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A Hundred Years of Lassitude

Will the New York Times Book Review bore readers for another century?

In 1963, Edmund Wilson published an “interview” with himself in the second issue of the New York Review of Books. The subject was why a new intellectual journal was needed and how it came to be. “The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only make us realize it had never existed,” Wilson explained.

I’m not sure what it means that this remark is quoted without comment in the new anthology that commemorates 100 years of the New York Times Book Review. Wilson was saying the Times book section was relentlessly dull. Does the Times agree? The 650 page greatest-hits collection, I’m afraid, supports the criticism. For all the effect it has had on the country’s literature, the Times Sunday book section might as well never have existed. Today, 35 years after Wilson’s jibe, it remains the drab wallpaper of the book world. If it vanished in another strike, it is hard to think many people would miss it.

Why is the NYTBR so dreary? Michael Wolff, the media columnist of New York magazine, wrote an article a few weeks ago complaining that the section fails to capitalize on the new commercial environment in which books are marketed and sold. He thinks the NYTBR could make more money by being less independent. I kept waiting for Wolff to say he was joking, but apparently he wasn’t. The Times deserves to be congratulated, not scolded, for its determination to avoid pandering to the trade by reviewing self-help manuals or boosting Oprah’s book club.

But high-mindedness only gets you so far. The real problem with the NYTBR, for the 15 years or so that I have been reading it without much pleasure, is its aversion to argument and controversy. Pick up just about any issue and what you’ll find is a kind of literary balm–a quietly reverential attitude toward books in general, combined with a disinclination to ruffle feathers. Charles “Chip” McGrath, the editor since 1995, has elevated the tone somewhat. More distinguished authors contribute longer reviews about weightier books. But somehow, the section still feels dutiful. It reads as if the people writing for it and editing it aren’t having any fun and don’t think readers should either.

Magazine editors generally try to make articles as interesting as possible and to make them look even more interesting than they are. At the NYTBR, the principle seems to be reversed: Avoid anything too interesting and, if you happen to get it anyhow, disguise it. On the cover, where the widely read “lead” review once began, there is now a reliably hideous full-page color illustration accompanied by a generic headline. “Artist of Adventure,” says the cover of the issue that comes out on Sunday. This is the billing for a new biography of N.C. Wyeth, the illustrator whose family saga is a tasty, Gothic tale–something of which you get no hint unless you read all the way through the “jump.” The review is by Adam Gopnik, one of the funniest writers around. But somehow, it feels as if his talent is being withheld. You read the review and wish the author felt he could cut loose.

The rest of the 75 page section contains a mix of strong writers being stifled (or perhaps pre-emptively stifling themselves) and weak ones being given too much space to say too little. This issue contains 21 regular reviews, 30 reviews of children’s books in a special section, 11 brief reviews, 11 more paperback reviews, and a roundup of new science fiction titles. Covering 70 plus books in a week (the usual number is more like 40 to 50) pleases the NYTBR’s advertisers in the publishing houses by providing much fertile territory for blurb mining. But the rest of us are drowning. Inside the back page, there’s one article that’s not a review, the “Bookend.” This week’s column is by Meghan Daum, a free-lance writer who says she can’t figure out a topic to write a book about. The reader, staggering across the finish line, can only pray that she doesn’t.

People who write for the NYTBR all have stories about how the section resists strong criticism and colorful writing. The problem starts with the bias in favor of specialists. An assistant professor of philosophy given a new biography of David Hume is likely to assume an interest in the subject and focus on the significance of the book to his field. A good intellectual journalist given the same assignment would probably focus more on the question of Hume’s relevance today and whether the book is interesting to a nonphilosopher. McGrath seems to have tipped the balance a bit in the direction of journalists. But since good manners are the rule, the generalists often end up sounding as obtuse as the experts. In the current issue, for instance, a review of a book about Wal-Mart says the author can’t make up his mind about whether Wal-Mart is good or bad. But the reviewer can’t make up her mind either and passes up the opportunity to say something–anything–about a company that has transformed American culture. The result is waffling squared.

The tried and true formula for an 800 word review is to meander on the general topic for three paragraphs, summarize the book in four more, note a flaw in the penultimate paragraph, and close with an upbeat summation on the order of “Still, Moon Over Nova Scotia is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the shifting fortunes of the Atlantic eel fishing industry.” The new anthology includes a review of Mein Kampf from 1933 that follows this form. It spends three paragraphs pondering German history, four describing the intelligent Mr. Hitler’s book, and ends with a complaint about his dislike of the Jews, which the reviewer regards as a flaw in an otherwise impressive list of accomplishments. (Click for a sample of this wacko analysis.)

E xcessive negativity has evidently always been discouraged. Most reviewers have figured out that raves are often played big. But if the reviewer trashes a book, especially one that is in any way marginal, the odds diminish that his review will be published. If it does run, it will probably be in the back, near the ads for electric toothbrushes and the Itty Bitty Book Light. Moreover, editors are likely to blunt the criticism in a backhanded way. They may, for instance, as I heard from one contributor, apologize for having to cut a reviewer’s most clever lines “for space.” How much easier, then, to be agreeable.

Why would a newspaper section avoid conflict, the mother’s milk of journalism? I think the instinct stems from the paper’s not unrealistic sense of its own power and responsibility. Though the NYTBR can’t hurt Tom Clancy and probably can’t help most academic specialists, for a lot of writers in between, not getting reviewed in the Times or receiving a harsh review can nail the coffin shut. Other publications can be cavalier without worrying about squashing an author’s budding career. The giant Times can’t.

So the review has grown a large bureaucracy designed to prevent any unfairness. Half a dozen “Preview” editors leaf through the hundreds of books published each week to choose the lucky few that are worth reviewing, relegating some to the “Books in Brief” section in the back. They then look for someone qualified to write on the subject, but without any bias. No one who is a friend, enemy, colleague, or rival of the author is supposed to get an assignment. Pre-McGrath, it was even forbidden to review a book published by one’s own publishing company. This near cult of fairness prevents conflicts, but it also prevents interest. And the bureaucratic approach prevents the section as a whole from taking positions on–or creating–literary issues. Are biographies too long? Does women’s fiction get short shrift? Is academic literary criticism headed down a blind alley? The NYTBR isn’t just agnostic on such questions–it doesn’t even like to consider them.

It’s instructive to contrast this with the approach of the leading British papers. The book review sections of the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, and Observer, as well as the Times Literary Supplement and the delightful London Review of Books, look to conflicts to generate interest. The famous letter to the Times–“Sirs, of all the people who might have reviewed my book, could you not find one who was not my former wife?”–may be apocryphal. But it gets at the spirit of British reviewing, which is that the sometimes petty clash of literary opinion is good sport. Regular Sunday reviewers, on the model of Cyril Connolly, the longtime critic for the Sunday Times, become trusted guides. And the British book reviews are more like publications revolving around literary life than mere reviews. They contain diaries, poems, puzzles, and interviews. The best book review section in an American paper at the moment–the Los Angeles Times Book Review–is much closer to this variety model.

The NYTBR could make itself more interesting by going halfway British. My suggestion would be to drop the rules against conflicts of interest in favor of a simple one that says material biases should be disclosed. Hire a regular columnist to write every Sunday. (The prodigious James Wood, the most gifted literary critic of his generation, springs to mind.) Lose the dismal cover illustrations and return to having a lead review or cover essay. Break the monotony of 25 sequential reviews with full-length author interviews (which the Times used to have), letters from abroad, debates, and a gossip column. Encourage a feisty letters page. Blow off the brief reviews. Take chances. Crusade. Quit being so damned responsible.