and let them speak for themselves. And, too absurdly, I consequently find it harder to be objective about them, not easier. I really don't see how I could review assigned books for a living without becoming cynical, bitter, and twisted.

Posted by: Will Duquette on February 5, 2004 10:53 AM

Is there any evidence that being mentioned in the NYTBR generates higher book sales? And, if so, does it have to be a positive mention, or any mention?

Posted by: annette on February 5, 2004 12:09 PM

I subscribed to the NYTBR for a couple years and finally stopped when I realized I was bored with it. There's probably 3 articles that I can actually recall; two of them were on authors I'd already read. The others were sometimes interesting not because they made me want to read the book, but because I was fascinated how the reviewer could find so much meaning in such an obsure topic and seemingly dull book.

You outlined my thoughts pretty well:I dont care.

Posted by: Deb on February 5, 2004 12:10 PM

I am not sure if I would read articles in NYTBR on "making and selling" books, although I probably enjoy the ones on "consuming" books. I think the "selling" part belongs to the trade publications, as an article on "Convallaria: proper handling in funeral arrangments" belongs to the "Flowers" mag, and not to the "Economist"/diversions section for the rest of us = the consumers. On my own 'wish' note - I would most certainly love to read "to be continued" series on something generally described as "Bibliophiles and bibliomanes" (Or "bibliomaniacs"?), on history of book forgeries, collecting and such - but that's in double parenthesis and besides the point of your, Michael, post.

I suspect 'behind-the-scenes' kitchen in all trades looks as unappetising as in book review and/or publishing (and in Cooking section, by same token). Design/architecture industry/publications have probably even bigger clique fight/corporate politics issues. Still, the bull's eye reviews by professionals (I susbscribe to your 2 assumptions) happen more often, in my view. I liked - ocasionally and in small doses- to read a book review in NewYorker by J.Updike rather than some Amazon amateur - based purely on merit, not on laurels.
The emphasis on 'news' doesn't surprises me much - after all, it is written for a NewsPaper. Literary criticism on a more time-unrelated basis is a whole separate venue; no need to go to a newspaper for lit. criticism of Colette.
And I do enjoy gossip element every now and then, it brings a spice, flow of life in drygoods, don't you think? As one of my longtime friends used to say every time someone mentioned a novelty in arts:"Is it a scream?"

That all said, I must confess - I haven't read NYTBR even once and not going to and don't read NewYorker anymore, so I agree with your "I don't care" part completely

Posted by: Tatyana on February 5, 2004 3:15 PM

Crikey. It's not as if literary books are covered extensively elsewhere. Nor are the authors of literary works making much money. The idea of crushing the one outlet that for its own reasons continues to actually review lit books seems unusually cruel. At least with the NYTRB the authors can pretend that their works (for which many slaved over for years) have relevance in a public arena.

Editors in most publishing houses are slowly losing a fight to treat books as something more than just "product". One of the few resources that the publishers still respect (if only for historical reasons) is the NYTRB. If it essentially stops reviewing lit books, (and reforms its bestsellers list to really reflect bestsellers), I suspect the publishers would take it as a clear cue that its time to stop wasting money on "prestige" books and simply publish "Atkin's Diet XII" or whatever looks like it will sell this week.

It's sort of like saying that it is not enough for Walmart to prosper (for the description and discussion of more commercial books can be found everywhere), but anything besides Walmart must die.

Posted by: Tom West on February 5, 2004 4:49 PM

Phil -- I think that's a great idea. Strong columnists with exciting points of view. I'm not sure I can name too many candidates, though. Have you got some you'd like to read on a regular basis? Maybe you and me, eh? I think the idea of running some dueling-reviews is also a fun one.

Will -- Fun to learn that you react the same way I do to assignment-reading. I think you and I can both handle it fairly. But still, how strange. I think another disadvantage of it is that it promotes English-major-style reading -- reading and writing to please the prof. And the belief too many book people have that life in the larger world ought to be like life in college. Part of the fun of being sprung from school is that you get to read as you see fit. It often takes bookish people about a decade to catch on to that -- they run around trying to play the game and keep up as though ... well, as though they're under assignment to do that. And then, in their early 30s, finally start to realize they don't have to. Funny phenom, no?

Annette -- I've got no proof of anything, just the conventional wisdom, which is that a review in the Times Book Review can affect sales if it's one of the really big reviews. Smaller ones can't hurt, but they mostly affect prestige -- it's a big deal to get a positive review in the Times, even if it's a small one, and it might have an impact on your life in terms of teaching positions, that kind of thing. But most lit-fiction sells terribly, whether or not it gets a review in the Times.

