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Books
Book Review seems driven by hard news

Sunday, February 01, 2004

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Last February, the top story on the Books page was the battle between the poets against the war and Laura Bush.

A year later, the poets' stand seems even stronger while the first lady has sworn off poetry for the time being. Chances of a new confrontation are nil.

So, what do we have to amuse ourselves with on Super Bowl Sunday 2004?

The New York Times is looking for a new editor of its Sunday Book Review.

Charles "Chip" McGrath has expressed a desire to "move on" to a writing career. (To make his point, he recently wrote an essay for the Times on Sylvia Plath, remarkable for its thorough conventionality.)

Because the Sunday Book Review is the Cadillac of the industry, the literary crowd has suddenly become curious about personnel matters.

To satisfy that curiosity and dig up material for their weekly Internet column, "The Book Babes," Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel, traveled to Times Square last month to meet with Times brass -- Bill Keller, executive editor, and Steven Erlanger, cultural editor.

(Hammond is book editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Heltzel is a freelance reviewer. They've teamed up both online and in public with book seminars -- they had a Chautauqua Institution gig last summer to get more mileage from their book connections.)

Keller told The Babes that he's down to three or four candidates (Eastern college graduates living east of Hoboken is my prediction), with an announcement due within weeks.

The candidates were asked to write essays on changes needed at the Sunday review, but Keller and Erlanger seem to have already made up their minds, say The Babes.

"Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward nonfiction," said Keller, adding that "some fiction needs to be done."

Erlanger was quoted as seeing a need for "more policy and history. We need to be more urgent and journalistic."

He also believes that these reviews of topical books should stir up "Mailer-Vidal fights" by being contentious. It should be pointed out that Erlanger deals with book reviews in the daily paper and has no role at the Sunday Book Review.

The pair favor more coverage of the publishing business, mass-market books (to capture those mythical "younger readers" who will immediately turn from the Internet to the Times) and short takes on contemporary fiction.

Their heads spinning, The Babes skipped their tour of "Sex and the City" sites to jot down their conclusion:

"The Times would rather devote resources to fostering debate than discovering and nurturing imaginative writing" (as if it ever did that in the first place).

The overall impression is of hard-news Huns ready to pillage the sensitive, artsy-fartsy salon of literary taste. They'll make it more relevant by putting a little macho attitude (if you know what I mean) into the Sunday Book Review.

Discontent with the McGrath years at the review has been around for some time. Complaints were that it had become predictable (a review of a novel from the British Empire appeared regularly), safe, respectful of its advertisers and comfortable in its New York view of the world.

McGrath did recognize "mass-market" titles through regular brief reviews of mysteries, children's literature and a jumble of nonfiction and fiction releases

The review, though, usually ran more nonfiction than fiction reviews, saving its cover for books by highly respected novelists who had won McGrath's favor, such as Anne Tyler.

Keller's intention to add more nonfiction would make the review fairly one-dimensional, particularly if McGrath's successor sticks to the review's steady diet of conventional titles.

For instance, the Jan. 25 issue offered a collection of titles on American foreign policy, reflections by a Moslem, another look at Franklin Roosevelt, a recounting of Catholic Church travails reviewed by another McGrath favorite, Mary Gordon, a history of New York police and a memoir by David Denby, a member of Manhattan's cultural set.

Its fiction selection included reissues of two works by Marcel Proust, a collection of novellas by Doris Lessing, stories by Jim Shepard and a review of a first novel called "The Winemaker's Daughter."

Why, I wondered with so much new fiction already out this year, would McGrath pick this one, despite its Knopf imprint? The review told me: the author, Timothy Egan, is a correspondent for the Times. That'll do it very time.

If Keller selects a new editor who will put in place his vision of a review even longer on histories, biographies, memoir and social tracts and shorter on fiction, although with an emphasis on mass-market titles, the result might be fewer readers rather than more.

The Times, with its large readership and as the major advertising medium for publishing, can't afford to downplay fiction at a time when the novel, both in America and around the world, is going in new, at times exciting directions.

"You never know when you're going to need great artists," warned novelist Michael Cunningham.

By bowing to commercialism and whims of daily journalism, Keller and his crew are missing a really big story -- contemporary fiction.


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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