Some months ago, Katherine Dalton of Chronicles wrote an article in which, it seemed to me, she seriously exaggerated the leftist homogeneity of the literary establishment and further overestimated the hegemony of The New York Times.
I begin with the question of the hegemony of the Times, but my acknowledgment must be larger than any challenge I can offer. The New York Times Book Review is, quite simply, both the biggest and the best of the weekly newspaper book sections. Quantitatively, the Times publishes more reviews per week than any other American newspaper. On at least a few Sundays in the year its quota of reviews would equal that of the runners-up—the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune—combined.
Qualitatively, too, the Times knows what it is talking about better than the competition does. In so saying, I allude to the fact that no book is reviewed in the NYTBR that has not been read in its entirety by some member of the book review staff, a policy I recently confirmed with editor Rebecca Sinkler. Nina King, editor of the Washington Post Book World, says that the most any book reviewed in her supplement gets in the way of reading before the decision to review is made is a half hour. Many books get less. At the third-ranking Los Angeles Times Book Review, I hasten to add, most books get much less.
Both the quantity and the quality maintained at the Times cost money. Several years ago, the well-connected head of an old New York publishing house told me that it was “common knowledge” that the Times lost one million dollars per year on its book review. The numbers to confirm these stories are not mine to cite; but I can report, on the basis of my experience at the Los Angeles Times, that such a loss is plausible if not, by now, decidedly conservative. In the spring of 1988 newsprint costs jumped 20 percent, while newspapers’ advertising base shrank. Advertising is down at The New York Times (this is a matter of public record), and the result is that the loyalty of the paper to its large book review is a more salient and admirable fact about that newspaper than ever.
And as for size, so also for editorial quality. It costs money, in other words, to pay the NYTBR’s staff of eight “pre-readers,” the number recently cited in Publishers Weekly. (I note in passing and just a bit anxiously, that as recently as 1985 the then-editor of the NYTBR told me that he had ten pre-readers on staff.) At other newspapers, if any pre-reading is done at all (and how else does one separate meritorious first novels from earnest failures?), those who do it have other, distracting duties. The result is that those other newspapers cannot know the books that their book supplements are talking about as well as the Times does. The NYTBR’s greater knowledge of the books it is reviewing clearly has paid off.
Finally, there is the matter of distribution. Though it is possible to subscribe to the Washington Post Book World (no separate subscriptions to Chicago Tribune Books or Los Angeles Times Book Review are available), the Post falls far short of the Times‘ 100,000 separately distributed copies. The separate circulation of the NYTBR equals or exceeds that of most independent journals of opinion, and its influence on The Nation is accordingly great. But the distribution system that assures this influence is no accident: it is an investment by the Times in its own status as a national newspaper.
Having said this much about and on behalf of the NYTBR, I must now insist that its influence can be overstated. One proof of the Times‘ limited influence is the fact that Paco’s Choice by Chicagoan Larry Heinemann had won the 1987 National Book Award for fiction, though the Times had not reviewed it. Interestingly, the 1988 National Book Award for fiction has gone to another novel that the Times had not previously reviewed: Paris Trout by Pete Dexter.
And reverse examples also come to mind, by which I mean examples of books that, celebrated in the Times, have since faded. Loud has been the silence, in the 1988 postseason literary compositions, about Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. A front-page review in the NYTBR did wonders for that title—for a while. Briefly, Kennedy seemed to be everywhere. And The New York Times Sunday magazine kept his ball in play with a major “debate” article about his thesis. Gradually, however, the fact that the opening four-fifths of the book were a kind of college textbook began to weigh against it. It looks much duller now than it once did.
I would also maintain that New York counts for less than it once did because of the way in which nationwide bookstore chains—whose headquarters are outside New York and whose outlets are often outside the Northeast—have replaced the New York-dominated book clubs as launch vehicles for the most popular new books. The chains monitor local sales with great skill; and because of that skill, local best-sellers—books about the Bears or the Cubs in Chicago, for example—have a much better chance to become bestsellers than they did when the process was more New York-bound. True, the chains use the Times‘ best-seller list as a basis for their discounts, but they blithely ignore the Times‘ book editor when he (or more recently, she) puts on the cover something like the threevolume collected letters of Jack London (Stanford University Press).
The Times cannot make such a work sell at a truly commercial pace. Nor can its silence stop a chain-backed hot property from having a very good run. What the Times can do is, as noted, affect the process by which the country makes up its collective mind about a book. But even here, though it is by far the loudest voice on the jury, it is demonstrably not the only one; and I see no reason to believe that its influence is growing.
I turn now to the politics of book reviewing.
Literary politics is of two sorts: literary politics property so called; and political politics on the book page.
Literary politics is the sort of thing referred to under the heading “The Ethics of Book Reviewing” in the Los Angeles Times‘ “Practical Guidelines for Reviewers.” Thus: “If you receive for review a book by a friend or an enemy, please notify the Book Review immediately. The presumption should be that you will not review the book in question. Exceptions will occasionally be made, but please do not make a silent and private exception for yourself. There are books enough and reviewers enough that old allies and old antagonists need not review one another’s work.”
