Oral About Okrent

In my career as a litblogger, I was never persuaded that an ombudsman was a good idea. This isn’t because I have any particular beef against ombudsmen. It is simply because litbloggers can’t afford to hire them.

But my own history with ombudsmen aside, it is safe to say that there is clearly no man more deserving of a blowjob than Daniel Okrent. Not only would I invite Okrent to fornicate with any member of my family (including those under eighteen), but, if nobody was available to wrap lips around his cock, then I would willingly step in and do the job myself.

Because this is the kind of industry Okrent inspires. Okrent isn’t just any ombudsman. He’s the ombudsman for the New York Times. Which means that, in all book review circumstances, he must be given the reverential bukkake treatment. No constructive criticism. No hint of a flaw in his chiseled sentences. No in-review notation of an ethical conundrum. Like the obverse but no less sleazier conundrum of John Dean reviewing Mark Felt’s memoir, with Okrent, it’s all the ooze that’s fit to squint. Never mind that there’s a stupendous conflict of interest or that Okrent’s gushing flow might just blind.

The point is that Okrent is there, waiting for you or any reviewer, either literally or metaphorically, to unzip his fly and work some magic. Unfortunately, in this case, it looks like Harold Evans and Sam Tanenhaus got to Okrent’s phallus before I did. So my mouth remains dry and unsullied. But I suppose there’s always the Wall Street Journal‘s ombudsman to consider. Assuming, of course, that the Journal will print my in-house rodomontade as easily as the Times ran Evans’.

Dave Itzkoff: Well, Crash Courses Are Better Than Glossing Over White Males

It took a little more than three months for Dave Itzkoff to write his second science fiction column (or perhaps the more accurate answer here is that it took that long for Sam Tanenhaus to figure out that the field was a little more substantial than geeks writing stories). This column is slightly better, if only for its mention of the underrated writer Ellen Klages, whose work is often published in the underrated The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where I first encountered her). But I must inform Mr. Itzkoff of the following realities:

1. Sorry, Dave, but Christopher Rowe is already taken. The marriage, as I understand it, is a healthy one. But what a way to suck up! You even quoted Matt Cheney! So hipster points and a crash course bonus for you! Now if only we can get you lusting after someone who isn’t attached or, better yet, convince you to engage in a dialogue with those who do know something about the subject but who don’t need to flaunt their knowledge like a smug Department of Defense official in the Johnson administration who thinks he knows more about Vietnam than those who are actually there. Who knows, Davie boy? Your column might be worth something more than a man declaring how much he cares about the reactions.

2. Dave, baby, you’re going to have to think outside the pop cultural box. These “intimations of juvenilia” that you think speculative fiction is all about are among the major reasons why we criticized you in the first place. Not only has the genre moved well beyond “juvenilia,” but a “cookie monster” isn’t always what it seems.

3. “Rosenbaum’s imagery will surely embed itself in the invisible architecture of your own memory banks for days after you’ve read it. But when you approach it for the first time, just try to forget that you’ve already been told how it ends.” So this is how Tanenhaus wants you to cover speculative fiction, Dave? Look, I’m nowhere nearly as schooled as my peers, but even I know something about the subject and wouldn’t dare to propose the silly and dismissive phrase “invisible architecture of your own memory banks.” Why, I’d be remiss and downright philistine if I actually declared myself a cultural arbiter on such flimsy pretext. So you read a Nebula anthology and you’re an expert now? Well golly! I mean, can I pin a boutinaire to your lapel, declare myself as your godfather, and send you a gift certificate to Tony Roma’s? There’s some good eatings there, I do declare!

4. Lastly, what can we do to get you and Ron Hogan to kiss and make up? Or does this “I write for the NYTBR now” schtick mean that you won’t talk with the plebs?

Sam Tanenhaus: Man Enough or Just Plain Spent?

nytbr.jpgWell, I thought I was done with Sam Tanenhaus. But it appears that I’m not. This is simply too good to pass up. The image to the right is the cover that the NYTBR is issuing for its June 3, 2006 issue, which is designated as its “Summer Reading” issue. And what does that mean? Reviews of books from Martha McPhee, Plum Sykes, Scott Anderson and Sara Gruen. Yup. Real heavy-duty fiction.

But what of literary fiction? Or fiction in translation? Sorry, folks, the Times simply doesn’t do that anymore. And chances are they won’t be doing it anymore. It simply doesn’t fit within the Wagnerian temperament.

Why can’t Tanenhaus be honest and confess that the NYTBR has willfully abdicated its status as a cultural arbiter? Must Tanenhaus hide behind a comic book escutcheon and a cod piece instead of welcoming conversation (such as editors like the LATBR‘s David Ulin, an antipodean palliative to Tanenhaus if ever there were one; you can listen to his approach to editing on The Bat Segundo Show #43)? Or does it really boil down to a humorless dictatorial swagger?

Incidentally, on a lark, I emailed the agency that issued the press release, as Sam Tanenhaus was declared “available for interview on the best books for any summer reading list.” Of course, I’ve made my interview requests before, and they have been declined. But if anything turns up, I will let you know.

