Writing at The Nervous Breakdown, J.E. Fishman asks: is the New York Times Book Review still relevant? The simple answer, of course, is “no,” but the very simplicity of the answer suggests that Fishman is not necessarily asking the most pertinent question. A better question would be: why is the New York Times Book Review relevant no longer?
Although Fishman gestures vaguely at an answer, he doesn’t quite put his finger on it. Beginning with an anecdote about a friend whose non-fiction book was overlooked by the Times and who was therefore “incensed to have missed coverage from the newspaper of record,” Fishman then takes issue with the Times‘ propensity for covering long-dead authors at the expense of emerging authors and wonders whether that can rightly be considered best practice for “a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business.” The discrepancy between the Times‘ bid for both immediacy and posterity does not seem to trouble him, but the Times‘ own response to this discrepancy is precisely what has driven its Book Review into irrelevance.
“Literature is the news that stays news.” On one level, that’s a truism; but on another level, it is simply true. The books that tend to have the longest shelf life are those that have been crafted with the utmost rhetorical deliberation and care: fiction and poetry, of course, as well as aesthetic rather than purely didactic non-fiction. As a result, if a “newspaper of record” is to meet the demands of both immediacy and posterity, it must give more attention to those sorts of books: it must actively seek out and champion books that are not merely worthwhile or satisfactory, but are so distinctly masterful as to stand the test of time. The Book Review, however, doesn’t do this. It is now focused almost exclusively on immediacy over posterity; on burnishing its credentials as “a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business” at the expense of its status as a “newspaper of record.” It is no longer relevant because its reviews have become disposable — they are not worth returning to after the first reading — and those reviews are disposable because the books under review are equally disposable.
There are other sorts of books out there, albeit not usually in the catalogues of the major publishers favoured by the Times. Once, the Times itself would have directed us towards such books. But ever since the editor of the Book Review decided to appeal to a “general reader” — which is to say an intelligent reader, but one less invested in literature than in sociopolitical and cultural chatter — the task has been taken up by other venues like the Quarterly Conversation and the Critical Flame. They are now doing a better job of book reviewing than the New York Times has done in years — and not necessarily because they are intrinsically better at it, but simply because they are doing the job whereas the Times has largely abandoned it.