Deb -- Interesting to learn that you can't see any reason to follow the NYTBR either. I wonder if both of us lost interest at about the same time. And I wonder whether it had more to do with the Times, with us, or with the books that were being published...

Tatyana -- I'm probably overstating what I'd like to see done at the NYTBR. I certainly wouldn't fill it up with trade news. But I'd also enjoy seeing more context-setting, and part of the fun of doing that as an editor would be to come up with ways of making it snappy, full of ideas, and fresh. If a reviewer is praising a new novel, for instance, it might be fun to talk to the author of the novel about an older book that influenced him/her -- maybe only because she hated it. That's a way of getting some historical context in. It would be fun to talk to graphic-design historians, or to hot book-jacket authors. Knopf, for instance, has a couple of jazzy designers on staff. Why not interview them, or ask someone like Rick Poyner what he makes of their work? That'd give a moment's emphasis to the visual and tactile qualities of books, and a chance to flash back to older designs too. What I dislike isn't so much the emphasis given to the new, it's the relentlessness of the emphasis given to the new. A little context, please. There just isn't enough "new" that's interesting and happening on a weekly basis to justify the number of words and pages the Times gives to books. IMHO, of course.

Tom -- I think there are ways of discussing books that don't fall into the trap of, on the one hand, giving acres of coverage to "lit" books no one reads, or on the other, doing nothing but reviewing diet books. Don't you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 5, 2004 5:10 PM

Relentless emphasis on the "new", I think, is a part of a big-city life in general. It's everywhere, this race, this constant proclamation of "new, bigger, and better" - only takes to look at advertising, or tech. gizmos enthusiasts, etc: it's a result of catering to the inherent "progress" belief [in most people]. We lack context in general, not only in NYTBR. Mrs. Dalloway: always giving parties...
And it's happening in any media, blogging too - in one of TT points you linked to he asks, how often archives are looked into. Dead threads're not attracting attention after a week at most, even if the subject matter is timeless - you know it better than I since you give updates on past topics - and how I appreciate that!
But going back to the whole "making of the book" theme - that would certainly be interesting, for the technosceptic types. I recall how thrilled I was when years ago my husband, whose first degree is in polygraphy, enlightened me on bookmaking specifics.
And talking about this reviewer/author/reading public tension is understood by New Yorker, I think - their Q&A sessions and September festival are the result.
IMHO, of course.
You - and Will- got me thinking, though about 'assignment reading' Yea, I too let myself go and am reading on a whim. But (but!) deep down, I am ashamed of my lack of discipline. There is so much of serious books I missed, so much time wasted on comfort reading...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 5, 2004 6:34 PM


"Yea, I too let myself go and am reading on a whim. But (but!) deep down, I am ashamed of my lack of discipline. There is so much of serious books I missed, so much time wasted on comfort reading..."

But reading as my whimsy takes me doesn't necessarily imply that I would never read serious books, or only engage in "comfort reading". By "assigned reading" I'm speaking only of books I'm reading because somebody asked me to review them--somebody who's willing to give me a copy of the book in hopes that they'll get some good publicity. It changes the whole dynamic of reading for me.

Posted by: Will Duquette on February 5, 2004 7:32 PM

1. Your proposal for the NYTBR, strikes me as having some great ideas, I bet I'd love a glossy magazine like that; however, I feel the NYTBR should keep it's ivory-tower seriousness, because, as others have mentioned, it is one of the few outlets for that type of [high] cultural production.

2. You're right to point out how tv and the proliferation of other forms of media have supplanted the primacy of literature in our culture. But this is also bound up with a waning of interest in the elite arts (fine art, serious literature, art films, etc.). Or if not a waning of interest (because by definition the elite arts are exclusive), it is certainly a waning of influence and power. But then we're left with a normative question: is this lack of significance of high culture good or bad? (This has a bit to do with the previous Black Sabbath/Chopin discussion.) It seems to me that there's no question there is plentiful and fantastic artistic production in the mass media and popular culture genres (so Chip McGrath's observation is a no-brainer). But this work by definition doesn't have the autonomy of the fine-arts, nor the ambition of art pour l'art. But perhaps the fine arts are now simply irrelevant, or less relevant. We should recall that the novel was originally dismissed on similar grounds. Perhaps by analogy we can imagine that future generations will take pop culture stuff more seriously as a mode of artistic ambition. Which leads me to an interesting question: books by their nature are artifacts that last through time and culture (I mean, how old is the Epic of Gilgamesh for example?). Great movies have DVDs and rephouses (although the latter are largely becoming extinct). Great TV shows have DVDs and reruns (I've seen DVDs for old shows like The Prisoner, and things like Nic at Night used to show Mr. Ed and so forth). Can we imagine that some of these cultural productions will become canonical and be taken seriously as some of the great products of human creativity, hundreds and thousands of years hence?

