Advertisement

Power, Fear of N.Y. Times Book Review

Times Staff Writer

Steven Brill can still remember a morning in Pittsburgh--seven years ago, during a New York newspaper strike--when he was on tour to promote his new book, “The Teamsters.”

“I was in this bookstore,” he says, “and the owner was telling me how ‘wonderful’ and ‘marvelous’ she thought my book was. But she didn’t have it displayed prominently in her store. When I asked her why not, she told me, ‘Oh, I couldn’t recommend a book the New York Times hasn’t reviewed.”’

To most people in publishing--authors, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers and readers alike--if a book hasn’t been reviewed in the New York Times (and, especially, in the Times’ Sunday Book Review section), it doesn’t exist. By virtually unanimous agreement--even among its competitors and detractors--the New York Times is far and away the most important book review medium in the country (just as its weekly best-seller list is far and away the most important best-seller list in the country).

Distant Second, Third

Advertisement

Time and Newsweek reviews are a distant second and third in importance, and newspapers like the Washington Post and--to a lesser degree--the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and a few others have impact with some books in their immediate area, but it’s the New York Times that influences book sales, spurs publishers to action, makes reputations and breaks hearts.

New York Times book reviews even influence book review editors at other newspapers, thus compounding their initial impact.

“If the Times gives a book a big review, I get 128 calls the next day from book review editors (and radio stations) everywhere,” says Helene Atwan, director of publicity at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “They all say, ‘I can’t find my copy of (whatever the book is).’ Please rush me one by Express Mail.’ ”

Then those papers give the book a big review, too.

Advertisement

Like any powerful institution--indeed like the New York Times itself--the New York Times Book Review is widely feared and widely criticized. In the course of several weeks of interviews, a Los Angeles Times reporter was told repeatedly by people in publishing that they would discuss the New York Times Book Review only if they could do so anonymously.

“The New York Times has a reign of terror over the publishing industry,” says John Baker, editor of Publishers Weekly. “Everyone is afraid to criticize the Times. Everyone’s afraid that if they offend someone over there, their books won’t get reviewed. There’s a . . . fear of the Times among publishers and writers that’s pathological. . . . “

The New York Times has the second-largest Sunday circulation of any newspaper in the country--1.6 million--and its Book Review, which can be purchased separately from the paper, sells about 77,000 additional copies, an increase of 20% in the last two years.

But the preeminence of (and the resultant paranoia about) the New York Times Book Review goes far beyond mere numbers. To begin with, of course, the Times is in New York, the center of the American publishing industry. Moreover, the paper’s intellectual, often elitist appeal, its long history of excellence and its commitment to ideas in general and to books in particular transcend mere geographic happenstance.

“Books are special for us,” says A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the paper. “It’s harder to imagine the New York Times without Book Review than (without) any other section.”

In that sense, the New York Times Book Review is sui generis .

According to a 1984 study in the Newspaper Research Journal, the average American newspaper uses three-quarters of a page to one page a week for book reviews. The Los Angeles Times averages slightly more than 12 pages in its Sunday Book Review; the Washington Post runs 16 pages in its Sunday Book World.

Operate Independently

Advertisement

The New York Times Book Review averages 44 pages.

The Post, Los Angeles Times and some other major newspapers also run book reviews during the week, but the New York Times is the only paper with three, full-time daily book reviewers who operate independently of the Sunday Book Review and who often review the same books that are then reviewed by free-lance writers in the Sunday paper--a practice that, in effect, acknowledges the power of the Times by dividing that power.

The commitment of the New York Times to publishing a quality book review is particularly noticeable in staffing.

Most newspapers have just one professional journalist working on their book review sections--and generally not full-time at that. A few papers--the Los Angeles Times among them--have two full-time professionals. The Washington Post has four.

The New York Times has 21.

Clearly, the New York Times Book Review is an expensive operation.

“We lose money, and we always have, but I don’t know how much,” says Mitchel Levitas, editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Rosenthal says he neither knows nor cares if the Book Review loses money. “You can’t expect a payoff on reviewing books anymore than you can expect a payoff for covering foreign news,” he says. “If Book Review is losing money, my answer is ‘Go sell more ads.’ ”

Advertisement

It’s much easier for Rosenthal to say that than it is for editors at other newspapers. Book publishers estimate that 70% to 80% of their total newspaper advertising dollar goes into the New York Times. The major reason for that is that publishers don’t advertise books primarily to sell to the individual book-buyer. They advertise to give signals to bookstores and paperback publishers and others in the publishing industry--largely headquartered in New York--that they’re fully behind a book, willing to spend money to promote it. Publishers also advertise to satisfy their authors’ egos; some authors’ contracts even specify that the publisher must buy an ad in the New York Times.

