Tanenhaus Watch: May 1, 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.

This is the first of two concurrent Brownie Watches. Coachella pretty much precluded me from weighing in last week’s issue (May 1, 2005). It relaxed me to the point where I would have likely awarded Tanenhaus a brownie for simply existing. While I’m happy to give brownies to just about anyone, I think the readers here would be hard-pressed to argue that such generosity is fair or critical for the Brownie Watch. Since there are now reports circulating that Tanenhaus enjoyed his package of brownies, it is my seminal duty here to get Tanenhaus to salivate for more. And I should remind those paying attention to the Brownie Watch’s official policy that there are armies of brownie bakers who would happily provide Sam his sweet-toothed sustenance. They often weep profusely when Tanenhaus lets them down.

However, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, here at Return of the Reluctant, we’re all too aware that there is no such thing as a free brownie.

So for completists, here’s the score:


Fiction Reviews: 1 one-page poetry review, 3 one-page fiction review, 2 half-page reviews. (Total books: 6. Total pages: 5.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: One two-page review, 3 page and a half reviews, 4 one-page reviews, 2 half page reviews. (Total books: 12. Total pages. 11.5.)

Pathetic! This is among the worst of Tanenhaus’s figures. Nonfiction coverage outweights fiction by more than 2 to 1! The telling disgrace here is that a miserly 30% of the May 1 issue is actually devoted to fiction.

Bad enough that Tanenhaus consistently scores under the 48% fiction minimum threshold. But scoring under 35% is a disgrace to the remarkable output of today’s contemporary novelists and poets. And it calls for some pugilistic intervention:

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: 30% devoted to fiction, Sam? Do you even care anymore? SLAP! (Minus .5 points.)

Brownie Point: DENIED!


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

Continuing the sad trend of ladies left in the dustheap, there were eleven male writers to five female writers covering books in last week’s issue. Again, we have a situation that is completely fails to grasp the world population’s real demographics. And at a ratio of more than 2 to 1, the gloves once must again be unslipped from the hands.

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: Women are sexy and smart, Sam! Let them run like gazelles through your pages. SLAP! (Minus .3 points.)

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Fortunately, Tanenhaus recovers from the last two tests with a few inspired choices. He’s enlisted Jonathan Lethem to write a sizable review of Roberto Calasso’s K, a book of essays about Kafka that hasn’t received a lot of attention outside of The Weekly Standard. The fact that Calasso’s book is a translation and that Lethem himself gets some time to offer his own personal experience with Kafka and gets some time to champion the erstwhile Franz transforms what could have been a throwaway review into something that is both impassioned and informed. What’s particularly refreshing about Lethem’s essay is its earnestness. Lethem writes, “It’s a measure of Calasso’s accomplishment that his readings feel familiar, as though his erudition were inside us, a pre-existing condition only waiting for diagnosis.” This is the kind of sensory take on a semi-scholarly book that one doesn’t find very often in the NYTBR, let alone any newspaper review. What’s interesting is that Lethem doesn’t sacrifice too much in the way of addressing Calasso’s ideas. Given this careful balance, I certainly hope Tanenhaus enlists Lethem to write more essays.

It counts as a quirky pairup, even though it’s a mystifying one. John Grisham isn’t exactly known for his critical acumen, but Tanenhaus seems to believe that he can write about baseball. But the reality is that, outside of penning legal briefs, it’s doubtful that Grisham can write anything. Consider the lede’s passive voice: “The languid pace of baseball allows it to be enjoyed by those with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the game.” It only gets worse, as Grisham addresses the reader in second person as “you, the manager” and proceeds to turn a pretty damn rollicking sport into something that sounds as clinically preordained as root canal surgery initiated by Dr. Mengle. I could spend the next hour editing the clunky prose, the lack of focus, or the unfortunate second grade book report feel. But I have two issues to cover today and editing is Tanenhaus’ job, not mine.

Did Tanenhaus even edit Grisham? If Grisham had final edit, then I can only imagine the Hades that Times copy editors were put through as they tried desperately to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: This isn’t so much a slap, as it is a call for self-respect. Don’t let the likes of Grisham appear again. SLAP! (Minus .2 points.)

Nevertheless, despite all this, we award Tanenhaus a brownie point for mixing it up better, although he should know better than to hire Grisham.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


Deciding upon Kevin Young’s noir-influenced poetry for a page-length review shows a growing awareness of off-the-beaten-track content. But I’m wondering if Joel Brouwer is the right guy to cover it. Brouwer writes, “Why bother reading ‘Black Maria’ at all, when you could go to the movies instead?” Correct me if I’m wrong, but was this not the very question that Brouwer was hired to answer? Brouwer spends far too much time in his review trying to figure out his own perception of poetry, sticking with rudimentary statements like “Poetry celebrates the musicality of language” that he fails to really articulate what he thought of the book beyond a piecemeal assessment.

“You don’t need to read a book with a title like ‘Lost in the Forest’ to guess that Sue Miller will be using it to acquaint you with a wolf and a version of Red Riding Hood,” writes Kathryn Harrison. You also don’t need a one-page book review to suggest that Sue Miller is anything more than a straightforward novelist, let alone capable of compelling insight.

It went largely unremarked by my fellow colleagues, but I noticed that Laura Miller had taken some time off from the NYTBR‘s pages. It turned out to be a good idea. Her review of History of Love is actually imbued with a less hysterical (indeed, one might dare say, critical!) voice this time around. If Tanenhaus had any input here (“Laura, why don’t you be more constructive? Why not leave the bitterness to a minimum?”), we applaud it. Her review recalls the Laura Miller of old. Which is to say, someone who actually enjoys the reading experience. We hope to see more of this Laura Miller, as we haven’t seen her on a regular basis since about 1999. If she keeps this up, I’m almost tempted to send Miller a care package. Perhaps some jellybeans to encourage a sense of humor.

Idiot Photo Caption of the Week: “Orson Welles as he appeared (with Dorothy Comingore) in ‘Citizen Kane.’ Beneath the makeup, Welles was 25 years old.” No shit? Are there actually people around (perhaps readers who haven’t seen a single movie in their lives) who didn’t know this?

Boy, the ledes are extremely silly this week.

Benjamin Kunkel: “Fiction seeks to deliver life from mere literalism, to release people and things into a significance beyond themselves.” Yeah, that and a bunch of shrooms ingested just before a trip to Burning Man.

Walter Reich: “Were American troops killed in the Holocaust?” Well, as we all know, the Nazis served their POWs tea and crumpets.

Alissa Quart: “The alarmist nonfiction book is a staple in publishing.” And the generalization embedded within a lead sentence is a staple in book reviewing.


It’s good to see that Tanenhaus rebounded from the previous week’s negative score. But a zero is still a zero. And we certainly hope that the skewered ratios seen in the May 1 issue won’t be a long-term fait accompli.

Brownie Points Denied: 2
Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Bitchslap Factor: -1 point