Pamela Paul says one of her goals as the incoming editor of The New York Times’ Book Review is to make the section “unpredictable.”
Some contend the Book Review has been too predictable, at least in terms of who’s featured in its pages. Authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have argued for years that the section features far more male authors than female authors, and figures from VIDA and The Rumpus back up this claim.
When asked about VIDA’s annual count of female authors, Paul said via email:
“Representing a diversity of authors and books is extremely important at the Book Review, and it will continue to be. And by diversity, I mean variety in every way: a diversity of author backgrounds and ideologies and arguments, a diversity of genre, a diversity of subject matter. While the VIDA numbers were indeed dismal overall, I was pleased to see that the Book Review has had a far better record than many other publications.”
She didn’t elaborate on how she would help diversify the section.
It’s hard to compare the Times to other publications in the VIDA count because it reviews more books than many of those other publications. It’s obvious, though, that there’s a lot of room for improvement. The latest VIDA count shows The New York Times Book Review featured more than twice as many male authors as female authors — 488 to 237.
Here is my edited email exchange with Paul, who is serving as the features editor and children’s book editor at the Times until she assumes her new role in May.
Mallary Tenore: Are there parts of the Book Review that you want to change? If so, which parts, and why?
Pamela Paul: I have the good fortune — and possible curse — of inheriting a highly functioning, vibrant publication at a great newspaper. We have an amazing staff of veterans and recent hires at the Book Review, and I’m thrilled to have them, as TBR is really a collaborative enterprise. We’ve also introduced a number of features in the last couple of years — By the Book, Applied Reading (reviews of book-related apps), expanded audiobook coverage, and of course, expanded children’s book coverage.
That doesn’t mean things won’t change. Every aspect of the publishing world is obviously in flux right now, and we always want to be on top of and, in certain cases, ahead of those changes. So stay tuned on specifics. One thing I know for sure: We will bring on a fantastic children’s book editor.
For context’s sake, what factors go into determining the books that get reviewed?
It’s a complicated question. … The short answer comes down to the quality of the book. We also ask ourselves some basic questions: Does this book matter? Is it a book our readers will want to be aware of? Is there something interesting to say about it, and a good person to write thoughtfully and intelligently about it? And we go from there.
What excites you most about this new position?
It’s a huge honor to be the editor of the Book Review, and I step into the giant shoes of Sam Tanenhaus, who revolutionized the Book Review, and those of his great predecessors.
Having been involved in almost every aspect of the publishing world — working in a library, working in a bookstore, editing and managing a book club, developing books based on magazines, writing my own books, publicizing those books, assigning and editing book reviews at the Book Review and reviewing books myself — I have been immersed in this world my whole life.
People talk about children developing a passion of one kind of another in their formative years, but my conclusion, whenever faced with ballet or knitting or soccer, was always: I’d rather be reading. There’s nothing I’d rather do, and there’s no place other than the New York Times Book Review I’d rather be.
What are some of the goals you want to accomplish in this new position?
As the last freestanding newspaper book review, the NYTBR is in a position of great influence. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. Books still matter to people just as much as they always have. On an every-day, every-issue level, my goal fundamentally is to make every issue of the Book Review lively, engaging, thought-provoking and unpredictable in the best of ways.
I want people to come away from it feeling better for having read it. We are all busy people, and jammed with information overload. Everyone is looking for an excuse not to have to read something. But I would like people to find it very difficult to simply flip past a page in the Book Review without reading it.
Finally, everyone in publishing — and outside publishing — complains that there are too many books being published. That may be true. But I think it’s important to remember that each of those books is almost always a labor of love for the author, something that required thought and imagination and hard work, sometimes years of it.
Conceiving of a book of any kind and bringing it to readers is an amazing accomplishment that involves many people. Having written a book, for many people, is what they imagine being a highlight in their obituary one day. So we owe it to those authors and editors and to everyone involved in the publishing and bookselling process to take their work seriously and to honor their efforts.