NYTBR  brouhaha

It comes as no shock that people are riled up about the proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review. Maud quoted the Poynter article at length yesterday but the gist is that the powers-that-be at the NYTBR are planning to emphasize non-fiction in future. And when they do review fiction, it’s likely to be more commerical stuff rather than literary work. We can expect the reviews themselves to be much more contentious – less about thoughtful criticism and more about argumentative chest-thumping. They also plan to divert attention from books to the publishing industry itself.

This is the part that has literary types most upset, I think:

“I love that Chip [McGrath] championed first novels,” [executive editor Bill Keller] 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.

“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.”

Most of the things they praise aren’t very good so they’re going to switch the focus from literary fiction to commercial fiction? That’s like saying, “This delicious loaf of nutritious whole-grain bread — hot and fresh from the oven — is a piece of shit. Please pass me the bag of Wonder bread. No, not the bread part, the plastic bag part.”

Our Girl in Chicago comments at length:

…it’s not as though my reading habits are going to take a big hit even if the NYTBR banishes fiction reviews from their pages altogether. Yet the blinkered reasoning proffered by Bill Keller rankles. First there’s his general blithe condescension toward novels, apparently based on an assumption that while nonfiction is serious, fiction is just playing around. Even if Bill Keller really thinks this, it astonishes me that he’d say it, let alone that the Times would base editorial policy on it. Keller may not get it, but a man in his position should be smart enough to at least suspect that his disinterest in a particular form for expressing ideas is a personal blind spot.

Nathalie of Cup of Chicha also comments thoughtfully here and here.

And the responses have started to flood in on the Poynter site. Writer Katherine Weber notes:

How strange that they have confidence that they will continue to cover “the Franzens, the Zadie Smiths…”

Where do these writers come from? How do writers develop reputations, increase their readership from one book to the next? By this new standard there is a slim chance that books like Jonathan Franzen’s first two (titles, anyone? Strong Motion, The 27th City) will be noticed. Too bad for literary writers who don’t already have a foot in the door. How is this going to work? The TBR will somehow give the significant literary fiction (by whose judgment?) its due with fewer, shorter reviews.

Speaking as a “literary” novelist who has been wonderfully reviewed in the TBR each of the three times I have published a novel, I can only say that dumbing down the TBR in order to be able to tell people what to buy in airports is only going to undermine the credibility of what was once a respected literary review. It’s bad for books, and it’s bad for readers, and it’s bad for the NY Times. It’s like the unfortunate Style section of the Sunday Times, which has tried and tried to be hip and cool, but which remains about as hip and cool as Aunt Molly getting down with the young people and doing the frug at a family wedding. The NY Times is slowly dismantling itself page by page.

While these changes are surprising, I’m not too upset by them. Frankly, I’ve long thought that the NYTBR, like the New Yorker, has had a disproportionate amount of influence in the literary world. This opens up the playing field and it will be interesting, even exciting, to see who steps up to the challenge. I suppose the greatest fear is that publishers will stop publishing literary fiction on the mistaken assumption that because the Times doesn’t care about it, readers don’t either. And of course that’s nuts. As readers, we will simply look elsewhere for a thoughtful discussion of literary fiction and for recommendations. Publishers will have to trust us on that.


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