Monday, March 1, 2010


Applauding: Herb Simon and Marc Winkelman

Much applause is due to Herb Simon, who has acquired Kirkus Reviews. Simon, who is the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers, is also Chairman Emeritus of Simon Property Group, an S&P 500 corporation. It will operate under the name Kirkus Media and be led by Marc Winkelman—a colleague with an extensive background in the book business. Better yet, both Simon and Winkelman are co-owners of Tecolote Books, an independent bookstore in Montecito, California.

To quote Simon: “I love books and have long subscribed to Kirkus. At a time when even the definition of a book is changing, my love of books makes me want to be part of the solution for the book publishing industry.” Winkelman noted that “we want to serve the whole range of readers including librarians, booksellers, publishing professional’s, and entertainment industry insiders.” That the 77 year old Kirkus will be headed by these two people—where an interest in books is the primary reason for taking on this task—is cause for rejoicing for those who appreciate quality fiction and artful non-fiction. Other than Publishers Weekly, there are few publications left that are still functioning on that level, and Kirkus, with its 3,000 reviews a year—is vital in calling attention to new and talented writers who are largely ignored by mainstream media.

Appalling: Bill Keller

First, some background about 61 year-old Bill Keller, son of George M. Keller, former CEO of Chevron Corporation, the world-wide conglomerate formed after Standard Oil acquired several competing companies way back when. Bill became a journalist immediately after graduating from Pomona College in 1970, working for various newspapers as a reporter before coming to The New York Times in 1984 as a reporter in the Washington D.C. bureau. Then it was on to the Moscow bureau in 1986, which he headed by 1988. In 1992 he became Bureau Chief in Johannesburg. His next post was as Foreign Editor in 1995, Managing Editor by 1997, and then, after serving as Op-ed columnist and senior writer, he became the Executive Editor in July, 2003, where he still serves today. Clearly an impressive career. If you read the masthead of the Times, it becomes apparent that Bill Keller is the most powerful person at the newspaper, his name coming right below that of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher. Keller also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s obviously made many of the right moves, but his gifts as a journalist did not prevent him from making several clunkers to my mind—like being a “liberal” supporter of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, calling for the resignation of Colin Powell for pursuing a diplomatic solution at the UN that he thought ineffective, and defending reporter Judith Miller for failing to tell prosecutors who, in the Bush White House, fed her a story that resulted in the outing of Valerie Palme—the CIA spy whose husband was a formidable critic of the invasion of Iraq.

Politics aside, less than six months after becoming Managing Editor, Bill Keller—a man with no known literary background—announced changes in the way that books would be covered at the Times. For those who value good books—and there are many of us out there—his decisions have had a profound effect on what is worth covering. I quote from an interview he gave to Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel on January 21, 2004. In his defense, I praise Keller for his honesty; far preferable to the run-arounds given by Jon Landman, head of the Culture Desk at the Times and Kate Bouton who, before retiring, insisted in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Times tries to achieve a balance between high culture and low. Still, I would have been embarrassed to talk so openly about disinterest in books of quality and to show such ignorance when it comes to his assessments of what is out there. The same could be said for Steve Erlanger, also quoted in this interview, who—like Keller—had journalistic assignments all over the world before he became Editor of the Culture Desk between 2002 and 2004. Here, too, I applaud Erlanger’s great honesty regarding the crap he reviewed positively.

I quote from the interview, which was entitled The Plot Thickens at The New York Times Book Review:
Publishing insiders have watched nervously since Steven Erlanger became cultural editor at The New York Times and began altering the focus of the daily "Books of the Times." Well, they ain't seen nothin' yet. When we sat down with executive editor Bill Keller last week, he promised "dramatic changes" in the Sunday section now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom. And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. "The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world," Keller says. "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction."

What's more, if you're perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we're told. After all, says Keller, somebody's got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

And who will carry out this mandate? Regarding McGrath's replacement, Keller won't name names yet. But he did say that they're down to three or four finalists, none of them inside staffers. An announcement is just weeks away.

A big step in this process—and the one that may have sent the higher-ups into brainstorming mode—involved inviting about a dozen of the most promising candidates to write "diagnostic essays" on how the Sunday section ought to change. The consensus: Reviews need to be more varied in length, and more contentious. But that's just tinkering around the edges. The bigger news concerns what will be covered. Author interviews, a column on the publishing industry, a decrease in fiction reviews and more about mass market books—this appears to be the recipe for making the NYTBR less formulaic and more vital.

Although Keller's ascendancy has brought plenty of reshuffling at the Times, in the case of the Sunday book review, perceptions in and outside the paper seem to have meshed. Critics have dunned the section for dullness. Even while praising McGrath's exceptional editing skills, Keller made clear that he has different priorities. "I love that Chip championed first novels," he says, then offers the rhetorical question: But why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do? The conclusion was that contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves.

