Secret Workings Of 'Times' Book Review Exposed!

In a talk at Harvard on Tuesday, Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review since the early 90's, revealed a steaming heap of heretofore unknown and as-of-yet unreported details about the Book Review's inner workings. The reason for his trip, he said, was to correct some misconceptions among the largely academic audience about how the Review is assembled. "We're thought to have agendas, we're thought to be out to get people," he said. "I hope by the end of this talk I'll have persuaded you that none of that is the case."

You be the judge of that. Thanks to Gewen, now Gawker Weekend reveals how books are chosen for review, names most of the un-published masthead, explains the agonies of editor Sam Tanenhaus, lays bare the class warfare on the eighth floor of the New York Times—and tells you what got publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to call an employee's balls "as big as basketballs."

I. WHO'S WHO?

Like the New Yorker, the Book Review does not print the names of its editors except when they write articles, in which case they're identified in the byline. Gewen said that if you count the support staff, there's a total of 17 people on the roster. While he didn't name every name, he named quite a few. Here's the rundown.

  • Sam Tanenhaus, Editor At the helm since 2004, Tanenhaus originally came in with "guns blazing," Gewen said, but his early intentions of creating "fireworks" in the Book Review and breaking the editorial staff of its habitual timidity have since given way to mild-mannered realism. That's what happens with every new editor, Gewen said. They come in happy but they leave sad because of all the disgruntled authors, agents, editors, and publishers who call them to complain about coverage. "There is no bitchier industry than publishing," Gewen said. "Maybe fashion, but I doubt even that." Tanenhaus's predecessor, Chip McGrath, vacated the post after eight years because of "an exhaustion that really was the result of this constant pounding." Before McGrath, there was Rebecca Sinclair—she didn't even last seven years, and told Gewen at the end of her term: "I took this job because of my love of books, but all I'm doing everyday is dealing with crap." Tanenhaus, apparently, is now going through the same thing. "He has a pretty thick skin," Gewen said, "but I would anticipate that after five or six years, he too will have been worn down by it all."
  • Robert Harris, Deputy Editor
    Harris is "there to make the trains run on time." Tanenhaus apparently calls him 'Mussolini.'
  • Dwight Garner, Senior Editor
    Garner handles miscellaneous administrative tasks. He also writes the Bestsellers column at the back of the book and pulls double duty as a preview editor.
  • Alida Becker, Rachel Donadio, Dwight Garner, Barry Gewen, Jennifer Schuessler, and one other editor—your thoughts?—serve as preview editors in addition to other tasks.
    These are the six people responsible for choosing books, finding reviewers, and editing. All of them have a specialty—Becker does fiction, for instance, while Gewen does history. ("I handle almost all of the books on the Holocaust. I'm the Holocaust guy at the Book Review.")
  • There is also a squad of four copy-editors. According to Gewen, there's a new chief who just started six months ago, and he has put a moratorium on the words "compelling" and "iconic." (Hooray!)
  • In addition, the Review has an art director, a children's editor, and a clerk. All that plus three anonymous support staffers makes 17, which, according to Gewen, is more than any of the other book reviews in the country can afford. (And that doesn't count regular columnists.)

II. CHOICES, CHOICES: A FETISH FOR FAIRNESS
How do those people decide what gets reviewed and what doesn't? It begins with the clerk, who goes through the pile of 750-1000 advance manuscripts that the office receives each week—and then immediately tosses all the self-help books, reference guides, and travel manuals. The remaining galleys are taken to Tanenhaus's office, and approximately once a week, Dwight Garner and Robert Harris go in there to divide them up. An "additional winnowing" takes place at this stage, which leaves each of the six preview editors with about 25 books to go through. Gewen said he spends at least a half hour with each one, chooses four or five, and discards the rest. He makes a note about every reject, stating a reason for why it didn't make the cut. One of the comments he leaves most frequently, he said, is "too narrow for us." Another is "workmanlike."

Realizing that Harvard was full of people who have written precisely such books, Gewen said: "One has to have a hard heart at the Book Review. If some of you are offended by the casualness of all this, I would just remind you of those poor Holocaust survivors who are not getting their books reviewed also."

As for deciding who writes what, Gewen proudly declared that the Review editors "really do make a fetish out of not only fairness but the appearance of fairness." After they've made their book selections, they meet in Tanenhaus's office to discuss possible reviewers, all of them clutching lists of people they're considering. "How are those lists compiled? Pretty much in the way you would expect," Gewen said. "We're all furiously scanning magazines and other publications, we're talking to editors, we're talking to friends... people know each other and they share information."

Once they've made their picks, the editors retreat into their individual offices and start trying to reach people. Before they make any assignments, they ask potential reviewers whether they can think of any reason why the author of the book might object.


III. INTRAMURALS: CLASS STRUGGLE ON THE EIGHTH FLOOR

According to Gewen, the Book Review is more or less isolated from the rest of the Times building. In his eighteen years as an editor, he has never met Michiko Kakutani, the infamous Pulitzer-winning book critic for the daily paper. Writers from the other sections rarely come through the Review's office, he said, and management doesn't really bother them either. One of the few times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. came to visit was in the summer of 2005, when he stopped by to tell the editors they had balls "as big as basketballs" for running Richard Posner's doomsday-for-journalism piece.

The Sunday Magazine lives in an office down the hall. "We are the poor cousins," Gewen said. "The magazine pays the salaries of all the rest of us. It makes money hand over fist. And you can see it in the physical plan. We are down the corridor, we don't have windows, I haven't seen the sun in 18 years." Walk a few feet down to the end of the hall, and you're confronted with luxury. "It's quite clear who the rich people are and who the poor people are. There's a real class division here." Gewen said. "So what does the oppressed class do? It gets its solace from some other source. We're smarter than they are."

Once, Gewen said, they encountered a pair of medics outside their office, wearing white jackets, looking worried, pushing a gurney down the hall. After assessing the scene, one of Gewen's colleagues said that it was a clear sign that "someone at the magazine had an idea."


IV. PULLING TEETH: KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE

There was a question we asked last weekend to which we did not expect an answer. If scholars find the Review unserious and laymen find it dull, who exactly is reading the damn thing?

Gewen took a stab at it. Remember October, 2005, when Times magazine editor Gerry Marzorati told Public Editor Byron Calame that his ideal audience was "a late-thirties-something woman, a lawyer or educator or businesswoman" who was "busy with work, and also with family matters"? Well, it seems that lady is all anyone thinks about at the Times.

When Gewen imagines his audience, he told the Harvard crowd, he pictures "a dentist from Scarsdale" who has two primary concerns: "her family and teeth." Everything else is secondary, Gewen said, "but that doesn't mean that she isn't interested in what we're producing at the Book Review. She has a lively mind, she's curious. She wants to know about the public debates that are taking place. It's simply that these public debates are not her primary concern and so you have to pull her in."

A minute later, he had another idea. "We really don't know who our audience is," he said.