Ben Schott: Absconding With Personal Experience?

All that apparent vetting and editing at the NYTBR wasn’t enough to stop L’Affaire Schott from sullying Tanenhaus’s pristine gates with redolent taints. The story is this: Ben Schott wrote an essay called “Confessions of a Book Abuser.” Readers, alarmed by the essay’s resemblance to a similar essay called “Never Do That to a Book” (contained within Anne Fadiman’s collection, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader) wrote in, troubled by Schott rather conveniently having an encounter with an Italian chambermaid in 1989, when Schott was fifteen — not unlike Fadiman’s own encounter with an Italian chambermaid in 1964.

benschott.jpgOf course, it’s very possible that Schott did have this experience. It’s very possible that an Italian chambermaid did take a fifteen year old’s hand and returned his copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Of course, since Schott failed to mention his parents (did he really rent “a hotel room on the shores of Lake Como” and stay there without parental supervision?), suggesting that he returned to his hotel room of his own accord, as if a self-made man, I’m disinclined to believe Schott — unless he offers unimpeachable evidence that reveals this existential serendipity. After all, Fadiman’s original essay revealed similar childhood details, as well as a specific hotel name. Schott may be a dutiful compiler of facts for his almanacs, but he appears remiss in revealing some of the specifics that would exculpate him from plagiarism charges. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Schott’s all too happy to boast about reading Evelyn Waugh as a teenager.)

Editor & Publisher has more on the glaring similarities between Schott and Fadiman’s respective essays.

You know, we litbloggers may be “sub-literary,” but there’s one advantage to online writing that you won’t find in print. If any of us were to pull this kind of potential theft, we’d get called on it by our commenters. Perhaps the NYTBR might wish to initiate comments upon all of their articles to keep their content honest. It might even help make the editors “aware of Fadiman’s essay.” And who knows? Maybe a communicative conduit along these lines might even alleviate some of the continuing print vs. online fracas. It’s clear from this incident that Tanenhaus’s drawbridge is starting to look a bit rickety.

[UPDATE: Bill Peschel reminds me (and I should have referenced this in the post) that the similarities were observed the day after Schott’s article appeared in a Bookninja thread. Return of the Reluctant regrets the oversight, but we will go one more than the Times in wishing Mr. Murray a speedy recovery from his illness.]

Tanenhaus Won’t Have You at Hello

The underrated filmmaker Samuel Fuller said that a good story has to grab the audience by the balls from the get-go. Combing through the ledes in this Sunday’s NYTBR, it would appear that Sam Tanenhaus wouldn’t know crotch-grabbing even if Michael Jackson gave him personal lessons.

I’ve culled several ledes from this Sunday’s NYTBR because they all share something in common: the need to say something generalized and painfully generic in a seemingly sophisticated but ultimately hollow manner. It’s an approach that would probably piss off B.R. Myers, but I object more to the gormless grandeur and the sneering stance towards readers. A good editor would have recognized these topic sentences as conceptually sophomoric and condescending and demanded a peppy modifier at bare minimum. But the NYTBR‘s faux intellectualism and listless tone, resembling the staid syntax of an escrow agreement, appears to be house style. And these are the folks who call bloggers sub-literary!

Before I tsk-tsk Tanenhaus, to be equitable, there are a handful of good but not great offerings in this week’s issue, including this interesting David Orr essay, Geoffrey Wolff’s review of Kurt Andersen’s Heyday (peering through the language, it appears that Wolff may have been going for something quirky, but there do seem to be many telltale dashes here; did intervention come from humorless editors?), and decent coverage of a Winifred Wagner bio.

Of course, praising Tanenhaus for these minor morsels is a bit like ignoring the green chunks on a hunk of molded sourdough. It’s all moot when compared to the rest. So let’s go through the culprits one by one.

Ted Conover: “There’s a lot of stuff we consume while barely pausing to consider where it comes from; it is easy, these days, to be insulated from production.”

Translation: Yes, there is lots of stuff, good golly! Heya there, dumbass yokel! Yeah, you! Reading the NYTBR, trying to edumucate your mind. Do you want to read about oil? I reckon I might get through to you if I refer to your shopping items as stuff! But have no fear, pardner, because while Lisa Margonelli’s book deals with some COM-PLEXXX issues, everything’s going to be A-OK! The boys at Houston will make shure our li’l bitty spacecraft is INSULATED FROM PRODUCTION!

Pete Hamill: “Prohibition was one of the longest, dumbest chapters in the history of 20th-century American folly, and the impulses behind it are still alive today.”

Translation: You probably don’t remember your high school history class. You probably can’t be bothered to look things up, much less Google things. So let me tell you something. I’m guessing you remember this little period in 20th century American history called Prohibition. Yes? You don’t? Okay. Think carefully. Remember The Untouchables? Yeah. Bootleggers. Well, it had HUMONGOUS consequences for all of us.

Kim Severson: “Barry Glassner has made it his business to set credulous consumers of mass media straight.”

Translation: Even though Glassner’s previous book, The Culture of Fear sold through the roof, we’re assuming you’re an idiot who doesn’t even know who William Whyte is, much less Malcolm Gladwell. He’s made it his business, you see. The same way, you make it your business as a B&T day trader. Everything copacetic?

Steven Heighton: “Survival stories, in their elemental simplicity, can be deeply appealing to those seeking escape from complicated, densely scheduled lives.”

Translation: You haven’t set foot outside of your comfortable suburban neighborhood for years and the terrorists could bomb you at any second. We’re assuming that you pick up a sensationalistic book from time to time and, hey, here’s this one. Because we’re assuming you’re scared.

David Kirby: “Why devote oneself to that aggressively minor genre, poetry, when novels and screenplays and tell-all memoirs get more notice and make more money?”

Translation: Poetry is, of course, for all the pansy-ass intellectuals starving in garrets. But I’m one of you! I have an accountant on my payroll! And I’m going to dictate why you should read poetry in the most unsubtle tone imaginable!

Dave Itzkoff: “Is there anybody out there? Give the question some thought before you answer, because it’s more perilous than it seems.”