But it really boils down to this: Is Tanenhaus man enough to respond to the charges leveled at him? I think not. He may be “under no obligation to acknowledge the brownie,” but a real man wouldn’t sulk like a veteran Quaker and cling to a dying homestead amid anni mirabiles.

So once again, I offer Mr. Tanenhaus the opportunity to engage in a conversation, to present his points and square off on this issues raised here (and many other places).

If he’s man enough, that is.

(Thank you, DT.)

[UPDATE: Sam Tanenhaus has again declined an interview request with me. But I may be talking with Dwight Garner, the NYTBR senior editor. Perhaps Tanenhaus’s underlings are more man than Sam?]

Tanenhaus’s Rejects

Over at Critical Mass, there’s a roundup of some of the one-vote nominees that weren’t listed in any of the Gray Lady’s coverage. Among some of the developments: John Irving voted for himself (correctly believing that nobody else would vote for him), Geoffrey O’Brien voted for Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, and someone (wisely remaining anonymous) threw in her lot with Franzen. The Critical Mass post promises to be the first in a series of installments on the subject, but I certainly hope that in the course of all this, aside from Laura Miller’s explanation, the NBCC might dig up a few reasons why the 75 judges (mostly women) said no to Tanenhaus.

Gray Lady Turns Yellow?

I’m not sure if I buy the logic in this New York Times article about paperback originals:

Ms. von Mehren, the publisher, said that following the article in the Book Review, Mr. Mitchell’s novel sold “10 to 20 times better than he ever had here. It really reignited his career.” Next month, Random House will publish Mr. Mitchell’s next novel, “Black Swan Green.” In hardcover.

Au contraire, Ms. von Mehren. A quick look at certain dates will deflate this mistaken hypothesis. A moment, if you will, as we dig up the history:

August 29, 2004: Tom Bissell, a perfectly fine critic, reviews Cloud Atlas for the NYTBR.

August 17, 2004: Random House releases paperback original of Cloud Atlas to bookstores.

Now I’m no marketing expert. But it seems to me that 12 days is enough time for the most feverish literary folks to read Cloud Atlas in whole and then tell their friends and loved ones, “Holy shit! You have to check out this David Mitchell guy. This is the best damn literary fiction I’ve read in years,” which then inspires these folks to do the same.

But more importantly, there is the history, which indicates (in about five minutes of Googling):

Early 2004: Some guy named Edward Champion manages to get his hands on the UK hardcover and says “David Mitchell” in nearly every sentence he writes and speaks. Others soon follow.

August 17, 2004: Village Voice reviews book.

August 22, 2004: David Mitchell interviewed by Washington Post, as well as Cloud Atlas reviewed. He is also reviewed by St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

August 27, 2004: Cloud Atlas anounced as part of Booker longlist for 2005. Cloud Atlas is reviewed by Boston Phoenix.

October 2004: David Mitchell appears in many U.S. bookstores. He is interviewed by a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

October 10, 2004: Cloud Atlas reviewed by San Francisco Chronicle.

In other words, not only did Cloud Atlas get a hell of a lot of publicity from multiple outlets, but there were many reviews other than the NYTBR reviewing it. I also think Random House was smart in getting Mitchell into the States in October to revive interest in it — in the event that some folks hadn’t heard of it already or the attention had flagged.

So for the Times to take exclusive credit (as much as I’ve mentioned Mitchell over the years, I certainly wouldn’t) for Cloud Atlas‘ success is not only laughable in the extreme, but highly irresponsible. Could it be that this is an in-house effort on the part of the Times to prop up their decaying Sunday literary offering? What can we expect next from the Gray Lady? A Sam Tanenhaus centerfold in next week’s New York Times Magazine? Propaganda isn’t working for the Bush Administration and it certainly won’t work for the NYTBR.

Tanenhaus Brownie Watch: February 12, 2006


It reappeared, as if from a silly dream. Or perhaps in Mr. Tanenhaus’s case, an honest nightmare he thought was over.

WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climatet? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.

To determine this highly important question for our times, three tests will be conducted each week, along with ancillary commentary concerning the content.


Fiction Reviews: 4 full-page reviews, 5 half-page reviews. (Total books: 10. Total space: 6.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 5 one-page reviews, 2 half-page reviews. (Total books: 7. Total space: 6 pages.)

For those who remember the old game, in order to earn his brownie point, Tanenhaus must offer a 48% minimum of review coverage to fiction. Blurbs do not count. Comparative reviews do.

Amazingly, despite the mystifying coverage granted to Jackie Collins’ Lovers & Players, in which Collins, Hackneyed be her middle name, is characterized as some faithful and possibly misunderstood observer of Californian culture, Tanenhaus just beats out the number, garnering 54.1% of the coverage.

Brownie Point: EARNED!

Alas, the attention paid to Collins, complete with a photograph labeled “Jackie Collins and Jaguar,” as if a vehicle obtained with puerile and materialistic impulses is somehow pertinent to understanding Collins’ work as a novelist (though, of course, one can hazard associative clues), detracts from these hard-won inches. And so Mr. Tanenhaus easily earns a bitchslap.

