Books as ‘News About the Culture’: An Interview with Sam Tanenhaus

October 2, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Poynter’s Book Babes — Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel — traveled to New York for “New York is Book Country,” the “New Yorker” festival, and the National Book Critics Circle board meeting. While they were there, they sat down with Sam Tanenhaus on Friday to talk with him about The New York Times Book Review. Below are the highlights from their conversation, as each recounted it to the other.

Margo remembers: Sitting the other day in Sam Tanenhaus’ office at The New York Times Book Review, with that life-size photo of Kurt Cobain propped up to the left and Woody Allen’s name scribbled on the wall-sized scheduling board to our right, I was struck by the fact that the NYTBR had finally stepped off its pedestal.

In our interview about the NYTBR last January (see “The Plot Thickens at The New York Times“), executive editor Bill Keller ticked people off by contending that the section should be more pegged to the news. The new editor of the section says the same thing, but he says it better.

“We’re going to treat books not as literary artifacts but as news about the culture,” he said. To me, that means that the selection of what is reviewed by the NYTBR will depend not on whether a book will stand the test of time in a literary universe, but whether it has currency in the here and now.

For Tanenhaus, the classic debate between high and low culture is dead. He intends to cover the tension created at the point where those two sides meet. In a whopper review in his debut redesign October 3, he let Paul Berman ruminate on the political message of Philip Roth’s latest novel “The Plot Against America,” while in the upcoming October 10 issue, he is running an essay on Nora Roberts which presents that author in a non-snarky way. He’s heading in the right direction.

Ellen responds: Tanenhaus is no dummy. The upper-end focus of most book review sections has proved to be a recipe for failure. Publishers and authors may squeal, but The Times, which has aggressively built its brand as the country’s national yuppie newspaper, is simply extending this branding to the book section.

Tanenhaus makes no bones about it. During our interview, he called his a “middlebrow publication,” read by “people who are smart and educated, but they don’t have Ph.D.s, and they aren’t professional intellectuals.” To the literati, this sounds like the mission statement for USA Today, not The Times. But The Times is just reflecting, well, the times. In a culture that worships money and celebrity, when newspapers are struggling to survive, AND when reading is an increasingly exclusive sport, the consumer class is the one that everybody’s after.

The NYTBR is not content with its modest circulation. Each Monday, 380,000 copies of the review are deposited in bookstores across the land, this in addition to the number inserted into the following weekend’s editions of The Sunday New York Times. It’s a million or nothin’, from The Times’ point of view.

Margo: Yes, but how do you go slumming and still hang on to your highfalutin’ reputation? Tanenhaus has been on the job since April, and in that time he has livened up the section by juxtaposing such peculiar bedfellows as a round-up of sex books (low culture?), a literary work by William Trevor (high culture?) and two books about the Apostle Paul (I leave it up to you to place this one). But he has yet to show us if he intends merely to cover all the bases, offering as he put it, “something for everyone,” or if he can address the tension among these disparate elements.

But I guess the proof is in the pudding. What did you think of the redesign that just debuted?

Ellen: The Oct. 3 issue, 40 pages strong, shows us how the new editor’s shift from “literary artifact to news about the culture” looks when the boots hit the ground. There are some opening-night jitters. Dissing two novels at the front of the book seems like using expensive real estate for books dubbed less likely to succeed. Alluding to the alleged death of irony at the top of two pieces that run back-to-back was déjà vu all over again.

But the issue offers an excellent study of Tanenhaus’ priorities: Varied lengths, big-name bylines (literary stars Colm Toibin and Zoe Heller), using a specific book as a jumping-off place for considering the world. The 5,000-word cover piece on Philip Roth’s new novel is only partly about “The Plot Against America.” It’s also a confession of cultural anxiety that transposes the novel’s fears about anti-Semitism into a fret over Israel, jihadism, and the war in Iraq.

Other innovations are still to come: A poetry issue is booked for November. Later this month, the section brings on Rachel Donadio from The New York Observer as a reporter and enterprise editor, which translates as a plan to go out and get the stories of who’s reading what and where. Tanenhaus mentions a hypothetical assignment: The influence of Costco and how it shapes reading habits. “If she writes the strongest piece of writing we have that week, we’ll play it on the cover.”

Even working against a deadline that makes timeliness an oxymoron in a 24/7 news cycle — the section closes 11 days before readers find it in their newspapers –Tanenhaus is determined to make the NYTBR feel more newsy and alive.

This is the new NYTBR approach to our culture. What say you?

Margo: Whose culture are we talking about?

For all his talk of broadening the range of books he wants to cover (something I applaud), it appears his writing stable has become more exclusive. As a former contributing editor to Vanity Fair, he prefers bylines from the magazine world. “A newspaper reporter’s job is to report, to tell you what a story is,” he said. “Magazine writers write in narrative form, and the most compelling form of writing is narrative.” As he put it, a writer has to write the heck out of his material when a color picture of Gwyneth Paltrow sits on the opposite page.

He catalogued the number of women writers and reviewers in the October 3 issue, defending himself against the charge that women are not welcome at the NYTBR (the most frequent criticism lodged against the section since he arrived, he told us). He lamented how difficult it was to find people of color to write for the section, noting the unbearable whiteness of publishing.

The one area where he’s taking initiative is in politics. Tanenhaus bragged that in the October 10 issue, he uses reviewers from the left and from the right: Clintonite Ted Widmer and National Review writer John Miller. “There was an assumption for a long time that anyone who was intellectual and right thinking was liberal,” he told us. “It was a big mistake.”

His own political views are ambiguous. Tanenhaus, who wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers and has temporarily shelved his book on William F. Buckley Jr., laughed at David Kipen’s description of him as a “smart conservative.”

“Just because Tom Wolfe wrote ‘The Right Stuff,’ it doesn’t mean he was an astronaut.” Tanenhaus calls himself “yesterday’s liberal,” a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Being boringly centrist, he is curious about those with “absolutist views,” but not in league with them.

Ellen: Tanenhaus’ restless mind defies the simple labels that fit so well with TV and radio commentators, which speaks well for the written word. Whether he can move beyond the confines of the elitist literary circles in which he runs is another matter.

“I’ve met with a lot of publishers,” he said, “and more than one said that book trends are set in San Francisco.” Yet he never sufficiently addressed my question about how the section would get beyond the Hudson.

He distinguishes himself from the Ivy Leaguers that dominate Manhattan by pointing out that he went to Grinnell College in Iowa. But The Times’ sense of tradition and his newfound central role among the East Coast intellectual elite mediates against any moves toward the edge.

The new NYTBR has chosen a worthy goal of trying to become a vehicle for understanding the cultural forces of our day. But there’s another, more literary charge that risks being lost. Sure, Dave Eggers & Co. are on the section’s radar, and Tanenhaus speaks with pride about having showcased Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk on the cover this summer. But these writers are not new discoveries, and it’s in the finding and nurturing of writers and their ideas before anyone else that the NYTBR will truly distinguish itself.