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July 31, 2004

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M.J.Rose

There is alot of committment and thoughtfullness in that letter. I'm eager to see how the NYTBR evolves. As a reader and an author, we need it be much more than it is.

Sarah

I should say so. A very thoughtful response when, I think, many would have simply said nothing. As someone who has stayed optimistic as the NYTBR has slowly molted from its old incarnation to its new one, I'm glad to see that concerns are addressed and are taken seriously. And I, too, am looking forward to further evolution of the Book Review.

basquette

now, that makes sense. and i'm looking forward to the focus on fiction. beyond that, i'm just really impressed these days by manners in communication, especially those of the digital bent. tanenhaus gets an 'a' from me for the thoughtful, considerate, and mannered reply.

Paul

is there anyone out there who has an opinion on this who is not trying to suck up the editor in hopes of future consideration?

Dan Green

". . .we’re trying to make the Book Review a timely and lively publication that connects books to the broader culture in the best tradition of American literary sections going back to Partisan Review, the New Republic, and the Nation in the 1930s up through The New York Review of Books today.Our hope is that by making the Times Book Review more relevant week to week we'll draw more readers into the world of books"

I predicted a long time ago that Tanehaus wanted to make the Book Review into The New York Review of Books. If you want to see what this means, look at the latest issue of NYRB, the Summer Issue. There's one review of fiction by a living author, and it's of LeCarre's latest, which came out months ago.
The attempt to make the Book Review more "relevant" will be a disaster. It means more coverage of politics and declining coverage of real books.

Dan Green

P.S. It's nice to see that Tanenhaus might be reading TEV, at any rate.

Birnbaum

I don't know how much energy I have to fly in the face of this prevailing wind but I don't see the relevance and beyond commercial concerns, the importance of the NYTBR. And I especially don't get why my brothers and sisters who partcipate in these literary cabalistic conversation should care.

Laura Miller's recent essay (I am told) argued
there are too many books published (will reviewers remember this when, inevitably, her own book makes its way forth). Wow, what a dilemma! I wonder if that is a precursor of the new criticism," Blag, blap, blah and this book should never have been published"

Every week I get a couple of handfuls of books that don't or won' t get coverage in the Times.
I assume it is the job, the mission, the calling of the nascent Web literati to make up for this, uh, shortfall in coverage. I don't see why it's a concern what the Times' literary editorial policy is (excepting concerns about racism, sexism corporate jingoism et cetera)when what should be a focus is what the Swinks and the Believers, The Exquisite Corpses and the Elegant Variations and such are attending to and contributing.

And by the way, commending Sam Tanenhaus for being attentive speaks of a sense of inferiority.The man is getting bushels of good advice, gratis. He would be a fool not to be gracious for that. And we know that the Times doesn't employ fools.

CAAF

I agree with much of what you say, RB, but would argue that "the commercial concerns" that you dismiss in the first graf are, for most novelists, non-dismissable. Blogs are wonderful, and blogs matter — but has anyone yet determined that they're able to spike sales?

For example, I know TEV, I and others have done our darndest to help out novelist Stephen Policoff, but has that translated into sales for him? From my checks of his stats on Amazon, not yet. Not at least the way that even a brief mention in the NYTBR would.

So one service I think blogs can offer these authors -- debut novelists, authors in translation, etc. -- is the job of hectoring and lobbying these mainstream pubs, in such a way that will hopefully alter their review policy in the future. And clearly they are to some extent listening.

And Paul, yes, I'm totally hoping for a cover.

Sarah

While I freely cop to bouts of shameless whoredom and sucking-up (OK, more like frequent bouts) I also stand by what I said. Tanenhaus didn't have to say anything at all in response to Mark's letter, but he took the time and effort to do so. Is it demonstrative of an inferior complex to admit this? Perhaps, but it's going to take a long time before literary blogs serve as a truly proactive vehicle for unsung voices, instead of merely reactive. By proactive, I mean what Carrie has said explicitly--that a blog can talk about a book, make a recommendation, stir discussion and lead to a correlated increase in sales.

