Oh to sing the joys of Sunday morning with the NY Times Book Review section, where we can discover which books are going to get their second Times review. This morning the winner was E.L. Doctorow’s novelistic treatment of the hoarding Collyer brothers, a story apparently of immense import to the editors of the Times. Our first indication that Doctorow was about to get a Full Friedman wasn’t Michiko Kakutani’s review in the daily Times on August 31st. No, it was the PR-generated almost completely coincidental At Home with E.L. Doctorow by Steven Kurtz that ran in the Times on September 2nd with a lovely photo revealing to our great relief that the Doctorow home, unlike the Collyers’, is incredibly neat.
For the last few years I have ever-so-slowly come to realize that if someone at the Times thinks your book ought to enter the zeitgeist, you get a second review — like the one that ran this morning with even more pictures of the Collyers’ dump. Thank you Michiko. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about the hoarding brothers with that first review, or even the up-close story about Doctorow, but with that third review, you’ve hammered it home. I give up. No more reviews! I’ll buy the book!
Depending on your sources, there are 50 to 100,000 new mainstream books published in the U.S. each year. And since books are and have been for the last five centuries or so the primary way important new ideas enter and enrich our civilization, newspaper book editors function as one of the most important filters in our world. The NY Times is the overwhelmingly dominant force for news and information in our culture. The Senior Book Reviewer at the Times, then, is one of the most important gatekeepers in American culture, if not the most important.
That most powerful person is Michiko Kakutani, Senior Book Reviewer, followed by Sam Tanenhouse, Editor of the Sunday Book Review. Weirdly, they apparently never compare notes to see who is reviewing what since they have a duplicate review almost every week. Now this would not be so terrible, but the NY Times weekday edition only publishes about 312 book reviews a year. The Sunday Book Review does some 800, so between them they have 1100 slots for new books each year. One would reasonably think that reviewing some 40 to 50 books twice each year is kind of an insane waste of precious ink, not to mention zeitgeist space.
I went looking for the important books of 2008 to see if any got overlooked by the NY Times and its bizarre approach to its responsibilities. Of the NY Times’s own list of the Best Books of 2008, it seems they managed to review all of them. Not surprising. But how about The Economist’s Most Important books in 2008? Ignoring the rare book that would be of interest to Brits only (actually, there was only one — Britain Since 1918 by Marquand and it looks to me to be even more interesting than needing to know how those Collyers brothers managed to cram so much crap into their apartment 50 years ago) easily one-half of The Economist’s picks never passed the sniff test over at the NY Times. Americans were denied reviews of many of the most important books of the year, including Joseph Stiglitz’s and Linda Bilmes’s The Three Trillion Dollar War, Lawrence Freedman’s A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, and even Henry Hitching’s delight about the development of English: The Secret Life of Words. That’s a serious loss to the culture. Does anybody else worry when the NY Times didn’t review at least half of the important books of 2008?
As an ex-publisher and as someone who has helped a number of people get successfully published, I have often told a cautionary tale of my experience on the fourth floor of the NY Times some twenty years ago. I was being interviewed by Timesman Ed McDowell about a book that was about to become a huge bestseller. When the interview was done, I asked if I could get a tour of the place. Eventually we came to a ten by ten foot square space, bounded on all four sides by a counter. Dumped into that forbidden space were boxes and envelopes containing fresh review copies of thousands of books. I asked McDowell who decides which of these thousands of books would get reviewed. He gave me the look one saves for idiots and finally explained that rarely do any of these books get looked at. "Occasionally, a reviewer will come by and fish one out, and sometimes even review it." I was and am nauseated at the thought.
Which brings me conveniently to the Full Bruni which occurred from July to September just past. Turns out if you really want to get reviewed by the Times, it really helps if you are also employed by the Times. It began quietly enough on July 19, when the Times’s Magazine ran a much-promoted 7500 word piece by Frank Bruni (who was shifting from Food Editor to Magazine Contributor), "I Was A Baby Bulimic." Wow! A shocking personal disgusting confession. I’m glad that’s the last we’re going to hear about that. Not so fast. On August 19, entirely by coincidence, the Sunday Book Review accompanied my banana pancakes with a gushing review of Bruni’s book, Born Round.
Two hits so far. But there’s always more. On August 29, The News of the Week in Review (that’s the section that tells us the most important stories in the whole world, no kidding) offered a front page story by Bruni, Parenting and Food: Eat Your Peas. Or Don’t. Whatever. Golly, I didn’t realize at first how important Bruni’s book was. I guess I’d better give in and buy it. But just to be sure no one missed it, the Times gave Bruni’s incredibly important book just one more review in the daily paper on August 25th.
Fortunately, the book was on the Times’s Bestseller list by September 3. Or they’d still be running weekly reviews and stories by Bruni and his over-fed childhood until all of us can just gag, too.
Nothing compares with Tom Friedman, who plays the Times as his personal Wurlitzer. When Tom has an idea, a Big Idea, the Times shakes with excitement and the World listens. Here’s how it starts, quietly, innocently: In a column from Mexico on April 1, 2004, Friedman waits until paragraph #4 before he slips it in. Just look at this remarkable level of craft at work: "Mexico’s problem, in a nutshell, is this: The world is flat — or at least getting flatter." Here indeed is the master at work. Nothing uppercased, nothing to get too suspicious about. The world just happens to be flat (not yet Flat) - have you noticed? Friedman is launching a new meme. Stand by.
A few months later, on June 27, he breaks our hearts by shocking us with the news: "This is my last column for three months. I’m taking a sabbatical to finish (please note that word, finish) a book about geopolitics, called "The World Is Flat."" Ohmygod. Flat has gone uppercase, and publishing will never be the same again.
Friedman goes silent for a lengthy period, but now the book is ready. The Times is stirred to life with a massive 5165 word piece in the Sunday Magazine by Friedman: "It’s a Flat World After All." Is that thrilling, or what? And then on April 24 you could turn to the publishing stock exchange, ah, Bestseller List, and see The World is Flat on the list on April 24.
By this time, Friedman needed a review or reviews like Reagan needed more jellybeans. But the wheels were already in motion and there’s nothing harder to stop than a juggernaut. The first Official New York Times Review came on April 30 written by Joseph Stiglitz, no less, and just to be sure you got how important this book was, Fareed Zakaria cleaned up after the elephants with his Sunday Book Review piece on May 1, 2005. The Full Friedman had taken just over a year. Was it over? Yes, except for the weekly columns for the next year or so that couldn’t resist the regular "flat" observation every sentence or two.
Full disclosure: My recent book The Genius Machine — 11 Steps That Turn Raw Ideas Into Brilliance was, sadly, passed over by the Times just like tens of thousands of others. But I have published and produced many other books that were reviewed by the Times or have made the bestseller lists, so I’ve had my fair share.
I do have a modest request for Ms. Kakutani and the Times. America’s in trouble. Newspaper book reviewers are getting fired left and right. Retail stores that give us the chance to browse the New Fiction and New Non-Fiction tables are disappearing. The marketplace for ideas is weak and getting weaker.
We need to know about the truly important books that get published every week that actually might inform us and help us understand the world better. How about just one review maximum per book and just one feature story. (Okay, maybe an exception for J.K. Rowlings.) That would make some precious room for additional new voices and ideas. We desperately need them.