Sunday, August 14, 2011

What is the point of a "book review" section?

If you have ever asked yourself this question, or if you have ever tried to articulate an answer to this question, you will appreciate what The New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus has to say on the subject:

Our mission is very simple: to publish lively, informed, provocative criticism on the widest-possible range of books and also to provide a kind of snapshot of the literary culture as it exists in our particular moment through profiles, essays and reported articles.

There are many, many books published each year — hundreds stream into my office in the course of a week. Our job is to tell you which ones we think matter most, and why, and to direct your attention to authors and critics who have interesting things to say, particularly if they have original ways of saying them.

At a time when the printed word is being stampeded by the rush of competing "media," we're here to remind you that books matter too — that reading, as John Updike's invented novelist Henry Bech says, can be the best part of a person's life.

Tanenhaus, in a Q&A with readers on the NYT website, also enlightens us on the nature of his job, on the "absorbing and stimulating" tasks of a section editor at one of the world's greatest newspapers:

I oversee what goes into our pages and also manage a highly talented staff of editors and collaborate with our brilliant art directors ... in putting together each issue. These are absorbing and stimulating tasks. Which review should we put on the cover the week after next? How can we strike a good balance of fiction and nonfiction, high culture and pop culture, politics and science, etc.? ... Should we emphasize illustrations in a given week or photography?

Tanenhaus then gives us a peek at specific responsibilities:

Of course I read a lot each day, but in the office my fare is reviews, reviews, reviews in their various stages, from "raw copy" through final edits. This is also the case for my colleagues. Their days are spent assigning and editing and, the bane of our collective existence, fact-checking. I can't emphasize just how much of it goes on and how many different dimensions it takes.

The most demanding fact-checking is required, oddly enough, by fiction. Does the reviewer have the character's age right, the color of her eyes, the sequence of events in her past or her parents'? Does she drive a minivan or an SUV, and does she park outside a mall or on a side street? ... Fact-checking is drudgery, but it has to be done. We all "do windows" at the Book Review.

But it's not all drudgery, he writes:

[There] are fun jobs too, like reading the letters we get each week (including the many that come in via email). Our letters editor ... combs through all the correspondence and selects the most promising (the best argued, best written, most provocative). Then she brings them into my office and several of us go over them together. We're all proud of our lively letters page.

Book-reading, the great reward of the job, becomes at times a guilty pleasure, reserved for evenings and weekends. Since my own taste is for fiction, it's exciting to get early copies of the new Bolano, Pynchon, Sebald, Lethem, Eggers, or Mailer, or to see maturing novelists like Jennifer Egan or Claire Messud develop their talents in a surprising new way.

There are many interesting topics covered in this Q&A, including the selection of the "Ten Best Books of the Year" and the issue of bias in book reviews. Read the column in its entirety here.

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