Translation: I haven’t a fucking clue about how to grab your attention. Hell, I’m not even sure why Master Sam picked me. I’m not really that familiar with speculative fiction anyway. So let’s see: this audience probably listens to classic rock on FM radio. That is, after all, what Master Sam says. Surely, they’ve heard of Pink Floyd!

Sam Tanenhaus is the Misinformed One

“I find they write about us, but I don’t find they write about authors and have that many interesting things to say about literature. Maybe I’m missing them? It seems to be more of a kind of a scorecard they keep about us and I think, well, let’s say they don’t like us and we’re doing a terrible job. All they’re doing is publicizing what we do. I don’t understand that. If they think that we don’t do enough fiction, well why aren’t you using your blog to write about those novels and say interesting things about them? Why not just tell us about all those books? It seems very parasitical after a while and the sort of echo chamber-ish and they get so much wrong. They’re so misinformed about so many things that it seems unfruitful to pay attention. They really don’t get what we do, or how we do it, and they don’t really want to know because if they do it would kind of undermine the attacks and all the rest. For instance, there was someone who was complaining that we weren’t using David Orr more often and that it was because I had some problems with Orr. I’m the guy who gave Orr a column and the reason why he wasn’t writing was because his father was seriously ill and he’d gotten some gig in Princeton. That’s why you weren’t seeing him more. So there’s this kind of conspiratorial view they have, that I’m here deciding, ‘Let’s destroy fiction by not reviewing it!’ or, ‘This guy writes too well, so let’s not publish him!’ That’s not the way journalism works.” — Sam Tanenhaus

This remarkably hypocritical statement comes from Sam Tanenhaus, who claims he “never reads blogs” and then proceeds to describe all manner of things that they do, based of course on the fact that he “never reads” them. This is akin to an astrophysicist being asked to speculate upon knitting, a hobby that this hypothetical astrophysicist never actually practices, and who then proceeds to denounce knitting as evil incarnate, wrong, misinformed, and the like.

But let’s take Tanenhaus’s claims here one by one.

“I don’t find they write about authors and have that many interesting things to say about literature.”

Yup, litbloggers never write about authors. They never take the time out to talk at length with a Booker Prize winner or ask Vikram Chandra about how to write a long novel, much less discuss overlooked titles or a National Book Award-winning book with the author himself. As for whether any of this is interesting to Tanenhaus, I could care less. It’s a matter of subjective opinion. But if Tanenhaus is ignorant enough to claim that litbloggers never “write about authors,” then clearly his opinion on this matter is about as worthless as an empty wallet at a Monte Carlo craps table.

“I don’t understand that.”

It’s clear with Tanenhaus’s recurrent hiring of Henry Alford, a man who wouldn’t know funny if South Park bit him on the ass, that Tanenhaus is the most comedically tone-deaf book review editor now working in the industry. (Let’s put it this way. Even Bob Hoover has a sense of humor.) Therefore, it’s clear that he’s incapable of comprehending a satirical analysis of his own publication (i.e., the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch).

“If they think that we don’t do enough fiction, well why aren’t you using your blog to write about those novels and say interesting things about them? Why not just tell us about all those books?”

See the Litblog Co-Op. See Maud, Mark and Jessa’s remarks on Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y. See Sarah and Dan Wickett‘s love for Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: you heard about it first on these pages. Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land: TMFTML. I could go on and on.

“They’re so misinformed about so many things that it seems unfruitful to pay attention.”

Support your examples much, Sammy Boy?

“They really don’t get what we do, or how we do it, and they don’t really want to know because if they do it would kind of undermine the attacks and all the rest.”

This is disingenuous. I have asked Sam Tanenhaus for an interview on four separate occasions, so that I might understand where he’s coming from and so I might corral my observations in line with the NYTBR‘s production process.

He has refused every single time.

It’s clear that Tanenhaus doesn’t want to respond to any criticisms. He considers himself above questioning. He is, as you might recall, “under no obligation to acknowledge the brownie.” It was only my personal attendance of a panel last year that provoked a few answers to these questions. And even then, he could not provide satisfactory responses.

There is also the curious phrasing of “the attacks.” The attacks? What the hell is this? Pearl Harbor? Are brownies now a weapon of mass destruction? Tanenhaus can dish it out, but he can’t take it. I must again affirm that I have praised the NYTBR as much as I have criticized it. (See yesterday’s post.)

“For instance, there was someone who was complaining that we weren’t using David Orr more often and that it was because I had some problems with Orr.”

Let’s go back to the post about David Orr that Tanenhaus is mentioning:

I have no idea what’s made Orr’s work sparse in the NYTBR these days. Perhaps it’s Sammy T’s tone-deaf editorialship.” [Emphasis added]

“I have no idea” should be pretty clear that I had no idea. Then again, when you’re a guy cowering from bloggers, perhaps a cigar isn’t a cigar. My speculation doesn’t impute that Tanenhaus had any problems with Orr, nor is the word “problems” contained in my post.

“So there’s this kind of conspiratorial view they have, that I’m here deciding, ‘Let’s destroy fiction by not reviewing it!’ or, ‘This guy writes too well, so let’s not publish him!’ That’s not the way journalism works.

The use of the verb “destroy” is the telling detail here. It is a word one expects from Genghis Khan or a WWE wrestler, not a book review editor.

Fiction will continue to live on, whether Tanenhaus covers it or not. It is Tanenhaus’s loss that he cannot see fit to open up the pages of his “Review” to fiction’s glories. One of the assertions I’ve always casted here is why the NYTBR claims to cover serious fiction more than any other book review section in the country, when it recurrently skimps out on solid literary coverage. There is nothing conspiratorial about this observation. Frankly, when you stack up Tanenhaus’s NYTBR against John Leonard’s NYTBR, it’s a bit like pitting People against The New Yorker. There is simply no contest.

All litbloggers have asked is why a book review section with such potential falls flat under Tanenhaus’s watch. It’s a telling sign that this question has transmuted from genuine (albeit satirical) inquiry to “conspiratorial view.”

Of course, if Tanenhaus wishes to explain himself, my microphones remain ready.