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: Jackie Collins? Must you contribute to furthering an east wing on Ms. Collins’ palatial estate? How, by any stretch of the imagination, can Jackie Collins be qualified as literature? SLAP! (Minus .6 points.)


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

Of the women reviewing fiction, it seems Tanenhaus’s continuing homage to pre-Susan B. Anthony America of chicks reviewing chicks (including Jackie Collins) still holds true, with the major literary title written by a woman (Deborah Eisenberg) going to Ben Marcus. I wonder if Tanenhaus was even aware of the irony in referencing Marcus’ most recent novel, Notable American Women, in his accompanying bio. Because from where I’m sitting, notable women simply aren’t that much of a concern in the NYTBR. The bio may as well have read, “Ben Marcus has a dick and Joyce Carol Oates does not. Hence, we assigned him this review.”

The nonfiction offering is even more dreadful, with six of the seven reviews going to men (including that indefatigable blowhard David Brooks) and only Alexandra Starr garnering a nonfiction title called, yes you guessed it, Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America.

One would think that the recent passing of Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein might have reminded Mr. Tanenhaus that, contrary to recent Supreme Court justice nominations, women can in fact write and think too. But I suppose Tanenhaus was too busy enjoying sherry with Bill Keller at the private men’s club, presumably after a long day of deer hunting and chewing venison.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


With the exceptions of Ben Marcus, Regina Marler and maybe James Gorman, none of the reviewers have been matched with anything approaching a quirky pair-up. Yes, give Pankaj Mishra the Indian novel! He’s Indian, right? We have the usual gang of dependable Gray Lady staffers. David Brooks, Jonathan Freedland, Jim Holt. Yawn.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Dan Chiasson’s first several sentences are preposterous. “This is an American tale, a very American tale.” This is trying to pad your word count, Dan, desperately trying to pad your word count. Between this and such ridiculous observations as, “One of the pleasures of reading the novel is experiencing its sheer variety of actual things.” Really, Dan? Thank you for that groundbreaking statement! I mean, hell, the next thing Chiasson will be telling us is that reading a novel also allows you to get from the beginning to the end of a book. No Brownie Bitchslap Factor here. Chiasson’s review is too unintentionally entertaining.

Leave it to David Brooks to offer an equally jejune paragraph: “These men, the psychiatrists concluded, had suffered a stunning mental shock in captivity. In the extreme environment of a P.O.W. camp, their minds had been altered.” You know, I’m no psychiatrist, but I can definitely offer you the same conclusion after about ten drinks and a three-paragraph summary of the book. Brooks’ review does terrible injustice to Rebecca Lemov’s World as Laboratory, a book that, quite interestingly, deals with cognitive readjustment through psychiatric experiments of varying degree. Of course, reading Brooks’ review, you wouldn’t know what Lemov’s level of research or scholarship was — in large part because Brooks himself seems to be having great difficulty understanding the concept. Perhaps Brooks is too busy maintaining that sturdy neocon carapace of denial about Guantanamo Bay. Bobos in Paradise? Try Bozo on Page 9.

While Ben Marcus’s review seems strangely concerned with cinematic parallels over literary ones, unlike Chiasson and Brooks, he cuts straight to the point and managed to gush without fawning too much. Pankaj Mishra’s review is similarly taut. But one ponders if these two reviewers were pushed harder or were allowed to flex their respective critical acumen rather than summarizing a book. (Mishra, for example, offers an interesting thesis pointing out that a novel set in the 1980s might better understand life after 9/11. But he seems unwilling or unable to follow through on this.)

Jim Holt’s review of Happiness: A History is fun and accessible. Chelsea Cain’s review of the Waldman novel isn’t granted enough space to ask whether Waldman follows through on how society expects women to conform.

As for Ms. Sittenfeld’s article, which many of you have emailed me about, the short answer is: Methinks she doth protest too much.

But here’s the long and more inflammatory answer: Aside from the fact that Sam Tanenhaus has ignobly bankrolled an article that is tantamount to a LiveJournal bitchfest, I’ve met very few writers who are so hubristic enough to accept that their idea of the novel as the only one that matters. Certainly, most writers are defensive by nature. And this is understandable. Because it’s a tough, lonely and backbreaking business. But just as the wisest humans understand that their life view isn’t the only one that matters, the smartest writers realize that their own views of their work aren’t the singular reference point. Is it not the writer’s function to just shut the hell up and listen when someone is being kind enough to offer a hard and honest take on their novel instead of the predictable flattery? Is it not the writer’s function not to take any of these thoughts personally?

Most authors have suggested to me that the perspectives they hear from others are not only of immense value to them as artists, but, much as teachers often learn more than students do in the classroom, I suspect that an author learns much about her work from what a thoughtful and erudite person has to say, or even how a less literary person grasps the story.

