Tanenhaus Watch: April 3, 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.

Before we begin the tests, we should point to Lawrene V. Povirk’s letter. Povirk has canceled his subscription after twenty years, switching over to the Times Literary Supplement at twice the price. He says that the NYTBR has become “more like People Magazine, attempting at every turn to leverage itself on the celebrity of those it covers.”

Editor Sam Tanenhaus has no published response to give to poor Povirk. Like many of us out here, Povrik is saddened by what the NYTBR has become, hoping one day that the once mighty book review section will spawn a few brain lobes again. I should also note that Tanenhaus has failed to respond to any of the Tanenhaus Brownie Watches. Perhaps he will one day, should he ever win a brownie. Perhaps he’s being patted on the back for another disgraceful evisceration or he’s just simply a busy man. Who knows?

But I wish to point out that the fundamental difference between print media and the blogosphere is not, as the Times suggested last week, lists of lists or acts of counting versus responsible coverage. (Poor Golden Rule Jones was taken completely out of context in that regard.) If anything, the litblogs are longer, more passionate, more comprehensive, and more conversational.

With this in mind, I invite Tanenhaus or anyone writing for the NYTBR to offer their ripostes and responses on these pages. To use Povirk’s words, many of us out here are curious about why Tanenhaus & Co. are so content to make the NYTBR “flashier, more superficial and less respectful of its audience.”

And with that sentiment, we move forward to this week’s issue.


Fiction Reviews: 1 two-page review, 3 one-page reviews, 1 half-page review. (Total books: 5. Total space: 5.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 two-page review, 7 one-page reviews, 3 half-page reviews, 1 back-page roundup. (Total books: 19. Total space: 11.5 paes.)

Folks, this is about as pathetic as it gets. Although W.G. Sebald gets a nonfictional nod, not even in my kindest hour could Tanenhaus be granted so much as a crumb for such weak-kneed coverage of today’s fiction. Looking at the hideous ratios (a mere 32% of this week’s column inches is devoted to fiction, most of it comprising Walter Kirn’s Extremely Loud review, with only 5 out of 26 books that are actual fiction titles), one gets the sense that Tanenhaus has not opened a book of poetry, let alone an experimentalist along the lines of David Markson, for many years.

It’s bad enough that this week’s fiction is devoted to such obvious titles as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise and Andrea Levy’s Small Island — titles familiar to just about anyone keeping tabs on current literature. But even if it is the sublime Cynthia Ozick writing the review, was the two-page spread of Joseph Lelyveld’s Omaha Blues really necessary?

We all know that Gray Lady’s incestuous pats on the back rival the preternatural policeman-to-donut-shop ratio in any metropolitan area. But if this is Tanenhaus’ answer to the customary gold watch given at retirement, this masturbatory coverage, which curiously resembles a centerfold in both its scope and placement, of a memoir written by one of the Times’ own reporters feels as if it’s been placed to take the smoke off of Laurel Leff’s recently published Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper. The Times has yet to respond to the book’s claims (which involves how the Times undercounted and downplayed the Holocaust tolls). And Ozick both absolves herself while simultaneously maintaining the Times‘ hard line when she notes that Lelyveld (not Ozick) dismisses any efforts to undermine Zionism as “Jewish folk belief.”

Of course, I’m delighted to see Cynthia Ozick cover any book. But if the Lelyveld review is intended to evade the issue rather than respond to a very important question, one is surprised why Tanenhaus, who has repeatedly expressed a longing to stir shit up, would deliberately miss an opportunity for a a mature and responsible (even a thoughtful) response.

As to Walter Kirn’s cover review, I liked where he was going, but unlike my colleague, I think Kirn cuts too wide a swath to convince me. Certainly the postmodernism gimmick has become a certain crutch in today’s literature. But we’re supposed to assume that Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t aware that pomo’s old hat. It never ocurs to Kirn that this sophomore slump (if it is a failed experiment) might be a bridge between Everything is Illuminated and whatever JSF writes in the future. Kirn could have made his case had he shown that the Ukranian guy badgering JSF the character throughout Everything Is Illuminated might bear a remarkable resemblence to wisecracking Oskar (instead of just “a cunning combination of other narrators from the kind of books that his author wants to conjure with”).

The assumption here that “attention-grabbing graphic elements” are no longer capable of generating an emotional response because, to Kirn’s mind, one book fails to do so, is a sort of anticipatory post hoc ergo propter hoc of forthcoming pomo titles. While it’s good to see the NYTBR coming close to discussing this very seminal question, we still wish Tanenhaus had busted Kirn’s chops a bit more to get a more nuanced take.

Nevertheless, this modest plaudit (more of a “good job, but could use improvement” on Tanenhaus’ report card) can’t compensate for this week’s overwhelming disparity between fiction and nonfiction.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


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

A total of six women have contributed to seventeen reviews. This seems a bit better than last week’s four to eleven, particularly when you factor in Ozick and Wonkette. But this is actually half a percentage point worse than last week. However, we do commend Tanenhaus on getting Diane McWhorter to write about The Confederate Battle Flag.

Even so, we’re still disappointed. Get someone like Maccers to write about dating. Not some turgid, well-groomed doctorate like Daniel Swift (who might want to bone up on Jonathan). “The great fear that dating and relationship manuals seek to soothe with their reassuring strategies is the fear of abandonment and humiliation: of being stood up at a bar or at the altar. This is a fear it is wrongheaded to assuage.” Indeed. The great fear I’m having right now is that Tanenhaus thinks these lifeless sentences actually pass for witty banter.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


We’re pleased to report that after striking 0-3 two straight weeks in a row, we’re delighted to give Tanenhaus a brownie point here. However, this is only because Tanenhaus has somehow managed to get Cynthia Ozick and Ana Marie Cox in the same issue. Cox’s examination of Ari Fleischer offers a breath of fresh air. I feel sorry for poor Daniel Swift, who clearly didn’t know any better and who is placed mercilessly across from Cox.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


Neil Gordon promises an A.L. Kennedy takedown and claims that Kennedy’s novels are “unnecessary” and “collections of novelistic devices.” And that’s all you need to know, kids. Not a single example or a clarification of what he might mean. Metaphors? Similes? Irony? Allusions? Omniscient narration? Nope. Oh dear. Those are “novelistic devices” too. In fact, you can find these things in many novels. Could it be that Gordon is hoping to blow two paragraphs of contrarian wind because he can’t handle a novelist who demands that you read her again? The Magic 8-Ball says MOST CERTAINLY.

James McManus writing about poker books is an interesting idea. But I never thought I’d see the day when Doyle Brunson’s Super System 2 was reviewed in a major newspaper. What next, Sam? I’m OK, You’re OK? Suze Orman’s latest? I have to ask if there are truly any great contibutions to American letters to be found in the Barnes & Noble Self-Help section.

Liesl Schillinger has found some interesting ways to write within Tanenhaus’ cramped format, including a comparison to Christopher Isherwood and a meet cute moment. And this Grover Lewis overview was fun.

But the NYTBR‘s overwhelming aridity and lack of solid fiction coverage can’t compensate for the scant offering of strong items.


Brownie Points Denied: 2
Brownie Points Earned: 1