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)

One Comment

  1. A couple weeks ago Tanenhaus had an “ask the editor” bit re the NYTBR. I emailed using my real name, in my professional capacity, which looks far more important on paper that it is in real life. I politely asked why more than one writer reviews one book when that space might devoted to more fiction reviews. Shockingly, my question did not make the cut.

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