Perhaps I’ve been lucky. Or perhaps the reality here is that Ms. Sittenfeld simply has no appetite for ambiguity or varying opinions, much less any interest in evolving as an artist. It’s absolutely paralogical for any serious writer to state, “It’s pretty obvious that some readers say they hate your protagonist as a more polite way of saying they hate your entire book, but when I want to hear from people who hate my book, I prefer doing it in the comfort of my own home by looking at customer reviews on Amazon.” Such a sentence assumes not only a remarkably conspiratorial opinion of the human race, but it also implies that writing should be easy and effortless.

Cry me your body mass in tears, Curtis.

Writing sure as hell isn’t easy. If writing a novel were as simple as slapping together a sandwich, then we’d be up to our arms and legs with books. Because everybody would be doing it. (And by doing it, I mean getting the sucker published and sold.) Furthermore, given that the customer reviews on Amazon are — how shall we say this exactly? — mostly incohrent and toothless drivel written by slavish fanboys, how can any writer worth her salt hone her wares by customer reviews alone?

Is it possible that the NYTBR‘s climate has grown so solipsistic and singular in thought that these precious gray areas are not allowed to germinate? Sittenfeld might have had a hell of an essay if a less sycophantic editor actually challenged her to come to terms with how other people view her novel, exploring whether any of this has might make her a better novelist. Instead, and this is not necessarily a judgment of her character — I don’t know the woman — but rather the perception I get from the essay, she comes across as a drama queen of the lowest order.


Overall, as the NYTBR goes, this isn’t too bad of an issue. But it’s far from consistent. Tanenhaus’s recidivist reviewing pairup are uncalled for in the 21st century. And there are still troubling concerns in tone.

Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Points Denied: 2
Brownie Bitchslap Factor: -.6 points


[UPDATE: For another take on this issue, see Levi Asher’s.]

The Tanenhaus Ad Count

While the Brownie Watch may be on hiatus (I expect to revive it in December), I decided to analyze the ads in relation to the content. Here then is a rundown of the ads in the November 13, 2005 NYTBR issue:

PAGE 2: Full-page ad — HaperCollins.
PAGE 3: Half-page ad — Miramax Books.
PAGE 4: Half-page ad — Foucs Films.
PAGE 5: Full-page ad — Hyperion Books.
PAGE 6: Third-page ad — Norton.
PAGE 7: Full-page ad — iUniverse.
PAGE 8: Eighth-page sliver — Tor.
PAGE 9: Eighth-page sliver — Norton.
PAGE 13: Full-page ad — Bauman Rare Books.
PAGE 18: Third-page ad — Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
PAGE 19: Full-page ad — Penguin Young Readers.
PAGE 25: Full-page ad — Scholastic.
PAGE 26: Third-page ad — Random House Children’s Books.
PAGE 27: Third-page ad — Random House Children’s Books.
PAGE 29: Full-page ad — Disney Book Group.
PAGE 31: Half-page ad — Charlesbridge, Roaring Brook and Peachtree Atlanta.
PAGES 32-33: Two-page ad — HarperCollins Children’s Books.
PAGE 34: Eighth-page sliver — Minnie Dix.
PAGE 35: Eighth-page sliver — Tilly, a Deer’s Tale.
PAGE 41: Quarter-page ad — Tuxedo Blue, LLC (with a mispelling of Dr. Seuss).
PAGE 43: Half-page of column inch ads (Spirit of the Forest, Brown Barn Books, Alexie Books, Snicker Doodle, Times fillers).
PAGE 47: Eighth-page sliver — HarperCollins
PAGE 48: Full-page ad — Candlewick Press.
PAGE 53: Quarter-page ad — Nelson Current, column inches — Osprey.
PAGE 54: Half-page ad — Dr. Hisatoki Komaki.
PAGE 55: Full-page ad — The Great Courses.
PAGE 56: Quarter-page ad — Unviersity of California Press, quarter-page ad — Alyson Books, Eighth-page sliver — Bloomsbury.
PAGE 57: Full-page ad — Diabetes Danger.
PAGE 59: Half-page ad — Mysterious Press.
PAGE 61: Full-page ad — Bose.
PAGE 62: Quarter-page ad — Barnes & Noble, column inches devoted to Book Exchange.
Back Cover: Full-page ad — The Folio Society.

Now here is where things get interesting. Here are reviews that are more than a page.

PAGES 10-11: Two-page review devoted to Norton title The Rise of American Democracy. (Norton ad can be found on Page 6.)
PAGES 14-15: 1 – 1/3 page review devoted to Random House title The Lost Painting. (Random House ads can be found on Pages 26-27.)
PAGES 30-31: Page and a half review of FSG book The Baby on the Way and G.P. Putnam book Show Way. (No advertising conflict.)

So essentially if you’re a publisher that’s advertised in the NYTBR, you have a 66% chance of getting a review that lasts more than a page (at least this week). Of course, I’m sure that this is all just pure coincidence. The fact that a small publisher can’t get that kind of coverage, I’m sure, means nothing at all.

Overall, the NYTBR‘s advertising doesn’t profile any specific titles that have been reviewed in its pages. However, there is one egregious spot where editorial and advertising merge. Gordon Wood’s review of The Rise of American Democracy is more of a summary than a response to the book’s scholarship. It is uncritical in the extreme, declares the work “monumental” and it is in every sense a puff piece. Interestingly enough, an ad for the book can be found on Page 6. The first blurb underneath the book? William Grimes of The New York Times. Quid pro quo? You make the call.

