Dave Itzkoff on How to Write for the NYTBR

The first dirty little secret of writing a review for Sam Tanenhaus is to come across like an ill-informed wanker who knows nothing of the genre he is writing about. The second is that everyone who reads the NYTBR are — dare I say it? — intended to be treated as idiots.

It’s important to state a very obvious observation about a genre and then back it up with even more obvious examples — the kind of thing that just about any remote geek would have long since talked about, but that the pretentious literary types insist is “hip” or “new” because they decide to keep their heads in the sand about this crazy little thing called genre. It’s also important to pad out your obvious observation into a really long paragraph like this that sounds sophisticated — that’s written in that insufferable Tanenhaus-sanctioned vernacular — but that has very little fucking substance to it.

It is this axiom that shapes and empowers Sam Tanenhaus’s far from imaginative and, at times, achingly nauseating book review section. In contrast to book review sections like The Washignton Post and The Los Angeles Times, who actually go to the trouble of not only employing people who are passionate about literature but actually read the work of their contributors so as to offer pitch-perfect assignments, the NYTBR, which is less important in the grand scheme of things than it thinks it is, takes the opposite approach, applying the bullshitter’s tools to what is essentially a tabloid section of hot air and gormless content. In essays that alternate between the occasionally provocative to the truly dead, the NYTBR doesn’t come close to telling the story of literature as we know it, remaining openly hostile to anything that isn’t Saul Bellow — apparently, the only author who gives Sammy Boy a hard-on — or part of that petit-bourgeois nonsense that a saner world would shun. You need not possess a brain to masticate upon this stuff, for take away the faux ornate language and there is nothing here to chew on — no penetrating insights or enthusiasm about literature.

Factor in the continued employment of Dave “What’s Skiffy?” Itzkoff — as opposed to people who know something about the genre (like, say, Ed Park or Jeff VanderMeer) — and you have one colossal joke of a newspaper book review section.


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