Thursday, January 22, 2004

Posted, Jan. 21, 2004
Updated, Jan. 21, 2004

The Plot Thickens at The New York Times Book Review
With a new Sunday book editor on the horizon, The New York Times takes a hard look at its literary coverage paper-wide.

By Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel

Publishing insiders have watched nervously since Steven Erlanger became cultural editor at The New York Times and began altering the focus of the daily "Books of the Times." Well, they ain't seen nothin' yet. When we sat down with executive editor Bill Keller last week, he promised "dramatic changes" in the Sunday section now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom.

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. "The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world," Keller says. "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction."

What's more, if you're perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we're told. After all, says Keller, somebody's got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

And who will carry out this mandate? Regarding McGrath's replacement, Keller won't name names yet. But he did say that they're down to three or four finalists, none of them inside staffers. An announcement is just weeks away.

Bill Keller
A big step in this process — and the one that may have sent the higher-ups into brainstorming mode — involved inviting about a dozen of the most promising candidates to write "diagnostic essays" on how the Sunday section ought to change. The consensus: Reviews need to be more varied in length, and more contentious. But that's just tinkering around the edges. The bigger news concerns what will be covered. Author interviews, a column on the publishing industry, a decrease in fiction reviews and more about mass market books — this appears to be the recipe for making the NYTBR less formulaic and more vital.

Although Keller's ascendancy has brought plenty of reshuffling at the Times, in the case of the Sunday book review, perceptions in and outside the paper seem to have meshed. Critics have dunned the section for dullness. Even while praising McGrath's exceptional editing skills, Keller made clear that he has different priorities.

"I love that Chip championed first novels," he says, then offers the rhetorical question: But why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do? Based on our interviews with Keller, McGrath, and Erlanger, top management thinks contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves.

Bill Keller: "Of course, some fiction needs to be done ... We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me."
"Of course, some fiction needs to be done," Keller says. "We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me." He gets no argument from Erlanger. "To be honest, there's so much s---," the new leader of the daily arts section observes. "Most of the things we praise aren't very good."

Traditionally, chief critic Michiko Kakutani has handled most of the literary fiction for daily. Her star remains untarnished; Keller refers to her appreciatively as "queen of the hill." Former movie critic Janet Maslin has shown a predilection for commercial fiction, a taste the Times endorses. As with most newspapers, management is obsessed with attracting younger readers and sees mass market titles as one entry point — as long as they're done, Keller says, in a "witty" way appropriate to the Times' sophisticated reader.

Regarding daily coverage, under Erlanger the book review team has been reduced from three to two (book reviewer Richard Bernstein has been dispatched to Berlin, and his slot was given to a reporter). That leaves freelancers to handle most non-fiction. But instead of reducing coverage, Erlanger claims to be increasing it, using former Times staffer Robert Berkvist to vet titles. Erlanger reinstated the weekly review in his Saturday section Arts & Ideas, with emphasis on the more topical releases from university presses. "We need to do more policy and history," he says. "We need to be more urgent and journalistic."

For him, this means assigning books with hopes of eliciting some sparks. Example: He asked Max Boot, a conservative on the Council of Foreign Relations, to review "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response," by Clinton Administration veteran John Shattuck. "I like to mix it up," Erlanger says. "If I could start another Mailer/Vidal fight, I'd gladly do it."

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Some of the non-fiction books he reviews for "urgency" are poorly written, he admits, but for him this is less important than the book's contents. He and Keller, both prize-winning former foreign correspondents, see books as a launching pad for discussion. "Book reviews are partly a consumer service," Keller says, but they also "should be written for people who don't have any intention of buying the book."

So there's the recipe: Emphasize non-fiction books. Demote literary fiction. Promote (judiciously) commercial novels. Cover the book industry more and individual titles less (Keller says he intends to fill the long-empty book publishing industry slot in business, which -- as with other media beats -- requires "a thick skin to stand up to the spin and the whining.")

Given its pivotal role in the marketing of books, the Times is likely to accelerate trends already apparent in book publishing. The potential implications are huge, suggesting bigger advances for blockbusters and celebrities, including those who wish to exploit their "public service" in the nation's capital, and scaled-down high-brow fiction lists, based on the assumption that if such books can't get ink in the toney Times, they won't have a prayer in USA Today or Entertainment Weekly.

Whether or not the Times' analysis of the market and its readers is correct, it's based on logical reasoning. In the views expressed by its decision-makers, too few works of fiction rise to the level of a "novel of ideas" — that is, stories that express the concerns and issues of the day as Dickens did. And given these odds, the Times would rather devote resources to fostering debate than discovering and nurturing imaginative writing.

We'd like to hear from feature editors and book editors about their views. Do you agree with the Times' direction? Are you in the process of reevaluating your own approach to book coverage? If so, what kind of changes do you anticipate?


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