BEA: Do Not Question the NYTBR!

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PANEL: The Best American Fiction Since 1980
Moderator: Sam Tanenhaus, Editor, The New York Times Book Review
Panelists: Greg Cowles (The New York Times Book Review), Thomas Mallon, Cynthia Ozick, Liesl Schillinger

At last year’s BEA, I didn’t get an opportunity to talk with Sam Tanenhaus about his continued failure to provide coverage on today’s contemporary fiction. The numbers, however, don’t lie. And they’ve been documented by Mr. Orthofer, Mr. Asher and me (via the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch). Repeatedly, Mr. Tanenhaus has not only demonstrated a failure to profile contemporary fiction (with scant space afforded to translated novels, experimental fiction and first novels by first author) in any thorough capacity, but he’s been outright deficient (as also determined years ago by Dennis Loy Johnson) on having women reviewers cover today’s books. (Indeed, it was a telling sign midway through the panel when Cynthia Ozick called Tanenhaus on failing to cite any women writers among his examples of what constitutes great literature.)

I’ve tried to interview Sam Tanenhaus multiple times to give him an opportunity to respond to these criticisms. But his office has repeatedly refused my interview requests. So what better way to bring these charges to light then through a public forum dedicated to celebrating how the New York Times Book Review determining the best fiction since 1980? Of course, I had to sit through a lot of surprising degree of defensiveness about WHAT MAKES THE NYTBR GREAT. But when the mike was deferred to Thomas Mallon and Cynthia Ozick, the panel became far more interesting. These moments, alas, were too few and far between. Fortunately, both Megan Sullivan and Sarah Weinman were good enough to accompany me.

Tanenhaus introduced the panel, speaking in a flat New York dialect somewhere between a overworked detective and an undertaker who wanted to get back to the basement and fix up the corpses. He repeatedly boomed key phrases into the mike. “I HOPE you will be pleased with the results.” At one point, perhaps reconciling the guy taking copious notes with the crazed litblogger who sent him benign brownie shipments, he took unsubtle care to note that the next issue was “DEVOTED ENTIRELY” to fiction — featuring reviews authored entirely by women.

Tanenhaus was initially quite defensive and a bit punchy. I wasn’t quite sure why. But it soon became clear that he preferred to dictate how people should react to the list rather than encourage them to read particular titles. “I urge EVERYONE to READ A.O. Scott’s ESSAY!” He urged the BEA staff to close the door early on, so that he might keep track of who was entering and leaving the room. I wondered for a moment if Tanenhaus’s inspiration was more Benito than Birkets. I expected men to come in hawking T-shirts reading “the few, the proud, the NYTBR.”

Tanenhaus described the fiction selection procedure as “a chimerical process.” But I remained dubious about the fanciful nature of when Greg Cowles (apparently, Tanenhaus’s right-hand man) described how he had painstakingly collected the data and composed the letters to the 200 judges. I’m glad Cowles is proud of his labors. Any good worker should be. But I don’t see how having a few Excel skills and knowing how to use mail merge can be described in any way as “chimerical.”

Tanenhaus had settled upon the 1980 figure, because it was “too easy” to fall back to 1941. The original inspiration for the contemporary fiction came from a 1965 poll in the New York Herald-Tribune, where 200 authors, editors and critics had been enlisted to determine the best work of fiction. Invisible Man came first. In addition to proving himself a whiz on the computer, Cowles, who would no doubt pass any of those temp agency tests with flying colors, also announced that he had been adept with microfilm machines. He had actually taken a microfilm of the old Herald-Tribune and placed it into a microfilm machine. Clearly, such achievements, well within the abilities of any grad student working on a thesis, demonstrate that the NYTBR has gone above and beyond the call of duty. To give Tanenhaus and Cowles the benefit of the doubt, ask yourself this question: how many deputy newspaper editors do you know who can do this? Then ask yourself a second question: how many deputy newspaper editors do you actually know?

Tanenhaus didn’t go into the criteria on how he had selected the judges, save that it was “a jury of peers” which beckoned his attentions. He approached 200 people and confessed that many people had written back very angry letters. One unnamed author had suggested that he was “out-Oprahing Oprah.” There was also a good deal of argument over Donald Barthelmie’s 60 Stories, because the material had been published before 1980. So had the book. But it had won the American Book Award in 1980. Thus, it was eligible. There were also a few authors who had voted for themselves.

Such pedantics were tossed out by Tanenhaus again and again. And it suggested to me that Tanenhaus seemed more fond of the idea of being the cultural arbiter rather than the culture itself. It can’t be an accident that Tanenhaus referred himself thrice during the panel as a “self-appointed vulgarian.” (Presumably, this dud of a self-effacing joke was uttered because the audience did not laugh the first two times.)

