To get a sense of how The New York Times plans to overhaul its Book Review , just consider the candidates to succeed Charles (Chip) McGrath as the section’s next editor. All have strong nonfiction or current-affairs backgrounds-in line with the newsier direction The Times ‘ top editors say they want to take the section when they make the much-anticipated appointment as soon as February.
According to sources familiar with the search, the four candidates on the short list are: Sarah Crichton, a former publisher of Little, Brown and a former editor at Newsweek ; Ann Hulbert, a Slate columnist and the author of a book on the history of American parenting advice; Benjamin Schwarz, the literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly ; and Judith Shulevitz, the former New York editor of Slate , who until a year ago wrote the Close Reader column in The Book Review .
The four lead the pack of a dozen or so candidates who have met with Adam Moss, The Times ‘ assistant managing editor for features, who is heading the search. All candidates submitted detailed memos outlining how-and how quickly-they would change The Book Review . Memo writers included Robert McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer , the Guardian ‘s Sunday newspaper, who is said to have advocated turning The Book Review into more of a magazine-too radical a vision for Times tastes, not to mention the Times bureaucracy. Mr. McCrum could not be reached for comment. Another memo writer was Daniel Zalewski, a nonfiction editor at The New Yorker and former editor at The Times Magazine , who is said to have taken himself out of the running, having arrived at The New Yorker less than a year ago. Mr. Zalewski declined to comment.
In recent months, Mr. Moss and The Times ‘ managing editor, Jill Abramson, have gone on a “listening tour” of the culture world, soliciting advice about The Book Review from a range of people, and vetting some as candidates. These include Jay Tolson, a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report , former editor of The Wilson Quarterly and friend of Ms. Abramson; Henry Finder, an editor at The New Yorker , who sources said told The Times he wasn’t interested in the job; and Sam Tanenhaus, a contributing writer for Vanity Fair and the author of an important biography of Whittaker Chambers and a forthcoming biography of William F. Buckley. Mr. Tolson and Mr. Finder declined to comment; Mr. Tanenhaus said, “I’m very happy working with Vanity Fair .”
“The pool was extremely impressive,” said Mr. Moss, who would not name any of the contenders. “I have met the candidates and had pretty exciting conversations and exchanges with them; now it’s Bill and Jill’s turn. The ultimate choice will be Bill’s.” He was referring to The Times ‘ executive editor, Bill Keller.
For his part, Mr. Keller has spent a fair amount of time in the past few days placating readers who responded with slack-jawed shock to an interview published last week in the “Book Babes” column on Poynter.org, in which he and The Times ‘ culture editor, Steven Erlanger, seemed to imply that The Book Review would be abandoning fiction in favor of more topical nonfiction, would review only big-deal novels by big-deal novelists, and would push mass-market airport reading over literary fiction in an attempt-many would say a misguided one-to draw in younger readers. On Pointer.org, Mr. Erlanger went so far as to say that “to be honest, there’s so much s–” and “most of the things we praise aren’t very good.”
“As you can imagine, I’ve had a few panicky e-mails from people who have the impression that we want to turn The Book Review into Mad Magazine ,” Mr. Keller told The Observer on Monday. That’s not the plan, Mr. Keller added, “with all due respect to Mad Magazine .” Mr. Keller said The Times had no intention of sacrificing fiction, and literary fiction in particular. “The goal is to somewhat increase the emphasis on nonfiction, but not move away from fiction.” He said that fiction versus nonfiction did not amount to a “zero-sum game,” because the paper would be adding more pages to The Book Review -although he said he didn’t yet know how many.
But even as Times editors rush to reassure the publishing industry that they won’t abandon fiction, they also made it clear that The Book Review is aimed at readers, not publishers-and that publishers should not expect The Times to come to their rescue when they print bad books. “I think The Book Review has historically gone out of its way to maintain its independence of the book industry,” Mr. Keller said. “I think it’s important that the relationship between The Book Review and the publishing industry be somewhere on the scale between independent and adversarial. The job of The Book Review is not to protect the publishing industry any more than the job of fashion coverage is to keep the garment industry alive. Some publications see that as their job. We sure aren’t one of them.” Mr. Moss emphasized that The Book Review has to be worth reading on its own merits, as well as serving as a consumer guide. “The best Review ,” said Mr. Moss, “is one where ideas are engaged and furiously argued, and where readers get the guidance they need to figure out what’s worth $24.95 and several hours of their life.”
Many were upset by Mr. Keller’s comment to the Book Babes that “we’ll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.” How, many wondered, can you expect novelists to become Updikes and Franzens without reviewing their first novels? Mr. Keller said he agreed that spotting up-and-coming fiction-writing talent was important. “I’m trying to stress that we don’t intend to give up literary fiction,” he said, adding that The Book Review will still be “a place people go to discover new novelists. That doesn’t mean that every new novelist has an entitlement to an 800-word review.”
Mr. Keller said he’d like fiction reviews to be shorter and pack more of a punch, correcting the notion “that a book review doesn’t really have impact unless it’s of a certain size.” He continued, “You have a lot of first novels that get reviewed at 800 or 900 words or longer that could be reviewed in much less space,” Mr. Keller said. This “makes it harder to give real space to the new fiction that’s genuinely exciting.” Indeed, even though publishers tend to bristle at the notion of a brief review, they’ve also been complaining since time immemorial that The Book Review doesn’t cover enough books-and varying the word lengths would seem a logical way to address the problem.
Mr. Erlanger said his comments-which readers found either refreshingly honest or shockingly condescending to his own paper and the critics he oversees there, or perhaps both-were offered in the course of a “wide conversation about cultural coverage, which included book publishing.”
