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.]

Be Sociable, Share!

9 Comments

  1. Full on bunker mentality. Cheney-esque. You don’t know what I know and if you knew, you’d feel like I do, but I can’t (or won’t) tell you what I know.

    I imagine this is a mindset widely shared at the upper editorial levels of every major publication. It’s why they’re ossifying and dying.

  2. Wow…what a piece of work. About 15 years ago, as a budding “serious” reader, eager to find out what great stuff to read next – I came across the New York Times Book Review. I was in heaven – it was exactly what I needed. I subscribed and enjoyed it immensely.

    And then…about a year ago, I noticed that whatever book I read about in the NYTBR was also covered by every other book review source and to top that, the reviews weren’t very good. But, then, they made up for that by not having very many of them. So, why exactly am I subscribing I asked myself? Along with their incredibly poor reporting on our national disgrace these last six years (Judith MIller? Thomas Friedmann?), it was not a hard decision to stop subscribing.

    I now pay a lot for the TLS and I love every issue. Like I used to with the NYTBR…

  3. I, little blogging ME, have the power the “destroy fiction?”

    Me?

    God! Excuse me…I have a day job to quit, a cape to don, and a sky to fly…I’m off to the NYTBR…and I’m gonna DESTROY FICTION!

    Who all wants to join me?

    I’m with Jim L. Just subscribed to the TLS and await my first copy.

    BK, Fiction Killer

  4. Per what Jim says, I don’t think there’s any book review that’s been more seriously hurt by online book coverage than the NYTBR. The broad, very superficial level of coverage the NYTBR provides has been completely superseded by what you get, almost incidentally, online.

    Which isn’t to say that there aren’t good pieces in the NYTBR. Good reviews appear now and then in all kinds of newspapers and magazines. But the TLS, Bookforum, and the LRB are the only print publications in English, so far as I know, where you’ll find a wide range of literature, covered by serious reviewers, at length, in every issue.

  5. Actually, looking this morning at a recent issue of the NYTBR (Dec 31) which had some fine things in it, I’d correct what I said above: the NYTBR is not that broad either.

    Jim, am I mistaken or did it used to be twice as thick as it typically is now? My heyday with the NYTBR was probably 15 years before yours, but I recall that there were more reviews in each issue. May be wrong. My old grade school doesn’t seem as big as it once did either. ;-)

  6. I think their decision not to review fiction smacks of sexism. Women generally do read more fiction than do men. So I guess that means fiction isn’t as serious, as robust, as virile as non-fiction. I’ve just canceled my Sunday subscription to the Times–and part of that reason was the lack of good fiction recommendations. I guess Arctic exploration and the making of a football team are just of more interest to those legions of male readers who look at the review.

  7. Yes, it used to be thicker as well, even as little as 4-5 years ago it seemed pretty hefty. There were times that it seemed like an ad insert. That reminds me of my peeve about the other New York institution – 10-15 years ago (pre Tina Brown), the New Yorker had two to three short stories in an issue (and published 52 times a year not 45 or so). Now their last “Fiction” issue had, what, four stories in it?

    I agree with you about NYTBR being hurt by online book coverage. Currently in fiction, where I am most interested, they do not differentiate themselves (“themselves” – is that the right word for a publication…?) at all, they are lost in the noise. They could rise above the noise and once again become the review of record, by increasing the depth (when is the last time you’ve seen an author’s first book reviewed which was *not* being pushed by a publicity machine as the next big thing?), and by increasing the range (translation and English/Commonwealth titles, small presses,..). Instead of leading forcefully by being a catholic “omnibus”, the NYTBR has been reduced to little more than a pond skimmer of easy to catch titles. And who needs that?

  8. NYTBR = Not Yearning To Be Relevant

  9. [...] in Tanenhaus’s position to, well, a little frothing. For example, Edward Champion scores some good points, but does his own credibility no favours when he tries to defend himself: Let’s go back to the [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>