Tanenhaus Watch: July 17, 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.


Fiction and Poetry Reviews: One two-page cover review of John Irving’s Until I Find You, one two-page Poetry Chronicle, 2 one-page reviews, 3 half-page reviews. (Total books: 15. Total pages: 7.5 .)

Non-Fiction Reviews: One 1-page Nonfiction Chronicle, three one-page reviews, 5 half-page reviews. Total books: 13. Total pages: 5.5.)

Could it be? Has Sam Tanenhaus actually provided more space in his pages to fiction and poetry than nonfiction? What we have here is 57%, well over the 48% fiction minimum. Further, he’s also thrown in a nice little essay by David Leavitt on gay literature, revealing to his perplexed upstate New York audience that yes, indeed, gayfic is alive and well and is actually qute mainstream. Something the rest of us all knew for at leat the past ten years. (I’m almost certain that Tanenhaus got the idea from K.M. Soehnlein’s essay on the same subject in Bookmark Now, which did a better job of contextualizing the development of gay literature and voicing current concerns about gay voice.) But it’s a nice gesture all the same.

Brownie Point: EARNED!

But while Tanenhaus passes this test this week, the big question that must be asked is whether his coverage for fiction and nonfiction is substantive and suitably reflective of a major newspaper.

The issue here again is one of priorities. It’s bad enough that John Irving’s latest treacle has been given the cover story, but Paul Gray’s review is largely composed of a plot summary, with only a brief allusion to the unfortunate didactic streak that has appeared in Irving’s later work. That might get you somewhere in a high school English class, but it doesn’t cut the mustard for a major newspaper. The strange thing here is that Gray didn’t care for the novel and proceeded to give Irving a gentle rap on the wrist instead of a critical essay. Given that Irving’s book is a mercilessly interminable 824 pages, this hardly seems fair to Gray, who earned the right to let off at least a little bit of righteous indignation by being assigned this book. Further, Gray’s almost tender tone hardly represents the hardball fiction coverage and “battles” that Tanenhaus promised years ago.

Further, there’s an altogether inconsistent critical tone in this week’s issue. And the blame must be placed at Tanenhaus’ feet for inducting too many half-page reviews that start off very well and then must be wrapped up in a New York minute, thereby defeating the whole purpose of solid review coverage.

Take, for example, Lesley Downer’s review of The Icarus Girl. Downer frames her review against Helen Oyeyemi’s colossal advance and whether the book is worth the hype. What we could have had here was a review that displayed insights about the UK publishing industry while placing Oyeyemi’s work in the context of other ethnic and multicultural authors emerging from UK transplants. But because Downer was confined to a half page, most of her paragraphs are plot summary and the moment is lost.

Indeed, it is self-defeating to go to the trouble of including a debut from a Chinese-American novelist when you can’t even guarantee enough column-inches for rumination. That’s a bit like trying to squeeze in a four-course meal into fifteen mintues. It simply can’t be done.

I would argue that The Icarus Girl and A Long Stay in a Distant Land would have served better as cover stories than the Irving book or, at the very least, one-page reviews.

But Tanenhaus’s ultimate disgrace this week is the Poetry Chronicle. First off, I’m not sure how a densely written paragraph per poetry collection can get anyone excited about poetry, much less convey what each collection is about. And it sure as hell isn’t enough space to come to the crux of a book. Constrained by this formula, writers Joel Brouwer and Joshua Clover are forced to come up with extremely fey generalizations while sticking to summaries no more distinguishable from a press release. Here are a few choice passages:

“The husband’s lacerated rhapsodizing over his distant wife’s foot-of-the-bed yoga practice, in the poem ”Anger,” is to die for; you can’t decide whom to like less, and that’s what keeps the poem interesting.” (Of course! Because poetry is all about narrative and people you like, rather than the careful voicing of emotions in a more abstract medium.)

“Moments later he drops the word ”obnubilating”; one can be certain he means it.” (One would hope so. After all, poets are always random and haphazard about the words they choose.)

