NYTBR: The Beginning of the End?
January 23, 2004 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Gender bias? Priority problems? The drab wallpaper of the book world? These may be the least of problems for a new NYTBR editor. Times executive editor Bill Keller wants far worse. Keller plans to favor non-fiction and potboilers over literary fiction. Sayeth Keller, "I love that Chip championed first novels. But why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?"
posted by ed (4 comments total)
OK, I'll bite. We were just given a subscription to NYTBR, and I look forward to more non-ficton reviews. I hardly read any fiction, so I'm biased, of course, but I think the two kinds of reviews are completely different animals. Where non-fiction reviews are jumping-off points for discussion, fiction reviews are bound by the particular narrative and storytelling style of the content being reviewed. Additionally, it's my impression that fiction readers generally read fiction by a given author they like, while non-fiction readers read about a given subject they're interested in, the two kinds of reviews have slightly different purposes. Where a paragraph might suffice to say "Dick Francis does it again, only this time the horse is named Jiminy," more words may be needed to convey what's going on in a given non-fiction work, even by an established author.
posted by soyjoy at 8:19 AM on January 23, 2004

This sounds like a good thing to me. What separates the NYT Book Review from other books reviews is that it is in the New York Times. The newspaper's greatest strength is obviously going to be if the book review section works hand-in-glove with the news coverage, and thus more focus on non-fiction.
posted by deanc at 8:25 AM on January 23, 2004

This is terrible news.

Do people just not give a shit about (literary) novels anymore?
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:41 AM on January 23, 2004

My, how I'd like to write a lengthy essay on this, but I don't have the time. However, I'll say that it looks to me like this is more a symptom of a problem in American publishing, rather than a potential cause of a problem.

Publishers are increasingly, surprisingly less likely to publish first novels or difficult books these days, simply because they don't sell as many copies as highly accessible books by established authors, and the ability to deliver as many copies of a product to as many people as possible is now the dominant driving force in the industry. (Some argue that this change in the American publishing environment coincides with the rash of acquisition of American presses by German media conglomerates in the '90s.) Even most published books that advertise themselves as being "difficult" (such as Franzen's The Corrections, mentioned in the FPP article) really aren't that challenging for those readers who read and reread Joyce, or Proust, or Pynchon. (Really, The Corrections is just a poor man's William Gaddis, and Franzen has sometimes come close to saying as much.) NYTBR is catching on to this: they simply want to maximize the appeal of their limited space. It's sad, but true.

Part of the problem with this, I think, is that humanities academics and literary critics no longer serve the same functions that they did in the twentieth century, when high modernism and postmodernism had their heyday. Academics and critics used to use their positions of authority to keep difficult books alive: Joyce caught onto this, and actively courted the academic community during the publication of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, even providing footnotes to Stuart Gilbert's exegesis before it was published, etc. It was a symbiotic relationship that worked well for everyone--writer, critic, and publisher.

However, in today's academic literary environment, after the Death of the Author and the shift in emphasis in literary criticism toward theory and away from formalism, there's no real motivation for critics to wrestle with difficult primary texts, and it's considered impolitic to make judgments on quality and distinguish between high and low culture. Since the conventional wisdom is that Harry Potter novels are as equally worthy of extensive criticism as the most difficult of difficult texts, academics have little reason or motivation to seek out difficult works and advertise them to the public. There's nobody that has the relationship to today's new writers that Sylvia Beach had to James Joyce, or Malcolm Cowley had to William Faulkner. The difficult American novel has suffered as a result (and is arguably endangered), but publishers, for whom money is the bottom line, are surviving, the same as they ever were.

On preview: well, it looks like I did write a lengthy essay on this.
posted by Prospero at 11:53 AM on January 23, 2004

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