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October 05, 2004

But What Do the Book Babes Think of the New NYTBR?

by Ron Hogan

Lots of folks have weighed in on the new look and feel of Sam Tanenhaus' New York Times Book Review, but now the Book Babes have their say. Which is tantamount to echoing Sam Tanenhaus' say with a few minor quibbles, but hey, they got a free tour of the office out of it.

"We're going to treat books not as literary artifacts but as news about the culture," he said. To me, that means that the selection of what is reviewed by the NYTBR will depend not on whether a book will stand the test of time in a literary universe, but whether it has currency in the here and now.

Perfectly reasonable interpretation, of course--but then, the original statement is so clearcut that it hardly needs clarification. What it does need is a response for or against...and what it ultimately gets from Babe Ellen is strictly "for": "Tanenhaus is no dummy. The upper-end focus of most book review sections has proved to be a recipe for failure." I've said it before and I'll say it again: what "upper-end focus" is she talking about? "Most" book review sections I've seen in mainstream American newspapers and magazines predominantly champion the "middle" section of commercial fiction and nonfiction over the "low end," with no more than intermittent (at best) nods to this "upper-end." Maybe we just have different standards of what constitutes the "upper-end" of the so-called "literati."

"Each Monday," she adds, "380,000 copies of the review are deposited in bookstores across the land, this in addition to the number inserted into the following weekend's editions of The Sunday New York Times." Maybe so, but how many of those 380,000 are actually sold and/or read? She never asks. She's too busy being mostly enamored of the revamped review, though she suggests "dissing two novels at the front of the book" wasn't so bright (actually, one of the slams was for a nonfiction book, but these things happen). Babe Margo's a little more critical of what she sees as a narrowing of the contributor pool, but even she's too willing to take Tanenhaus at his word when he's "defending himself against the charge that women are not welcome at the NYTBR (the most frequent criticism lodged against the section since he arrived, he told us)." Extending the reporting to more than one source would have revealed the extent of quite vocal complaints about the sparse coverage of fiction and the even sparser coverage of fiction-in-translation (Orhan Pamuk notwithstanding), but I suppose it could be possible that complaints about gender imbalance outweigh those charges and I'm just reading all the other blogs.

Ellen's right to suggest in closing that in addition to having its finger on the pulse of today's middlebrow culture, "it's in the finding and nurturing of writers and their ideas before anyone else that the NYTBR will truly distinguish itself." But more than a few people writing online about books, authors and publishing believe the Review simply doesn't have what it takes to do that anymore--and if the Babes had looked back at their own column, they might have seen the handwriting on the wall.

UPDATE: Dan at The Reading Experience also comes down against the new Review; his serious critique is a must-read.

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