“[Mark Leithauser’s illustrative work] has an affinity also to the animations in Tim Burton’s movies, the sort of menacing comic melancholy that really spruces up a camel.” (I’ll show a camel the illustrations the next time I’m at Hertz Rent-A-Camel. Other than that, should camels be spruced up? Should they not instead have a definitive representative form?)

“Woo is obviously sympathetic, but he makes no effort to conceal his fascination with his mother’s decline.” (Huh? Is his fascination sympathetic? What of the language he uses to evoke this feeling?)

I’m sure the poetry enthusiasts are probably grateful that poetry has been recognized, but since it has been recognized here in such a jejune timbre, one might argue that it’s perhaps better left unrecognized. Because this flummery doesn’t count for criticism, summation, or even a generic yet genuine enthusiasm. In short, it serves no purpose. And for this, we must offer the appropriate rejoinder to the maligned poets who labored over their work for years and for little return, only to be answered by jackasses.

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: Halfass generaizations and nutty poetry capsules, Sam? Unacceptable! SLAP! (Minus .8 points)

If you want to get a sense of how the NYTBR can cover nonfiction, check out Samuel G. Freedman’s comparative review of two NPR books. The review frames NPR in appropriate historical context, points out the suprising lack of journalistic coverage on public radio, and takes Jack W. Mitchell to task for adhering to the NPR hardline and slamming Bob Edwards.

Small wonder then that Tanenhaus has devoted one page to Fantastic, an Arnold Schwarzenegger biography written by Lawrence Leamer, an author who built his career on glitzy biographies of the Kenendys, Ingrid Bergman, and Johnny Carson, while Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson, a book that is more thoughtful, comes from an unusual perspective (Hitchens as Americanized Briton) and decidedly less of a wankfest, has received a mere half page. This is a prioritization completely out of whack with a weekly book review that expects us to read it seriously and doubly strange when we consider how often Tanenhaus employs Hitchens for his pages. And for this there can be only one solution.

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: Sycophantism over erudition, Sam? For shame! SLAP! (Minus .3 points)


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

This week, we see thirteen male contributors and only six females. In other words, less than a third of this week’s contributors are women. As usual, they’re relegated to the fiction-happy kitchen: Three of the six have been assigned this week’s six fiction articles (and that’s not counting the Irving). Unacceptable.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


The David Leavitt essay previously noted counts for something, but I’m not certain that this would constitute a quirky pairup, given that it is a gay writer talking about gay literature, with Tanenhaus playing up this fact in his “Up Front” preface. A case might be made for Charlie Rubin’s quirky and entertaining review of William Buckley’s Oates novels (which shows a remarkable knowledge of the spy novels in question). But for the most part, we’re seeing the usual staffers assigned to the usual books. Not a lot of thinking being done outside the box on this score this week.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


How exactly does one “star in an acting class”? Or are the copy editors asleep at the wheel?

Okay, so journalists were crazed about the real story behind Kathryn Harrison, but isn’t the subject of “what others find distasteful” the whole point of a Harrison book? Wouldn’t sentences be better devoted to how Harrison may have challenged cultural mores and what she has to say with them in her work?

Note to David Carr: Your review begins like a term paper, and a very profane one at that.

So we have one review of a translated book. Is it absolutely necessary to stick with the formula “magical realism = acceptable translated book to review?” There are innumerable others.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise Alexandra Jacobs’ essay on the refurbished Our Bodies, Ourselves, which adroitly places the book in context.


Brownie Points Denied: 1
Brownie Points Earned: 2
Brownie Bitchslap Factor: -1.1 points

There are some positive things about this week’s edition (as noted above). But, alas, standards are standards. Perhaps Tanenhaus’ quickest way to secure a brownie shipment is to offer more one-page reviews, allow his contributors to offer informed takes on books, shift priorities to truly important books (rather than sensational titles) and dare to mix things up a little. I think Tanenhaus is getting closer this week, but I hope he has the courage to say no to clipped and immediate coverage that ultimately says nothing.


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