Sam Tanenhaus has been making it clear for months that the New York Times Book Review is no longer much interested in books. He has now made this about as plain as it could be made. Under his watch, Tanenhaus says, the Book Review will not concern itself with actually reviewing books at all:
It's less about "looking at a book to see whether it's worthy than about whether something interesting can be said about it," he says.
Trust me: given the sorts of reviewers to which Tanenhaus has been turning, and given the attitude toward books they embody, readers of the Book Review have little reason to believe that in future issues "something interesting" will be said about the books it is ostensibly reviewing.
Ed Champion has very ably demonstrated that the "redesigned" Book Review fails to measure up in any way to the expectations serious readers should have of such a high-profile book review. I won't join in on this analysis myself, except to say that Ed is correct on every point. I would instead like to focus on the statement quoted above and its implications for what remains of general-interest book reviewing in what used to be the premier book-centered publication in the United States.
As we have seen, finding "something interesting" to say about Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint meant ignoring the book altogether in order to focus instead on the reviewer's dubious analysis of current political discourse. In the August 29 issue of the Book Review, "finding something interesting to say" meant considering the 9/11 Commission Report a "book" in the conventional sense and giving it a lengthy (four pages) front-page review in which Richard Posner solved our terrorism problem for us but had little to say that illuminated the report as something anyone should read. (The next-longest piece was Jacob Weisberg's review of three of the latest of the everflowing series of political books with which we have been inundated--every one of which the Book Review finds it necessary to cover.) The October 3 issue featured Paul Berman's tedious and interminable review of The Plot Against America, in which Berman joined the long line of reviewers who are doing exactly what Roth has warned them not to do, which is to read the book as a thinly veiled allegory of current political events. Thus, in this case finding "something interesting" to say means distorting the book under review and using it as an excuse to weary us with the reviewer's vapid remarks ("In the political culture of modern-age totalitarianism, there are soft doctrines for the fellow-traveling innocents around the world, and hard doctrines for the political insiders").
In the October 10 issue (not yet available online), finding "something interesting" to say means reviewing Ha Jin's new novel, War Trash, but doing it in a way that puts most of the emphasis on the book's depiction of American abuse of Chinese prisoners during the Korean War. (Abu Ghraib obviously looms in the background.) To be fair, this is not really the focus of Russell Banks's review (he mentions it), but it is the first thing discussed in an accompaying interview with Ha Jin, as if Banks had not totally succeeded in finding "something interesting" to say and so the Editor decided to help him out a little. The next-longest piece in this issue is a review (I think it's a review) of several books on. . .you guessed it, politics, this time a totally superfluous reflection on conservatism by Franklin Foer, which takes up two complete, ad-free pages.
And then there's the review of a new book by Nora Roberts. It would appear that Tanehaus also intends to make good on his promise to review more trash in the New York Times Book Review.
Ultimately, what the effort to find "whether something interesting can be said about" new books really amounts to is giving over the pages of the NYTBR to various hack journalists (in my opinion, Paul Berman belongs to this crowd) for their "insights," their "reflections," their so obviously superior sense of the "zeitgeist," the "global situation." Blech! As I have said before, the NYTBR is going to be a poor man's version of The New York Review of Books, in which, most often, self-important so-called pundits have an opportunity to self-display and in the process bore us to tears.
But of course who ever heard of a book review whose first responsibility would be "looking at a book to see whether it's worthy"?