A Special Letter from Donald Trump

To the Editor of Return of the Reluctant:

I can remember the day when Marla told me, “Hey buddy, toupee or no toupee, it’s the size of your wallet that counts. No matter how ugly you get, I’ll still happily jump your bone.” Five minutes after she said this, I was on the phone with my attorneys about a prenup. But as we all know, somehow I messed it all up.

You might call me a heartless tycoon. But I’m smarter and better than you. Feelings are the stuff that I reserve for scoundrels named Mark Singer, whose liver I am now using to wipe the floor of one of my many apartments. Let that be a lesson to my critics.

I like to think that my heart of anthracite is an advantage. It keeps my ego in focus. There’s a big DT in my bathtub and a mirror above my bed so that I can get a nice view of Melania’s merkin. Can you say as much?

Whether you like it or not, facts are facts and hubris is hubris. And when it comes to contending with the real pests of our society — namely, beady-eyed freelancers skipping from gig to gig, I know how to sway my muscles.

Jeff McGregor will never be published in the New York Times Book Review again, nor anywhere else. He will work as a waiter for the rest of his life. Because I am Donald Trump and he is not. My terror is great and it has struck godless fear into Sam Tanenhaus’ soul. Your brownie watches, Mr. Reluctant — Mr. Champion, Mr. Segundo, whoever you are — no longer apply. Just before publishing my letter, I made sure that Mr. Tanenhaus’ hair would turn prematurely white. Let his consternation serve as a warning.

Do not dare to cross my path, for I am a human Katrina who sold off his sense of humor on eBay three years ago for the princely sum of $2.2 million. That’s what I call business.

New York

Who is Brian Leiter (And Who Really Cares) and Why Did He Invite Himself to Write a Bitter Blog Post?

Brian Leiter quibbles over the New York Times‘ decision to run a lengthy review by William T. Vollmann on the new Curtis Cate biography of Frederich Nietzsche. Mr. Leiter, who apparently is a professor of philosophy, suggests that Vollmann has no expertise in the subject and displays none in his review.

I think Leiter is confusing the act of reviewing a biography (which does, after all, concern itself with a subject and his personal details first) with the act of summing up a man’s philosophy. Aside from Leiter subscribing to the traditional “credentialed” nonsense that often comes from bitter academics (perhaps because, while Leiter remains institutionalized and apparently quite miserable — in Texas, no less — Vollmann is busy turning out endless volumes of books, including a seven-volume treatise on violence), he concerns himself with Vollmann’s alleged failure to discuss Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas.

Leiter suggests that Vollmann “bizarrely ascribes” a “realism” to Nietzsche and suggests that Nietzsche does not hold the view that “cruelty is innate,” complaining that Vollmann fails to cite a specific passage. I’m fairly certain that Vollmann was suggesting one of Nietzsche’s most infamous statements from Thus Spake Zarathrusta, something that a certain Austrian perhaps took too much to heart: “Man is the cruelest animal. Whatever is most evil in his best power and the hardest stone for the highest creator.” Far from a “People magazine speculation,” Vollmann is willing to give the NYTBR readership the benefit of the doubt, presuming that they are familiar with Nietzsche’s basics. Further, Vollmann framed the “realism” within quotes, leaving little question to the reader that this was a speculation on Nietzsche’s capacity to tell the truth about the human race. This commonality, of course, what separates Vollmann’s work from many of his contemporaries on both the fiction and the nonfiction fronts.

Leiter suggests that Aristotle’s influence was “notable for his almost total absence from the corpus” and then deflates his argument by pointing to a few examples. I would argue that to dwell into the exact nature and percentage of Aristotle’s influence upon Nietzsche is to not only quibble over pedantics (something that more properly serves the purpose of academic journals, with their reams of paper quibbling over singular passages), but to ignore the realities of editing and publishing a major newspaper that is designed, after all, for mass consumption.

Leiter then offers a cheap shot, suggesting that Vollmann’s stroke has impaired his abilities to think. He then continues on this Aristotle tangent. However, I will agree with Leiter about his nitpicking concerning “individual Jews,” even though his own observation is largely a red herring.

Mr. Leiter’s post is more blustery than helpful and is about as uninviting as it gets. Personally I’m just a guy who knows a little more than the basics about Frederich N. and I’m sure Leiter certainly knows much more than I do about philosophy. But if Leiter seriously believes that the New York Times Book Review is intended to be serious and intellectual, then he clearly hasn’t followed its decline since the Bill Keller pledge to go more commercial from early 2004 and is similarly “uncredentialed” to weigh in. I also sincerely doubt nepotism factored into Sam Tanenhaus’s decision to hire Vollmann. Vollmann has always existed on an uncompromising edge, daring to write about issues that most novelists and journalists keep their heads in the sand about, and has faced a certain stigma enforced by folks too flustered to hear the truth.

