The New York Times Book Review at a Crossroads

The New York Times Book Review at a Crossroads

The New York Times Book Review at a Crossroads

What does the future hold for one of United States’ oldest literary institutions?


For more than a century, The New York Times Book Review has been one of the most influential, if not most august, institutions in American letters. This rarefied status is largely attributable to its endurance. Once upon a time, every major newspaper had a books section. Some, such as the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle, even had their own stand-alone supplements. But after decades of contraction in the news business, dedicated books divisions have all but perished. Among the daily newspapers, just the Book Review remains. Its only real competition now comes from general interest magazines that tend to cover roughly the same number of books in a year as the Book Review does in a month

For such a durable institution, it is striking that The New York Times Book Review has mostly remained devoted to the template for book reviewing it adopted in the early 20th century. The editors cover the book world as if it were any other news beat: They assign reviews that tend to be informative rather than interpretative, telling readers what books are being published, how relevant the new releases are to current affairs, which of them might be worth purchasing, and which authors are on the rise. According to an early unsigned letter from its editors, the supplement aimed to serve as “an open forum for the discussion of books from all sane and honest points of view.” That modest ambition remains in place today, even if, in practice, “sane and honest” can often mean avoiding provocative arguments in favor of reviews that are evenhanded and descriptive. As its recently departed editor, Pamela Paul, put it in 2018, “The Book Review has a long tradition of being a political Switzerland.”

The Book Review’s pursuit of fairness and balance has become one of its signatures over the decades. While many literary magazines ask reviewers to weigh in on a book primarily because of the strength of their opinions, the Book Review’s pages often seek to be a retreat from the ideological debates raging among intellectuals and the commentariat. In the Times’ view, this gives its reviews an authority that surpasses what can be found elsewhere. “In my mind there’s an almost platonic notion of what the center is,” explained one of the Review’s editors, Barry Gewen, in an interview from 2018, “and we try to bring the discussion to the center.”

Not everyone shares the Book Review’s sense of its own magisterial restraint. A policy of moderation can not only end up endorsing the status quo embodied by “the center” but all too often also make for drab reading, prompting repeated criticism over the years—most famously articulated in Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1959 salvo for Harper’s Magazine, which charged that the Book Review’s “absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity” meant that it served as “a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.” Versions of Hardwick’s complaint have persisted into the 21st century: Rather than offering criticism that sparks the passion of its readers, the Review instead tends to foster the polite, banal atmosphere of a book club. As critic Christian Lorentzen noted in a 2019 Harper’s article, “the Times seems to have lost its sense of its audience’s intelligence.”

The Book Review’s view of its readers is most obvious in the way it has adapted to the social media era. The Books vertical on the Times website is now rife with interviews from celebrity authors, both via the “By the Book” feature and The Book Review Podcast. It publishes reviews by figures such as Bill Gates and Ethan Hawke and offers a slew of recommendations for “What to Read Now,” including lists for those who might want to pick up novels that concord with their Netflix queue. If you like Tiger King or Game of Thrones, for example, the Books vertical has plenty of suggestions for the books you ought to buy once you’ve finished bingeing.

When I spoke with Paul last fall ahead of the release of a commemorative issue and book that marked the Book Review’s 125th anniversary, she explained that she took the evaporation of book coverage from the newspaper business to be one of the institution’s raisons d’être. “It’s been quite a while that we’ve been really the only game in town,” she said, adding later: “It feels really important to me for us to keep doing what we’re doing.” But is being the only game in town enough? Some in the book industry think coverage in the Times no longer has the effect that it had in the past, even as it still rates as an outlet where any publicist would be overjoyed to land a review. As Paul Bogaards, the former executive director of publicity and marketing at Knopf Doubleday, put it to me in an e-mail: “None of the old media properties carry the weight they once did. How could they?” While the Book Review’s “Ten Best Books of the Year” list still moves the “needle” and its “newsletters drive engagement,” according to Bogaards, several booksellers I’ve talked to, like Michelle Malonzo, the buyer at Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona, noted that the publication has less influence than it once had: “Bookstagramers and BookTok influencers are as much in conversation [with] readers now as The New York Times Book Review.”

These changes in the marketplace leave the Book Review at something of a crossroads. Adding to the uncertainty is the announcement on March 7 that Paul will be moving to the Times opinion section, where she will be a columnist. Her replacement has yet to be named, and the future direction of the Book Review is not yet clear. Will the Times recommit to recommendations and reviews that double as ready-made blurbs in an effort to win over an audience that might not actually be interested in reading about books? Or will it publish the kind of criticism that appeals to readers who don’t require an approaching book club deadline to put down their phone? The Book Review may have the luxury of being the only game in town, but that doesn’t spare it the responsibility of making sure people show up to play.

