Biographer and editor Sam Tanenhaus discusses contemporary writing and books.
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GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and, aside from “Who have been your favorite guests over the past fifty years”, the question that has been put to me most often over this past half-century has, hands down, been – “Where do you get most of your guests”. And, quite honestly, my answer has always been – “from the New York Times Book Review”.
Not that The Open Mind is about books, per se. It’s not. It’s about ideas. But, thank goodness, books remain our major source of ideas … and the Sunday Times Book Review remains my major entry into the world of books.
Which is why I’ve asked Sam Tanenhaus, its rather new-ish top editor, to join me here today.
Himself the author of a much acclaimed biography about Whittaker Chambers, Mr. Tanenhaus has been working for some years on one about William F. Buckley, Jr., and recently wrote a quite compelling – though, I think, challengeable -essay/review of David S. Brown’s intellectual biography of the great American historian Richard Hofstadter … who was my teacher in days beyond recall.
Of course, I want to ask my guest today about all of these matters, but, first … I don’t know whether he’ll object if I ask him what in the world this out-take from the Sunday book review is. Here, the other week, I opened up the Sunday Times and I find an advertisement right in the middle of it, for television programs. Is this the, ah, sign of the times.
TANENHAUS: Believe it or not … I hope so.
HEFFNER: You do?
TANENHAUS: Sure. Because the number of pages we get from week to week, the amount of newsprint we have and space we can devote to reviews is premised in large part in the advertising we get. And a huge ad like that, lavishly paid for, gives us more room to run more reviews and essays.
HEFFNER: No problems?
TANENHAUS: So, I’d love to see it every week. Absolutely.
HEFFNER: No problems with it?
TANENHAUS: Well, look at some of the other ads we run. For sex manuals and reading lamps and far worse than a television program, so I’m happy, happy to have it.
HEFFNER: What’s been the reaction? To this.
TANENHAUS: Very little. There was one dissenting letter, or at least one that reached me from a reader who was shocked to see an ad for a television program. And I had to point out to her that television programs have been advertised in the Book Review for a long time. Films as well.
It’s … also it has another virtue which is that it indicates, I hope, that the section, the Book Review has a wider reach than maybe it once did. And this is a moment in our culture when one tries to reach as many readers as possible. And if NBC, which I believe took out that ad …
TANENHAUS: … thinks we’re a good platform, as they say, for it … more power to them and to us.
HEFFNER: What does it mean about books in America? I don’t mean what does it mean about the Sunday Book Review.
TANENHAUS: Well, I’m not sure it means anything in particular at all. I mean if anything it would seem to send an optimistic signal that those who are running the great television networks actually think they’re producing material of high enough caliber to interest readers of The New York Times Book Review. So that’s good.
HEFFNER: Wow that’s … that’s … that … you did that very well.
HEFFNER: Do you have to think about that a long time?
TANENHAUS: No, not really. I was very happy when I got the news that this was happening. One of the issues that’s faced the Book Review for a number of years now is cultural relevance. And cultural relevance comes in all sizes and shapes. It means writing the very challenging and the longer essay than the section used to do. And it also means reaching out again to that broader base of potential readers.
If an ad like that in a thicker paper pulls someone else into our pages, it’s not affecting our editorial content at all, not one bit. Then that’s good. As for the place of books themselves, I think, we know this is a difficult time and has been … there are more books published than ever before, astronomically so … how many good books is another question altogether.
But that’s an issue that really originates again in the complications of the culture and the pressures on authors, on publishers, on the desire or exigency to sell a lot of copies, to publish books that hit directly off the news in some way … all these factors come into play. And yet at the end of the year, which we’re now approaching when we look through out list of review titles and choose what are now the 100 notable books of the year and then our imperium … “the ten best books of the year”, there will be some very strong competition by some really fine writers. So things could be much, much worse. I’m not a decline-ist.
HEFFNER: A “decline-ist” and interesting word …
HEFFNER: … meaning the decline of Western civilization?
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TANENHAUS: Yes. I mean it’s something one has heard all one’s lifetime and, of course, pre-dates both of us … back to, you know, the eighteenth century and the French reactionary like Dumestre, someone who was afraid that civilization had gone to hell following the Enlightenment, you know. And I think this is a continual theme that’s sounded.
We can go back further to the Bible, the Old Testament. And the Books of the Prophets. I just don’t really think it’s true. I think there’s more distraction one must wade through these days than in the past. But that the really good stuff remains … really good. I think there are probably more novelists now who are really competent … I’m not talking about necessarily great writers … Bellows and Joyces and Prousts, but who are really good at what they do and have mastered their craft then there were thirty or forty years ago.