Fortunately, the divine Cynthia Ozick, who looked bored out of her mind while Tanenhaus spoke, mercifully interjected, noting that it might have been better to nominate writers rather than absolute titles. But she did give Beloved high praise, calling it a deeply enshrined book, “elliptical, elusive, poeticized.”

Liesl Schillinger cited Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as an example of a book demonstrating “how strongly and vehemently we can disagree.” Well, disagreeing is one thing. But how is shouting “On Beauty sucks, dude!” an effective way of gauging contemporary fiction?

Thomas Mallon, who, along with Ozick, was the most interesting of the panelists, voted for Underworld. He suggested that Morrison had written better books than Beloved. But had he been nailed down to single out a writer, a la Ozick, he likely would have selected Philip Roth. Mallon remarked on the conservatism of his fellow judges. Where were the writers from the younger generation? He also remarked that fewer novelists were willing to write reviews, much less start feuds.

It was, indeed, the feud component that Tanenhaus picked up on and that seemed to interest him more than the conservatism of the choices. He noted that Chip McGrath had told him that it was almost impossible to persuade younger novelists to review their contemporaries without first reviewing the galleys. He suggested that this might be a “generational question.”

Ozick responded by saying, “I believe in temperaments, not in generations.” She pointed out that she had selected William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic, pointing out the distinct way that it used language.

Mallon noted that most of the writers who came of age between the 1930s and the 1940s were probably better nonfiction writers. He also noted that there was not as vital and vibrant a magazine culture now as there was in the 1960s.

Schillinger was asked about the silly V.S. Naipul essay by Tanenhaus and confessed that her favorite writer was Anne Tyler. But she did note, citing E.M. Forester, that because things change so fast, people can’t quite set their worlds down.

Revealing his middlebrow tastes, Tanenhaus openly confessed that he was surprised that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which he viewed as a high watermark novel of the last six years, hadn’t been selected. He then tried to get the conversation going on whether Updike was considered “a political writer.” Ozick noted that, “I think he thinks he is,” but pointed out that Updike was good with domestic politics.

Mallon believed that immigration would be the key political issue to invigorate contemporary fiction.

Sam Tanenhaus boasted how he does a podcast now.

Exposing the troubling similarities between marketing language oxymorons and the NYTBR‘s troubling critical worth, Schillinger cited Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep as “an instant classic.”

Eventually, the floor was open to questions.

I stood up and pointed out to Tanenhaus that the list of judges was mostly male and that this reflected a continuing trend by the NYTBR as a whole to give the majority of its reviews to men over women. I also asked how a weekly book review section that continued to prioritize nonfiction over fiction could legitimately put out a “Best Contemporary Fiction” list. I then revealed myself to be the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch guy and playfully asked why I hadn’t received a single thank you note for the brownies. “Is this a New York thing?” I asked.

Tanenhaus took considerable ire at this, booming into the microphone with all the joie de vivre of a stale jelly bean, “Where do we begin?” On the judges list question, he pointed out that the original list of 200 had a more equitable balance between men and women. But that women writers declined to be involved with the project more than men. He was again defensive about the NYTBR, suggesting that “we don’t fill quotas” and, instead of responding to my points, declared the NYTBR the best book review section in the nation. (Of coure, had I been permitted to interject on the fiction coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Baltimore Sun, I would have. But Tanenhaus clearly wanted to evade the issue.)

As to the question of the brownies, Tanenhaus boomed into the mike:


And there, beyond the fact that this extremely silly sentence was uttered with seriousness, is the problem.

The brownies could be experimental fiction. They could be poetry. They could be novels in translation. But Tanenhaus simply will not “cater to anyone” or “acknowledge” them. In the Tanenhaus world, it is Jonathan Franzen or a particularly sycophantic deputy named Cowles who matters more than anything else.

And so I think my work here is at an end. I can now say with absolute certainty that the New York Times Book Review is hopelessly conflicted, hopelessly out-of-touch and worthless to anyone who cares about literature. It is beyond repair. And its head administrator has a limited sense of humor to boot.

Is it little wonder, given these attitudes and lack of flexibility, that newspapers have stopped mattering?

[UPDATE: Scott Esposito, who sadly isn't here, has thought quite a bit about the Tanenhaus list and has some thoughts on the subject.]

[UPDATE 2: Ron and Sarah have more of the specifics between the Tanenhaus-Champion showdown. And there is one key question that lingers: why did so many women say no to Tanenhaus's project?]

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