McGrath Decamping From Intransigent Times Book Review

When Charles (Chip) McGrath steps down this winter as editor of The New York Times Book Review in order to write for the paper full-time, whoever takes over will inherit not just a storied piece of literary real estate but a set of problems that may just be unsolvable.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times , confirmed rumors of Mr. McGrath’s departure in a Nov. 13 e-mail to the Times staff. “Since dissembling is one of the few skills Chip McGrath has NOT mastered, it is by now no secret that he has been agitating for a return to the writing life,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Since getting Chip as a full-time writer is almost adequate repayment for losing him as editor of the Book Review, we have come to terms.” Mr. Keller’s memo said the Book Review under Mr. McGrath was “much like Chip himself: intelligent and witty, sophisticated without being self-important.”

After spending 23 years as a writer and editor at The New Yorker , Mr. McGrath was named editor of the Book Review in 1995. “I think I’ve had a great run as an editor,” Mr. McGrath said. Editing the Book Review is “a job that one shouldn’t do forever,” he added. “I think you need to stay fresh and you don’t want to get stale in your responses.” Mr. McGrath said he’d been feeling some wear and tear: “I have too thin a skin for this job,” he said.

Does Adam Moss, The Times ‘ newly appointed “culture czar,” know what he is up against as he conducts the search for Mr. McGrath’s successor? Mr. Moss said The Times expects to interview candidates in the next several weeks and name the new editor “probably in a couple of months.” As of Monday, The Times has had “absolutely no-zero-conversations with anyone about the job,” Mr. Moss said. “We are just beginning the search now.”

Mr. Moss said The Times would evaluate its other publishing coverage along with the Book Review . Last spring, The Times killed its publishing column, written by Martin Arnold and considered puzzling and often wildly off-base by the publishing world, and since David Kirkpatrick was reassigned to the media-business beat in mid-2002, the paper doesn’t have a full-time reporter on the publishing-industry beat.

But for now, it sounds like status quo is the goal. “We’re big fans of the Book Review we publish now. We’re just looking for an exciting editor,” Mr. Moss said. The Times is looking for “a person who can do as good a job with the Review as Chip did and who will bring his or her own ideas. We’re not looking for a person to execute a plan we already have,” he continued. “The important thing is, we’re not looking for radical change.”

Mr. Moss’ words should placate anyone who feared the Book Review might turn into fluff, but they will be grating to those-and there are many-who think the Sunday section needs a substantial overhaul. With its hokey illustrations and often tepid prose interspersed with full-page advertisements for “broad spectrum” anti-depression lighting, it has become so familiar that millions of readers can hardly imagine a Sunday without it. But few would say that sitting down with the Book Review is a bracing experience these days. Rarely does a Times Book Review piece make a ripple in literary conversations.

Yet even the Book Review ‘s harshest critics are hard-pressed to come up with a recipe to improve it-and this may be because the Book Review ‘s problems are written into its very DNA. As John Leonard, now a book critic for Harper’s and the television critic for New York magazine, put it: “It’s an anomalous publication.” Mr. Leonard’s tenure as editor of the Book Review , from 1970 to 1975, is often mentioned as the publication’s last golden age, a time when its pages played host to charged intellectual battles and reviewers regularly took on questions central to the culture-a time when book reviews mattered . (Mr. Leonard said that at the time, the publishing establishment greeted his regime with terror.) “It can’t be a strictly literary magazine because it’s part of a newspaper, it’s a source of advertising revenue,” Mr. Leonard said. “It’s got to be journalistic. It’s got to cover too many things, therefore it’s very hard to get a consistent tone.”

Or, as Mr. McGrath described it, the Book Review falls “between The New York Review of Books , say, and the book coverage in Time or Newsweek . Its blessing and its curse is that its mandate is to cover the waterfront.” The curse is that it can never review enough of the hundreds of thousands of books published each year to live up to its reputation as the book review of record, and yet it will always be too much like Time or Newsweek -that is, too middle-of-the-road, too beholden to mass tastes-to engage in meatier literary criticism.