(It’s ironic that publishers complain, almost unanimously, about the overweening influence of the New York Times Book Review, but they resolutely refuse to do the one thing that would diminish that influence--spend enough money advertising in other newspaper book reviews to give those reviews the resources they need to try to compete with the New York Times.)

Carefully Structured System

With the money from all its book advertising--and from other newspaper revenues--the New York Times Book Review operates an elaborate, carefully structured system for evaluating and assigning books for review, a system that stands in stunning contrast to the largely haphazard process in effect at most other newspapers.

Every week or 10 days, Levitas and his deputy, Rebecca Sinkler, go through virtually every book sent to the Times and assign those they think might be worthy of review to one of 10 Times “preview editors"--each of whom has areas of special expertise and interest and each of whom reads books and assigns and edits book reviews full-time.

A report form, in quadruplicate, is inserted in each book, and after the preview editor has read the book (or as much of it as he deems necessary), he fills out the form with his comments on whether it should be reviewed and who he thinks should review it. Sometimes, if questions arise, two editors will read the same book before a reviewing decision is made.

Every Thursday morning, the Book Review staff meets to discuss these evaluations and to make the review decisions and assignments.

Some writers who have reviewed for the New York Times say this system can lead to a heavy-handed approach--especially when a preview editor tells a reviewer what he thinks of a book, rather than letting the reviewer formulate his own judgment.

“They usually nudge you toward a positive review,” says author Roy Blount Jr.

Not surprisingly, book publishers think that’s a good approach.

“If I’m a book (review) editor, and I read book A and I think it’s wonderful, it’s my responsibility to try to get it a good review,” says Robert Gottlieb, president of Alfred A. Knopf. “Otherwise, I’m just a traffic engineer.”

But some writers--unwilling to be identified by name, for fear of offending Times Book Review editors--say that when their judgments on a book have differed from those of the Times’ preview editors, the editors have sometimes tried to edit the reviews to conform to their own judgments. It’s generally a matter of a word or two here and there, subtle changes, “nudging” rather than demanding, several writers said in virtually the same words.

“The Times is the worst when it comes to calling you with a review assignment and nudging you toward what . . . they want you to think about the book . . . and then either shading what you write or even . . . pushing you around to get a different tone to the review if you didn’t agree with them,” says one such writer, a highly regarded novelist who also writes reviews for various publications. “Whenever it’s been a matter of judgment, I’ve ultimately been able to prevail . . . but this has happened four or five times. . . . I won’t review for the Times any more. . . .”

Levitas insists his editors are not supposed to try to influence reviewers, and both he and Rosenthal say that, given the power of a review in the New York Times, their primary objective in the Book Review is fairness.

Reviewer’s Perception

“We don’t want to dictate how a review will come out . . . to praise or knock a book in making the assignment,” Levitas says, “but it’s difficult for me to respond to a specific charge if I don’t have the name of the reviewer. I do know that a reviewer’s perception of what’s done to his copy may not be the most objective perception.”

What about a reviewer who may not be able to review a book fairly--or may be perceived as being unable to review a book fairly?

“We try to be extremely careful about that,” Levitas says. “We don’t want the author to feel an adversary relationship has been set by the very choice of the reviewer.”

That’s exactly how Daniel Okrent felt last May when Roger Kahn panned his baseball book “Nine Innings” in the New York Times Book Review.

Less than two years earlier, Okrent had panned Kahn’s baseball book, “The Seventh Game"--also in the New York Times Book Review. Shouldn’t that have disqualified Kahn from reviewing Okrent’s book?

Levitas says it would have--if anyone at the Times had remembered the earlier review. Despite the Times’ elaborate assignment system, no one did.

Okrent accepts that explanation. But he doesn’t accept Kahn’s explanation that he didn’t know Okrent had reviewed his book and therefore didn’t voluntarily disqualify himself from reviewing Okrent’s book. It’s a testament to the importance of the Times that no one asked about this situation in the course of interviews for these stories believed Kahn either.

“It’s hard to believe that a man wouldn’t see . . . or at least hear about a review of his own book in the Sunday New York Times,” says Walter Clemons, who wrote reviews for the New York Times for three years before becoming a reviewer for Newsweek in 1971.

Less than two months after the Kahn review, procedures at the New York Times Book Review broke down again. This time, the book was “The American House of Saud,” an account of efforts by Saudi Arabia to influence American policy-making at home and abroad. The reviewer was Hoyt Purvis, who had been an aide to former Sen. J. William Fulbright--who was mentioned unfavorably in the book (and who’d been counsel to a Washington law firm that had represented the Saudi government after Fulbright left the Senate).

