Friday, January 23, 2004

Confirming suspicions 

Frankly, I haven't had much to say about the whole NYTBR thing and Bill Keller's comments to the Book Babes. Plenty of others have, and naturally I've read them, but I'm just not getting so excited. Why? Mostly because right now, it's all talk. A lot of what actually does transpire depends on who actually gets hired as Chip McGrath's replacement, and chances are, things won't deviate that much from what Publisher's Lunch reported earlier today:

If Keller thinks "we should be more skewed toward non-fiction" and there's not much "fiction [that] needs to be done," how skewed have they been up until now (and does Keller even know?).

For the last six months of 2003, out of approximately 350 full-length reviews run, 60 percent were nonfiction and 40 percent were fiction. The pattern was almost exactly the same if you look at the third and fourth quarters by themselves.

I noticed that Keller (and cultural editor Erlanger) didn?t address the newspaper?s curious habit of granting many books two reviews (one in the daily and one in TBR), but I figured a count there would be interesting, too. In the same six month period, we counted at least 64 books that merited double full-length reviews from the paper?and these in many cases are the "must review" authors Keller referred to, like Toni Morrison and Jonatham Lethem. Of that sub-group, it was almost evenly half fiction and half nonfiction.

So, as already suspected, the NYTBR slants fairly well towards non-fiction. So what will do to, go to a 70-30 split? 80-20? There's still a lot of fiction to review, no matter what Keller thinks, because really, every other week there's some ultra-hyped book that hits the market, be it the next in a bestseller's ouevre, a first novel, or a long-awaited book. Some succeed, others fail miserably.

I think, as Michael Cader points out, it would be in the NYTBR's best interest to cut down on the doubling-up of reviews. There's really no need for that unless the reviews are so disparate (let's say, Michiko loathes the book but someone writing in for the Review loves it. Or something like that) and it takes up room that could be better spent on additional books--fiction or non-fiction.

And then there's what seems to me to be the bottom line: that people jump up and react whenever the New York Times in any way, shape or form, says "boo." Does the Grey Lady have to be so important? Should we really care so damned much what they think? Well....don't look at me, I'll still read it, regardless of whether they add more fiction or cut it down. But I'll be reading lots and lots of other reviews and other opinions, too. It wouldn't hurt to knock the NYTBR down a peg or few in perceived importance, after all.

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