Mr. McGrath’s successor will arrive at a time when there is actually some larger debate about book reviewing going on. It’s all a bit strangely polarized: On one end of the spectrum are the likes of the militantly mild Believer editor Heidi Julavits, issuing rambling screeds against “snarky” book critics. On the other are bomb-throwers like the novelist Dale Peck, who routinely goes after big quarry in his long reviews in The New Republic , and whose supposed acts of critical derring-do got him an anthropological profile in The New York Times Magazine last month, as if an ambitious, bloodthirsty critic were some kind of special case that demanded to be analyzed.

Some see these extremes, and the attention they’re getting, as reactions to the wishy-washy state of the Book Review . “If The New York Times ‘ critics were a little bit mouthier and brassier, Peck’s bad boy persona-as it were-would not quite have felt like such an emancipation,” said David Kipen, the book critic of the San Francisco Chronicle . In Mr. Kipen’s assessment, The Times Book Review features “too many New Yorkers reviewing too many other New Yorkers and not wanting to have drinks thrown in their face” at the next book party.

Even more than the critics, it’s the editor of the Book Review who’s likely to be on the receiving end of an errant glass of warm Chardonnay. The editor appears to the world at large as the bouncer of an elite literary club. Writers feel they’ve hit the big time when they’re invited in, and are full of righteous indignation when they-or their friends-get left out in the cold. Publishers and editors let it be known that they feel their livelihoods are on the line with every issue-or else they nonchalantly dismiss its clout, especially when their authors get bad reviews.

It’s clearly not a job for anyone who depends on a regular diet of general approval. “You’re painfully aware that no matter what you do, you make somebody unhappy,” said Mr. McGrath. “A lot of people feel that part of their job is to let you know in various ways how unhappy you’ve made them. That’s wearing,” he said. He said he began choreographing his exit when he started “to think of the books coming in as your enemies, not your friends.”

“The job wears you out,” said Mr. Leonard. “I lasted five years. It’s not so much that the books keep coming, but the complaints keep coming. You can never satisfy the publishing industry.”

Even the task of bringing standout critics to the Book Review ‘s pages is not as easy as it sounds. Mr. Leonard pointed out that many seemingly frisky reviewers freeze up when handed a plum New York Times assignment. “People tend to write differently for The Times than they do in the venues you found them in originally,” Mr. Leonard said. “They become pompous and straight-laced.”

The Times Book Review ‘s editor also has to have a high tolerance for the creaking Times bureaucracy. Small wonder that the list of rumored potential candidates isn’t exactly long. The names being bandied about include Alexander Star, the editor of the Boston Globe ‘s new Ideas section and the former editor of Lingua Franca . Mr. Star, known as an erudite and politic editor, declined to comment, but Times sources said Mr. Star is interviewing for the editorial-director job at The Times Magazine that was vacated by Gerry Marzorati when he became the Magazine ‘s editor in September.

Then there’s Sarah Crichton, the former publisher at Little, Brown and a former arts editor at Newsweek , who is seen as a strong editor not afraid to whip things into shape (Ms. Crichton famously clashed with Time Warner chairman Laurence Kirschbaum at Little, Brown). Ms. Crichton said that he hadn’t spoken to The Times and declined to comment further. Laura Miller, a founding editor of Salon and longtime contributor to the Book Review who also writes a bimonthly back-page essay in it, is another book-world insider seen as a potential no-nonsense Book Review editor. Ms. Miller said The Times hadn’t contacted her. Another name in the rumor mill is The Observer ‘s literary editor, Adam Begley. He said he hadn’t received any calls from The Times , either. Messrs. Moss and McGrath wouldn’t discuss names. “Some people have already gotten in touch with us, and we’ll be reaching out to others who we think might be interested or interesting,” Mr. Moss said.