The Times was mortified by this violation of its policy not to assign reviews to anyone who has had “close ties with anyone who is prominently mentioned in the book under consideration.” The Times ran an explanatory “Editor’s Note” apologizing for this transgression, then published a second review--accompanied by a second “Editor’s Note"--and also published a letter from the author of the book complaining about Purvis’ review.

“We made a mistake,” Levitas says. “We should never have assigned the review to Purvis.”

Despite writer Gore Vidal’s suggestion that the New York Times Book Review is often “alive with the sound of axes grinding,” most such mistakes involve reviewers who may be predisposed to like a book (and an author), rather than reviewers who may be predisposed in a more hostile direction.

Levitas says the ideal reviewer has “a sympathetic distance from the book.” But sometimes there’s more sympathy than distance in the New York Times Book Review.

Quest for Favorable Review

Because of the enormous importance of a review in the Times, writers and publishers will go to great lengths--circuitously and even surreptitiously--in their quest for favorable reviews.

“To get good reviews, you spend a lot of money,” says Lawrence S. Freundlich, who owns a publishing company in New York after having been an editor for three major publishers. “You make calls, print extra bound galleys, have parties and invite reviewers, solicit quotes from the authors’ friends, hire a big-name public-relations firm--and you let people know you’re doing all this.”

Publishers routinely ask their authors to recommend other, friendly writers to whom early, bound copies of the galley proofs of the book might be sent; publishers also call writers on their own, and--in both cases--they often suggest that the writer volunteer to review the book, especially for the New York Times.

Several writers told a Los Angeles Times reporter of receiving such phone calls and letters from publishers--and also of offering, without instigation, to review an author they liked personally or admired professionally.

New York Times editors try to avoid being manipulated in this way, but it’s virtually impossible to be completely insulated against logrolling, and some books do find their way into the hands of reviewers bound to be almost maternal in their enthusiasm for the author:

--Bound galley proofs of Timothy J. Cooney’s “Telling Right From Wrong” included the acknowledgment “I am also eternally grateful to Professor Sidney Hook, who championed its publication. . . . " Hook, who wanted to review the book for the New York Times Book Review--and who wrote a letter to the Times, volunteering to do so--realized this favorable reference to him in the book’s acknowledgments would probably disqualify him from the assignment. He asked the publisher to drop his name. The publisher did so. The Times--its editors somehow having missed the reference to Hook in the bound galleys--gave him the review assignment.

He wrote a largely favorable review.

--Novelist Mary Gordon says she and Margaret Drabble, the British author, are friends. Drabble even provided a book-jacket blurb for the paperback edition of Gordon’s “Final Payments,” calling the book “original, perceptive, highly intelligent and remarkably honest.” When Gordon’s “Men and Angels” was published last March, who reviewed it on the front page of the New York Times Book Review? Margaret Drabble.

Not surprisingly, she liked the book. A lot.

--Simon & Schuster published “Mayor,” the autobiography of New York Mayor Ed Koch, last year. Julia Knickerbocker, director of publicity for Simon & Schuster, says that when she and her colleagues saw the byline of former New York Times reporter Gay Talese atop the review of the book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, “We nearly died of joy. . . . For us, it was a match made in heaven. . . . Both (Koch and Talese) are great friends of the New York Times. We knew it would be a wonderful review, and it was even better than we’d hoped.”

--When Joseph Heller’s “God Knows” was published last year, the New York Times assigned the review to author Mordecai Richler (“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” “Joshua Then & Now”). Richler and Heller are both published by Alfred A. Knopf. Robert Gottlieb, president of Knopf, is the godfather to one of Richler’s children. Richler is a judge for the Book of the Month Club; “God Knows” was a Book of the Month Club alternate selection.

Richler gave “God Knows"--which received negative reviews in many major newspapers--a rave review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Too Many Links?

Even though Book of the Month Club judges only choose main selections--not alternates--and even though there is no evidence Richler is anything but honorable, weren’t there enough links here to suggest that Richler might not have (or might not be perceived as having) enough distance to provide a purely disinterested review of Heller’s book?

Levitas agrees. But he says he didn’t know of the Richler/Gottlieb (or Drabble/Gordon) connection until after the review was published. Had he known beforehand, he says, he would have assigned the reviews to someone else.

“But we don’t always know everything,” he says. “We’re not omniscient.”

No--and as Gordon Lish, a novelist and an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, says: “There’s no way for even the New York Times to have an up-to-date registry of all the alliances and misalliances in the literary world. They proliferate almost hourly. . . . Besides, as long as people are involved, friends will take care of friends and enemies will fix enemies. It’s like any other social network.”