I think what we seem to miss are the really huge, oracular and commanding voices. Those don’t seem to be as present as they once were.
HEFFNER: How would you identify them?
TANENHAUS: Well …
HEFFNER: Which voices?
TANENHAUS: Ahmmm … by name you mean?
TANENHAUS: Well, I’m just looking at the modern library, rather the Library of America re-publication of some of Saul Bellow’s novels. This collection is Siege the Day, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog, and … I am old enough to remember when a new novel by Bellow was a real event. When the culture seemed to stop in its tracks for a moment and take notice.
But again, maybe it was just because I was a bookworm, and Bellow mattered to me. But I think Bellow was a major writer certainly. And contemporary writers … John Updike and Phillip Roth. These are major American literary figures who I think will be read for a very long time to come.
And who tap into the, the great American and some instances, Continental, tradition of the novel. They’re complete modernists, which is to say they’re in total aesthetic control of their work. They create all the effects, all the complex interlocking systems of imagery and ideas that the major early twentieth century novelists did.
I think Ian McEwan in England does the same thing. A novel like Atonement is written with the craftsmanship, if not necessarily the huge ambition of a book like Ulysses. So those are some of the major voices; there are others, too. But it’s harder to do. There are not as many people in the stands to watch when a novelist hits a home run.
HEFFNER: That’s an interesting thing to say, you say, first there are many, many, many more books.
HEFFNER: then you say there are not so many people in the stands.
TANENHAUS: Yes, that’s right. Because many of the books are aimed for very specific readers … self-help books, advice books … I mean it got to be so proliferant at one point that before I got to the Times Book Review that once monolithic best seller list had to be compartmentalized into several to accommodate them all and to make it possible for the really serious literary books and historical books, books of ideas to make their way on to the bestseller list where they’d be noticed. So, yes, there are more books for smaller groups of readers, I think. And, of course, the occasional, monumental blockbuster, The DaVinci Code, or something like that.
HEFFNER: What’s your mission statement … yours.
TANENHAUS: Mine? As Editor of the Book Review?
TANENHAUS: It is to do a few things. It is one to re-situate the book review in the center of the most serious cultural discussion
HEFFNER: Why do you say, “re-situate”?
TANENHAUS: Well, I think every new period introduces new sets of arguments. And my predecessor Charles McGrath … Chip McGrath, who is a friend and mentor, edited the Book Review at a time when there was a … really a tangible need for it to reclaim some literary stature it had lost.
That is just as a publication one would read for the style and seriousness of the writing. I came in at a period the very highly polarized moment of 2004 in April, six months, eight months before a hotly contested election, when political questions were really dominant. And so one of my roles … one of my goals has been to make the Book Review reflect the broadest possible spectrum of that discussion, however heated and frankly, unliterary it can be.
Now, traditionally the Book Review went down the middle, and I don’t mean this just ideologically. But also tonally. That is the ideal reviewer was someone who might review a very polemic or heated book in a very muted, detached way. And I thought the time had come when stronger voices had to be heard in their authentic, natural environment, so to speak. So that was something I’ve tried to do.
Another is to broaden the aperture of the Book Review, that is to cover simultaneously, if possible, in the same issue, or even in a single review, both high and low culture.
That again the Times had inclined toward the middle when I think this is a culture, again, dominated by extremes. And while we don’t ever endorse extreme positions, we think our readers should know about them. And again … now I’m talking about cultural extremes. So, for instance, when the Times reporter Alex Kuczynski wrote a book about cosmetic maintenance, as it’s called … cosmetic surgery and botox and such, that seemed to us a very useful review to run at just about the same time we had Henry Kissinger writing on foreign policy. That that way we cover a broader swathe of the culture. That was something else I wanted to do.
HEFFNER: That’s what you mean by cultural relevance?
TANENHAUS: Yes, all those things together. Yes, that’s right. And, and also I would add to that if we can make this section vibrant week to week and this involves also bringing in some younger, fresher voices. For instance, one of our really superb fiction critics is Liesl Schillinger who is an Editor at The New Yorker and has become one of our lead fiction writers and if she can establish herself as a “voice”, then she could write about a first novel, like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics and make it a cultural event because she’s speaking to a new generation of reader. So that’s really the third element we’ve introduced. And all that in composite, gives us, I hope some kind of cultural relevance.
It’s a work in progress, you know, from week to week we have to make it better. But that’s one of the satisfactions, or consolations of journalism. If you haven’t done it very well the last week, you can try to do better next week.
HEFFNER: What do you compare yourself to? In your own head.
