Once again the New York Times seems to have roiled the literary pond, provoking, depending on your disposition, screeches of indignation or snarls of ridicule. The occasion for the rising noise level being the lame-assed (I guess I am tipping my hand here) attempt to name the best American novel of the past 25 years. While not as rank as Paris Hilton, as vile as Donald Trump, as juiced up as methamphetamine poster child Ann Coulter or as vapid as Jessica Simpson, the NYTBR seems to be increasingly a cultural gatekeeper (some? many?) people love to hate.
A few years ago, chatting with Hendrick Herzberg, we touched on the NYTBR, and he observed, "I think it’s a mistake to try to make the New York Times Book Review interesting. It’s a public utility of a sort…a piece that’s lively and provocative when it’s in the New Republic or if it’s on this web site or on Slate or Salon, it has an entirely different meaning when you put it into the Times Book Review. I certainly have had the experience of writing for the Times Book Review and dulling it down. Because you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. There is a lot at stake."
Apparently, the current editorial leadership doesn't subscribe to this point of view. The astute Jen Howard, formerly of the Washington Post's BookWorld, opines:
"There's more Times-bashing now than I've ever seen before, but people still pay attention to it—even if they make fun of it. Look at all the talkback the Book Review got from that best-of-the-last-25-years list. Everybody hated that list, and everybody talked about it—and I guarantee you the Book Review's editors were counting on that. [my italics] The section doesn't need to be loved, it just needs to be read. And it is. Or glanced at, anyway."
Howard also remarks on a notion that most concerns me, "Has the NYTBR ever really been the gold standard of American literary criticism, or just the most visible one?" [And is it yet?] This is at the crux of the periodic caterwauling debating the importance attached to the Times' book coverage. Sam Tanenhaus, who followed the inestimable Charles “Chip” McGrath into the editorial hot seat, seems to want both—higher circulation and buzz [not to mention personal glory] and more gravitas attached to the Times as a literary arbiter. Tanenhaus, who reportedly is one humorless fellow, claims that the Book Review is the best book section in the U.S.—a claim that is at best humorous even if Tanenhaus' comic abilities are accidental. I would point to Oscar Villalon's San Francisco Chronicle, David Ulin's L.A. Times, or Tom Walker's Denver Post as examples of good and relevant newspaper book sections.
The very savvy Howard nails a key point: “The more great reviewing there is in other places—other papers, magazines, litblogs, wherever—the more the Times may feel its influence being nibbled away at." No doubt this a serious, critical and quite understandable concern for the New York Times—in all areas. What is not as clear to me is why people who know better—meaning they have more than a passing acquaintance with the literary world, its history and current state of affairs, and in fact have more direct access to information about it—feel the need to condemn the Times when it seems that a seismic shift in corporate media mandates and prerogatives underpins its editorial judgements.
One thing I hadn’t thought of before is that there is an uncharted population of interested parties—writers, serious readers, and editors who will not speak out on the decline of the Times as they either directly get work or are concerned about the [future] review reception of their work. For the time being the Times is still a heavy weight in the market place. Thomas McGuane in a conversation related this:
Thomas: … It was interesting the last time I saw you, I got this great review from Fredrick Busch. The best review I think I have ever gotten for a book. I had this kind of funny experience with that book [Nothing But Blue Skies] which was that it got great reviews everywhere except the Sunday New York Times.
Robert: Which in the publishing world seems to be the most important.
Thomas: Yeah, it’s in every independent bookseller's desk …My [former] son-in-law Walter Kirn is a novelist and his first book came out and he got a bad review in the NY Times. He was out on book tour, he made one stop, and his publisher called up and said, “Go home.” And cancelled the tour. All based on that. You could have a book reviewed in the L.A. Times by Saul Bellow and get a rave review and it wouldn’t make much difference, but a graduate student in the NY Times can kill you.
You get the idea, right? There was a time when the Times stood tall on the literary horizon and, for example, even occasioned such perverse exercises as Gore Vidal [an effort later reprised by Anthony Lane] reading and reviewing all the books on the best seller list. Today it seems to have ceded its integrity and dependability for the short-fingered aspirations of marketers and “brand optimizers.” In an increasingly embattled economy of attention, that’s not a good deal for anyone except perhaps New York Times Company shareholders. Maybe.
Note: Apparently that some people require a deadline is dramatically exhibited by the almost two year lapse in filings at Robert Birnbaum's mutant web log, a reader's progress (in some circles it would rightfully be called a journal (note the restrained— nay—the subtle use of hypertext). All that side, to quote the Bard "All's well that ends well." Or Billy Wilder, "Nobody's perfect."