When the Book Review launched in 1896, the editors outlined their ambit in a short introduction stating that, despite the supplement’s name, it would not merely review books but would also cover whatever “interesting matter…may be appropriately associated with the literary and art news of the day.” Later shortened to “books as news,” this statement was understood as a charge to report on the publishing industry and all the attendant news and gossip it generated.

At the outset, the Book Review pursued its founding mandate vigorously. The inaugural issue led off with a report on a national booksellers’ conference in Boston. Two years later, Émile Zola’s rejection by the Académie Française was written up as a cover story, and in 1907 the Book Review reported on an effort in Richmond, Va., to erect a statue of Edgar Allan Poe. The early supplement contained reviews, but it wasn’t until the first decades of the 20th century that the Book Review began the long transition to its current form, gradually shedding news bulletins and author profiles as it narrowed its scope down to criticism alone. These initial reviews still approached books as news, though, often offering little beyond plot summary. Even the most ambitious articles, like an essay from a lieutenant in the Canadian army stationed in France about what soldiers were reading in the trenches of World War I, served a primarily informative purpose. This was intentional. As an unsigned editorial in 1913 stated flatly, book reviews were “a means rather than an end.” They were just one more way to report on the country’s burgeoning publishing industry.

Despite these preconditions, the “books as news” dictum was chipped away at over the ensuing decades. Amid the multitude of reviews that read like publication notices, there were occasional thrills, many of which are included in The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History. In a 1922 review of Ulysses, Joseph Collins predicted that “not ten men or women out of a hundred can read Ulysses through, and of the ten who succeed in doing so, five of them will do it as a tour de force.” In a 1943 essay, Ralph Manheim’s translation of Mein Kampf was judged to render “Hitler’s prose almost as unreadable in English as it is in German,” while a set of mutual reviews between James Baldwin and Langston Hughes from the 1950s crackled with the artistic disdain the two men had for each other.

Despite the occasional essayistic contributions from the likes of Baldwin and Hughes, the editors mostly still emphasized a workaday criticism, fostering a growing sense of disillusionment among many readers. It prompted Hardwick to write her Harper’s essay and led Dwight Macdonald, in an article for Esquire, to complain that the Book Review had come to cut “the figure of a country bumpkin surrounded by city slickers.” The “reviews are informative rather than critical,” he noted. “The fiction that gets prominent treatment is either by middlebrow best sellers…or else by serious writers who are so well-established that they cannot be ignored.”

Discontent with the Book Review was so widespread that it helped inspire the creation of a rival publication that set out to publish more surprising and rigorous criticism: The New York Review of Books. Launched in 1963, in the midst of a printers’ strike, the magazine’s founders wrote in their opening editorial that it would avoid covering books “which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects” in order to focus on more thought-provoking titles and writers. Meanwhile, general interest magazines also continued to publish formidable literary criticism from the likes of Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, and Ralph Ellison.

The Book Review did manage the occasional stroke of genius in this period. The editors enlisted Kurt Vonnegut to review Tom Wolfe in a piece that mocked his gonzo prose: “Oxymorons and serpentae carminael! Tabescent! Infarcted! Stretchpants netherworld! Schlock! A parodist might get the words right, but never the bitchy melody.” But it was only in the early 1970s that the Book Review fully caught up with the rest of American criticism. A young, ambitious critic named John Leonard was appointed editor, and he sought to inject the supplement with new energy, bringing in the upstart generation of intellectuals, novelists, historians, journalists, and poets who wrote for the Book Review’s competitors. Leonard published Neil Sheehan’s nearly 8,000-word essay on the Vietnam War, a landmark piece that helped persuade Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers. He also pushed for gender parity at the Book Review and commissioned articles from Black luminaries like June Jordan and Alice Walker.

