Tanenhaus Watch: March 20, 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 Reviews: 1 – 2 1/2 page review, 1 one-page science fiction roundup, 2 one-page reviews, 1 half-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 6 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 1 1/2 page review, 5 one-page reviews, 2 half-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 7.5 pages.)

While Tanenhaus’ Hollywood theme offers an interesting thematic approach to non-fiction coverage, Tanenhaus again demonstrates that, despite a lengthy review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, he has no interest in serious coverage of today’s fiction, reducing science fiction to a round-up and including a throwaway review for Linda Ferri’s Enchantments, perhaps to point out to his detractors that he’s covering foreign titles.

Tanenhaus can delude himself all he wants with the 1:1 fiction-to-nonfiction title ratio on his table of contents page. But the column inches tell the real story. This week, he weighs in again at his trusty 44.44% ratio, still well below the 48% minimum requirement for fiction coverage.

We consider Ian McEwan to be one of the greatest living writers and we like to see him covered as much as anybody (particularly by someone like Zoe Heller). But last we heard, McEwan wasn’t the only guy pumping out novels these days.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


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

Three of the five fiction reviews are written by women. Meanwhile, only one of the eight nonfiction reviews is penned by a female.


We’re extremely bothered by Tanenhaus’s continuing inability to pair women up with nonfiction books. By contrast, a quick look over at this Sunday’s Washington Post Book World section sees women covering two memoirs and a family history (along with several fiction titles). While the troubling problem of women reviewers relegated to fiction and memoirs cuts across the board (for fuck’s sake, why can’t a woman tackle that unwieldy Galbrieth biography?), we’re still scratching our heads over why Sam Tanenhaus, despite being the editor of one of the most promiment weekly book review sectiosn in the United States, can’t ferret out the females.

This isn’t exactly rocket science. It doesn’t even take much in the way of rumination. Here’s a few ideas that come immediately to mind: Jane Juska reviewing a nonfiction book about aging or sexuality, the genteel Katha Pollitt trying to figure out the state of comics, Molly Ivins covering Michael Savage’s Liberalism is a Mental Disorder from a medical perspective, Dorothy Allison seeing if Jeannette Angell’s Callgirl has streetcred, or just about any brave voice daring to cover Laurel Leff’s forthcoming Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (which is in fact highly critical of the Gray Lady). Wouldn’t that be a book review section worth reading? And wouldn’t this be a great way to balance off the out-of-control male-to-female ratio while presenting stirring nonfiction coverage to a national audience?

It’s too bad that Tanenhaus can’t kill a few birds (or, in this case, far too many priapic dryads) with one stone.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


We’re pleased to see Zoe Heller covering Saturday, even if the review is meekly critical and the interview with Cynthia Ozick she quotes comes from Robert Birnbaum and she (or perhaps Tanenhaus) doesn’t even acknowledge the source. (Besides, it’s not like Tanenhaus would ever reveal that there’s this thoughtful literary guy on the Net named Robert Birnbaum who is providing better interviews than most newspapers.)

Does the world really need another essay from blowhard Joe Queenan? Queenan demonstrates yet again that he is neither particularly witty nor terribly original. Having Queenan complain about ghostwritten books is a bit like watching cheap paint dry on a wall. One yearns to see the paint do something unpredictable, such as fly through the air or disappear from one’s visual plane. But alas, the paint will do nothing but dry and the senses will deaden. If Tanenhaus believes that Queenan is the quintessential hatchet man, with his self-important asides (“Either way, I think the American people need to know.”) and rampant generalizations (“…ghostwriters are by nature timid, diplomatic, gun-shy.”), then I urge Mr. Tanenhaus to reread the collected works of H.L. Mencken and discover what real shitstorming is all about. Hell, even some old school Jimmy Breslin. The Gray Lady’s continued employment of Joe Queenan is an embarassment to all of the muckrakers and wiseasses who have ever composed for newspapers. It is about as far removed from a quirky pair-up as one can get.

(And for that matter, a far more focused and succinct essay on ghostwriting can be found on the back page by Sarah Lyall. Lyall, unlike Queenan, lets her subject speak for herself and actually allows the reader to form his own judgments. Go figure. Even so, what are two essays about ghostwriting doing in the same review section?)

We have nothing else to say, but…

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Despite our overall disappointment with this week’s flat coverage, we did enjoy Neil Genzlinger’s comparative review on Hollywood, particularly the interesting suggestion of the movie consumer being irrelevant. And John Leonard doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head with his Disneywar review, but comes close.

We’re extremely confused by the Teutonic capitalization (or lack thereof) of Rip “van” Winkle. Before being appropriated by Washington Irving (and earning the “Rip Van Winkle” name), we understand that it came from a Norse folktale called “The Goatherd.” Sure, we’ve seen some editions lower-case the V. But most people understand that there’s a difference between “Van” and “von.”

Jack Shafer raises a few interesting points on New New Journalism, criticizing Robert S. Boynton quite rightly for trying to lump today’s journalists in a wide net. But he fails to factor in the influence of the Internet or, for that matter, how the endless publication of memoirs and the popularity of reality TV may have affected current journalism.


Brownie Points Denied: 3 (a new record!)



  1. The Hollywood theme was, in fact, very interesting, and it was nice to see some belated attention for Bogdanovich’s book. On the other hand, it might have been a bit more relevant had it run back when they held the Oscars and Hollywood was actively on everybody’s mind.

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