There is a LOT of food for thought here, where the Lit Saloon responds to an interview with four prominent members of the NYTBR staff. (Also see Ed’s close reading of Tanenahus’s remarks.) This caught my eye:
We’re also not only in the business of reviewing books, but presenting what we hope will be interesting journalism to readers. It is easier to get a good piece of analysis and writing, a better essay, a better report, whatever you think a book review of being, on non-fiction than fiction. Novels and short stories are very hard to write about.
This, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the culture at the NYTBR. I’m 100% with the Lit Saloon–it is the New York Times Book Review, and so for the most part I want book reviews, not journalism.
Also, the assertion that "novels and short stories are very hard to write about" strikes me as completely off-base. If you are concerned about literary aesthetics and culture, then they are in fact very easy to write about. The fact that even with our culture’s diminished respect for literature, I can still read good, meaty pieces on new fiction virtually every week tells me that there is a lot of note to say about fiction.
I think what Tanenhaus means by his quote is that if you are trying to comment on the (primarily political) news of the day, then fiction won’t get you that far. I have my own reservations about that, but I do agree that it’s generally unwise to tie fiction too much to hard news.
But, anyway, I think this is very representative of the culture at our current NYTBR. They want journalism, or at least the kinds of writing that does not lend itself to being spawned by fiction. Moreover, and this is what really bothers me, there seems to be a perception that you can’t even derive very good, interesting criticism from fiction.
Regarding the culture there, perhaps the Lit Saloon puts it best:
Tanenhaus has tried to explain the fiction/non-fiction disparity, but we’ve never found the explanations satisfactory or convincing.
That’s precisely it. It makes perfect sense to Tanenhaus, but to us it’s wholly unconvincing. Two different worlds.