In the course of interviews for this series, the Gottlieb/Richler/Heller connection and the Talese/Koch review were mentioned more than any others, though, as “proof” that some authors receive favored treatment in the New York Times Book Review.

Heller is widely seen in publishing circles as a favored Times author because he is a friend of Rosenthal’s top aide and deputy managing editor, Arthur Gelb, and Gelb’s wife.

Koch has been strongly supported by The Times in his political career.

Levitas insists that any suggestion of favoritism is “a crock.” He concedes that the Book Review is sometimes guilty of “stupidity, carelessness and ignorance,” but he says he and his staff make “an incredible effort to vet everything for possible conflicts of interest,” both inside the Times and out, at their weekly meeting and throughout the process.

“I don’t know who Abe’s friends are,” Levitas says. “I don’t know how he feels about Ed Koch. I don’t socialize with Abe or Arthur.”

Few people in publishing find Levitas’ protestations persuasive. No one wants to say so on the record, but his appointment as editor of the Book Review two years ago was greeted with widespread skepticism in the publishing industry.

Levitas, now 56, had previously been the paper’s metropolitan editor and editor of its Week in Review section, and he was regarded more as a conventional journalist than as a litterateur. Moreover, he was seen as Rosenthal’s protege, a man who would undermine the traditional independence the Book Review has had from the rest of the New York Times--a particular concern among critics who say the paper has drifted to the right politically in recent years.

Bristles at the Suggestion

Rosenthal says he “can’t recall a single suggestion I’ve made to Mike,” and he bristles at the suggestion, widely made in publishing, that Levitas was chosen precisely because “he’s supposed to be my stooge.”

Levitas has “a sense of the vitality and news values of books. . . . and he does such a good job there isn’t much for me to do (with Book Review),” Rosenthal says. “But I’d see nothing wrong if I did tell him what books to put on the front page or what reviewer to assign. If I can do that with my foreign editor or any other editor, why can’t I do it with the Book Review editor?”

The answer, of course, is he could, and because Rosenthal is widely perceived as an editor who dictates virtually every decision of substance in the entire paper, most people in publishing are reluctant to think he has a hands-off policy at Book Review.

But even John Leonard, who’s often been critical of Rosenthal, says Rosenthal’s involvement in book reviews was minimal during Leonard’s 15 years there as a book reviewer and book review editor.

Leonard, who left the Times in 1982, says he can recall only four clashes he had with Rosenthal over reviews he wrote--"and that’s a very thin dossier. They (Rosenthal and Gelb) aren’t generally in the business of killing reviews or telling you what to review or what not to review.”

Writer Roy Blount Jr., who’s been both reviewer and reviewee in the New York Times, takes a similar view.

“Everyone in New York thinks Rosenthal and Gelb are out to get them,” Blount says. “It’s like thinking your phone is tapped. It makes you feel more important.”

Blount is not immune to conspiratorial suspicions about the New York Times himself from time to time.

“You always have a paranoiac notion,” Blount says. “You never want to believe anyone doesn’t like your book for legitimate reasons.” When Blount’s “What Men Don’t Tell Women” was published last year, the review at the New York Times was assigned to the ex-husband of someone with whom Blount was then discussing writing a musical. Blount was certain the review would be negative. It wasn’t.

Another of Blount’s books wasn’t reviewed at all in the New York Times. Blount was convinced he was being blackballed because he’d written something negative about the Times in the book. “Then,” he says, “I realized I always take at least one shot at the Times in every book I write, just so I’ll have a ready-made excuse in case they don’t review me or don’t like the book.”

Blount is both more rational and more lighthearted about his New York Times paranoia than are most writers. People in publishing talk repeatedly--indeed, angrily and obsessively--of the most elaborate and malevolent conspiracies allegedly concocted by New York Times editors or their reviewers, all designed to reward friends and punish enemies with book reviews.

List of Allegations

At one point, a Los Angeles Times reporter conducting interviews for this story had a list of more than 40 such allegations--more than 40 specific cases in recent years in which one reputable person or another in publishing (and often three or four people) had assured him “the fix was in.”

But investigation showed that in all but about half a dozen of these cases, there was no evidence whatever of any improper motivation, and even those few cases where the process was questionable, the reviewer seemed at fault more often than the Times.

The paranoia and the accusations of skulduggery persist, though. They are perhaps the most common (albeit largely counterfeit) currency in New York publishing circles--and almost everyone who tells such a story (or virtually any story about book reviews in the New York Times) insists on doing so anonymously, arguing that to do otherwise would doom his career.