While I agree to some extent with Leiter’s cri de coeur for intellectualism, his arrows here are misplaced. A biography is not a philosophical text, nor necessarily a response to philosophy. It tells us about a man and his details, yes. But it is not necessarily concerned with philosphy — although, it is helpful to the scholar wanting to find additional (if tertiary) context.

Brownie Watch on Hiatus

As others have pointed out, the NYTBR is once again an embarassment. It’s the same old song. Richard Posner’s essay is not so much a book review but an excuse to whine about the blogosphere. The writers remain, for the most part, male, offering dull and uninteresting coverage for dull and uninteresting books. The insufferable Joe Queennan continues to earn a paycheck.

We’re so disheartened by the NYTBR now that we must temporarily take leave of the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch if we are to remain emotionally and mentally stable. Too many of our Sunday newspapers have soaked up our tears. It is only the crossword now that gives us comfort. We cry for Tanenhaus’ choice. The adjective “Faustian” comes to mind. We sob over the dismal state of current book coverage. But most of all, since we have enjoyed delivering brownies to him (yes, they have actually been delivered) on the rare occasions that Tanenhaus has cut the mustard (with, of course, not a single thank you note or email from the man), we firmly believe that Sam Tanenhaus cannot and defiantly will not produce a weekly book review section worth reading. Thus, Tanenhaus himself has ensured that no brownies can be delivered and the onus comes back to us in the end.

So we’ve put our little experiment on hiatus. The point has been demonstrated time and time again. We’ve kenneled the little doggy away. And oh does he whimper!

But one day, when Mr. Tanenhaus least expects it and we have talked out this book review contretemps over with our therapist, the brownies will, once again, be rightfully denied.

Tanenhaus Watch: March 27, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climate? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.


Fiction Reviews: 1 – 1 1/2 page review, 1 one-page review, 1 one-page roundup (Fiction in Translation), 1 half-page crime roundup, 1 half-page review. (Total books: 13. Total space: 4.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 2 page review, 1 – 1 1/2 page review, 3 one-page reviews, one half-page review. (Total books: 6. Total space: 6.5 pages.)

This week’s fiction coverage, most of it asphyixiated in roundups, is such a joke that not even Tanenhaus could be compelled to list the crime roundup novels in the table of contents. In fact, I’m surprised that Sarah hasn’t weighed in on this. It’s bad enough that Marilyn Stasio devotes a mere paragraph to the reissue of Joe Gores’ A Time of Predators, only to dwell upon how the Edgar Award-winning novel “shows its age” while declaring it a “good choice.” But Rupert Holmes’ innovative mystery novel-plus-CD, Swing, is pretty much dismissed through a comparison to one of “those interactive mystery game-books that were popular back in the mid-1980s.” Consider, by contrast, an honest assessment of Holmes’ caper, along the lines of what John Orr did last week in the San Jose Mercury News.

You have to love the disingenuouness of the roundup format, where you can offer general platitudes for the blurb whores (“thought-provoking fiction” and “strirring, impassioned glimpses of lost souls amid the rubble of history,” says Anderson Tepper), while avoiding any penetrating insight because you don’t have the space.

Conversely, if the fiction-to-nonfiction ratio isn’t bad enough (a mere 41% this week), adding insult to injury is Clive James’ self-serving takedown of Paglia and poetry (of which more anon) and the deliberate padding within Pete Hamill’s review of Boss Tweed. Hamill not only spends an execrable amount of space summarizing Tweed’s life, but he wastes half a paragraph informing readers about Thomas Nast. Wouldn’t someone interested in Boss Tweed, let alone any NYTBR reader, already know about Nast? Hamill also takes his opening Gore vs. Tweed gimmick a paragraph too far, beating a horse that didn’t deserve to die. (What next, Petey? Telling us you’d rather play sqaush or cross-stitch a quilt with the man? Ha ha! You amuse me. Sushi on me!)

Beyond proving once again how out-of-step he is with today’s fiction (even the Rocky Mountain News covered A Changed Mind two weeks ago), it’s clear that Tanenhaus has abdicated any effort to find the happy medium: the format allowing the reviewer to focus his energies within a taut word count, while preventing unfortunate asides. The 800-900 word review has served several newspapers quite well for so many years. Tanenhaus again demonstrates a truly unfortunate allocation of column-inches.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

A total of four women have contributed to eleven reviews. As usual, three of these are fiction chicks, while the only female-penned nonfiction review goes to (go figure) Fat Girl.

This is infinitely worse than last week, particularly when one considers that the big reviews were handed off to those with Y chromosomes.

While it’s true that Rachel Donadio has penned an essay on Harvard, the essay spends most of its time chronicling Larry Summers’ exploits than the two books it cites (and is thus excluded from the fiction-to-nonfiction ratio).

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Pete Hamill, Clive James, Rachel Donadio, Liesl Schillinger, Barry Gewen. Yawn yawn and yawn. We haven’t seen such a predictable crop of names since the Fortune 500. What’s the matter, Sam? Is March Madness keeping you from approaching the interesting people?

Brownie Point: DENIED!


