Authors tend to think of The New York Times Book Review with a mixture of awe, fear, and reverence. One writer recently compared the Review to the Soviet-era Kremlin: a tremendously powerful institution with often inscrutable methods and protocols.
Thus it was big news earlier this year when editor Chip McGrath announced he was planning to leave the section. Soon thereafter, two top Times editors—including then-recently arrived executive editor Bill Keller—revealed in an interview that book coverage in both the Sunday section and the daily paper would likely move to "emphasize nonfiction books, demote literary fiction, promote (judiciously) commercial novels." Across the country, writerly jaws dropped.
Enter Sam Tanenhaus, who took the helm of the Book Review in April after working for many years as a writer, reporter, and editor. He was most recently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and he was also a Pulitzer finalist in 1998 for his biography of Whittaker Chambers. Keller called him a "literary and intellectual fire-hose" in announcing his appointment, and then added: "To anyone who might have fallen for the notion that we were looking to dumb down this precious franchise: take that!"
Now that he's had time to settle into his new gig, Tanenhaus recently talked with mb about his job, his techniques, and running a politburo.
Birthdate: October 31, 1955
Hometown: New York. "But also all over. I spent some time in Iowa growing up."
First section of the Sunday Times: "I guess first I look at the front page and op-ed, and always the sports. I'm a big sports fan."
Let's start with your career path. How did you get to this pretty big-deal job?
I'm not sure I would even dignify it by calling it a "career path." Really, it's just been one accident after another. I started out in book publishing after I finished grad school and did a lot of freelance work with publishing companies, mostly editing and publicity. I always wanted to write, though. As it ended up, I'm a failed fiction writer who moved into nonfiction. I got into journalism late, after the publication of a biography I did of Whittaker Chambers. I was given an opportunity by Katy Roberts, who was then the editor of the Times op-ed page, and I learned some of the rudiments of daily journalism. Eventually, I went to Vanity Fair as a contributing editor.
The Times Book Review has a pretty central place among authors and the writing community. Authors sometimes talk about the section with a kind of awe and fear. Do you think this idea of the section is justified?
I relate to it differently, I think. I grew up reading it in the '70s, when it was edited by John Leonard and Harvey Shapiro, and read it closely and admiringly. My first journalism job was actually as a fill-in copy editor at the Book Review, which didn't work out so well. I think they liked my enthusiasm, though. That was one of the satisfactions of coming back. At the time I was working at Oxford University Press as a rewrite specialist, and I admired the writing and range and depth of the Review.
There were so many great writers who appeared in it back then. There was less competition then from The New York Review of Books, and the Times Book Review had pretty much the run of the field, with people like Mailer and Styron and, as I mentioned, John Leonard. Pretty much everything was in it. I also liked the gravitas and august quality of the writing.
How have you dealt with the history of the section? How are you making it your own?
I don't know that it's my own. It still feels like there's an institutional history that I don't want to necessarily disrupt. We're responding to the cultural moment, which seems a contentious one, and trying to capture those diverse energies. We're also trying to capture the breadth of the literary culture, the highs as well as the lows. We're trying to do justice to commercial and mass-market books as well as the serious and rarefied works of literature that come out. We're trying to have a balance, and trying to have a mix of voices—the established writers but also newer writers. We're encouraging reviewers to speak in their own voice and trying to accommodate their sensibilities. We might run a very long review for one writer and also run some short punchy reviews of mass market books and mix the two together.
The biggest changes will probably be in appearance and presentation, though. This will be more evident in the fall when we launch our redesign, in early October. This won't be dramatically different; it's just mainly a matter of making the section more contemporary and incorporating new elements into the page.
You've been criticized lately by some writers for giving too much space to mass-market books and nonfiction, and not enough to young writers or serious fiction in general. Is this on purpose? How does this relate to Bill Keller's comment about moving toward more mass-market and genre books?
There's a lot more nonfiction published these days than there used to be. We do our best to do fiction; our cover review for this Sunday is a novel and it is for the next week after that as well. It's interesting, though. I know there was some discussion at the time about Bill's comments, but the general assertion wasn't so controversial. It has been an ongoing conversation at the Review about how best to present mass-market books to readers.
For instance, last week we ran an essay by Alan Wolfe where he went through many polemical books. There we were addressing mass-market titles, but dealing with them in a specific way.
How about poetry? How does poetry fit into the mix as part of modern literature?
We are now in the planning stages of a major issue focusing on poetry, because it is an essential part of the literary tradition we are living in. Poetry doesn't have the immediate authority that other kinds of writing do, but our objective is to introduce readers to poetry as a vital part of contemporary literature.
How do you choose which books to review, and how do you decide which reviewers to match with them?
We have a staff of previewers, editors who read galleys as they come in. We then discuss what we will do with a particular book and what reviewer would be a good match, as well as what length we'd want to give it. We try to think of someone who will connect with the book, but one of the pleasures of the job is that you don't know what you'll get. Much of the time we're very pleased. We like to think that in making the match-up we've created some kind of interesting tension so that the reviewer will come up with something unexpected. But when we send them out, we don't know whether a review will be positive or negative.
Do you favor a particular writing style in reviews?
I am not a big fan of the extended plot summary, and I like it when a reviewer is concise. We all here admire the daily reviews that Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin write. They often have less space to work with, and they are especially skilled at responding to books in a direct way.
Dale Peck has gotten a lot of press lately for Hatchet Jobs, a collection of his more scathing reviews. What do you think of this kind of reviewing?
Sure, there's a place for it. But it has to be justified. I like to think I—and the rest of the people on staff—feel sympathy for writers. No one is more distraught than we are when we send out a book we thought well of and then we get a review that disagrees. But we try to frame it as best we can on the page, and I trust the instincts of readers. They know that the review is one person's opinion.
For example, we recently had Walter Kirn review a book by David Foster Wallace, and, in bald-faced terms, it was a somewhat negative review. But what I liked was that it conjured up Wallace's world in an interesting way so that, even if Kirn didn't like the book, the reader could still become interested with the book and want to read it. I think any book we're reviewing is something we think is important and is of some interest, and readers, by and large, respond to that.
What do you think were some of the most important novels to come out in the past year?
Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow is really a substantial book. Also stuff by a lot of major novelists: Philip Roth, John Updike, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, E. L. Doctorow. The new book from David Foster Wallace. Also, particularly, Colm Toibin's The Master, which we ran a substantial review of.
Do you get to read a lot yourself?
I try to read a lot, particularly fiction. Part of the joy of the job has been the opportunity to read a lot of contemporary fiction, usually on my commute in and out of the city and on weekends.
What's your favorite book?
The book I admire most, or that made the biggest impression on me, would have to be Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor and a reporter for Metro New York. Photo courtesy The New York Times.