The Times’ Public Editor, Byron Calame, got so many letters and emails about the Notable 100 Books list — you know, the one that was saturated with books by NYT staffers — that he took his magnifying glass and probed deep inside the hotbed of conflicts of interest, skullduggery and intrigue. The conclusion? Eh, you’re doin’ alright boys, but you might want to be just a bit more viligant there, eh.
Okay, that’s slightly sarcastic (and not nearly as caustic a take as that of the Literary Saloon) but it’s hard not to let some serious howlers pass without comment:
Because the section can have an effect on a book’s success, its editors try to maintain distance from the players in the book industry. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, said he and his top editors “do very few lunches with publishers or agents” where they could be lobbied about decisions.
Yet eliminating all connections appears nearly impossible. Mr. Tanenhaus and Dwight Garner, the Book Review’s senior editor, are authors themselves and both have the same agent, the powerful Andrew Wylie. This gives me some pause. But they handle that relationship very carefully, Mr. Garner said. “Intentionally,” he explained, “over the years I have had the grand total of one lunch with my agent, and one lunch with my editor.”
Um, WTF? What does lobbying have to do with lunch, or vice versa? You can say whatever you want over email or the phone and still lobby to your heart’s content. Or you can go to lunch, engage in small talk and gossip, and split the check. Granted, there goes the fun of hanging out in Balthazar or Michael’s but if this is the way that the NYTBR holds itself up to scrutiny, no wonder so many folks are calling them on the carpet.
Calame does try to wag his finger just a bit, though it’s a tentative wag at best:
Of course, much of the judgment about the books falls into the realm of opinion – and beyond the public editor’s mandate. As for the process, my sense is that Mr. Tanenhaus and his editors genuinely care about general readers and the literary world, and want their choices to have credibility. Yet the perception of a conflict of interest can hang over both the weekly review process and the notable-books list when Times staffers are involved.
“A year ago,” Mr. Tanenhaus told me, “my colleagues and I considered discontinuing this practice altogether and instead simply notifying readers of new books by Times staff. We set the matter aside for various reasons. Perhaps the time has come to revisit this solution.” I believe that it has.
Or at the very least, state that conflict of interest right up front, and don’t make the readers go looking for it. The definition varies with every reviewer or book editor — I bend over backwards for my own monthly column, but recognize that there are times when I’ll have to review a book by a writer I know to some degree simply because the mystery world is a small one — but the more transparent everyone is, the better we’re all off. Period.