Posted by: nick kallen on February 5, 2004 9:35 PM


It makes sense to me that a newspaper book review section focus on new books--part of the service they are providing is to tell readers what's new & notable. Of course, it's nice to have this leavened by an occasional review on a new edition or translation of an old book, like the recent review of the new translation of Proust--which I was glad to be told about because it suggested the new translation might (unlike, to my taste, the old one) actually be readable, which means I might actually try again to read all of it. (I gave up after Swann's Way many years ago.) But I think regular coverage of old books is most likely to be done well by and be well received from a magazine--although I dont know of any nonacademic journals currently doing that. Arts & Letters Daily does seem to find a lot of it scattered around the web, however--and maybe, considering the economics of it, that's the best we can hope for. (If A&L Daily is any guide, the British are more interested in journalism about old books than we are.)

I was disappointed to hear you report that any new editor will likely have to get with someone else's program. Editing by committee is doomed to result in mediocrity--which is what the NYTBR is now. It needs a personality, and some sense--in the array of reviews and in the flavors of the reviews themselves--of some personal excitement and engagement behing the wqhole enterprise. I want to read reviews only by reviewers who either love or hate the book they are reviewing--and whose review is kindled by the belief that we readers will benefit from, or at least enjoy, knowing why. The editor's main job is to find and run reviews that fit that description.

I dont think there is too much emphasis currently on literary fiction in the NYTBR so much as a depressing predictability and dullness in choice of what the fiction and poetry to review. But I do agree that it would be healthy to give more attention to popular fiction, which deserves critical attention that is neither condescending nor slumming and that attempts to understand what if anything it is really good for, what virtues it possesses. As you hint, even TV gets that kind of attention here and there.

I also like your idea to provide coverage of the business side of books, but what I'm most curious about is something you have brought up in several posts: the changing place of reading in our lives. How much is it changing, really? and in what ways? Are the changes good for readers? and writers? and books? How is reading different--in our experience and not just in someone's theory--from moviegoing? or TV watching? or any other media? Why do we still read books at all? Is there anyone currently who is seriously investigating and thinking about these sorts of questions? Let us know if there is.

Posted by: John Hinchey on February 5, 2004 9:45 PM

I was responding to Michael's take on assigned reading, in a sense that even if nobody from outside dictates, I have to follow my own 'assignment', so to speak.
So many people on this and other blogs, seems to me, reading serious books because it is their whimsy; and I forever give myself breaks - excuses abound.
That's what I regret - I have so much catching up to do.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 5, 2004 9:51 PM

I don't have the experience to recommend names from existing columnists and reviewers, but I hope that some of those currently in the reviewing or publishing business could become the exciting voices I'm talking about, if they had the proper motivational editor. If this book section dream of mine were attempted, I think it would have to be attempted by a publishing pioneer who is willing to take and deflect all the heat his publication would receive for following the simple credo of calling them as they see them. All the honesty we're bold enough to print.

Which writers would do this probably depends on the chemistry they'd need to stir up one another. For instance, Amazon's editors (how ever many there are) all put Frey's 'A Million Little Pieces' on their top 5 best books lists. Karen Sandstrom of the Cleveland Plain Dealer thought the book was too ugly and excessive. Now, maybe none of the Amazon editors would be good for our greatest book section ever, but that kind of disagreement, if founded on ideas not feelings, would be part of the chemistry we need.

Posted by: Phil on February 5, 2004 9:55 PM

"Smaller ones can't hurt, but they mostly affect prestige -- it's a big deal to get a positive review in the Times, even if it's a small one, and it might have an impact on your life in terms of teaching positions, that kind of thing."

Just another example of how completely idiotic academia is. I think the best marketing scam of all is how effectively the New York Times set themselves up as some kind of arbiter of anything, and how everybody follows like sheep. It's absolutely identical to brand marketing in fashion---it MUST be a good purse, it "Yves St. Laurent."

Posted by: annette on February 5, 2004 10:22 PM

The effect of Times reviews on one's academic career can vary from field to field. I knew a Yale English professor who published a book with a commerical house, which was a first step in the wrong direction as far as his colleagues were concerned. Eyebrows were raised. When said book then got a rave in the NYTBR--this was maybe 10 years ago--it only served to cement the widespread contempt for the book in his department. Accessibility, reaching a non-academic audience: cause for suspicion! Of course, the real forces at work here were envy and resentment. He's not at Yale anymore.

