Tanenhaus Watch: May 15, 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.

Unfortunately, certain events prevented me from offering an encompassing pronouncement last weekend. To pursue the Brownie Watch with a completist’s gusto, I’m reviewing last week’s NYTBR on tests alone. The results from last week are remarkably surprising. The Content Considerations section will have to be overlooked, but I will pursue this week’s NYTBR with greater depth. For those who require further commentary, I direct Brownie Watch readers to this Observer editorial, which criticizes Robert Leiter’s review of Buried by the Times and puts the question into an influential context.


Fiction Reviews: 1 – 1 1/2 page review, 1 two-page Louisa May Alcott retrospective, 5 half-page reviews, 1 one-page Shel Silverstein review, 1 – 1 1/2 page children’s book roundup, 2 one-page children’s book roundups, 1 1-page Hans Christian Anderson overview, 1 one-page “Fiction Chronicle” roundup. (Total books: 23. Total pages: 12.5.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 two-page roundup of atomic bomb books by Richard Rhodes, 2 one-page reviews, 2 half-page review, 1 one-page jazz book comparison, 3 – .75 page reviews, 1- 1.25 page reviews
(Total books: 13. Total pages. 9.5.)

Buoyed in large part by the Chldren’s Book Section, Sam Tanenhaus has done the unthinkable. He’s offered most of the NYTBR‘s pages to fiction. And not just any old fiction: he’s included a Louisa May Alcott Libary of America volume, a translated novel and a modest return to the Chip McGrath days of championing midlisters like Jane Alison (whom Max Millions is crazy about). Or to look at this in hard numbers, a good 57% of the May 15, 2005 issue is devoted to fiction, well above the 48% minimum threshold requried.

I sincerely doubt we’ll see numbers like this again. But because some unexpected force has allowed Mr. Tanenhaus to come to his senses, all brownie bitchslap factors for this week will be withheld.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


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

Here again, Tanenhaus has somehow balanced things out. This week, there are eleven male reviewers and twelve female reviewers. While most of the ladies have been relegated to the Children’s Book section, I’m still pleased to see that some smart ladies have been granted the pen (and hopefully the keys to Joe Queenan’s car, so that Queenan will be too busy to contribute more of his tired bluster for the NYTBR).

Brownie Point: EARNED!


Could it be possible that Tanenhaus will, for the first time in Brownie Watch history, earn three out of three brownie points? Indeed, it is.

First off, Richard Rhodes is the kind of guy we like to see offering thorough roundups about history in the NYTBR‘s pages. It’s more of a history than a review proper, but if this is the way that Tanenhaus must squeeze in his political obsessions, that’s okay by us.

Meg Wolitzer is an interesting choice to write a children’s book roundup. However, I’m not sure if Ms. Wolitzer knows what audience she’s writing for. At one point, she addresses “you obsessive, Egypt-factoid-gathering kids,” which, personally speaking, may have been a valid address to me twenty-five years ago, but now it has me wondering why I’m dunking a graham cracker in milk as a Sunday morning hangover cure. And I’m not certain if complaining about the registered circle is worth a paragraph.

But an even stranger choice than Wolitzer is M.P. Dunleavey. This might be an instinctive reaction, but I don’t entirely trust a personal finance consultant to dispense advice on children’s books. Particularly when she sees a children’s book as something to “lull a the little ones to sleep.” Part of the point of reading a bedtime story is to get as caught up in the narrative as the kid is. In fact, I’d venture to say that had not my father read me the Lord of the Rings and Oz books when I was a wee tyke, my appetite for epic tales (albeit, better ones than Tolkein) wouldn’t be nearly as great as it is today. Dunleavey’s slightly bitter take on children’s books belongs in Good Housekeeping, not the NYTBR.

Then there’s Steve Erickson’s welcome presence. Erickson’s review is by-the-numbers, perhaps because of the reduced space granted to him. But it’s still good to see Tanenhaus throwing in a trusted experimental fiction writer to weigh in on the books of our time.

I’m tempted to bitchslap Tanenhaus for the Dunleavey review, but since all brownie bitchslaps are verboeten, I’ll instead commend him for the steady crop of matchups.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


I’m as shocked as anyone else, but Tanenhaus met the burden (and then some) for his work on the May 15, 2005 issue. Brownies will be sent to him this week.

Brownie Points Denied: 0
Brownie Points Earned: 3