Whereas a mention in the NYT *does* have that effect. I saw it all too often as a bookseller, when customers would come in looking for a book that had been mentioned in Marilyn Stasio's column or as a standalone article in the daily paper. It's my hope that blogs can do that, and the sooner the better. But in the meantime, I'd rather not dismiss the Book Review with a simple gesture and sweeping tone of "oh, it doesn't matter"--I'd rather stand on the sidelines, see what's good and what's bad, and fill in all-too-important gaps. Not just the NYTBR, but any and all print media coverage of books.

As maddening as it is to conclude on such a note, in the end, publications like the NYTBR will stay important because, well, they are. Whether real or imagined or perceived or apparent, but in the end, they mention a book, people pay attention. If I only had a fraction of that kind of power, I'd be grateful. Instead, I only seek to complement and fill in gaps to such an ability.

Birnbaum

Okay okay..Let's stop ,making sense here.

It's a legitimate dilemma, for sure. When Carrie's novel is ready for the markerplace there is no reason she or any author should dismiss the NYT. I hopesheget's th ecover review. Hell, I can also hope someone pays me to write it.

But there is no reason I have to give it much attention. Here's what I hear over and over and, in fact ,why publishers "over" publish. No one knows why a book will sell.The best they can do , it seems to me, is maximize the sales of hot commercial title. Witness the novel approaches to selling Harry Potter ( I was especially taken by the message on an AOL Welcome screen one day, " Don't be the last one on your block to own Harry Potter." I swear I am not making that up.Notice by the way they didn't use the word 'read'). But I digress...

There are people who will buy books because of a Times mention. There are people who are
snookered by Amazon parametric mumbo jumbo.There are also people who buy Hummers. The American consumer has spawned a cottage industry which is to make sense and then be able to predict consumer
behavior. And if you are an author, I perfectly well understand why book consumer behavior is important. But I don't care about book consumers (with all due respect to my friends in bookstores and at publishing houses), I care about readers. I care that readers are served, given choices, told what's available. I care whether there is a smart ,engaging conversation going on about books and story telling and all forms of narrative impulses. If the Times chooses to delineate a narrow middle brow literary path or a mandarin point of view or a arrogant NYcentricism, I have not read anything above that pushes me to care(Imuch). They want to give a column to Laura Miller.Okay. I won' t read her. They want to cover more non fiction. Big deal. They are following the market place (Sarah, correct me if I'm a wrong but non fiction outsells fiction by a wide margin). The Times is just one of many book informational sources. And by the way, unlike years past, on any given Sunday we all have easy access to the Times,Post, Chronicle,Tribune and LA Times book pages. How long will the NYT hegemony in this area prevail? One other thing on the Times. In part, the power ascribed is self fulfilling. Most of the big ass publishers are in NY —what to make of the fact that Gail Caldwell's (The Boston Globe book critic) reviews, because of her syndication, appear in more cities than the Times?

Alright, I admit it , I've given up any pretense (take note of my earlier disclaimer) of linearity.
So on my way out I want to remind you that the New York Times Company is a corporate behemoth. It is pleasing to see that their book editor reads the good words of Mark Savras. And has the grace to acknowledge and respond. But I think we have set the bar quite low when we commend people for doing, what in my memory, was a reasonable expectation. Sure, I say, "Thanks for returning my call." knowing full well that it is a commonplace for people not to. But I return calls. Answer my mail. That doesn't make me a hero. Or a pargon of courtesy.

One last thing , the NYT behemoth begets a culture that encourages careerism. And part of the notion of a career trajectory is that writers start out at small unencumbered venues ,so called alternatives. You have to be one dumb ass editor if you are not watching those lower in the food chain for both new talent and good ideas. So maybe we should go a little slower in deifying the big wheels who show up in the neighborhood I was more impressed and delighted when James Wood responded to something Dan Green wrote.That some how felt more pure to me. But that's just me, I guess.