[UPDATE: Michael Orthofer has much to say about Tanenhaus’s remarks.]

[UPDATE 2: John Fox also has much to say.]

Tanenhaus Has Shortcomings, To Be Sure

Sam Tanenhaus: “Shortcomings, to be sure. But so what? Nature doesn’t owe us perfection. Novelists don’t either. Who among us would even recognize perfection if we saw it?”

With these five simple sentences, Sam Tanenhaus has spelled out why the New York Times Book Review is a publication hostile to penetrating insights on fiction. Literary criticism, as I understand it, is not the quest for perfection, nor should one expect a single volume to yield near universal plaudits from all who read it. (Unless, of course, like the old Saturday Night Live sketch suggested, you liked Cats and you’d see it again and again.) One of criticism’s vital functions is to present doubting Thomases who cast aspersions on a book’s greatness and brave critics with cogent arguments explaining why a universally derided book is worth reading.

I happen to believe Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation to be a near perfect novel, but while attaching a melodramatic modifier might be good for blurbs, it doesn’t tell you anything about why I believe it to be a near perfect novel. I can tell you in very specific terms why I believe it to be one one of the best novels of the past ten years, but I would not deny another critic her right to express why it fails, using supportive examples and reasonable terms.

Literary criticism is certainly not a matter of bullshit lists. It is not a matter of declaring an author above a single reproach, as Tanenhaus has done. Literary criticism is a quest for understanding, a way of playing booster to authors who are maligned or misunderstood and skeptic to the critical darlings.

Edmund Wilson once described the situation this way:

No matter how thoroughly and searchingly we may have scrutinized works of literature from the historical and biographical point of view, we must be able to tell good from bad, the first-rate from the second-rate. We shall otherwise not write literary criticism at all, but merely social or political history as reflected in literary texts, or psychological case histories from past eras.

It is not enough for the critic to describe a book as first-rate. The critic has the duty to explain why this is so while considering the blind partisanship of her enthusiasms. A good book review editor will cultivate these critical impulses in his contributors, instead of penning a 2,000 word love letter that could have just as easily read:


The New York Masturbatory Sock Puppet Review of Books

Once again, Sam Tanenhaus demonstrates how little he cares about journalistic integrity by throwing a bone to Lee Siegel this week. You might remember Siegel as “sprezzatura,” a sock puppet alter ego he created to leave comments on his very own posts to defend against criticism of his New Republic blog. Why Siegel is so obsessed with masturbation in Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Siegel has had a lot of time off to consider this subject. But seeing as how Tanenhaus sets the bar so low, I wouldn’t be surprised if “sprezzatura” will show up in two weeks’ time in the Letters section.

However, there’s also another delightful appearance from Liesl, who somehow managed to slip in references to the White Stripes (and, alas, Coldplay), Medea, and Dostoevsky. Perhaps Levi is right. Tanenhaus must have been on vacation.

Believe It or Not, There’s Someone Lazier Than Dave Itzkoff

What Jenny D said. It strikes me as anti-intellectual to waste time in a review bemoaning the length of a book (and in this case, it isn’t even the book being reviewed), and it reveals just how much of a mousy barnacle Allan Sloan is, who may very well be perfectly fit to report on business but is wholly incompetent to publish work in a book review section.

The other asinine statement from Sloan: “As with the Bible or Moby-Dick, you don’t have to be familiar with the entire work in order to grasp its essence.” What next from Tanenhaus? Championing SparkNotes over the text itself?

Apologists can defend Tanenhaus for his Whittaker Chambers biography all they want, but this kind of recidivist attitude has no place in a weekly book review section.

Absolutely no brownies for Tanenhaus. In fact, he should be baking us some.

As for the drive-by assault on Anthony Burgess (which comes courtesy of Paul Gray), the only thing “comfortably ho-hum” here is the flagrant vacuity within Mr. Gray’s head. Gray’s noggin clearly hasn’t entertained a curiosity about literature in quite some time.

Reason #142 Why Dave Itzkoff is a No-Nothing Assclown

New York Times: “All science fiction has some element of titillation — a strategy of taking known facts and stretching them to the limits of credulity, for the purposes of both entertaining and enlightening.”

Gee, I thought the purpose of speculative fiction was, much like many other novels, to provide a narrative that reflected the human condition: sometimes using provocative ideas or meticulous atmosphere (a la China Mieville) and, in the case of hard sf, sometimes employing rigorous scientific justification to explain the imaginative scenario (and thus pushing the narrative well past “the limits of credulity”) (a la Robert Charles Wilson’s excellent Hugo-award winning novel, Spin). That Itzkoff sees science fiction from a failed English major’s dichotomous mind set (“entertaining and enlightening,” but not challenging, humanist or literary) is a great indication that he should probably recuse himself from literary criticism. His work for the NYTBR reads like a Strom Thurmond-like politician trying to use States Rights Democratic Party rhetoric (circa 1948) to run for President in the 21st century.

[RELATED: Levi Asher points out that Tanenhaus’s team can’t even get basic Beat history right. Maybe they truly are operating as if it’s 1948 at the NYTBR.]

No Surprise: NYTBR Slacks Off on Popular Fiction Too

Michael Blowhard observes that the NYTBR is a failure on the popular fiction front as well: “To use an analogy: imagine a movie magazine. It doesn’t announce itself as avant-garde, or as niche in any way. It’s just The New York Review of Movies. It purports, in other words, to be covering movies. You’d expect this magazine to have a point of view — who would even want a publication that’s indiscriminate, after all? But I think it’s fair to say that you’d be surprised if all the movies this magazine gave substantial coverage to were upscale arthouse films.”

And it looks like you can now watch the Book TV segment in its entirety. Levi Asher is correct: the humorless Tanenhaus is about as happy and enthusiastic about books as a chartered accountant is about opening his books to the IRS.

