Knight News writer Michael Orbach has a longish interview with New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus about the premises and methodology that go into the section. Though many litbloggers’ occasionally over-the-top anger about the Times focuses on Tanenhaus, he notes that it’s five “preview editors” who mainly decide what books make it in, by
evaluating each book individually, but in the context of their sometimes alarmingly complete knowledge of what else there is. If a writer is not bringing something new to the conversation or is not very well-established with a following, long-awaited book, or has really superb narrative or analytical skills, there’s a good chance the book won’t get reviewed. The same applies with variations to every book we do. There are a lot of books on Darwin and religion; we can’t review everyone. There are many first novels; we can’t review them all. For a first novel to be reviewed it has to seem strikingly good; that’s always been the case and that always will be. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how we do it.
The Q&A also touches on non-fiction versus fiction, what makes “original fiction,” and what makes a good review. Tanenhaus doesn’t have a lot of clear answers, though; whether that reflects well or badly upon him is up to the reader.
Orbach also talks to other Times Book Review staffers, including Dwight Garner, Liesl Schillinger, and Rachel Donadio.
Oh, and speaking of litbloggers, Tanenhaus isn’t all that impressed by them:
If they think that we don’t do enough fiction, well why aren’t you using your blog to write about those novels and say interesting things about them? Why not just tell us about all those books? It seems very parasitical after a while and the sort of echo chamber-ish and they get so much wrong. They’re so misinformed about so many things that it seems unfruitful to pay attention. They really don’t get what we do, or how we do it, and they don’t really want to know because if they do it would kind of undermine the attacks and all the rest. For instance, there was someone who was complaining that we weren’t using David Orr more often and that it was because I had some problems with Orr. I’m the guy who gave Orr a column and the reason why he wasn’t writing was because his father was seriously ill and he’d gotten some gig in Princeton. That’s why you weren’t seeing him more.
And so on. Predictably, this has provoked some responses from litbloggers (like Galleycat and The Literary Saloon), which range from correctly pointing out some inconsistencies in Tanenhaus’s position to, well, a little frothing. For example, Edward Champion scores some good points, but does his own credibility no favours when he tries to defend himself:
Let’s go back to the post about David Orr that Tanenhaus is mentioning:
“I have no idea what’s made Orr’s work sparse in the NYTBR these days. Perhaps it’s Sammy T’s tone-deaf editorialship.” [Emphasis added]
“I have no idea” should be pretty clear that I had no idea. Then again, when you’re a guy cowering from bloggers, perhaps a cigar isn’t a cigar. My speculation doesn’t impute that Tanenhaus had any problems with Orr, nor is the word “problems” contained in my post.
No, not at all. You’d have to be crazy to infer that. Sheesh.