I had dinner this weekend at the house of a writer friend whose articles appear frequently on a well known website and in several prestigious print outlets. He had a non-fiction book out last year that got noticed in some circles but was ignored by The New York Times, where a certain reviewer recently commented privately, upon seeing the paperback: “I wish I’d reviewed this in hardcover.”
The book’s doing o.k. in the marketplace, but naturally my writer friend was incensed to have missed coverage from the newspaper of record. Which got me thinking…
Brad Listi has started a column on this website entitled “The View from the West.” My view is very much eastern, very much old school, where a book review from the Times was the only sure sign that an author had arrived. But maybe it’s time to rethink that, and this rethinking has been long overdue.
When I worked as an editor at Doubleday and later as an agent doing business with most major publishers, there was a constant lament about the Times’s cultural blindspots. This lament was rarely given voice beyond whispered conversations because hope sprung eternal that the newspaper would come around in time to review an author’s next work, rather than consign it, too, to oblivion.
Well, good luck with that. Many authors have waited their whole lives for a nod from the gray lady.
Meanwhile, the Times makes not even minimal concessions in the interest of literary fairness, often reviewing a book in the weekly edition and Sunday Times Book Review in the same week, blithely crowding out the works of authors whose careers could use a boost.
Then, too, there’s the latest biography of Ernest Shackleton (a new one every five years, it seems) or some other perennial figure that inevitably gets the nod over the first or third novel by — oh, take your pick; the unnamed are legion.
Not that I have anything against Shackleton, mind you. But one does wonder about the priorities of New York Times editors. For a while now, I’ve been receiving email alerts from the Times on the subject of writing. Since April 22 (which is as far back as my records go), I’ve counted 29 alerts. Of these, eight were writers’ obituaries and five were feature stories about dead writers (two of those on Irene Nemirovsky).
So, apparently, as a writer you have nearly as good a chance of making The New York Times after you die as you do when you’re alive. Does that sound like the proper ratio for a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business?
The Nervous Breakdown, I think, presents a fair cross section of living writers who are part of the cultural conversation. By my count, TNB has 262 contributors. Of these, 112 have written freestanding books published by third parties. (I’m not counting the self-published, the not yet published, those who have edited books, or those who are one contributor among many to a particular book.)
Of those 112 authors, The New York Times archive lists 27 as having been reviewed or mentioned in one of its print editions. Do the math: that’s 24 percent. And I’m including mere mentions here, not necessarily full-out reviews.
The newspaper’s defense, of course, would be to suggest (a) that TNB writers aren’t necessarily a representative sampling of the universe of writers; and (b) that the paper’s decision to cover or review particular authors will always be subjective.
To which all writers should reply: (a) TNB is a more representative sampling of writers than The New York Times will ever be because there’s no “survivorship bias”: all writers who meet certain minimal requirements are in; and (b) how the hell do the editors of The New York Times decide what to review, anyway?
Because, on the latter point, if they’re not reviewing or covering a representative sampling of up-and-coming writers and they’re not reviewing or covering most bestsellers (they’re not — trust me), then exactly how do they choose what to cover?
And, in any case, maybe it’s time at long last to say: who cares?