Thus, one writer who was interviewed for this story called the Los Angeles Times reporter in his New York hotel room the night after their interview and said he had remembered “a wonderful/terrible example of the (New York) Times punishing their enemies with a book review, but you can’t say who told you.”

The writer said that when “The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court” by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong was published in 1979, the Times had assigned Renata Adler to review it, “figuring she would give it her usual negative review.” The Times wanted a negative review, the writer said, to embarrass the rival Washington Post, where Woodward and Armstrong work and where Woodward (along with Carl Bernstein) had been instrumental in Watergate coverage that was widely judged superior to that of the New York Times.

Adler did write a largely negative review of “The Brethren.” But when the Los Angeles Times reporter asked her if she thought the New York Times had specifically sought such a review, she laughed and said, “Quite the contrary.”

Throughout a long and difficult editing process, Adler said, it was clear that the Times had expected a favorable review of the book and that the paper’s book review editors were put in a quandary precisely because her review was so unfavorable.

Perhaps the most amusing--and, in a sense, the most revealing--anecdote exemplifying this pervasive paranoia about New York Times book reviews involves Philip Roth’s “Zuckerman Bound,” published earlier this year.

A highly regarded New York writer, who asked not to be identified by name, said he “knew” the “real reason” the New York Times asked Harold Bloom to review “Zuckerman Bound":

“Mike Levitas likes Roth and he knew Bloom does, too,” this writer said. “It was a setup, a guaranteed rave (review).”

But another prominent writer, who also asked not to be identified by name, said he, too, “knew” the “real reason” Bloom had been given the Roth review assignment.

This writer’s explanation: One of Levitas’ subordinates “hated the book and knew Bloom would hate it, too.

“A guaranteed slam,” this writer said.

These examples are not cited to suggest that the book review process at the New York Times is invariably a model of high moral purpose. Like most institutions run by human beings, it’s fallible--and like most powerful institutions run by powerful human beings, its mistakes are sometimes the result, intentional or otherwise, of power misused.

“There is, after all, some truth to all the conspiracy theories,” says Jonathan Dolger, a New York literary agent and former editor at Simon & Schuster.

But while many people in publishing are critical of the Book Review, most grudgingly concede that Levitas has been a much better editor than they had expected. Despite the charge by several interviewees that the Book Review is very scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest “except in the rare case when it really matters,” most interviewees said Levitas has probably made the Book Review more fair than it has ever been.

Playing Assignment Games

The Book Review is widely perceived as having been at its most interesting and provocative, for example, when John Leonard was the editor, from 1971 to 1975, but Leonard readily concedes he “played games” with his review assignments.

“I was inclined--always, every single time--to send a book to someone who shared my judgment on a book, if I had one,” Leonard says. “I remember finding one book hateful and obnoxious, and I was going to ignore it, but one writer I was talking to said he hated it, too, so I gave it to him and he killed it.

“There’s plenty of politics in that job,” Leonard says. “I was against the (Vietnam) war, and I never gave a Vietnam book to anyone who was pro-war.”

Once, in fact, Leonard devoted the first three pages of the Book Review (and five more pages inside the section) to an antiwar essay in the guise of a review of 20 books on the war.

The New York Times Book Review was more concerned with poetry than with politics under Leonard’s successor--Harvey Shapiro, a poet--and now, under Levitas, it is more concerned with nonfiction books, books that illuminate current (and historical) events, lives and issues. Levitas has made other changes as well--including a weekly, Page 1 essay, a page of brief excerpts from various books and a weekly roundup of short reviews of books the Times might otherwise ignore (an idea Levitas says he borrowed from the Los Angeles Times Book Review).

But people in publishing still criticize the New York Times Book Review.

The feeling is widespread that the essay is often tedious and that the Times reviews too many academic and esoteric books and that fiction and poetry don’t get enough attention now (full reviews of nonfiction generally outnumber full reviews of fiction by a 2-to-1 margin, sometimes by as much as a 5-1 margin). Most of all, critics charge that the New York Times Book Review is terminally dull.

“The problem at the Times isn’t that it’s unfair . . . but that in trying so hard to be fair, they’re not interesting,” says Robert Asahina, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review and now a vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster. “They’re so aware of the power they wield that they try very hard to be responsible, which means playing it safe--which sometimes means being predictable and boring.”

But the New York Times Book Review is still the New York Times Book Review, and that means that no matter what its weaknesses are, no matter who the editor is and no matter what his innovations, priorities and shortcomings are, it will be powerful and it will be pilloried--and it will engender paranoia--in the publishing community.

Susanna Shuster of The Times editorial library assisted with research for this story.

Next: The best book review section?


Advertisement