In the Times’s new online book club, Reading Room, participants (including author Francine Prose, and frequent Book Review contributor Liesl Schillinger) and moderator/Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus are debating a new translation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Another participant is Times executive editor Bill Keller, whose thoughts on the novel seemed not irrelevant to how he perceives the paper and his role there—and reveals more than a little bit about his personality.
“Somehow I managed to make it through college and into late middle age without having read War and Peace… W&P was always too intimidating in scale, and too show-offy to bring to the beach.” Mr. Keller’s at once self-deprecating and coy; there’s a whiff of attachment to good, bourgeois ideals (work hard, but don’t try to be the smartest guy in the room; it’s more important to seem like a “regular guy” than a brain) that are not dissimilar to, one could argue, how the Times is now struggling to perceive itself.
Likewise, in response to Mr. Tanenhaus’ question about whether War and Peace is, in fact, a novel, poem, and a historical chronicle: “I am not clever enough to make a case that this thing is not a novel. It is a complex, ambitious prose work of imagination. The reporting may be prodigious, the characters may be plucked from real life, but it’s certainly not journalism or history.” In other words, he’s not going to play those lit-crit games! The Book Review can have its fancy-pants ivory-tower analysis, but what Mr. Keller is interested in is the facts. Journalism. Objectivity. Yes!
(Here we’ll just venture to point out that the reason for all of this is this new translation coming out, which could be subjected to some journalism, too.)
Along similar lines, Mr. Keller wonders: “What was Tolstoy banging on about? Was he just messing with our heads? Or did his ego demand that his work be in some definitive way without precedent? Frankly, who cares?”
Well then! So much for authorial intent, the bete-noire of undergraduate English majors since the dawn of postmodernism. Mr. Keller is not interested in authorial intent because, at the Times, who needs authorial intent? There is one kind of intent that’s worth parsing, and that’s the intent of the institution of the Times—not of its individual reporters.
In his most recent post, dated October 18, Mr. Keller muses that Tolstoy “humanizes and universalizes his characters … by refusing to treat them with reverence. He allows his major figures to speak and act foolishly, to be caught in moments of pettiness, cowardice, naivete, humiliation.” Reporters, likewise, should not lionize their subjects.