“We’ve Been Misread!”

There’s a certain irony hanging over Christopher Dreher’s followup [Salon.com; subscription or ad-viewing required] on the changes afoot at the New York Times Book Review. At precisely the moment when Bill Keller, in an interview with the Book Babes, seems to be calling for the dumbing-down of the NYTBR, he’s also claiming that these calls have been “badly misread”:

Keller and Erlanger have spent much of the last two weeks doing damage control, complaining that their words were taken out of context and insisting that “dumbing down” the Book Review is the last thing on their mind. (For their part, Hammond and Heltzel insist the interview quotes are rock solid.) But the fact remains that these renowned journalists — Keller won a Pulitzer as a foreign correspondent — are not literary men. A clearer picture of what they perhaps meant to say has emerged in later interviews, and while the Times leadership does not plan to eliminate the coverage of literary fiction, it does want the Book Review to emphasize titles with topical importance, such as political and foreign policy titles. (Which are probably what Keller and Erlanger grab as reading material, considering their backgrounds.) Author interviews, reporting on the publishing biz, and other format changes are also being considered.

“We’re not handing it over with a formula,” Keller says about the editorial transition, adding that the Book Review will actually be expanded after he chooses the new editor later this month. “We’re going to choose a person because of their high standards, imagination and ideas, and they’ll have considerable license in shaping the review.” (As recently reported by the New York Observer, the final candidates are believed to include former Book Review columnist Judith Shulevitz, former Newsweek editor Sarah Crichton, Slate columnist Ann Hulbert and Atlantic literary editor Benjamin Schwarz.)

Whatever Keller and Erlanger say now, the Book Babes article conveyed a dismissive indifference to literary books that was almost like a parody of many publishers’ and readers’ worst suspicions about the Book Review. Except for perfunctory nods, some say, literary coverage has not only been downsized and simplified over the past decade but also undermined from the very top — and not only at the Times but in other mainstream venues as well. Keller claims that the idea that he wants to demote literary fiction was “badly misread,” but some of his Book Babes quotes resist reinterpretation, such as his call for fewer and shorter first-novel reviews and this zinger about the future of fiction coverage:

“Of course, some fiction needs to be done,” he said. “We’ll do the new Updike, the new [Philip] Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.”

This concept of the pinnacle of world literature — three American males (two of them over 70) and a young (hot) Englishwoman — might be reasonable coming from a middle-aged guy with a news background, but it isn’t very heartening. Franzen and Roth certainly produce noteworthy books, but for all his incomparable achievement, the idea that Updike is still a vibrant American writer suggests an ossified conception of literary culture. Mentioning no female American writers, when the majority of American fiction readers are women, seems especially unfortunate. And where would Zadie Smith be if publications like the New York Times had passed over her first novel, the international bestseller “White Teeth”?

The irony, of course, rests in Keller’s claims of having been misread at precisely the same moment that he’s demonstrated the limitations inherent in his own reading. The NYTBR seems in particular to want to avoid the readers who might be capable of discering the fine nuances in Keller’s statements. It all makes one start feeding narratives of decline, imagining a halcyon past in which people genuinely cared about books, a past, perhaps, like the days of John Leonard:

Author and critic John Leonard, a former Times Book Review chief whose reign from 1971 to 1975 is often remembered as a high-water mark, found Keller’s comments especially troubling. “To seriously propose not paying attention to first novels is ludicrous,” he says. “It amounts to rampant stupidity. Criticism is discovery, not a book report or news. It means someone is doing something with language that will change the way we think and see.” He continues: “Brilliance comes from the peripheral or from the margins. You have to listen for it and call it to the attention of the readers.”

I’m always suspicious of such nostalgic revisionism, but I find myself here sucked into it, as I imagine an NYTBR run by an editor who cares about something other than book sales, who understands something about criticism and about the potential impact of literary writing. And it simply makes me sad, imagining the future into which we’re heading instead.

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