Sam Tanenhaus’s Soul-Sucking Tentacles

Litkicks: “Rachel Donadio’s articles have no point of view. I’ve read at least ten of her essays or interviews in this publication in the last two years, and I have never once felt I had the slightest indication what she thought about her subject. She is the only regular NYTBR writer who does not ever deign to share a point of view with the reader. In theory, this type of dispassion could have some value — perhaps some sort of Joan Didion-esque blank journalistic resonance — but it would have to be handled more artistically to achieve this effect. When I read an article like today’s Donadio piece on Salman Rushdie, I simply feel empty and unsatisfied. I expect a New York Times Book Review writer to communicate some type of point of view to me, or else I’m eating a bowl of flavor-free ice cream. Rachel Donadio, what do you think about Salman Rushdie?”

I agree with Levi, with one vital qualifier: Donadio’s work at the Observer did have a point of view to share with the reader. Consider this sardonic 2004 report of BookExpo:

Nearby, Jonathan Karp, the boyish and rising (if not already risen) Random House senior vice president and editor in chief, aggressively introduced passers-by to Robert Kurson, a slightly frightened-looking author whose book, Shadow Divers , is about divers who find a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. It is expected to do well.

Or this amusing Caitlin Flanagan report:

So she doesn’t wash the sheets, but she does sew buttons. Does she like to sew buttons? “I do like to sew buttons. I think it’s very rewarding that you can take a garment that’s shabby and unwearable and in this quick way you can really transform it,” she said. “It’s an easy little gift for me to give him.” Yet this is from the same woman who in her 2003 essay on Erma Bombeck wrote that “I have been married a total of fourteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man’s clothing or to replace even one popped button, for which I suppose I have the women’s movement to thank. But I realize now, late in the game, that we’d be much better off if I had a few of those skills.”

This is the kind of skepticism and juxtaposition that one expects from a literary reporter along these lines. But this playful tone — which once made Donadio’s pieces so much fun to read — has disappeared in recent years. Did Donadio check in her sense of humor upon signing on with Tanenhaus? What caused her work to become what Levi suggests is “empty and unsatisfied?”

I don’t think it’s an accident that things shifted the minute that Donadio signed on with the NYTBR. Just look at the soulless banter in Donadio’s latest piece and compare it with the Observer work. This wholesale evisceration of this journalist’s strengths into prose that resembles a humorless hack is yet another reason why the NYTBR needs several swift kicks in the ass. Good editors recognize life and do their best to cultivate and nurture a journalist’s voice. While this thankfully seems to be the case with Liesl Schillinger, whose reviews continue to remain engaging and enthusiastic (perhaps because Schillinger keeps herself at arm’s length as a freelancer), I think something terrible may have happened to Donadio when she succumbed to the moth effect.

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