Now that I have a bit of a breather, a few more words on the Poynter piece I linked to in haste this morning. To be truthful, while I didn’t like the news that the NYTBR will be moving away from fiction, I couldn’t muster a lot of outrage about it either. For a while now, I’ve found myself more interested in noting which books they assign than in reading the reviews themselves. The reviews are sometimes as dull as reputed (with notable exceptions, of course). In addition to all the usual suspects listed to the right, I’ve been gravitating toward the Washington Post and Atlantic Monthly for reviews that I actually read. (Check out Michael Dirda’s fun, hyper take on the new Elmore Leonard this week.)
So it’s not as though my reading habits are going to take a big hit even if the NYTBR banishes fiction reviews from their pages altogether. Yet the blinkered reasoning proffered by Bill Keller rankles. First there’s his general blithe condescension toward novels, apparently based on an assumption that while nonfiction is serious, fiction is just playing around. Even if Bill Keller really thinks this, it astonishes me that he’d say it, let alone that the Times would base editorial policy on it. Keller may not get it, but a man in his position should be smart enough to at least suspect that his disinterest in a particular form for expressing ideas is a personal blind spot.
Here are the statements that really give Keller away: “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world,” and “Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.” If Keller wants to make the Book Review simply an arm of the newsroom, then I suppose that’s his perogative. But he doesn’t say that. He speaks on two assumptions that are far from universally accepted: 1) that fiction is never a serious representation of the world, and 2) that only “hard” news is news. If all news is hard news, though, why maintain the separate sphere of a book review at all? Or an arts section? If the NYT‘s television ads are any indication, the paper’s “soft” content is integral to attracting its national readership.
It’s ironic that these statements would emerge from the paper of record only a few days after Terry made this observation:
I was watching an old episode of What’s My Line?, my all-time favorite game show, earlier this evening….This particular program must have originally aired in 1961 or 1962, because in introducing panelist Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, Arlene Francis mentioned in passing that two of Cerf’s authors, William Faulkner and John O’Hara, had gotten good reviews in that morning’s papers.
On Tuesday it seemed quaint that a television talk show would acknowledge newspaper reviews of novels. By Friday it starts to seem quaint that newspapers would review them. You are excused for feeling a little bit dizzy.
When Keller assures readers that the Times will still cover major novelists like Updike and Roth, he leaves open the question of who will determine who is major. Of course this will happen elsewhere, and there’s a case to be made that it’s not happening at the Times now, but for a Times editor to wholly beg off of the mission of even participating in the public discussion that will adjudicate who is considered tomorrow’s major talents–well, that’s breathtaking.
A couple of weeks ago I discussed a mission statement of sorts that appears in the Atlantic‘s back of the book this month. This is part of that statement:
Although in some ways constraining, discrimination also liberates us. We assume that our readers look to this section as a critical organ rather than a news source–which means that unlike, say, The New York Times Book Review, we don’t have to cover the waterfront.
Suddenly everyone in the print media seems to be running headlong from what you might think would be the enviable task of shaping cultural taste. Lit bloggers, carry on.
UPDATE: Nathalie at Cup of Chicha is excellent on this story:
Good thinking. Also: stop covering narrative films. Only review documentaries. And dance or theatre? Why discuss performances when you could devote more space to politics?