While these changes were widely celebrated, Leonard was dismissed four years into his tenure. (He and his wife, Sue Leonard, later became The Nation’s literary editors.) But even as the supplement settled back into its staid old ways, its purview had been irrevocably expanded. One could now read Erica Jong’s biting assessment of The Hite Report, in which she argued that the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s had been a myth, and Joe Queenan’s takedown of Hollywood Kids by Jackie Collins. (“The only way the reader can tell any of the female characters apart,” Queenan wrote, “is by keeping track of who has the nurse’s outfit.”) Even so, the Review still couldn’t stake a claim to the title of the country’s most influential critical organ. In 2004, when Sam Tanenhaus took over the supplement, he faced a predicament similar to the one Leonard had confronted decades earlier. Before Tanenhaus assumed the editorship, his predecessor, Charles McGrath, warned him that the journal “ranked fourth in our ability to attract reviewers, behind The New York Review [of Books], The New Yorker, and The New Republic.”

Tanenhaus responded to this slide in prestige by commissioning longer reviews, raising rates, and opening up the Book Review’s pages to essays like Haruki Murakami’s reflection on how his failure as a musician gave him a template for becoming a writer. Unfortunately, Tanenhaus’s initiatives were stymied by the industry-wide implosion in print advertising that caused newspapers, including the Times, to cut costs by trimming pages; by 2010, the Book Review was half the size it had been in the 1980s. Tanenhaus’s attention was also soon divided: In 2008, he began to oversee the Sunday Opinion section in addition to the Book Review.

The financial outlook of the Times improved substantially after 2013, when Pamela Paul took over the Book Review, giving her more latitude to coordinate its new role as the newspaper shifted toward becoming a digital-first product. The most notable behind-the-scenes change of Paul’s tenure was consolidating all books coverage at the Times under her office. Previously, the Book Review’s editors, the reporters assigned to the business side of the publishing industry, and the daily paper’s critics—led by the venerable Michiko Kakutani—had been siloed away from each other. Now the daily book critics and the paper’s publishing-industry reporters would be working in tandem with their colleagues at the Book Review.

Though eliminating the long-standing separation of the Book Review from the daily paper was seen as a watershed by Times insiders, more obvious to the public was the introduction and expansion of a set of new initiatives tailored to the digital age. Under Tanenhaus, the Book Review had launched a podcast, which Paul took over. She also introduced the “By the Book” interview, a feature called “Bookends” in which authors debated each other, and “Match Book,” which was modeled on an advice column—with readers writing in to get a book recommendation based on their interests (be it the state of Maine or “forbidden and unusual romances”).

Though “Match Book” ended in 2019, the Book Review kept playing around with various newsletter and recommendation formats. In early 2020, it launched “Group Text,” a monthly book club starter pack, complete with suggested discussion topics and helpful blurbs on the book in question that explain “What It’s About” and “Why I Picked It Up.” Last fall the paper also recruited Molly Young and her popular “Read Like the Wind” recommendation newsletter from New York magazine.

When it comes to the actual reviews in recent years, the Book Review’s track record remained mixed. Parul Sehgal, who was hired by Tanenhaus as an editor at the Book Review, became a full-time critic in 2017, replacing Kakutani. Already a well-established reviewer, Sehgal quickly became one of the most authoritative critics around—an ascension that Paul deserves credit for fostering. Jennifer Szalai, who also had served as an editor at the Book Review, followed a similar trajectory: She became the nonfiction critic for the daily paper in 2018 and has proved to be an indispensable voice at the Times. Meanwhile, the Review itself has followed a more erratic course. It made some inspired assignments, with Christopher Beha considering Thomas Mann, Karan Mahajan reviewing Colson Whitehead, and Vivian Gornick panning an Adam Gopnik memoir. But it also proved oddly fixated on publishing reviews whose main purpose was to flaunt a famous byline, leading to eye-roll-inducing pairings like Bill Clinton on a biography of Ulysses S. Grant or Rob Lowe on a book about the movie Network.

While claiming to be a political Switzerland, the Book Review has seemed to skew to the center-right, with conservatives reviewing conservatives, centrists reviewing centrists, and very few leftists to be found. Last year, David French reviewed a collection of missives from Andrew Sullivan and praised the “remarkable humility” of a “thoughtful man [who] tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.” John McWhorter (who writes a newsletter for the Times) received a similarly sympathetic hearing from Zaid Jilani for a tract titled Woke Racism, and resistance heroes like Col. Alexander Vindman, the star witness in Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings, found his memoir praised for “reassur[ing] us that this is a country where right matters, where, in the end, good prevails over bad.”

When I spoke with Paul, she explained that she saw the journal’s mandate as reviewing “a wide variety of books coming from a wide variety of perspectives, across the ideological spectrum.” Yet it seems a large portion of that spectrum goes mostly ignored: Rare is the issue that features anyone who contributes to Jacobin or New Left Review, even as their counterparts on the right receive prime billing.