Posted by: ogic on February 6, 2004 1:47 AM

I vote for Michael to run the NYTBR. If he did, I'd probably re-subscribe. I gave up on the NYTBR some years ago after a specific incident revealed the NYTBR's snide politics. A fine author (who shall remain nameless) was a fave of the reviewers when she was being published by a "serious" house. The moment she moved to a more lucrative deal at a mass market publisher, the NYTBR stopped reviewing her books. To me that spoke volumes about a style-over-substance problem, not to mention immense hypocrisy.

Posted by: deb smith on February 6, 2004 12:01 PM

Once again I'm struck by the fact that these gabfests we have are so much livelier than what any of us run across in the books press. How is it that we amateurs, shooting from the hip, manage to be more wide-ranging and freer in our thinking than the pros?

OGIC -- Thanks for the clarification. I meant to be talking about fiction writers, for whom recognition by the Times can mean a lot in terms of teaching positions. You're absolutely right about academics -- I've heard similar tales from profs about how they've gotten looked down on for having been reviewed in the Times. Strange, no? Academia, blech.

Nick -- Great musings about high-cult, thanks. I think they apply to the Book Review Section too, or at least make me wonder something out loud. What if, for example, the energy and zing has just gone out of the "lit" thing? There are tons and tons of books being made, and exceptions always have to be allowed for -- but what if the "lit" category of new books simply isn't in good shape? What if the liveliest and best new books aren't self-proclaimed lit books? What does an editor at a place like the NYTBRsection do? I guess it can be argued that he has a responsiblity to cheerlead for the "lit" category. Me, I'd rather that he give the category its due, but that he spend more energy tracking down (and describing and taking note of) the books that do have the energy and liveliness. But how far can you got with that?

John -- I think I overstated my case. I think the section has to cover new books -- that's got to be its spine. I'd just like to see more acknowledgement (and on a regular basis) of context -- of history, of the ways people use and enjoy books, of how books actually come to be. Also, I didn't mean to suggest that the section will be committee-edited. What's changed is that where, a few decades ago, some editors at places like the NYTBRsection had a lot of freedom (they were hired to kick butt and show off), these days they're 80-90% employees who are expected to help the bosses realize their plans, and who, it's hoped, will do so with some zing and inspiration. Editors are in charge, but they no longer get to act like the place belongs to them. McGrath's Book Review Section is an example, I suspect. I've got no inside knowledge here, so please take that into account. But he's a brilliant, open-minded guy and a fabulous editor. Yet his Book Review Section is a little snoozy. I find it hard to believe that's because of him. I think he was probably doing his best to create something readable given what his marching orders were. If he'd been entirely in charge, I bet he'd have edited a really terrific section. But I'll also bet that he never had that kind of freedom. Apologies if I wasn't being clear.

Phil -- I think you're right, that lively, provocative writers have to be "created" to an extent by enthusiastic editors. I wonder why that isn't happening more these days. Actually I've got tons of hunches, but can't seem to formulate them at the moment. Basically, I think a certain joy and carefreeness have gone out of the business. What are your hunches?

Annette -- It's fun to take a little wind out of the Times' sails from time to time, isn't it? I wonder what we'd do if the Times weren't there to bitch about. Would we have to re-invent it?

Deb -- You've got my ego rocketing out of control, a scary sight indeed! And you're right: there's a lot of snobbery (often hard-to-understand snobbery, too) in the publishing/lit/reviewing world, even about such subjects as "which house publishes you?" Who cares? But people do.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 6, 2004 2:25 PM

Michael, perhaps the joy and life has evaporated from the book business because the type of lackluster interest you and Will Duquette described on reviewing books by assignment rather than love. That dullness may have infected the rest of the reviewers job. Mix with that the feeding of a CEO's ego for some, peer pressure to avoid rankling certain authors or publishers, a possible dullness pervading literature itself--at least among those people the reviewer is 'supposed to praise', and the glut of books on the market. But I'm guessing from what I've read of those who should know.

Posted by: Phil on February 6, 2004 10:55 PM

If only we could be more like France... take a look at Lire and Magazine Litteraire.

Posted by: greg on February 8, 2004 6:31 PM

If Michael could be drafted to run the NYTBR I'd not only rad it-- I'd subscribe to it, over any other book review ariund (Well, I do have a guilty fondness for the Spectator's pages, because they are so delightfully arbitrary rather than "important", but theyare awfully "Anglo".

Posted by: SteeBodio on February 10, 2004 11:23 AM

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