Other highlights (and really this does play like a Christopher Guest mockumentary):

  • Dwight Garner is the most personable member of the NYTBR team and knows his stuff (7 minute mark, 14 minute mark & 17 minute mark, et al.)
  • Tanenhaus “thinks” that Richard Ford’s Independence Day won the Pulitzer in the 1990s, but isn’t sure (11 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus browbeats poor deputy editor Bob Harris (13 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus actually approximates something close to a smile, clearly an effort that comes as readily as working a twelve-hour shift at a warehouse (16:30)
  • Barry Gewen cops to being terrified early in his NYTBR career (17 minute mark)
  • Garner wants to find and cover the top literary talents (alas, with his boss not even familiar with basics on Richard Ford, it’s questionable whether Garner’s dream will come true) (17 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus vs. “the stiffs” (“Self-published books we don’t publish. Some day this may change,” “We don’t review a book because it’s already a bestseller,” “We don’t do advice and how-to books, except in the rarest of occasions,” “Sometimes publishers will ask us to reconsider.”) (20 minute mark)
  • The discard room (23 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus boasting about having the Saul Bellow Library of America volume early (26 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus: “ambitious” critics read or reread all of an author’s backlist (28 minute mark)
  • Gewen notes that not everyone is eager to write for The New York Times (28:30)
  • Tanenhaus is a big stickler for polished prose (30 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus: “Among the younger generation of reviewers and critics, [polished prose] is where the tension lies. Because of the blogosphere, because of online publications where there is a tendency to write very quickly and not always thoughtfully and to write sloppily often. Sometimes, it’s hard for those writers to make the transition.” Bullshit, Sam. If you honestly believe that those in the blogosphere cannot slow down or that a writer cannot write polished and fast, particularly when it’s a paid gig, you clearly have no understanding of the blogosphere. (30:30)
  • More folderol from Sam: “There are online writers who are brilliant for us. But also we like to offer a range for young and old writers….We also want to be a showcase for distinguished reviewers.” Joe Queenan distinguished? He’s the Bobby Slayton of the book reviewing world: a lowlife thug who let bitterness take over his funny bone years ago. Leon Wieseltier distinguished? Rachel “I Lost My Personality When I Left the Observer” Donadio distinguished? If by distinguished, you mean pretentious bores, then pop open the champagne, Sammy Baby. (31 minute mark)
  • Sam goes gaga over Henry Kissinger (31:30)
  • “We don’t like ad hominem comments. We don’t like casual assertions. There’s some degree of dignity we try to bring to it.” Yup, now I see why Tanenhaus likes a liar like Kissinger so much. The dirty laundry is now in the spin cycle. (32:30)
  • Political books are generally assigned to centrists. (33:30)
  • Tanenhaus: “In the world of publishing, more people know Nancy than anyone else in this office.” (34 minute mark)
  • Tech templates revealed. (35 minute mark)
  • Most art is digital. (37:20)
  • The copy editing area. (38 minute mark)
  • “We do a great deal of fact checking.” Indeed. I’ll be sure to fact-check you myself once the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch returns. (38:30)
  • Debate on the term “shoot the messenger.” What does the reviewer really mean? Maybe relentless questions along these lines are part of the problem. (40 minute mark)
  • The Letters page is Tanenhaus’s favorite page. (42 minute mark)
  • Alison McCullough editing Dave Itzkoff: “I’m not a sci-fi expert!” (45 minute mark)
  • Greg Cowles on blurbs (48 minute mark)
  • Tanenhaus likes the hed “Beyond Belief.” (49 minute mark)
  • Mick Sussman: online editor and the guy who produces the podcast (“It’s been getting more and more professional, we like to think.”). The online visitors have almost as many visitors as the print edition. (50 minute mark)
  • “Mick has been having great luck getting prominent authors.” Amazingly, they have the authors come into the cube-laden NYTBR office or do the interviews by telephone. Well, that explains the lifeless quality of the podcast. And the podcast then gets outsourced to the QXR studio. (In other words, Mick doesn’t even do the cleanup.) By contrast, The Bat Segundo Show is researched, conducted and edited by me, one guy (save, of course, Mr. Segundo), who already has a full-time job and isn’t even in New York. (51:30)

Sam Tanenhaus: Finding Chicks Who Write Nonfiction is Just SO GOSH DARN HARD!

Lee Kottner writes a letter to Tanenhaus about the NYTBR‘s well-documented lack of women nonfiction coverage and receives a response. Tanenhaus claims, “The truth, at least as far as we can tell, is that there remain areas in which women authors tend to be less well (that is, less numerously) represented than men: science, philosophy, economics, politics, public policy, foreign policy, to name some obvious ones.” But, as Kottner demonstrates with a list of books, this isn’t the case at all. As Kottner puts it, “hat it’s not that women are underrepresented anywhere in publishing (except perhaps in science, which I’ll get to later), it’s that the topics we write about are not ‘important,’ e.g., interesting to men.” (via The Other)

As to Tanenhaus’s recent claim that litbloggers are sloppy writers, I would suggest that Tanenhaus, with a team of roughly ten, is sloppier than ten litbloggers put together. This site, with its blog and podcast (which came well before the NYTBR‘s rigid weekly offering), is run by one person. That means one person moderating discussions, making calls, responding to emails, reading the books, setting up equipment, cleaning up the audio, and getting the word out. And all this with a full-time job, freelancing on top of that, and a social life. Give ten litbloggers full-time jobs and the resources to run a book review section and I suspect it would be filled with more passion, more enthusiasm, more controversy, more excitement and more grammatical precision than Tanenhaus has in his left pinkie.

I hereby withdraw Rachel the Hack. The point has been made. But if Tanenhaus is going to call litbloggers “sloppy” without evidence, then the time has come to reinstate the NYTBR‘s grand measure.


Sylvester Stallone KOs Sam Tanenhaus

rocky.jpegSure, you could ask Sam Tanenhaus your questions and watch him ignore any query even remotely critical of the NYTBR. (Tanenhaus, incidentally, has refused mutlple interview requests to appear on The Bat Segundo Show to clarify some of the charges that have appeared on these pages.)

But why do that when a former box office titan is cheerily answering everything (and I do mean everything)? Everything from whether Rhinestone or Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! is his worst movie to his revelation that Dolly Parton is the ultimate woman.

