The Acid Tongue
Another Hundred Years Of Lassitude?
Selected By Cyril Wong
A 1998 article by Jacob Weisberg for Slate repeats a question asked by Edmund Wilson in a self-interview published in the New York Times Book Review:
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.
Weisberg moves straightaway into his criticism:
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.
This is how he cuttingly sums up the Review:
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... 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... 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.
Later, he homes in on what is most problematic about NYTBR:
Excessive 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.
The final solution? Go British! This is how he puts it, along with other bits of useful advice:
QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008
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... 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.