CAAF

RB, what you're misunderstanding is that I both want to write & critique the novel on the cover. But, if they won't let me do they that, I do hope they pay you to.

Sarah

No, no, aim higher--write, critique, AND illustrate the cover photo that has to do with the novel on the cover. Because everybody loves a good multitasker...

M.A.Orthofer

Just a quick, shocked response to one bit in RB's long comment (I'm sure Sarah would have corrected it except that it's such an outrageous misconception that she probably couldn't believe what she was reading): "They are following the market place (Sarah, correct me if I'm a wrong but non fiction outsells fiction by a wide margin)."

Everyone should know: fiction rules. Totally, absolutely, by huge margins. The best I could come with on the fly was this 2000 report: http://www.ipsos-npd.com/about/news/01_1030.html.
Popular fiction: 57.2% of sales (but only 3.1% for "Art/Literature/Poetry"). Compare that with "General non-fiction" -- a mere 7.5% (less than both Cooking/Crafts and Non-fiction Religious.

Whatever one might want to say about the NYTBR, they sure as hell aren't following the market.

birnbaum

Michael,

Yeah I suppose that I never thought through how Dan Brown and such's numbers skew books sales. Well, I stand corrected. I feel like that Gilda Radner character from SNL, "Never mind."

Who knows the etiology of a mistake? Anecdotally, here in the Athens blah blah blah, non fiction outsells fiction, I am told this at various independent books sellers

And here from a talk with afore mentioned Gail Caldwell from last year:

I went into Wordsworth [Cambridge MA bookstore] the other day where I had not been in a while. And it looked like they had moved fiction because they had put in three new areas between the inventory desk and the fiction shelves. I walked in and I said, ‘Have you moved fiction?’ and they said, ‘No, it’s in the back.’ I walked back and I realized there was nine genres up to where fiction had started. I thought, ‘Oh my God, my world is so small. Look what we have been relegated, the back two shelves in the store.’ Which was just overflowing with biography and…

Also, I noticed that Ann Godoff's new imprint, Penguin Press, features a ratio of about 10 to 1, nonfiction to fiction

One question about the numbers you cite what accounts for the missing 13%?

And, Carrie, I 'm glad we've got that settled.

birnbaum

This, from a soon to be posted conversation with Exquisite Corpse editor and literary multi postion player, Andrei Codrescu:

RB: ...Personally, I like some of the voices [in weblogs] and am engaged by those voices. And I think they let the air out of the big institutional gatekeepers.

AC: Well, the New York Times Book Review has decayed considerably if it ever was anything. It had periods when it had some life in it. But now it's a dead magazine. It's way behind other sections of the newspaper. The style section is ten thousand times more interesting than the Book Review.

RB: Occasionally they will cover something of a literary nature and it will be more lively. I'd rather read about Chip Kidd's refrigerator than the things in the Book Review.

AC: Yeah, it's predictable and it yellows quickly. But it does have a tremendous influence because what is left of general readership if there is such a thing, of people who just buy books because they have read something about it, the Times does influence them.

CAAF

Can you draw, RB? I like Sarah's idea of illustrating the cover but my drawings make James Thurber look like Leonardo da Vinci. So maybe you could do a nice something? Or we could collaborate, with noodles & string, on a project, and they could photograph?

Re: demographics, which is an uggy issue: I'd be interested, if anyone knows, the general profile of the NYTBR reader, i.e., male/female or evenly split? what age range? how much education? B/c from there you can draw rough conclusions as to book-reading patterns.

Also, has anyone read the new Believer issue? I haven't yet, but I thought it was going to give some room to more straight-forward reviews (8 pages?). I mention it b/c I thought the magazine's decision to do so was in direct response to a, pardon the expression, belief that Keller/ Tanenhaus were going to stop covering as much fiction. So an interesting adaptation.

