Tanenhaus Watch: February 27, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climatet? 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.

To determine this highly important question for our times, three tests will be conducted each week, along with ancillary commentary concerning the content.


Fiction Reviews: 1 full-page, 1 full-page round-up (4 books), 3 half-page reviews. (Total books: 8. Total space: 3.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 two-page, 3 half-page, 5 full-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 8.5 pages.)

While the number of books reviewed creates the illusion that the NYTBR is covering fiction, the column-inches reveal the truth! Of the 12 pages devoted to reviews, only 29.1% are for fiction. Tanenhaus has demonstrated yet again that he would rather devote his pages to yet another primer on Churchill (a gutless entry among many other poltiical essays, of which more anon) than concern himself with the exciting world of today’s literature.

While we’re always interested to see Tanenhaus experiment, we’ve long tired of Sam Tanenhaus’ hollow promises on the fiction front. And we will not rest until he devotes a minimum of 48% of his column inches to literature.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


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

We find it strangely curious that of the five writers contributing to the fiction coverage, three of them are women and two of them are men. We applaud the diversity in coverage, while remaining extremely concerned that only one woman writer has contributed to the nine nonfiction reviews. Beyond this, where are the women for the features? We’d expect this kind of attitude at an Elks Lodge meeting. Surely, in a political atmosphere concerned with women’s issues and with Condi Rice as Secretary of State, Tanenhaus could have found a cross-section of women writers from varying perspectives to grace his pages.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Fortunately, Sam Tanenhaus recovers from his disgrace by having William Vollmann write about Pol Pot. Vollmann’s essay is a good one: erudite, combining personal experience with an attentive read, calling Short on his hubris, and as obsessive as just about anything he’s written.

Then there’s Gore Vidal hoping to restore James Purdy’s reputation. Vidal’s essay (by his own admission) is self-serving. But it’s still nice to see some space in the NYTBR devoted to a forgotten literary figure — even if Jonathan Yardley does this on a weekly basis.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


Michael Kazin calls Martin Van Buren “the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents” — the sad stretch of an editor demanding a populist metaphor. And why does the population’s perceived failure to understand Stephen Hawking deserve a lead paragraph? It is disturbing to see a newspaper with the New York Times‘ resources not only devoting so much of its space to these desperate attempts to appease Joe Sixpack, but cop to this anti-intellectual tone.

Aside from the priapic instapundits going out of their way to make politics about as exciting as stale muesli, the only real piss and vinegar to be found this week is in Albert Mobilio’s review of J.T. Leroy’s Harold’s End, which is declared “a shiny postcard of a book that offers a paper-thin impression of the author’s talents.”

Where are the daring takes on today’s books? Where’s the wit? The solid arguments that a major newspaper can disseminate among its readers?


Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Points Denied: 2


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