The alliances and antagonisms intended are, obviously (at least I hope it is obvious), of the personal sort. If it were not so, then anyone who had written a book like the one under review could be considered a rival and therefore an antagonist; in the end all novelists could be barred from reviewing current fiction. And yet, even as such extremes are rejected, it may be acknowledged that the fit between reviewer and reviewed can sometimes be too exact. As a New York publicity director once cracked, “If you’ve got a book about helicopters, The New York Times will get a helicopter to review it.”
The disqualification rule becomes most problematical where literary politics become political politics on the book page, for here more than elsewhere it is crucial that the voices of advocacy and antagonism, as well as those of detachment and neutrality, should be heard. Take the fight out of politics, and you take the politics out of politics.
Let me offer some examples.
On March 18, 1989, the Los Angeles Times Book Review published a review of Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ’60s by radicals-turned-conservative Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Our reviewer was Chilton Williamson Jr., then book editor of National Review and now senior editor at Chronicles: conservative on conservative, in other words. On April 2, 1989, we published a reader’s letter: “How could you assign Horowitz and Collier’s book to a senior editor of the National Review for review? That is like asking Roy Cohn to review a defense of Joe McCarthy. There isn’t a critical—in any sense of the word—sentence in the review. Williamson’s review is a rehash of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and the lies of the Bush campaign. . . . I am disappointed in The Times.”
Alongside the March 18 review of Destructive Generation we published a review of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals. Our reviewer was Russell Jacoby, author of the decidedly liberal The Last Intellectuals: liberal on conservative, this time. On April 2, 1989, we found ourselves publishing a letter that read: “I have just read with disgust your paper’s review by Russell Jacoby of Paul Johnson’s latest book. . . . Jacoby neither reviews the book’s content, nor effectively refutes either Johnson’s premise or his supporting data. Rather, your collegiate reviewer seems content to demonstrate an intellectual phenomena [sic] which probably encouraged the creation of ‘Intellectuals’ in the first place: Hysterical intolerance for any thought that is not ideologically collectivist in content, sympathy or tone.”
To both letter writers our choice of reviewer seemed perverse because the outcome seemed predictable. Surely we knew in advance that Williamson was likely to approve of Destructive Generation and Jacoby to disapprove of Intellectuals. But I maintain that the fact that advocacy or antagonism may be foreseeable in a given case does not mean that the means of the advocacy or antagonism will be foreseeable. And getting there can be all the fun. It could have been predicted that Christopher Hitchens, writing for The Nation, would dislike Johnson’s Intellectuals. It could not have been predicted that he would express his dislike by means of a wealth of scurrilous and hilarious ad hominem stories about Johnson. (I add, in Hitchens’ defense, that this is the sort of attack that Johnson does to all the subjects of his book.) And it surely could not have been predicted that Joe Sobran, writing in National Review, would also dislike Johnson’s book.
The real problem is that a political book cannot be reviewed three times in one publication: once by an ally, once by an antagonist, and once by a neutral. In the particular context of book reviewing under newspaper auspices, I do take the responsibilities of basic reporting with extra seriousness. And yet even here the book review as a genre contains within it elements of editorial and “op ed” writing as well as elements of art criticism. If authors are so often enraged by their reviews, it may be in part because these newspaper functions, normally dispersed, are in book reviewing so compressed.
In the end, even if it is the principal duty of the newspaper to report rather than to opine, fairness can only be approached by tacking and countertacking, cruel or capricious as this must seem in individual cases. It simply must be arranged, in other words, that on some occasions a liberal will comment on a liberal, a conservative on a liberal, a noncombatant on all partisans, and so forth. If readers are not sometimes exposed to the kind of argument that only a polemic or an apology can deliver, they will miss the whole flavor of the thing. A measure of detachment may be vital, but a surfeit of it is fatal. Variety, here, is not the spice, it is the very staff of life.
I have not yet addressed the implication in Ms. Dalton’s piece that, in the mainstream press, most liberal books are reviewed by friendly liberals, while most conservative books are reviewed by unfriendly liberals. A full response to that charge would involve something like a book review head count, an impossibility in practice, and so I offer only a suggestive example or two.
A recent issue of The New York Review of Books—surely the parade example of a mainstream left/liberal publication—quoted at length Andrei Sakharov’s grave reservations, then only just voiced, about the concentration of Soviet power in the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev. Another example: on March 30, 1989, The New York Review of Books offered a discussion of Sebastian Haffrier’s still-untranslated Pact With the Devil: German-Russian Relations from the First to the Second World War. Ideologically speaking, the Soviet Union lives and breathes by “The Great Fatherland War.” But, who armed Germany after World War I? Who trained its officers? Haffner’s book is potentially far more devastating to the Soviet self-image than even Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror.
In these two cases The New York Review of Books offers either primary documentation or early intelligence on themes dear to the conservative heart. I know of no conservative publication with a comparable record either on its own conservative agenda or, much less, on the liberal agenda.
My own hope is that these two examples from the last two or three issues of a quintessentially liberal publication, joined to the politics of book reviewing at the Los Angeles Times as I have outlined it, may make Katherine Dalton and the readers of Chronicles think twice before speaking of the liberal literary establishment. Call us an establishment if you like. But, reversing the proverb, don’t miss the individual trees in that liberal forest.
The article by Katherine Dalton to which he refers is “Books and Book Reviewing, or Why All Press Is Good Press,” in the January 1989 issue of Chronicles.
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