Whether the incoming editor can translate a vision into a reality depends in part on how much power he or she will be given-or insist on. Indeed, sources at The Times say Mr. McGrath didn’t make any big staffing changes, having inherited both an art director and six “preview editors,” who vet book galleys and assign and edit book reviews. Besides choosing his deputy, Julie Just, Mr. McGrath has had just one preview-editor slot to fill. He first hired Sarah Mosle; when she left in 1999, Mr. McGrath brought in Dwight Garner, who currently handles fiction. As to whether the incoming editor will be able to reshape the staff, “Those sorts of questions are really of internal concern,” Mr. Moss said. “I will say that the new editor will have the authority to make the Book Review he or she thinks ought to be published, because that’s why we will hire this person.”

Literary observers say Mr. McGrath’s imprint on the Book Review was subtle but evident-he made his literary sensibility and support for serious fiction clear, and he changed the back page from a space open to hit-or-miss freelance pieces into a rotation of regulars: the “Boox” cartoon by Mark Alan Stamaty and two essayists, Pulitzer Prize–winner Margo Jefferson and Judith Shulevitz, who left the spot last spring and was replaced by Ms. Miller.

Some lauded Mr. McGrath for remaining dedicated to reviewing more esoteric books than the stuff that makes The Times ‘ own national best-seller list. “I think Chip’s been a real friend to literary fiction in his tenure there,” said Jeff Seroy, senior vice president and director of publicity at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “His taste in books aligns with what we tend to publish,” said Nicholas Latimer, the director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf. “I’m going to be saddened to see him go.”

Mr. McGrath said he was most proud of “improving the quality of the writing” at the Book Review . “It was never as good as I wanted it to be, but it is getting there. I think whoever succeeds me has a good base to start on,” he said. Mr. McGrath said his other goal at the Book Review was “simultaneously to make it higher-brow and lower-brow”-by reviewing pop-culture books as well as weightier ones.

Even as they urge change at the Book Review , the nervous nellies of the publishing world are also worried about just what kind of beast might emerge. “Everyone holds their breath when changes are rumored at The Times , because we do not imagine that they’re going to be suddenly upping the number of pages allotted to book reviewing,” said Starling Lawrence, the editor in chief of W.W. Norton and Co.

“I hope that it doesn’t get dumbed down, with a lot of short reviews about ephemera,” said Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of literary stalwart F.S.G. “It should discover people, help make careers”-of book authors, he said, although the same could go for critics.

“I’d hate to see it go in for more interviews, author photographs, publishing news, even the gossip-anything that cuts down on anything devoted to the review of books,” Mr. Leonard said. “I hope it won’t go that way, but the whole culture is going that way, in a celebrity-fucker direction.”

“I would change it-but by changing it, I would by definition be reviewing fewer books,” said Benjamin Schwarz, the literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly . Increasing its depth while narrowing its range wouldn’t be so popular with publishers. “If there’s a wish list, it would be simply that there were shorter reviews of more books,” said Nan Talese, editor of her eponymous Doubleday imprint. “In other words, the key is with no plots, no story plots,” she said. “Make the reviews shorter and more pithy-you could lose a column and a half right there!” Now, the Book Review ‘s rigid template allows only reviews of strictly set lengths: 700, 1,100 or 1,400 words, plus shorter Books in Brief reviews.

To get more “wonderful writing” into the book review, Mr. Leonard advocated a method he used when he was there: overcommissioning copy and using only the best stuff. In other words: Kill, kill, kill! “One way to discover wonderful writers is by being profligate in that way,” Mr. Leonard said. He said he’d often be swayed to review a book that wasn’t really crying out for coverage, simply because he had a great review of it on hand: “Such-and-such who wrote about quantum physics and Buster Keaton submitted a piece that would knock everyone’s socks off.” It’s hard to imagine The Times returning to that system. It’s not just a question of wounded egos when reviews are killed; ad sales are down and the Book Review has had to shed pages in recent years, making it harder to take risks. But then again, it’s The New York Times Book Review . Millions read it no matter what it prints. What has it got to lose?