The literary blogs have been seized with incredulity over the news that the New York Times Book Review, once it has hired a new editor, will, according to its editor and its cultural editor, be moving away from "literary fiction" (including especially "first novels") in favor of more coverage of popular fiction and "urgent and journalistic" nonfiction. As well they should be . The coverage of literary fiction in the Book Review as it now exists is plainly inadequate, and the kind of nonfiction the aforementioned editors seem to have in mind is in great measure not worth reading in the first place.
Yet it certainly should not be surprising that the general disdain for serious reading of worthwhile books that has long characterized American culture would eventually infect even The New York Times. The people running the place are journalists. By and large mainstream journalists (and by this designation I truly intend to exclude large numbers of perfectly good writers whose work might be characterized as a form of journalism) wouldn't know a good book from the latest political press release, and no doubt find the very idea of "literary fiction" alien and frightening, given their own crude sensibilities. A number of years ago I taught at a University known for training such journalists. My experience when teaching these students (an impression reinforced by the comments of my fellow instructors) was that they were among the weakest students on campus, many of them astonishingly ignorant and particularly inept in the use of the language. I doubt that many of my students now work at The New York Times, but the difference is one of degree and not kind. That so-and-so is an editor of a major newspaper I don't find very impressive.
These editors and journalists are, in fact, more akin to the "movie people" extolled in two recent postings at 2 Blowhards. What especially unites them, at least to judge it by the kinds of comments made by Bill Keller and Steven Erlanger, is that really neither they nor the movie people have much use for books at all in the final analyis, and certainly not for reading. In the 2 Blowhards screed, Michael (or Friedrich, or whoever the hell he is) admits as much in his insistence that books have value for purposes other than reading! (As well in his belief that literary fiction ought to be no more than 50 pages long.) Keller's stated preference for books that act as "a launching pad for discussion" betrays a similar attitude toward books as, in this case, an excuse for Hardball-type tv gasbaggery rather than as carefully composed "texts" intended to be read and considered in an equally careful way.
At best, what Keller and Erlanger seem to have in mind, aside from reviewing more airport books, is to convert the Times Book Review into something closer to The New York Review of Books, where indeed most of the review space is taken up with books of "urgency' or which deal with issues of "current interest." Unfortunately, the NYRB is even less interested in fiction or poetry than the new Book Review is likely to be. At best one or two reviews of fiction by well-known writers appear per issue, and the intent of the editors is clearly to keep abreast of political and social developments rather than provide a forum for literary criticism. And the new Book Review will surely be less adept at this than the NYRB.
Perhaps the best strategy for those of us dismayed by this change in the Times Book Review's emphasis is not to deluge Keller or Erlanger with e-mails of protest, as was suggested at The Return of the Reluctant, but instead to bide our time. I suspect that these people, who are relatively new to their jobs, don't really understand the nature of the audience that does read the New York Times Book Review. I think the majority of this audience are indeed "book people" who won't appreciate the new approach and who will stop reading the thing. Ad revenues from publishers could fall off as well. It may be that this readership is finally less interested in "urgency" and more interested in the 800 words (or more) dedicated to what's left of serious fiction--and truly serious nonfiction, for that matter.