June 27, 2006: “Once again the New York Times…”

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."

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