I am especially surprised to see that this week’s edition of the New York Times Book Review has a lot of good material. I don’t know if some crafty editor over there who still cares about books had the bright idea of tying up Sam Tanenhaus and throwing him into a closet for a week in review. I cannot possibly envision Tanenhaus coming up with the brilliant idea of having Tom McCarthy review Jean-Philippe Toussaint (a literary translation, Orthofer, can you believe it?), getting Douglas Wolk weigh in on Spiegelman, Ames, and Heatley, and securing Sophie Gee to politely dismiss the Hensher novel, among other things.
This issue seems to have arrived from a parallel universe in which Tanenhaus declined the Times gig and finished his Buckley bio. There is a whiff of revolution in the air. The deputy editors seem eager to seize the means of production and make the NYTBR matter again. Yes, the NYTBR could certainly improve its terrible male-to-female ratio. But this week’s articles don’t bear the sleazy telltale assignment pairups that regularly spawn from Tanenhaus’s grubby little mind. This is an issue written by informed people who wants to assess literature and who are chomping at the bit to go all the way. Which is all that many of us have been asking over the years. None of Tanenhaus’s stuffy and out-of-touch regulars — Joe Queenan, the hopelessly unfunny Henry Alford, Lee Siegel, the pair of thirtysomething dopes Troy Patterson and Dave Itzkoff, et al. — are in here this week. (But sadly, neither is the one good regular mainstay: Liesl Schillinger.)
If the issue still carries the stigma of sleazily tendentious decision making, at least it has managed to restore itself with pretty decent coverage.
Of course, I fully expect next week’s issue to go to pot. It has become abundantly clear that Sam Tanenhaus is the primary reason why the NYTBR is mostly a joke. Keep Tanenhaus away from the cookie jar, and the NYTBR has some chance of recapturing a modicum of its former glory. And we’ll all have some tasty gingerbread to munch on.