Tanenhaus offers glimpse of NYT Book Review

At the age of 42, Sam Tanenhaus GRD ’78 applied for an editing position at The New York Times. He had a keen love for literature and a knack for the art of writing. But he got the job largely thanks to one personal quality: his unemployment.

In 1997, he began what The Times calls a tryout along with several other would-be editors, a period during which applicants filled trial editorial positions in the hopes of being hired permanently. When the other applicants left the tryout for their other jobs, Tanenhaus was able to stick around and prove himself.

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“I was able to do the world’s longest tryout,” he said. “They just got used to me.”

Despite what he termed his “accidental” transition to the journalism profession, Tanenhaus has climbed high in the ranks of the organization that simply “got used to” having him around. At a Thursday Master’s Tea in the Swing Space Common Room, Tanenhaus — now the editor of The New York Times Book Review — delivered a low-key discussion on the art of literary criticism and the ethics behind it.

“The Book Review is a funny institution,” Tanenhaus began, when asked to describe how they choose which books to review. “We try to be serious and ambitious but we also have to cover a lot of books. We want to serve as a clearinghouse.”

Unlike The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, in both of which the objective is to deliver the “definitive review” of a book, Tanenhaus explained that The New York Times Book Review has an obligation to publish the review that — for its timeliness and “consumer report” style — will be most important to a book’s commercial success or failure. As part of a newspaper, the Book Review takes a journalistic approach to informing the reader of what is available to read, he said.

Tanenhaus, who admitted being a mediocre student despite his notable interest in literature, received an M.A. in English from Yale thirty years ago. After trying his hand at fiction, he realized that nonfiction was his calling, specifically the topic of modern political conservatism. He began chronicling the history of conservatism with a Pulitzer prize-nominated biography on noted anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers. A biography on William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, which he believes is a continuation of this “narrative of conservatism,” is still in the works and was the subject of his 2003 Branford Master’s Tea.

On Thursday, Tanenhaus shared his thoughts on the state of contemporary literature, from John Updike to Norman Mailer. But for many of the students interviewed, it was his comments on an author with whom they were all familiar that were most interesting.

“Is J.K. Rowling the most important writer today?” he asked himself. “Probably.”

The audience agreed.

Although Tanenhaus has been accused in the past of making the Book Review an outlet for his conservative political views, he largely avoided that topic during the Thursday talk.

Political science lecturer Jim Sleeper has published several articles examining how this bias has played out in the Review.

“The Times should publish terrific conservatives to keep the liberals honest. What was going on here was a little different than that,” Sleeper said in an interview Thursday. “Any time some lame-brain liberal came out, they’d smash him to smithereens while they’d never touch the conservative books.”

At one point during the tea, Tanenhaus did acknowledge that his style for handling the Book Review is somewhat unorthodox compared to previous editors. But he said that this results in reviews reflecting opinions throughout the political spectrum.

“The idea of the Review previously was to publish a balanced middle view,” he said. “But if you hear the more strident voice in all of their tonalities, you will get to the same place. At the end of the year the needle will still be in the middle.”

Geoffrey Liu ’11, who attended the tea, said he has come to see the challenges of presenting one’s personal beliefs in the reviewing process.

“At first I thought it was an analytical profession,” he said. “But when you start dealing with the ethical problems, it becomes a philosophical profession.”

As of January, Tanenhaus also became the editor of The New York Times Week in Review. Much like the Book Review, the Week in Review is considered one of the more influential sections of the newspaper for its contextualization and analysis of news topics that were important throughout the previous week.

When Tanenhaus was given the new title, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller remarked on the challenges of editing the section in an internal memo that was leaked to blogs.

“As the main news pages become more analytical, the [Week in] Review has to continually develop new ways to remain distinctive, finding interesting angles of entry to the week’s news without toppling over into the more opinionated writing that is the proper job of Op-ed,” he wrote.

Sleeper added that Tanenhaus’ promise of balance in the Review has only recently been made real, as the editor is leading what Sleeper calls “a bit of a charm offensive.” While Tanenhaus may not impact the actual collection of news, Sleeper said he does set the tone for how the news is presented.

“In his heart of hearts, Sam Tanenhaus wants to be, in his own words, ‘a sympathetic observer’ of American conservatism, not the broker of liberal-bashing polemics and war propaganda he became at the helm of the Book Review. I think he’s trying to make that adjustment, but only time will tell,” Sleeper concluded.

But Tanenhaus denied that his leadership of the Book Review pushes extreme conservatism, maintaining that, “We don’t write for a paper with an agenda but with an identity.”

The New York Times Book Review has been published since 1896.

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