When it comes to fiction and literary culture, the contemporary Book Review has often seemed less concerned with reviewing books that might challenge readers in exciting ways than with minting stars. This tendency is most evident when an author receives a profile in the Times in addition to having their book considered by both a daily critic and the Book Review. When I asked her about these moments, Paul joked that it was something like a hat trick, the literary version of a hockey player scoring three goals in a single game. “Sally Rooney got the rare hat trick, but it was intentional,” Paul said about the raft of coverage the Irish novelist received last September. “We felt there was going to be high interest in this book; we felt like these three pieces had a reason for being.”

While that’s understandable as news judgment, other hat tricks have been far from foolproof. In 2020, the three articles that gave Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt a hat trick followed Myriam Gurba’s viral review on the blog Tropics of Meta that lambasted the book as an “obra de caca” (read: a piece of shit)—a clueless novel that flattened its Mexican characters into simplistic heroes and villains “for mass ‘colorblind’ consumption.” Suddenly, a book initially touted as the next big thing had become the center of a debate about racial politics and cultural appropriation. Alexandra Alter’s profile of Cummins in the daily paper centered on the firestorm that Gurba’s review set off and included the author’s allowance that “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” In the Book Review, Lauren Groff seemed caught between the rave she had initially planned to write and the more nuanced take the conversation around the novel suddenly demanded. “Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism,” she mused. “At the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me.” Meanwhile, the Times ran Parul Sehgal’s review in the daily paper in which she deemed the book insufficient on first principles: “Novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails.”

A subsequent hat trick proved even more disastrous: Blake Bailey’s authorized biography of Philip Roth. Though Paul had no say in The New York Times Magazine’s decision to profile Bailey, the Books desk did run two reviews, and Paul herself hosted Bailey on the Book Review’s podcast. Within days of that cascade of coverage, commenters on Edward Champion’s Reluctant Habits blog accused Bailey of having groomed female students as a middle school teacher in Louisiana. In its story on the allegations, the Times reported a publishing executive’s account of being raped by Bailey in 2015 at the home of Dwight Garner, one of the paper’s daily critics, as well as the revelation that around three years later she had sent a message under a pseudonym to a Times reporter about the alleged assault. (Bailey has denied all of the allegations.) When we spoke, Paul said the publishing executive’s message had not been discussed when the Books desk was arranging coverage of Bailey’s work in early 2021. Nevertheless, she said, “it would be really irresponsible for us to make that kind of editorial call based on an unsubstantiated accusation…. Imagine all the people who are unjustly or wrongly accused of doing something on social media or in an anonymous tip or anything else, if they found out that we then didn’t assign a book that they wrote a review based on an unsubstantiated accusation.”

Rather than a news-making bid to anoint a book that was already a shoo-in for the best-seller list, the Bailey episode made the Books desk itself part of the story—a cruel twist on the old “books as news” mantra.

These debacles only serve to underscore the limits of trying to assert the Review’s authority by insisting on its ability to crown literary celebrities. Even when a hat trick goes according to plan, wouldn’t the newspaper’s precious column inches be better utilized by widening the coverage of the Book Review and the daily critics, not duplicating efforts in several different sections? The Book Review’s greatest strength, after all, has always been the breadth of material that it’s able to sift through and consider in a year—why compromise that by lavishing a single author with so much attention?

One also wonders whether the Times is aiming at the wrong targets. The Books desk seems intent on beating out social media and battling against the algorithm via lists and recommendation features, making a last-ditch bid for the attention of people who simply might not be all that interested in literature. Instead, why not publish reviews that are written for the kind of audience that doesn’t need convincing to read a lengthy essay on a book instead of watching a TV show? The Book Review’s most recent gesture in that direction was, in fact, remarkably absorbing: a series of occasional essays about great American novelists by A.O. Scott that included assessments of Joy Williams, Edward P. Jones, and William Maxwell.

With no successor yet announced, the question of which path the Book Review will take becomes more pronounced. Continuing to chase an audience whose attention might be elsewhere with hat tricks, celebrity contributors, and recommendation lists may be tempting to the new editor, even if recent history has provided little indication that doing so strengthens the Review’s influence or authority. Alternatively, the Book Review could choose to prioritize the sort of reader who cares about and is invested in literary criticism in its own right. Whatever the case may be, resting on legacy alone isn’t an option. Like any institution that seeks to be all things to all people, the Book Review risks being a publication that doesn’t much appeal to anyone.

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