M.J. Rose

Like it or not - and I don't - The NYTBR is the single most important venue - still - to be reviewed in for several reasons. First and most important it is the review section that has the highest circluation and carries the most weight. It's not just a NYC paper. Every major library in the nation carries it. Every major indy book store and many chains use it (most sell it). They clip reviews and use them as shelf talkers. They take the NYTBR's bestseller list and arragne books accordingly to it. Plus every other reviewer and editor of review sections seem to pay attention to what the Times reviews and follows suit. A Times review can get a writer on a best seller list. It can start an avalanche.

Suck up to Steve? That made me laugh. It wouldn't matter if you did. There is a heirarcy still in what gets reviewed. Knofp, Random House, FSG get reviewed ove any other houses and some houses almost never ever get reviewed. Male writers get reviewed something like 5 to 1. Hardcover gets reviewed 100%. And no trade paperback originas. Commercial fiction gets reviewed only if it's by a bestselling author - except for Marilyn but even she only reviews 3 titles once a month or so. And at best there is only room for about 500 reviews (Fiction) a year out of the 10,000 novels published.

Recently on a blog I posted an article about there being too many books and invted reader response. I got 500 letters back. (Which is still astounding to me) and the NYTBR was the single most cited way that people found out about books.

I yearn for the day when blogs can move readers to buy a book in droves. Or even in piles. We are in desperate need of more review sources (Reviews are down 20-50% acorss the board over the last two years). Blogs are the only hope for many authors anymore - hoping that through the specific nature of them, they can fill in the gap and choose books that don't fit the criterea of the papers and mags out there.

Jenny

I'm not going to defend the NYTBR against most of these charges--too many books by men in proportion to women, general dullness and behind-the-timesness (though I must say it isn't nearly as bad as the "Arts and Leisure" section, which is absolutely dire), but I do want to make one correction to a comment above. Unlike a number of other papers (I think the LAT, for instance; certainly my impression is that about 2/3 of the major papers with book review section have a policy against it), the NYTBR does not exclude paperback originals from its coverage. I got a full-length review for my novel HEREDITY, published last year by Soft Skull, and I know that they've reviewed at least three or four other Soft Skull books, including a glowing review of Matthew Sharpe's THE SLEEPING FATHER, which was also recommended in that little thing next to the bestsellers for some weeks following. I think they quite often review books from small independent presses, and should be applauded for that! Because there's no doubt it directly affects sales, by way of library purchases as well readers who buy the book immediately after reading the review.

gwenda

First of all, on demos. Demos are pretty easy to find for newspapers and TV stations and such, because they make them available to sell advertising. The NYTimes offers a pretty in depth look at its readership, including of various editions and such . While they don't seem to specifically break out the BR (I imagine they could), the general demos give you an indication.

I tend to agree with Birnbaum on the overinflated importance to Actual Readers of the NYTBR. Obviously, it still carries a lot of cache in the industry and can be a very good thing for books that get spotlighted by it. But I've thought for a long time that it doesn't deserve nearly as much weight as it gets. It's, for the most part, so narrowly focused and often feels like it's written for wayyyy too tight an audience.

Interestingly enough, since someone up there mentioned what can influence sales... I've been told by a number of writers that the New York Times doesn't really influence sales that much. At least, not unless you're a high profile writer/book with an ad budget behind you already and then is it really the NYTBR?

When Kelly Link's first collection came out from Small Beer Press, it got a rave review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The effect on sales was practically nil. When it got a recommendation from Salon, sales moved. So, I think that the electronic media is changing things.

As for the role blogs play in that, I think Carrie's right in that they don't necessarily move sales to a huge degree yet. What blogs are doing though is what's most important for especially smaller books -- word of mouth with a giant megaphone. Word of mouth is what sells an awful lot of the books I think we're talking about here, the worthy and overlooked or under-ad budgeted or odd books, and blogs and online/non-traditional media are a way to vastly extend the word of mouth of one or three people to a good number of others.