The Sgt. Pepper-style numbered image collage of poets matches Clive James’ essay to a tee. It is as suitably insipid as James’ arrogance in print, little more than a paint-by-numbers palette for bored children who believe in image first and the love of language last.

James bemoans “the airless space of literary theory and cultural studies.” He claims that John Ashbery is “the combined status of totem pole and wind tunnel.” Most alarmingly, he declares that his “own prescription for making poetry popular would be to ban it — with possession treated as a serious misdemanor, and dealing as a felony.”

That such passive ignorance and anti-intellectualism would be promulgated in a book review section of a major newspaper is truly disheartening.

With such obvious enmity against the liberal arts expressed in the first five paragraphs, one wonders why any level-headed editor assign a book about poetry to an overrated, perhaps permanently impotent essayist. It’s clear enough that James would rather spend hours working himself up into an erection over Daffy Duck, Anne Heche and Charlton Heston. The answer: An editor looking for a train wreck, because the very notion of thinking about an interesting problem like the decline in poetry is too difficult and certainly not good enough for the money men.

If badmouthing poetry isn’t enough, James is ready to decimate Paglia over details that have little to do with the book in question. James has taken the opportunity to pull a Wieseltier here, spending a good chunk of his two pages spouting off ad hominen attacks rather than offering specific examples about why and where one should search Camille Paglia for the Number of the Beast. How dare this woman possess “wide knowledge” and “expressive gifts,” while daring to be a clear thinker “on top of a pair of Jimmy Choos!” To suggest (as the cover does) that James “fancies Camille Paglia” is as great a lie as claiming that a Democrat desires to give George Bush a hug.

What’s interesting is that James has very little to find fault with in the book. He declares that Break, Blow, Burn has “few sweeping statements.” He commends her comparison of Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” with a Satie piano piece. Still unable to separate Paglia the thinker from Paglia the feminist, he points to Paglia’s defense of Ted Hughes as “a quixotic move.”

So why complain that Paglia’s “young students might listen too well?” What the hell does appearing in Inside Deep Throat have to do with the book in question? Why quibble over Ava Gardner being manufactured in a Hollywood studio when Paglia didn’t champion Gardner, but was merely inspired by her at a mere four years old?

Such smears are the telltale signs of a man looking for a fight, combing minutiae and finding nothing to support his argument. This is what’s known in the trade as ignoratio elenchi, or an irrelevant conclusion.

As such, we award Tanenhaus an F for fake, seriously considering the future of our Sunday New York Times subscription.


Brownie Points Denied: 3


[UPDATE: Bud Parr has an altogether different response to Clive James’ review.]

Tanenhaus Watch: February 27, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climatet? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.

To determine this highly important question for our times, three tests will be conducted each week, along with ancillary commentary concerning the content.


Fiction Reviews: 1 full-page, 1 full-page round-up (4 books), 3 half-page reviews. (Total books: 8. Total space: 3.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 two-page, 3 half-page, 5 full-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 8.5 pages.)

While the number of books reviewed creates the illusion that the NYTBR is covering fiction, the column-inches reveal the truth! Of the 12 pages devoted to reviews, only 29.1% are for fiction. Tanenhaus has demonstrated yet again that he would rather devote his pages to yet another primer on Churchill (a gutless entry among many other poltiical essays, of which more anon) than concern himself with the exciting world of today’s literature.

While we’re always interested to see Tanenhaus experiment, we’ve long tired of Sam Tanenhaus’ hollow promises on the fiction front. And we will not rest until he devotes a minimum of 48% of his column inches to literature.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

We find it strangely curious that of the five writers contributing to the fiction coverage, three of them are women and two of them are men. We applaud the diversity in coverage, while remaining extremely concerned that only one woman writer has contributed to the nine nonfiction reviews. Beyond this, where are the women for the features? We’d expect this kind of attitude at an Elks Lodge meeting. Surely, in a political atmosphere concerned with women’s issues and with Condi Rice as Secretary of State, Tanenhaus could have found a cross-section of women writers from varying perspectives to grace his pages.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Fortunately, Sam Tanenhaus recovers from his disgrace by having William Vollmann write about Pol Pot. Vollmann’s essay is a good one: erudite, combining personal experience with an attentive read, calling Short on his hubris, and as obsessive as just about anything he’s written.

Then there’s Gore Vidal hoping to restore James Purdy’s reputation. Vidal’s essay (by his own admission) is self-serving. But it’s still nice to see some space in the NYTBR devoted to a forgotten literary figure — even if Jonathan Yardley does this on a weekly basis.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


Michael Kazin calls Martin Van Buren “the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents” — the sad stretch of an editor demanding a populist metaphor. And why does the population’s perceived failure to understand Stephen Hawking deserve a lead paragraph? It is disturbing to see a newspaper with the New York Times‘ resources not only devoting so much of its space to these desperate attempts to appease Joe Sixpack, but cop to this anti-intellectual tone.

Aside from the priapic instapundits going out of their way to make politics about as exciting as stale muesli, the only real piss and vinegar to be found this week is in Albert Mobilio’s review of J.T. Leroy’s Harold’s End, which is declared “a shiny postcard of a book that offers a paper-thin impression of the author’s talents.”