From The Dizzies, comes a series of bizarre links to Ain’t It Cool News. Apparently, Sylvester Stallone took it upon himself to answer just about every question that was asked of him. From Dolly Parton to the use of three seashells. I even suspect that if I sent Stallone a package of brownies, he’d actually send a thank you note. Which is more than we can say for Sam “We Take No Chances” Tanenhaus.

Here are the links to Stallone’s ongoing Q&A:

Round 1
Round 2
Round 3
Round 4
Round 5
Round 6
Round 7
Round 8
Round 9

I Confess. I Heart Dwight Garner.

Dwight Garner’s Inside the List column has, at long last, found a pleasantly cranky voice. Consider Garner’s most recent column, particularly the item on Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson. Garner’s column is the only regular part of the NYTBR in which one can discern a beating pulse from the writer (which is more than one can say for so-called “humorist” Henry Alford, whose banal DOA wit is better suited for greeting card copy). This is because Garner regularly lays his convictions on the line, with wit, irony and an impish streak that any self-respecting shit-stirrer can discern as homegrown. As Ron Hogan observed back in October, Garner’s column isn’t all that different from a litblog. And perhaps his roguish tendencies might galvanize the NYTBR‘s more austere faction (I’m looking at you, Donadio and Tanenhaus) into injecting enthusiasm for books into their work product instead of anal retentiveness.

Summarizing Rachel Donadio

Hi, I’m Rachel Donadio and I’m working off of the literary feud article boilerplate. Let’s see. Mailer. Mailer. Rushdie-Updike. Tom Wolfe. You know the drill. Don’t mention Queenan-Jacobs because Sam LOVES Queenan! He is a friend! A friend of the NYTBR! Also, the blogosphere is evil but I have no examples to prove my point. (Sorry about that. I just needed another dig at those evil litbloggers because clearly the NYTBR is superior.) This has been a 1,400 word essay that has covered the basics because Sam and I really resent the reading public.

Dave Itzkoff: Firm Champion of White Male Speculative Fiction Authors Everybody Else Has Heard Of

It’s bad enough that Sam Tanenhaus feels that Dave Itzkoff’s science fiction column is only worth an appearance once every solstice. (His last column appeared on September 24, six weeks ago.) But it seems that Itzkoff is more interested in covering obvious authors rather than exploring the eclectic terrain of speculative fiction in any substantive way. (See, by contrast, Ron Charles’ seamless integration of genre titles into the Washington Post‘s Book World, which offer a common entry point for both speculative fiction fan and mainstream reader alike.)

In this week’s New York Times Book Review, Dave Itzkoff, once in another display of Caucasian boosterism, serves up this overview of Neil Gaiman, apparently discovering The Sandman more than a decade after everybody else.

When your resident science fiction columnist is only just discovering Neil Gaiman (and we can be sure that Itzkoff’s failure to reference American Gods, the critical and commercial hit that established that Gaiman was not just a comic book writer), that’s a sure sign that you have a genre illiterate on the payroll.

Memo to Tanenhaus: Liesl’s Your Only Shot


Dear Mr. Tanenhaus:

Nearly every serious literary person knows that your finger ain’t exactly on the pulse of contemporary fiction. Your coverage, even when it does concern itself with literature, often misses the mark. (This week’s issue, however, isn’t bad. But still, NO BROWINES FOR YOU! Just because I’m under no obligation to resuscitate the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch.)

This is troubling, given that you have long maintained that you are the shit, that somehow the name “New York Times” means something and that we are supposed to ignore the often ridiculous essays that pass for substantive coverage. (And, come on, Sam, was Alford snorting lines when he wrote this nonsense? Or is this the mark of an editor who thinks this and Joe Queenan’s solipsistic hit pieces are funny? For this, I sentence you to two weeks of Buster Keaton, Stanley Elkin and the Marx Brothers!)

However, there is one person among your roster of contributors who does know fiction and who actually loves books (Imagine that! Someone who actually loves LOVES loves books on your payroll! You know, like some of us upstart litbloggers and podcasters!). And frankly Sam, she’s your only shot at the NYTBR having any kind of journalistic credibility in the future.

I’m talking about Liesl Schillinger! This week, she wrote a fantastic review of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn that somehow escaped the dull, clause-happy house style you cling to like a barnacle to a scow or an attorney to boilerplate.

And yet you keep her in the background, often assigning her a book from Glamour instead of, say, the new Richard Ford book — which you assigned to that assclown Tony Scott, a man who doesn’t understand that he’s a film critic, not a book critic.

And yes I’ll even forgive her solecism against bloggers on the Pessl front.

If you have even a shred of editorial instinct, I urge you to have Liesl cover substantial fiction. During your tenure, you’ve been almost completely tone-deaf in your tenure in providing . But Liesl? Oh, I know me a fellow reader when I see one!

So what of it, Sammy T? The time has come to lay down the gauntlet. Are you writing for readers and literary people? Are you writing to get people excited about literature? Or are you writing for an audience that nobody but you seems to understand? An audience perhaps of humorless bureaucrats?

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

Sam Tanenhaus Crosses the Line Between Advertising and Editorial

If there was any doubt that Sam Tanenhaus lacked integrity after his unethical assignment of John Dean to review Mark Felt’s memoir, Galleycat uncovers this disgraceful juxtaposition of an ad for Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone running on the same page as a letter from Tom Bissell gushing about Franzen. (Bissell’s letter is in response to Daniel Mendelsohn’s review.) I observed two weeks ago that the timeliness of this review was suspect. (Mendelsohn’s review appeared almost two months after the book was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani.) Whether this had any bearing on securing the ad, only the folks inside the NYTBR will know for sure.

Even so, I haven’t seen such an obvious shill since the infamous Target-sponsored New Yorker. Ron Hogan emailed Sam Tanenhaus and Tanenhaus responded, “We don’t see any ads until we close” and further noted that “letters are neutral space, unlike reviews.” Except, of course, that Tom Bissell’s letter engages in highly subjective language that is a bit more than “neutral.”

Yeah. My dog ate my homework too.

