Unhappily, I am inclined to agree with the Literary Saloon's rather gloomy preliminary assessment of NY Times Book Review editor-select Sam Tanenhaus based on this profile. The Saloon has also picked out the quote that should cause the most alarm:
And while he has no plans to abandon fiction -- contrary to the fears of many in the publishing world -- his enthusiasms seem to lie more in nonfiction. "We’re living in really an exemplary age of nonfiction narrative, and to some extent nonfiction has taken over some of the earlier attributes of the novel, which is story-telling," he said. "Nonfiction writers have inherited the classic technique of fiction. That’s what I tried to do in my biography, I tried to write it as if it were a novel."
I have in a previous post expatiated on my views of memoir and most biograpy ("nonfiction narrative"), so I'll try not to repeat myself too extensively. However, there is much to disagree with in Mr. Tanenhaus's statement. First of all, it is an entirely open question whether we do in fact live in "an exemplary age of nonfiction narrative." We live in age where much of it is being done, but this may prove to be all that can be said for it. In fact, most of the nonfiction narrative I sample is characterized primarily by formula, simplistic imitation of "the classic technique of fiction," and, unfortunately, much tedium.
Second , Tanenhaus correctly states that a certain kind of nonfiction has appropriated "earlier attributes" of fiction, but he then pronounces these attributes to be indeed the classic qualities of fiction. What Tanenhaus is identifying as "classic" has not been the norm in serious fiction for about 150 years. One could say that the kind of "traditional" storytelling Tanenhaus almost certainly has in mind dominated serious fiction for only its first 75-100 years. If we take Tanenhaus's own biography of Whittaker Chambers as an exemplum of what he's describing, he probably is thinking of something like the Victorian "triple-decker." I like these books a lot, but it can't seriously be proposed that the narrative conventions of Victorian England are the appropriate standards for twenty-first century America. To this extent, Tanenhaus is advancing a model that is retrogressive indeed.
Having said that, I'm not even sure Tanenhaus's Chambers biography works in the way he implies here. It tells the story of Chambers's life all right (this is still the very definition of "biography"), but it doesn't settle for mere "nonfiction narrative." There's plenty of analysis, social, political, even literary, as well as a good deal of psychological probing of the mindsets of both Chambers and Alger Hiss. In my opinion, it doesn' read like a "novel" of the period at all.
Finally, Tanenhaus's glorification of all things nonfiction is fairly obviously a way of belittling the practices of current novelists, who no longer--not even the remaining "realists"--respect the "classic technique of fiction." Probably behind this is the belief that contemporary writers of fiction are too artsy for their own good and don't understand that fiction writers ought to do their duty to the great sociopolital "conversation" that journalists like Bill Keller--and regrettably even Sam Tanenhaus--take for serious discourse. (There's almost no mention of poetry in this profile. It's probably a goner.) To judge by the quality of such conversation in the current configuration of the NYTBR (as well as other book reviews), it's all going to be pretty insipid.
In a comment I posted at another blog on the announcement of Tanenhaus's ascension to the Book Review throne, I said that since Tanenhaus was himself a good writer, I was "mildly optimistic" about his administration of the New York Times Book Review. I still think he's a good writer, but I can't say I'm now very optimistic, mildly or otherwise. As the Saloon puts it, this early declaration of the new editor's reigning assumptions "doesn't sound good at all."
Postscript (March 20): Agni editor Sven Birkerts examines this whole mess here. I've just discovered this piece. Everyone should read it.