Tanenhaus Watch: March 6, 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 & Poetry Reviews: 2 one-pages (Despite its sneaky layout on the cover and two pages, let’s face the facts: Chip McGrath’s John Ashbery profile, with its liberal quoting and padding, can just about squeeze onto one page), 1 one-page roundup, 2 half-page reviews. (Total books: 8. Total space: 4 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 3 half-page, 3 full-page. (Total books including Ashbery Selected Prose: 9. Total space: 4.5 pages.)

We suspect that Sam Tanenhaus deliberately tried to make our job difficult this week by listing Chip McGrath’s John Ashbery profile twice in the table of contents: under fiction and nonfiction. Unfortunately, Tanenhaus’s editorial shenanigans haven’t stopped us from applying our column-inch test. To resolve this dilemma (and to give Sam some additional leverage; we do want to send him a brownie one day), we’ve categorized the profile as a “fiction review” while tallying the Collected Prose book under our non-fiction book total.

This week, Tanenhaus has done better. But of the 9.5 pages devoted to reviews this week, only 44.4% are devoted to fiction and poetry. This is close to the 48% required. Admittedly, the John Ashbery profile does complicate matters. But when you factor in the sizable real estate given to blowhard Franklin Foer (which belongs in the Week in Review section, not the NYTBR), the ambiguity over the Ashbery profile dissipates and Tanenhaus’ continued disrespect for solid literature coverage becomes clear.

Too bad, Sam. You could have earned your brownie point had even one of those pages gone to fiction.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


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

Unlike last week’s chicks reviewing fiction/dudes reviewing nonfiction problem, we’re delighted to report that Tanenhaus has allocated things quite nicely this week. Disregarding the Ashbery profile, men and women cover fiction down the middle. And discounting the Ashbery profile, A.O. Scott is the only dude covering nonfiction this week. The rest are women writers. Too bad that Tanenhaus can’t relinquish more features to the ladies. But we’re still extremely pleased to see women given a shot (including the divine Miss Packer!).

Brownie Point: EARNED!


While we’re pleased to see ZZ Packer in print just about anywhere, we have to wonder if she was picked to review Charles Johnson’s latest book because she’s African-American. Since Ms. Packer has proven to be a solid thinker on several topics and since her valuable input on all things literary is a veritable boon for the Times, why not have her weigh in on, say, Ian McEwan’s Saturday? Conversely, why not have Suzy Hansen review Johnson? This is the kind of pair-up that makes us wonder if Sam’s been revisiting Jack Hill’s oeuvre on DVD. This sort of white liberal guilt went out with the pet rock. Just hire a writer because she can write.

Beyond this, there’s really not a whole lot to say, except..

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Bullshit sentence of the week (from Pamela Paul’s The Sociopath Next Door review): “But just as most of us aren’t having backyard barbecues with the trust-fund set, neither are we living down the street from dangerously ill people whose ruthless behavior constitutes a covert public menace.” Clearly, Ms. Paul has never heard of the Megan’s Law database. Instead of encouraging these broad generalizations, a smart editor would have had Paul take the piss out of the book while recognizing that Americans can live with sociopaths in their neighborhood, perhaps tying this in with The Wisdom of Crowds or Jane Jacobs’ theories on urban watchers, without resorting to alarmist thinking.

If you’re a senior editor of the New Republic, isn’t it a bit self-serving to quote your employer in the second paragraph?

Even if it’s misplaced and tertiary to books (all we have really is a Recommended Reading sidebar), I do applaud the roundtable discussion, not because of its discussions of liberalism, but because it presents a more thoughtful take on current politics than Foer’s essay.

Nary a followup on the “Marilyn as Metaphor” to be found in A.O. Scott’s review, save the silly notion that it takes a book to remind us that “Monroe was a complicated human being.” Wow. Thanks for that glaring insight, Scott.

And Benjamin Markovits’ hypothesis on how British novelists are terrified of American novelists falls apart. He fails to mention that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Besides transforming into last year’s literary sensation, Cloud Atlas was a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Award. I’d say that’s progress for Brit lit.


Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Points Denied: 2



  1. Dude, I know you – no Mitchell, no brownie. Period. Tanenhaus could have had an issue of litbloggers reviewing obscure first fiction but I think you’ve had it with your boy getting slighted …

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