Sam Tanenhaus sincerely believes that the NYTBR is the best newspaper book review section in the nation. But his continued incompetence leads me to believe that he doesn’t care about journalistic integrity and that he lacks even the forethought, something that every journalism major is aware of, to switch an ad like this to another page. That’s too bad. The NYTBR used to be something worth reading. Now, it’s just a joke.

[To offer something Tanenhaus’s way, I will say that the new issue has some interesting coverage. For example, how many review sections have you seen containing a full review of Fowles’ second notebook? But Tanenhaus interviewing Amy Sedaris in this week’s podcast is semi-disastrous, simply because Tanenhaus’s gruff interrogative questioning style is at odds with his desperate efforts to show how hip he is. Here’s a hint, Sam: loosen up. Also: What the fuck, Henry Alford?]

No Brownies for Dwight Garner Either!

In this week’s Inside the List, Dwight Garner remarks upon the Observer’s riff upon the NYTBR list and notes, “One sad and striking thing about this list of beautiful books is that only one, McEwan’s ‘Atonement,’ appeared on the Times best-seller list, in hardcover or soft.”

I sincerely hope this is simply an inept ironic statement on how literary works often don’t sell as well as bestsellers. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Garner has been having one too many drinks from the Tanenhaus Kooky Kool-Aid Kooler. The NYTBR contemporary fiction list was roundly mocked precisely because it was less about literary merit and more about extremely obvious literary titles that elitists, clearly out of touch with the habits of anyone under 50, would select. Indeed, why should sales have any bearing on literary merit at all? With this attitude, perhaps this explains why the NYTBR is often more of a hoary tabloid than an honorable publication.


Keep That Timely Literary Coverage Coming, Tanenhaus!

Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone in the October 15, 2006 edition of The New York Times Book Review. It’s a fair enough review, but it’s worth pointing out that the book came out on September 5 and has already been roundly trounced by the likes of Cheryl Reed and Marjorie Kehe.

In fact, Michiko herself reviewed Franzen’s book on August 29, 2006 in the Gray Lady’s very own pages — almost seven weeks ago.

So why cover a book so late? Particularly a slim volume under 200 pages that has already been thoroughly covered by every major newspaper?

I suppose at this rate we can expect the NYTBR to cover the new Pynchon book sometime around March, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker a little after the New Year — that is, assuming they even bother to cover these books.

Not only can we count on Sam Tanenhaus to offer disastrous literary fiction coverage (with such dependable critics as Liesl Schillinger and David Orr barely allowed to flaunt their critical acumen and Dave Itzkoff’s science fiction column appearing no more frequently than the equinox), but we can count on Tanenhaus to review obvious mainstream titles two months later. Heck of a job, Sam!

[UPDATE: An anonymous source tells me that Colson Whitehead will be reviewing Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker in the October 22, 2006 issue of the NYTBR.]

Sam Tanenhaus: Bestseller Lists You Don’t Know About, Yes. Substantial Fiction Reviews & More Women Writing, No.

Editor and Publisher: “You won’t find the new politics bestseller tally in the print edition of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. The line-up is only being posted on the Web site’s book section, along with the paper’s other bestseller lists. ‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P. He said he had not known about the new listing, but supported it. ‘We have talked a long time about different categories for books.'”

Keywords for Dwight Garner

Return of the Reluctant has uncovered a secret BlogSpot blog belonging to Dwight Garner. Unfortunately, the blog was taken down shortly after we discovered it, but we were able to uncover the following keywords from Dwight’s page:

book editor, greatest book editor ever, nothing but the New York Times Book Review, nothing else matters, Kiss Sam’s ass, Kiss Sam’s ass, Kiss Sam’s ass, I hate brownies, hate bloggers, hate bloggers, bloggers must die, Mark Childress must die

Liesl Schillinger: Putting the Petty in Lori Petty

Re: Liesl Schillinger (hereinafter referred to as “Floozyl”), what Mark said, but with one major difference. The blogger who allegedly “grumbled” actually had a more dimensional take than what Floozyl imputed. Observe the final paragraph from Sarah’s post:

(Btw, for the humor-impaired, it’s not that I am mocking Ms. Pessl’s appearance or writing ability, just the publishing world’s almost masochistic desire to let attractive packages, so to speak, dictate their buying guidelines — even if the prospect of earning out is rather limited, to say the least.)

Further, Jessa Crispin penned her piece not on her blog, but in an article for the Book Standard. Meaning that it was a bona-fide piece of journalism that just happened to be available online, but that it was not part of the Bookslut empire. It’s idiotic enough to paraphrase an opinion based on a headline, but in this case it does a disservice to the blogger in question, who was functioning as a journalist. Further, it is quite likely that a copy editor penned the headline, not Jessa.

So beyond Floozyl being inaccurate, bafflingly combative towards litbloggers, and as perspicacious in her thinking as Dick Cheney handling a shotgun, Floozyl’s reading comprehension skills and ability to contextualize are more amateurish than a raccoon-eyed undergraduate with a bad case of the munchies trying to figure out how to divagate through the stacks.* If an entire team of fact-checkers and copy editors at the world’s allegedly foremost newspaper is this lazy, this petty, and this rushed, then Sammy T and the team are truly silly individuals who don’t even have the basic bonhomie to realize that the relationship between litbloggers and mainstream sources is two-way and symbiotic, that we have much to learn from each other, and that there is no autocratic cultural gatekeeper here, there, or anywhere. Particularly when Tanenhaus fails on a weekly basis to realize that there are books that go beyond bloated biographies of ponderous intellectuals and the collected works of John Updike.

Here are some questions to Sammy T and Floozyl: Are you really that oversensitive? Are you really having sleepless nights thinking about literary enthusiasts who have the temerity to express their passions in their spare time?

Sammy, Floozyl: Grow a spine, for fuck’s sake. Hell, maybe some humility on your end might help. After all, there’s room in the literary world for everyone.

* Hey, if Floozyl’s going to give us unpardonable run-ons, I’m going to mix my fucking metaphors.

[UPDATE: Ron has more.]

[UPDATE 2: More from Levi and a hilarious response from Scott.]