TANENHAUS: The Book Review?
TANENHAUS: Well, we occupy an unusual place. We’re not The New York Review of Books, we don’t publish often the most definitive review of a book at that length. On the other hand we have to be more time sensitive then they are. But we look at them and, and I used to write for The New York Review … I’m a tremendous fan of Robert Silvers, I think he’s one of the great editors of the age, if not, perhaps, the very greatest.
We also look at The New Yorker, I admire their book pages. Now that’s a case where they really have three or four main critics, John Updike, Joan Acocella, Adam Gopnik, Anthony Lane, one or two others, who write about books and topics that interest them.
Again, they don’t need to be as responsive to the breadth of literature that we are. The third competitor I’d mention is The New Republic. Again, I wrote for their brilliant literary editor Leon Wieseltier for a number of years. I admire the range in eclecticism of his review. Again he can afford to be narrower than we are. I don’t really compare us so much to other newspaper supplements, because we’re so much bigger, we have so many more pages than they do and have more of an obligation to cover the widest possible range of books.
So, but we fit somewhere in there I think. What sets us apart is we’re the review that probably is most important in determining the immediate fate of an individual book. That is to say, a prominent review in our pages, and particularly a favorable one, on the cover will help that book considerably. Probably more than any other publication will.
And at times a mixed, or dissenting, or negative review may be able to harm its chances.
HEFFNER: How heavily does that phenomenon lay upon our shoulders.
TANENHAUS: Not too, not too heavily; not as heavily as it might, I suppose. I’m an author myself and for that reason, have been through this process of having been quite widely and not always sympathetically reviewed. And what I learned from it is that most readers think most reviews are favorable. No such thing as bad publicity. They don’t read them with the minute attention that authors do, that publishers do, or that you or I might. They’re not looking for the hidden strain of argument; they’re not looking for that quiet modulation of phrase that actually indicates that a reviewer doesn’t think much of a book.
Reviewers read them for news, as well they should. So prominent placement in the section, an attractive photograph or eye catching illustration is all to the good. And, I was also once in book publicity; it was one of my very first jobs … of any kind … when I first came to New York … and my boss there, a very brilliant publicist who’s now a publisher, Helen Atwan of the Beacon Press, used to tell authors all the time, two or three percent of all the books published appear in The Book Review. So, take your medicine and don’t complain.
That doesn’t mean that reviewers don’t have an obligation to take the book on its own merits. That’s the only time I’m concerned. And every now and again it does happen that a reviewer seems to go into an assignment without and absolutely clean …
HEFFNER: Open mind?
TANENHAUS: Open mind, yes, very, very good.
HEFFNER: That’s an accusation that is, not often, but frequently enough made …
TANENHAUS: Yes, that’s right.
HEFFNER: To raise the question for you.
TANENHAUS: That’s right. Well, what authors routinely say and something we try to guard against is “X reviewer hasn’t read my book”. And what the author means is hasn’t read it in the way it should be read. I think that’s a valid complaint.
You know, Updike a number of years ago, wrote an introduction to one of his collections of reviews setting forth some of the guidelines he follows.
Now he’s writing longer reviews than we often publish, so he has more room than we do to, for instance, quote at least one lengthy passage.
He said you should do that so the reader gets his own, her own, sense of what the author’s prose is like. Don’t expect the author to have written the book you want him or her to write. And I think that’s really important.
That’s what Henry James called the “donnee”, the “given”, the given of a book. If you have a problem with its premise, it’s essential premise, you shouldn’t be writing about it. And, of course, there should be no personal animus and here we do the very best we can to screen it out.
HEFFNER: How do you do the very best?
TANENHAUS: Well, we ask a series of question: Have you written about this author before? Has he or she written about you? How well do you know them? Might there be any grounds for this reviewer to write favorably … or unfavorably … about you. We do the very best we can. And you can’t insult your reviewers.
For instance I’m reminded of an occasion when we asked a very prominent historian, one of the leading historians in the country now … to review a book and said, “do you know the author.” And he said, “of course I know the author, there are very few of us who write in this field and we all know each other. That’s why we’re who we are.”
And yet for us that’s a conflict, which another publications would not bother itself with at all. So, we are particularly careful about that, which again doesn’t mean to say we always succeed in screening out bias, either favorable or unfavorable.
HEFFNER: Well I, you know, I’ve become aware in reading through some of the god-awful blog material that appears about the Book Review section and certainly when you were chosen to lead, to be the Chief Editor. But I was thinking back to a time … 20, 30 years ago, when I was asked, somewhat frequently to write reviews and I never was asked, “did I know the person?” or anything like that. And I wondered …
TANENHAUS: When that began, when that practice began? That I don’t know. I actually don’t know when that began. I … when I came in it was very much in force. And when I used to be asked to write for the section I was, I was always asked that. But its … we decide on a case by case basis. There is no ironclad set of rules we have. But we like to know what we’re getting into as much as possible.
