[UPDATE: On the evening of January 21, 2009, I asked Tanenhaus in person about the concerns satirized below, and I was able to get a few answers. I point readers of this post to the direction of my later post, “In Which I Talk with Tanenhaus,” where some questions are answered and Tanenhaus’s perspective is reported.]
It started with Sam Tanenhaus’s ridiculously uncritical review (and fawning video interview) with John Updike. It continued with Tanenhaus’s lips nearly licking Toni Morrison to a needlessly sensual premature death. But this afternoon, Sam Tanenhaus proved that The New York Times Book Review isn’t an independent organ, but rather a throbbing and dependent organ shoving itself restlessly into Knopf’s moist vagina. The New York Times Book Review selected its top ten books of 2008. Seven of the books were from Knopf. Of the remaining three selections, two were from other Random House imprints under Knopf’s watch. The only other publisher served was Farrar, Straus & Giruoux.
I think it goes without saying that someone is getting a cock sucked here.
My beef here is not with Random House, who has been consistently receptive and helpful to journalists of all stripes, but with Sam Tanenhaus’s embarrassingly tendentious selection process. These are malodorous results that reek as shamefully as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s “decision-making process” during the Golden Globe Awards. It bears the skunkish whiff of junkets and favoritism. And it certainly doesn’t behoove any “paper of record” that expects us to take it seriously.
If this is a desperate ploy on Tanenhaus’s part to coax Random House to buy more advertising space in the New York Times Book Review, well, the joke here’s on Tanenhaus. Because why should Random House buy an advertisement in the NYTBR when they’re getting all this free publicity?
Look, I love Updike as much as the next guy. But let’s face the facts. By and large, the critics seemed to agree that The Widows of Eastwick didn’t quite cut the mustard. For Tanenhaus to write, in all seriousness, “At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page,” suggests very strongly that Tanenhaus assigned the wrong guy to review the book. It is one thing to marvel at Updike’s prose. But it’s quite another to fawn over it like an uncritical and sycophantic lapdog. For all the love and fanboyish accolades that have been granted to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Roberto Bolano’s 2666, I’ve never seen any of these plaudits spill over into Tanenhaus’s unmitigated hero worship.
How can any man live with himself knowing that he is such an unrepentant whore? Thank goodness Dwight Garner got out of this sausage factory when he did for the daily book reviewing gig. Compare Garner’s more adept review of Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For in today’s edition. It’s just as effusive as Tanenhaus’s Updike review, but at least Garner still has some respect: both for himself and the readership.
So Random House is hermaphroditic?
And The New Yorker is running ads from Monsanto Corporation, buying a one-way ticket into an especially fiery circle of hell.
Say what you want about Knopf, but they do put out a lot more important books than many other publishers. Small presses are good for literature but they don’t have the resources to publish as many good books. I tried to send the NYT my top ten list of 2008 but they had already closed the comments. Can I send it to you, Ed? It does have 2 Knopf titles and 8 by major presses. That seems par for the course.
Here are my Top Ten Books for 2008:
1. 2666, by Roberto Bolano (FSG)
2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski (Ecco)
3. In the Devil’s Territory, by Kyle Minor (Dzanc Books)
4. Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
5. Lush Life, by Richard Price (FSG)
6. Oh, Baby, by Kim Chinquee (Ravenna Press)
7. Our Story Begins, by Tobias Wolff (Knopf)
8. Indignation, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)
9. Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan (Little, Brown)
10. Serena, by Ron Rash (Ecco)
[…] will certainly not see the sleazy favoritism practiced by Sam Tanenhaus (I have tried to spread the love across multiple publishers), nor the gutless and tone-deaf choices […]
[…] the issue still carries the stigma of sleazily tendentious decision making, at least it has managed to restore itself with pretty decent […]
I agree with the author. It’s time to find independent sources for fiction like newfiction.com . It’s all about quality.
[…] was particularly fixated on my “The Knopf Times Book Review” post, in which I had proposed that The New York Times Book Review had been bought and paid for by Knopf. […]
I always got the impression that NYTBR was beholden to NY publishers. (Fun fact: did you know that NY is no longer the second most populated state in the US?). It is unbelievable that Knopf had so many titles. But here are three mitigating factors:
1)Knopf can afford to send out lots of review copies; smaller publishers are not able to (although I suspect most of them still send it to NYTBR–a person can hope after all).
2)Knopf bids on talent. In other words, they no longer discover talent; they just watch out which writers are making money in the minor leagues, and offer them bigger contracts.
3)NYT is clueless about the ebook revolution. That’s where a lot of groundbreaking titles are coming from . NYT is totally blind about this.
4)Groupthink. It’s hard to read a lot of books these days. And the type of critics who write for NYTBR are already fairly well-known and have traditional highbrow tastes. They don’t strike me as adventurous readers. It’s hard enough just keeping up with what’s coming from NY publishers. I suspect the regular critics just never have the time to venture much further.
Good reporting and an excellent post, which I just stumbled on googling Tanenhaus’s name. I’ve recently done a couple posts at my blog on an unrelated lousy move by Mr. T. Maybe of interest to you?
Anyway, thanks again for this great post–a little more high-brow than the stuff I do, but great nonetheless…