“I don’t think there’s any dispute that among the thousands of books published every year, fiction and nonfiction, much of it isn’t very good,” he told The Observer . “I was not talking about contemporary fiction specifically; I don’t have anything to do with the Sunday Book Review . I would not make comments about it.”
Out of the Hothouse, Into the Fire
The person who does have to do with The Book Review is Mr. Moss, who as culture czar will closely oversee any changes there. He too took pains to dispel fears that the section would be ditching fiction. ” The Times has a commitment to reviewing literary fiction, and it will continue to do so with enthusiasm,” he said. “We’ll use every tool at our disposal-long reviews and briefs, essays and whatever new forms we can dream up. Different books lend themselves to different kinds of coverage, and one thing we are sure we want at this stage is variety.” Mr. Moss also tried to correct the notion conveyed in the Poynter.org interview that The Book Review would focus on mass-market books over literary ones. “We’re certainly not going to take The Book Review down-market,” he said. “But even sophisticated readers like to understand why certain books become popular, and we’ll try to explore that, as well as to separate the good from the bad according to the standards of the genre.” This should come as some consolation to readers, like one Bella Stander, who wrote huffily to Poynter.org about the perception that The Times was abandoning fiction reviewing. “Since they’re a NEWS-paper, they should only cover documentary films, not Hollywood movies,” she wrote. “And only useful, didactic art such as photojournalism and architecture should be considered, not painting, drawing or sculpture.”
Still, Mr. Keller defended the notion that The Book Review needs to be more engaged with the larger world. “It’s not a book review that exists in a literary hothouse,” he said. “It’s part of a newspaper, and I really do think it should reflect that by being attached to what’s going on in the world.” That means sparking more debate and making “room for rebuttal,” he said. “Not every letter to The Book Review deserves a response, but sometimes you want the conversation to be prolonged.”
“It’s not a zero-sum game, because we hope to be adding coverage, not subtracting from it-both in The Book Review and in our general cultural report, which we are also taking a good, hard look at, and which offers lots of opportunities for more book coverage,” Mr. Moss said. To this end, The Times expects to put a full-time reporter on the publishing-industry beat shortly, replacing David Kirkpatrick, who was transferred to the media beat more than a year ago. The publishing beat is completely independent from The Book Review ; the reporter answers to the business desk and ultimately to Mr. Erlanger, who has no control over The Book Review . Mr. Keller said there was a list of candidates for the job, but not a short list. Mr. Erlanger said it would most likely be an internal hire.
Handicapping the Race
By all accounts, the next editor of The Book Review will be both project manager and architect-someone with a strong vision of how he or she wants to renovate the section, but who will also carry out a new vision formulated by the paper’s top editors. That means the editor will be able to take the section in markedly new directions, but at the same time will have to answer more directly to Mr. Moss, whose position was created by Mr. Keller in August 2003 to address weaknesses in the paper’s cultural coverage. Will the paper set a blueprint and then choose an editor, or allow the editor to draw up his or her own blueprint? “It’s a little more complicated,” Mr. Keller said. “We’ve talked a lot among ourselves in a very general way about how we’d like to rejuvenate The Review .” Mr. Keller added that there was “quite a bit of consensus” between the dozen or so candidates’ memos and what Times editors were thinking about how to improve the review.
“Once we’ve picked an editor, we’re not going to hand over a recipe,” Mr. Keller said. “There’s going to be a great deal of latitude for an editor to put an individual stamp on it. I really hope we’d end up with an editor that would do that. That’s a section that really flourishes with personality.” Asked whether the new editor would be able to make staffing changes, Mr. Moss said, “The new editor will have all the authority he or she needs to make the Review his or her own-as Chip did, very successfully, for many years.”
So which of the four candidates would be the best fit for the job? None of them would comment for this article, but their reputations are well established. Ms. Crichton, who is 49 and known as a formidable manager and a strong personality, worked at Newsweek from 1988 to 1996, rising to become a top managing editor, responsible for the back of the book. She also has the advantage of knowing the other side of the street, having served as publisher of Little, Brown from 1996 until 2001. Ms. Crichton co-authored A Mighty Heart with Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl, published by Scribner in September, and was an editor on Madeleine Albright’s memoir Madam Secretary , also published in September, by Miramax.
As literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly since 2000, Benjamin Schwarz has raised the profile of the book-review section. Mr. Schwarz, who is 40, has also worked as a foreign-policy analyst-as he wrote in a self-conscious essay in this month’s Atlantic , in which he laid out his views on book reviewing. In “Why We Review the Books We Do”-which one observer called a “Dear Adam” letter, Mr. Schwarz’s way of throwing his hat in the ring for the Times Book Review job-he explained why The Atlantic didn’t have to “cover the waterfront” and could pass on books that places like The Times would have to review.
Of all the candidates, Judith Shulevitz, 40, has the most history with The Times . She has appeared many times in the pages of The Times Magazine and The Book Review , although her regular column in The Book Review -which she wrote from 2001 until giving it up to write a book in 2003-got a mixed reaction. Ms. Shulevitz was the New York editor of Slate from 1996 until 2001, where she handled much of its cultural coverage. In her tenure as editor of Lingua Franca from 1991 to 1994, the magazine won a National Magazine Award. She is writing a book about the Sabbath, which she sold to Daniel Menaker at Random House.
Ann Hulbert is more of an unknown in New York literary circles. She is 47 and lives in Washington, where she writes the “Sandbox” column, focusing on family issues, for Slate . From 1978 until the mid-1990′s, she worked at The New Republic , most of that time as a senior editor. Ms. Hulbert is also the author of the well-reviewed Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children , published in April 2003 by Knopf.
The four are expected to meet with Ms. Abramson and Mr. Keller in the coming weeks. And then the fun begins. “One of the challenges the new editor will face,” Mr. Moss said, “will be introducing change without sending readers who are resistant to change into apoplexy.”