HEFFNER: I guess my own feeling is … having done it enough, too much perhaps, what a tremendous burden it is upon the reviewer to know … for the Times … knowing what power a view has in the Times … as in your theater section. So your book section.
TANENHAUS: Yes. It’s a little different because, of course, the theater section has a staff of critics, and the daily paper has regular reviewers … Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin now and William Grimes, Biff Grimes. For us it’s a little different because we’re using freelancers.
HEFFNER: But you do use people quite frequently, don’t you?
TANENHAUS: Yes, there are reviewers we turn to often for a variety of reasons. One is they write well. Two, they can meet our deadlines. Which are important for us. We like to have an early review, if possible. Not before the publication date. We never do that. But we don’t want to weigh in too much after other publications have. Now sometimes it happens. And sometimes … and sometimes we think an essay is so strong or so interesting in its own right, just as a piece of cogitation or a belle lettre, so it really doesn’t matter when we do it.
For instance the front cover of view of the 15th, October 15th I believe … that’s Henry Kissinger on the new Dean Atcheson biography. We had had in house for some time … we had that review and were looking for a good moment. But there it didn’t really matter to us that the essay ran well after the publication date.
First of all, Atcheson had been the subject of a fairly recent biography by James Chase, former editor, at one time, as the Book Review and … but the most important reason was the interest here … not to detract in anyway from an ambitious and important book … was Kissinger. Here’s one former Secretary of State, much reviled, writing about another, perhaps even more reviled. And it seemed to us that this was a piece of reading that was interesting in its own right. So in cases like that we don’t worry so much about publication dates.
HEFFNER: What did you think … in the time that you assigned that book about your questions relating to conflict of interest?
TANENHAUS: Well, because Kissinger had worked with Atcheson?
HEFFNER: Because, as you just said, two Secretaries who had been so much reviled …
TANENHAUS: Oh, well, well, the conflict of interest we worry about is between reviewer and author.
TANENHAUS: So that … that’s not an issue at all. To us that seems interesting, to have Kissinger … who belongs to a later generation. And I’d forgotten, I have to admit, and my colleague Barry Gewen, who worked on that piece as well, I think had forgotten … though I don’t want to misrepresent his infinite wisdom, if in fact he did recall it, that Kissinger had actually worked briefly with Atcheson in the Nixon White House.
But … no … that would … that’s of historical interest to us. The conflict is always between reviewer and author. Would Dr. Kissinger be in any way inclined either to look too favorably or unfavorably on this particular author … Robert Beisner and his book. That’s the conflict we worry about.
HEFFNER: What … may I ask … and our time is running out … which may be a good thing …
HEFFNER: … in these terms. What did you think of … as a reader … of David Brook’s review in yesterday’s …
TANENHAUS: Of Andrew Sullivan’s book?
HEFFNER: Uh huh.
TANENHAUS: I thought it was interesting because obviously the Conservatives are in a state of tumult, including the intellectuals among them. And here are two interesting figures of the same generation who are closely read, who both have considerable standing outside that community … and this, by the way was one we vetted very closely for a relationship between the two … and we decided that … David told us very clearly that he knows Andrew Sullivan quite well …
HEFFNER: And he told his readers.
TANENHAUS: Yes, he did. And that is one solution, of course, is to have a disclosure of that kind. But we thought this was a chance to take readers inside the higher echelons of the Conservative argument. Rather than say, to ask a Liberal to attack Andrew Sullivan. That wouldn’t have seemed very interesting to us. But to hear Conservatives with different points of view … quarreling or disagreeing over these issues … seemed worth doing to us. What did you think of it?
HEFFNER: I thought it was a fascinating review. It reminded me when David Brooks is here I say to him, “When are you coming home, David?” because I don’t think he’s going to stay where he is intellectually.
TANENHAUS: Well he … admitted almost as much, didn’t he … in our pages …
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
TANENHAUS: … and that’s what we like to do is to get … to cut close to the bone in that way.
HEFFNER: Sam Tanenhaus, our time is just about up … but there are so many questions to ask you, so many things to talk about … if we can get the director to fit us in … would you stay and do another half hour now.
HEFFNER: Okay … then I will thank you Sam Tanenhaus for joining me today on The Open Mind and see you soon.
TANENHAUS: My pleasure.
HEFFNER: My thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.