Where are the daring takes on today’s books? Where’s the wit? The solid arguments that a major newspaper can disseminate among its readers?


Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Points Denied: 2


The Brownies Return

With Mark on deck with the Los Angeles Times Book Review and Scott Esposito watching the Chronicle, the time has come to restore the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch again. Starting this Sunday, we’ll be watching Sam with the same eagle-eyed stance of a jester and letting you all know whether or not Tanenhaus has earned his brownie.

(And, incidentally, should Sam Tanenhaus earn his brownie, we will in fact be sending them to him. Let it not be said that we didn’t honor our pledges.)

Now if someone else will step in with the Washington Post, the litblog community should have its bases covered.

Talk in a Time of War

With escamotage that seems outside Tanenhaus’s grasp, Sunday’s Washington Post features a retrospective on David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest — pointing out that the book is not only a masterful study of foreign policy but elucidating a few potential comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Warren Bass and David Halberstam will discuss The Best and the Brightest online on Thursday, January 27 at 3:00 p.m.

Gone Fishing

I’d initially posted some ballyhoo about taking a break. But announcing yet another hiatus strikes me as not only repetitious, but vaguely dishonest. This blog has always served as a beacon for truth. A skewered truth, a truth restricted by my own blinders, sometimes a downright ugly honesty. But truth nonetheless. I’d be doing my readers a disservice if I didn’t explain why my appearances here will be less frequent.

William Gaddis once described it as “the rush for second place” and composed an essay on the subject in 1981. He dared to chart how a certain spirit of rebellion in American culture was often spawned by a gnawing sense of failure, a long and frustrated nose cantilevered against a morose and pockmarked face that frowned long into the deepest shadows of yesteryear. The feeling that one’s efforts weren’t worth much in the long run. The successful person in our society, the hard-liner who plays by the rules and makes partner or vice president after a decade or two of thankless labor, is in so deep that it would never occur to him that there are others who starve and scrape for an altogether different success. These lower-end feeders are often derided as failures. Their needs don’t meet the basic burden. But what would our world be without these non-conformists who perform unspoken deeds in the dead of night?

Whatever measure of success one finds, there are hard choices. Passion flaring over common sense. And when a bottom-end straggler reaches a certain age, when the hair falls out and the crow’s feet form around the eyes, there comes a point where one wonders why it continues. Because persistence pays off? Sometimes. Because no man is an island? Definitely.

The duty remains, the steadfast flow follows. But it requires rumination and rest and unseen labor and barely any sleep. I’ll be back, but right now I’m reoiling the wheels. And I’m smiling as I dance in the dark.

[UPDATE: In response to certain socipathic nitwits who clearly have more time than I do (and whose currency is so inflated that they feel the need to goad some A-1 folks), I quote Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”]

[UPDATE THE SECOND: Publisher’s Lunch reports this item: “Separately, the NYT Book Review has announced that next Sunday’s issue will present a considerably slimmed-down 100 Notable Books of the Year. They will publish their list of top 10 books of the year on December 12. Editor Sam Tanenhaus says of the ‘more selective’ list, ‘In general, we favored strong narratives. This happens to be a year when some of the best books, fiction and nonfiction, were about or set in the past.'”

[I can’t tell you how sad this makes me feel. One of the great annual joys is seeing the NYTBR present a crazed list that backs up their credentials as a book review source for one of the nation’s major newspapers. It essentially communicates to the reader that, love or hate their selections, the NYTBR is doing its job. But more importantly, much like the recent joys of the IMPAC longlist, the sheer number of books is something to cheer about, an annual occurrence that offers a friendly nod to reading. The reader finds the morsels he may have forgotten about and a few titles he didn’t know about. It’s a win-win situation between reader and listmaker.

[That Tanenhaus would scale this down to a piddly selection of ten (no doubt with Leon “Scummy Little Reviewer” Wieseltier’s involvement) proves that, despite his recent poetry issue and the inclusion of James Wood prominently on his pages, he still remains an asshat who is, in all likelihood, Bill Keller’s corporate handmaiden. That he would dispense with such a proud tradition in favor of audience-friendly “10 Sexiest Books Alive” homages to People convinces me that, unless he offers a compelling alternative, he’s not going to get any brownies on my watch.


[UPDATE TO SECOND UPDATE: The good Dr. Jones, fresh from his excavations in Nepal, informs me that we can’t withhold baked goods until the final tally. To uphold the brownie fairness doctrine, I renege on my brownie decision until we see what happens over the next two weeks. Tanenhaus shall salivate at his own peril.]

Laura Miller Pushed for the “One Imagines,” I’m Sure

The Hag hits the NYTBR again. That’s two tangos with Chip before the handover. It’s a good review. However, I suspect that the copy desk mangled clarity into a genteel timebomb: “One imagines it’s difficult to capture eloquently the horrors of a baby being thrown out with the bath water, but that’s probably why most first-time authors don’t attempt it.”

And, as Ron observes, that’s not even the half of it.

Come on, Tanenhaus. Play ball.