"Of course, some fiction needs to be done," Keller says. "We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me." He gets no argument from Erlanger. "To be honest, there's so much shit," the new leader of the daily arts section observes. "Most of the things we praise aren't very good."

Traditionally, chief critic Michiko Kakutani has handled most of the literary fiction for the daily. Her star remains untarnished; Keller refers to her appreciatively as "queen of the hill." Former movie critic Janet Maslin has shown a predilection for commercial fiction, a taste the Times endorses. As with most newspapers, management is obsessed with attracting younger readers and sees mass market titles as one entry point—as long as they're done, Keller says, in a "witty" way appropriate to the Times' sophisticated reader.

Regarding daily coverage, under Erlanger "We need to do more policy and history," he says. "We need to be more urgent and journalistic." For him, this means assigning books with hopes of eliciting some sparks. Example: He asked Max Boot, a conservative on the Council of Foreign Relations, to review "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response," by Clinton Administration veteran John Shattuck. "I like to mix it up," Erlanger says. "If I could start another Mailer/Vidal fight, I'd gladly do it."

Some of the non-fiction books he reviews for "urgency" are poorly written, he admits, but for him this is less important than the book's contents. He and Keller, both prize-winning former foreign correspondents, see books as a launching pad for discussion. "Book reviews are partly a consumer service," Keller says, but they also "should be written for people who don't have any intention of buying the book."

So there's the recipe: Emphasize non-fiction books. Demote literary fiction. Promote (judiciously) commercial novels. Cover the book industry more and individual titles less.

Given its pivotal role in the marketing of books, the Times is likely to accelerate trends already apparent in book publishing. The potential implications are huge, suggesting bigger advances for blockbusters and celebrities, including those who wish to exploit their "public service" in the nation's capital, and scaled-down high-brow fiction lists, based on the assumption that if such books can't get ink in the toney Times, they won't have a prayer in USA Today or Entertainment Weekly.

Whether or not the Times' analysis of the market and its readers is correct, it's based on Keller’s reasoning. In the views expressed by its decision-makers, too few works of fiction rise to the level of a "novel of ideas"—that is, stories that express the concerns and issues of the day as Dickens did. And given these odds, the Times would rather devote resources to fostering debate than discovering and nurturing imaginative writing.

Enough quoting and time for reflection:

Finally, it’s become clear to me why the Times reviews books as they do, and why coverage of the Sunday Book Review has changed substantially since Chip McGrath left and Sam Tanenhaus replaced him. And why the book reviews in the daily Arts and Culture pages read as they do. Critiquing reviewers, their choices, or advertisers is akin to blaming a junior officer for the war in Iraq, when it’s the people at the top who give the marching orders.

My final questions are these: How have these journalists become the high priests of fiction? And do we not have novels of ideas, expressed cogently, imaginatively and skillfully that reflect life in our times? Or has this all disappeared with the death of Charles Dickens? I’d welcome your comments.

So might Bill Keller and the publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. The phone number at the Times is 212-556-1234; the mailing address is 620 Eighth Avenue, New York City 10018.



  1. So fiction that makes you think about those non-fiction issues in a different way isn't worth reviewing anymore? I'm not sure anyone needs "help" choosing airport books - they're all there at the airport, bright-colored and screaming for attention. But we do need reasoned reviews of the good books that are harder to find, or else we fail to find them and lose the incentive to think. There again, thought doesn't sell I suppose.

  2. Excellent analysis, Marty, as always. Keep banging that drum! Your rhythms rock!

  3. Superb commentary. It's not unlikely that traditional readers of New York Times reviews, daily but especially Sunday, have already fallen away. Let's accelerate support for the good guys, as you do in praising the new owners of Kirkus. You might include in the group those who do tend to notice fiction not typically covered by The Times, some of it new fiction in translation -- the unnamed reviewers of The New Yorker, for instance.

    Other places to watch for dart throwing: the front page of the Sunday Times review and the end-paper essays. What principles guide these choices?

    joan baum, reviewer

  4. My own recent experience with promoting my second novel, Small Kingdoms, leads me to think that the Times' shifts have also been moderated by the growing influence of online book reviewers, who work in a wholly democratic environment with few editorial or financial limitations. In my quest for reviews online, I've found several passionate, eloquent reviewers whose tastes are similar to mine, and I now use them to help me build my 'to read' list. At the same time, they also choose books I wouldn't have chosen without their influence, and so my reading horizon is broadened. They're becoming my new reading gurus. How can The Times--or any print publication--compete with such a tailored product as this?

  5. I always enjoy your posts Marty.

  6. Erlanger's statement, "Most of the things we praise aren't very good" speaks volumes about their literary and journalistic standards. The guy debunks himself. Pathetic.

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