Tanenhaus Actually Gets It Right for Once

Could it be? Joe Queenan has temporarily put away the hatchet (and the hubris)? Well, it’s true. And Sam Tanenhaus is (wait for it) to be commended for not only giving us a different side of Queenan’s, but also for writing an enjoyable overview of Richard Hofstadter (perhaps making up for the aborted Buckley bio) and being a little more relaxed on the recent edition of the NYTBR podcast. Did Sammy Boy get an unexpected refund check for the IRS? What explains this unexpectedly ebullient (well, as ebullient as the gruff-voiced man will be) Sammy-T?

Of course, I still have issues with the NYTBR‘s lack of literary fiction coverage, but perhaps the August sunshine might pierce Sam’s heart and spread some golden rays to make even Dwight Garner wear a pair of khaki shorts. Too bad the NYTBR is under no acknowledgment to accept the brownies.

In the meantime, Queenan wrote this surprisingly humble essay about reading far too many books simultaneously. Perhaps Queenan’s essay spoke to me because I am currently in the middle of reading about 17 books: many of them given to me by trusted people who have insisted that I read them, many of them having nothing to do with future Segundo interviews serving as a welcome respite. The usual figure around here is four books at a time, but books and reading desires pile up rather rapidly.

For the tome-loving multitaskers around here, how many books do you read at a time? The comments await.

Tanenhaus: Just Say No to Podcasting

While I have given up the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch, did you know that Sam Tanenhaus is in the podcasting business? Every Friday, NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus releases a new installment through the New York Times website. And while you can’t access the podcast without iTunes and there doesn’t appear to be an archive of Tanenhaus’s past podcasts, you can, of course, listen to the latest installment.

I tried out the 7/22/06 podcast and, believe it or not, I actually felt a bit sad for Sammy Boy. He clearly doesn’t want to do this. He’s forcing himself to have fun. I can only imagine the initial meeting with Bill Keller.

“Sam, we need to be competitive. So we’re going to need you to do a podcast! It’s the latest thing with the kids.”

“Doesn’t my work for the Review stand on its own?”

“Oh absolutely, Sam! Keep those Leon Wieseltier hit pieces coming.”

“But why me?”

“Because you’re the Book Review editor! Who else would we approach?”

“Can’t Liesl do this instead? She’s down with this more than I am.”

“No, Sam. We need you! You’re the editor! You’re our voice. Do you need me to get the legal team on your ass?”

“Okay, fine. I’ll do it.”

Perhaps it’s a telling indicator of how he feels about being NYTBR editor. He’s getting by the best he can, but he really wants to go home and write a biography.

For those who don’t want to go to the trouble of listening to it, here’s a description:

A 1970s punk band, or perhaps, more accurately, a 1994 approximation of “alternative rock,” some local New York band that can be hired for a pittance, opens up the show, singing (I think; it’s hard to make out with all the poor man’s distortion) “I’m reading for the New York Times Book Review.” (No, I am not making this up.) Sammy Boy then introduces himself, thanking his audience for the letters, postcards and mail he’s received, only to attempt a gag in a dour tone, “Oops. My producer’s waving frantically.” He then remarks that the letters were to Dwight and, sounding as if he’s reading off of a script (written by somebody else?), he says, “But I told my mother-in-law to address those to me.”

Sammy T then introduces David Margolick, who wrote this week’s front page review. Then we get the NYTBR boosterism in evidence at the infamous BEA panel. “David, as soon as your review came in, it felt like a cover essay because of its narrative and emotional power. In fact, you begin with a rather chilling anecdote.” Now imagine these two sentences spoken in an opaque Brooklyn dialect, without any warmth or humor, without even the hint of a man letting down his guard. And you begin to see the sad scenario here. Bad enough that the podcast is devoted to propping up the Gray Lady’s dubious stature with questions and answers that feel scripted and possibly rehearsed, but Sammy Boy is so uptight (at least on air) that he’s incapable of maintaining even the illusion that he’s enjoying this.

Margolick, who is either terrifyingly articulate (in a troubling executive conference room kind of way) or reading from a script, responds to the questions in a banal flatline tone with such introductory phrases as “But I hadn’t thought about that, Sam..” and “I think the evidence is incontrovertible….” In short, Sammy Boy and the Times crew are terrified of the very human uhs and ahs that populate human conversation (have they edited these out?), the flawed tics that cause vernacular to take on that joie de vivre that causes others to give a damn about books. But why should they reveal their limitations? After all, this is the Times! The crown’s jewels! Not a single person can screw up here!

The human feel, however, does find a certain inroads with William Rhoden, who talks about his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves with some vigor and genuine interest. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Sammy Boy is away from the mike and gives most of the conversation to Rhoden. I suspect, in fact, that most of Sammy T’s segues and questions have been edited out, because Rhoden says, “You mention Joe Louis” midway through the conversation when Tanenhaus hasn’t even mentioned Louis. I listened to the Rhoden-Tanenhaus interview hoping that Tanenhaus would let down his guard, if only to bring a coherence to the conversational thread. But if Sammy T did, it’s certainly not presented on audio. And if Sammy Boy can’t reveal his faults, if he’s incapable of showing any warts or even a soupçon of humility or ignorance, what on earth is he doing podcasting?

Then Rachel Donadio talks about the bestsellers list and sounds suspiciously like a novice voiceover student doing her best to ape a FM radio news correspondent (I know this because I took a few voiceover classes in the late ’90s and recalled my own clumsy efforts, and I wondered if Times expenses were being siphoned Donadio’s way), clearly reading her words from a script and trying to offer a spontaneous inflection. And as if to impute that the Times podcast crew is having fun, some forced off-mike laughter is left in. I suspect that the crew was likely laughing over how absurd it was that journalists are now reduced to being radio or podcasting people.

Maybe it’s the fun-loving Californian in me, but I listened to this and wondered if Sammy Boy and his staff were trying to approximate fun, rather than approach any genuine threshold of excitement. Why couldn’t they let loose? Or is this how Manhattan faux intellectuals talk? Had I been the producer, I would have demanded that all the on air talent have a good glass of wine. Or perhaps I’d pass around a bong. After all, when you’re dealing with sticks wedged up orifices, desperate times call for desperate measures.

