Times change; so must paper's Book Review
Quietly, The New York Times has been approaching possible replacements for Charles "Chip" McGrath, the editor of its influential Sunday Book Review. "My understanding is that a bunch of people have thrown their hat in the ring," said McGrath, who plans to stay with the newspaper as a writer. "I think you would have a better story if you waited until Friday," he added, before ending our conversation.
There is little doubt that the tabloid section is long overdue for a change. It has retained a certain canonical influence in the literary community; for a writer, getting a Times review is like getting a college degree. If you don't have one, you have some explaining to do. But as each year passes, it increasingly resembles Jane's Defence Weekly; the latest Martin Amis novel, like the latest Northrop fighter plane, is reviewed not because it is good but because it is there.
Here are two problems the new editor will have to solve:
1. Books are fun and interesting to read, but the Sunday Book Review is neither. True, the essayists Laura Miller and Judith Shulevitz generally bring their A game, and the Mark Alan Stamaty cartoon feature "Boox" remains strong. But too often the reviews read like book reports, cooked up using a predictable formula: summarizing the book, inserting some praise, perhaps ending with a guarded reservation or two, carefully phrased so as not to offend.
The last time I reveled in an outstanding piece of work in the Sunday Book Review was October 1994 -- a month before McGrath took over, as it happens -- when Christopher Buckley reviewed Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor." ("At 766 pages, a herniating experience.") I'm sure there has been good work there since, but none that sticks in my mind.
2. The review hardly ever helps you answer the key question: Should I spend $26 on this book? Service journalism isn't an ugly word, and books are becoming more expensive every day. Who does it better? Entertainment Weekly does it better. The New Yorker's "Briefly Noted" reviews do it better; Benjamin Schwarz & Co. do it better in the back of The Atlantic Monthly. Who does it best? The Saturday book sections of the Toronto Globe and Mail, and Canada's National Post do it best of all.
To be fair, the Times reviews do perform one key service for the chattering classes: They allow you to talk about a book as if you had read it. "No, but I read the review" is the inevitable answer to any question involving a book by Susan Sontag.
What does the Sunday Book Review do right? It winnows, and it makes enemies doing so. It's a thankless task, and with an estimated 50,000 books published each year, the Times guarantees itself a built-in constituency of at least 49,000 ticked-off authors annually. It is inevitably criticized for elitism, favoring, say, an Alan Furst novel over a James Patterson opus. To which I say: Bless them. God invented writers like Alan Furst to be reviewed; She invented the Pattersons to be advertised.
Is Christmas inevitable? I am told that it is. If that is the case, then you could do worse than to buy Maggie Balistreri's "The Evasion-English Dictionary" as a stocking stuffer.
Her purpose, she explains, is to translate euphemistically evasive speech into English. Here are two examples of the word "should" used as an evasion for "won't." "Oh, you're a poet. Yeah. You know, I really should read more poetry." Or, "I know I am always complaining about it. You're right. I should look for a new job."
Balistreri wittily suggests that the adverb "unfortunately" really means, "um, fortunately." Examples: "We can't get married yet because unfortunately the band we had our heart set on is booked solid that week." Or, "I would try for that job in a heartbeat, but unfortunately I know someone who works there, and we do not get along at all." Another common evasion is substituting the word "feel" for "am." Her examples: "It was all my fault. I feel so responsible." Or, "I hate myself when I do that. I can hear myself saying it, and I think, `Oh, my God! I feel so fake.' "
I wish only that she had included my pet adverb "arguably," the now-universal evasion for "not." My example: Nicole Kidman is arguably the best actress in Hollywood.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.
His e-dress is email@example.com.
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