CAAF

Thanks, Gwenda! This is the general drift of what I found:

Reader Profile:  Mendelsohn
Affluent U.S. readers of the New York Times are 39% more likely than the average affluent adult to hold a college or postgraduate degree, 90% more likely to have a household income exceeding $150,000 and 46% more likely to be a top manager.*

I don't see any breakouts for gender. Why I was curious, my impression is that women are the top buyers of literary fiction. And I wondered how their coverage of literary fiction/ books written by women jibed with NYTBR's stats.

gwenda

I bet they'd tell you if you called and pretended to be Made Up Name Press placing an ad.

And um, I forgot to close that link tag -- the whole post was not meant to go to the advertising site for the NYTimes.

Gavin

Gwenda said:

When Kelly Link's first collection came out from Small Beer Press, it got a rave review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The effect on sales was practically nil. When it got a recommendation from Salon, sales moved. So, I think that the electronic media is changing things.

Kelly's collection got great reviews in the NYTBR and Salon almost simultaneously in 11/01. There were noticeable (ie huge) immediate Amazon bumps from both.

What the long term and real world effects were, however, I can't say. (NYTBR distribution and implied readership was talked about above; Salon's reviews are widely syndicated.) Just as Robert says above (hi!), no one knows why books sell. We just cross our fingers and keep putting them out there.

gwenda

Whoops. Sorry, Gavin.

Re: sales. It doesn't hurt when you only put out _great_ books.

birnbaum

Hey there Gavin…

This thing here has the earmarks of the Rebecca Treaster/New Yorker/slush pile kerfluffle. Or the Believer anti-snark manifesto snarkery. Which are instances/evidence of why periodicals are more than just someone's private property. Serious readers of serious publications will, I think, always be invested in those periodicals. But I stray from my reason for returning to this NY Times love fest.

I expect that I will quickly be corrected (if I have overstepped) but I see it as probable that to the people who have joined in this discussion the NYTBR is, week in and week out, telling them about books that they already know about. That is true for me— which is why I do not much care about it. On one occasion, I saw Laura Miller on a CSPAN panel, when she was the Salon book editor, or some such. She suggested that since book advertising revenues were so miniscule for Salon that there were no commercial considerations in choosing the books to which they gave coverage. In her words, they were free to attend to anything they felt worthy.

It can not have escaped anyone that with regularity the large reviews in the BR are frequently accompanied by full-page advertisements. Setting aside why it makes any sense to advertise in the same issue that one's product is given coverage, certainly big publishers who can afford these thousands of dollars, must see this as a kind of baksheesh. The dollar amount of a full-page ad, by the way, is equivalent to the cost of a reasonably extensive book tour, which seems to me to be responsible for the explosion of author tours in the last decade.

Damn I am trying to remember what my point is—oh yeah, while I don't believe that the NYT conducts its affairs in the crassly commercial manner that I have seen in local publishing, it's still a big business with an allegiance to it's shareholders and all that follows from that.

I would suggest we are all of us howling at the moon, pissing in the wind, tilting at windmills, you name it, expecting that the Times will be the Paris Review. Or that the New Yorker will be Ploughshares. And so forth.

Some one, Gwenda, I think, nailed it. The best way to advance a book is word of mouth—book merchants call it hand-selling. I am extremely lucky that in the course of my life I benefit from the wisdom and good taste of some great readers—recently Jim Harrison and Kent Haruf mentioned Mark Spragg' s An Unfinished Life. I read it and loved it. So that is the thing— it seems the partisans who express concern and ire about various literary venues probably do not know how lucky they are to be surrounded by a coterie of reliable readers. No?

I 'm going back to reading the new Hendrick Herzberg tome, Politics. I respectfully suggest you all get back to reading something. I would be happy to make recommendations.

The comments to this entry are closed.

TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

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    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
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    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."