The lack of archival podcasts and the elaborate efforts one must take to listen to the sole podcast available (i.e., one must install iTunes) reveals just how ephemeral Sammy T’s crew hopes this podcasting fad will be. They’re humoring top brass for now, thinking that nobody will notice.

I wonder if he’d be so rigid if someone hugged him before each installment. If someone simply told Sammy T that letting one’s hair down is a peachy keen thing, then maybe the NYTBR podcast might be worth something.

But if Sam Tanenhaus didn’t feel up to the task, he could have easily said no. He didn’t have to go through with something so clearly odious to his sensibilities. The man clearly despises this part of the job, which makes me wonder how much he secretly hates turning out the Review on a weekly basis.

Pitches for the NYTBR

Since the NYTBR seems content to keep literary coverage firmly in the toilet, I thought I’d do Sammy Boy a favor and give him some story ideas for future issues.

1. What books can you best jerk off to? Do certain books work as a surrogate stroke mag? And, if not, do they need more pictures? Consider Austerlitz as exemplar.

2. What books are better used as toilet paper? We’re not just talking the content here, but the specific form of acid free paper that strikes best against the bum.

3. What author photos turn you on? (Reference the Jonathan Franzen photo.)

4. What books cause the reader to fart? Is there a correllation between flatulence and turgid pretentious prose? (Use science vs. empricism angle and, once you have conclusions, determine which authors fart the most frequently.)

5. Which books are best used as coasters? Are certain novellas ideal for an ice cold beverage?

6. Which books do NYTBR contributors read right after a wild evening of sex? Has any particular title replaced cuddling or the cigarette? Can reading certain passages solve the dilemma of premature ejaculation? Can some of the gooey substance found on the covers of new trade paperbacks be extracted for a homegrown KY lubricant?

In Praise of David Orr

While the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch may be discontinued, Levi Asher has picked up the slack with his “Reviewing the Review” blog posts. This week, Mr. Asher made the claim that “The Book Review continues to prove that it has no capability at all to review poetry.” While I can certainly agree that its poetry coverage leaves little to be desired, in large part because of the self-described “vulgarian” whims of its editor, I felt the need to leave a comment noting that there has been one critic during Tanenhaus’s run that has done a competent job at reviewing poetry: David Orr.

While I’ve had my quibbles with Mr. Orr in the past, Mr. Asher challenged me to limn just what it was about Orr that made him “very good.” It’s a fair enough question, seeing as how Asher has called Orr “hopelessly square.”

First off, if the NYTBR‘s purpose is to profile smart and well-informed reviews that straddle the fence somewhere between layperson and elitist New York Review of Books subscriber, then any decent poetry critic must divagate within this territory. And I feel that Orr has done this quite well, daring to challenge icons, introducing poetry to a readership without making it dull, and shifting the focus away from a poet’s public perception to the words that the poet has written with a deft and playful touch. Take, for example, this recent review of an Elizabeth Bishop collection. It introduces Bishop to the uninformed and subtly guides the reader into contact with her poetry instead of Bishop’s reputation, establishing and comparing such qualifiers as “difficulty” and “subtlety,” and using these terms to segue into the text of “Vague Poem.” He playfully suggests that more people know the lyrics to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” than Bishop’s poetry, which suggests someone attuned to pop culture (certainly a lot more than a closet fetishist like Leon Wieseltier or Dave Itzkoff, who has only recently discovered that chicks write speculative fiction too).

Then there is this review from November 2004, which challenges the qualifiers behind The Best American Poetry series, clearly outlining the history of these compilations, while suggesting that the bar may be set too low and imputing that “poetry isn’t really an open system; it’s a combination of odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent and blind luck” to the NYTBR‘s democratic reading base.

Hopelessly square? Even Mr. Asher had to applaud Mr. Orr when he took Jorie Graham to task. What we have is a poetry critic with a mischevious streak that is far from Pat Boone. I’m under no obligation to acknowledge the positive, but Orr’s poetic review of Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry was one of the few interesting reviews under Sammy Boy’s tenure. One does not expect such exuberance from a lawyer, much less from a publication whose editor cannot appreciate a brownie or an intelligent woman. But, alas, there it is.

I have no idea what’s made Orr’s work sparse in the NYTBR these days. Perhaps it’s Sammy T’s tone-deaf editorialship. But Orr was a welcome presence within a hopelessly corrupt publication. And I contend that if there was one thing Sammy Baby did do right, it was hiring David Orr.

Save the New York Times Book Review

tanenrun.jpgThe time has come to take a stand.

The New York Times Book Review is no longer a book review section that matters. It is beyond repair, save through one extraordinary gesture.

Editor Sam Tanenhaus is unfit to guide this dinghy into the 21st century and is hopelessly out of touch with today’s literary climate. What was once a review section that attracted major authors and featured thoughtful essays has devolved into a congeries of gossipy items, essays that fawn over John Updike, Leon Wieseltier masturbatory exercises, lackluster literary coverage, a sexist approach to review assignment — in short, a thoughtless tundra that could be so much more.

I’ve harbored some small hope that Tanenhaus would rectify this, but my hopes are gone. Accordingly, I’ve canceled my New York Times Sunday subscription.

But I’ve created this petition with another hope: that Bill Keller will understand that Tanenhaus is bad for the NYTBR, bad for the literary climate, and bad for the publishing industry. (He is, however, very good at biography. Perhaps this is his true calling.) I also hope that Keller will understand that a thoughtful literary section translates into thoughtful subscribers (and thus more niche advertisers).

Here is a weekly newspaper section that has the capacity to matter, to introduce its readers to innovative and literary titles, and to provide fresh perspective. And yet it doesn’t. Because today’s authors and critics are too afraid to rock the boat, lest they lose a potential freelancing check from a NYTBR assignment. And that doesn’t just mean speaking no ill of Tanenhaus or his Hindenburg-like experiments such as the recent Contemporary Fiction contretemps. It also translates into criticism that plays it too safe, frequently devoid of insight or personality, all of fitting like a glove into the Tanenhaus template.

The time has come for Tanenhaus’s tenure to end.

Sign the Petition!