New York Times Book Reviewers Talk Shop and Netherland

The latest New York Times Sunday Book Review podcast is culled from a book-reviewing panel discussion at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca store on 1/21/09.  The podcast version contains no references to the closing of book sections or the financial distress of newspapers anywhere (I haven't had time to listen to the untrimmed online version).  I'm all for this ostrichy attitude, because I rely on newspaper book reviews to help me refine my list of wanna-reads.

Podcast host Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYTBR, begins with a cricket- and plaudit-filled chat with Netherland author Joseph O'Neill, and then talks shop with reviewers Dwight Garner (daily NYT reviewer) and Leisl Schillinger (NYTBR Sunday contributor).  The 15-minute podcast and the longer uncut event (39 minutes) are available at the NYT's Paper Cuts blog;  the podcast is also downloadable at iTunes (keywords: book review tanenhaus).  Spoiler alert:  if you want to listen with unprepped ears, don't read any more of this post.

Batting Away the Easy Sentence
At Minute 3:50 O'Neill says it took years to write Netherland (one of the NYTBR's 10 Best Books of 2008) and describes trying to "resist the sentence which suggested itself immediately, and resist the sentiment which suggested itself," an interestingly contrarian approach to composition.  Reviewers such as Michiko Kakutani of the NYT have noted echoes of The Great Gatsby in Netherland, which Kakutani assumes are deliberate.  So perhaps O'Neill wanted to achieve those echoes with highly original prose, or confine them to the lyrical moments in his novel.

If I'd known about O'Neill's resistance technique when I read Netherland I might have enjoyed it less, always wondering what the suggested sentence would have been.  Resisting the easy sentence can become too uneasy, as when O'Neill writes, "The lobby was crowded with hotel residents human and canine," (p. 111; no echo of Fitzgerald in that), but in other cases it yields just enough fresh vivacity to perk up your ears:  "From time to time a chorus of barking broke out and the dog owners would look down and themselves bark reprimands in unison" (also p.111).  Occasionally O'Neill's un-obvious writing moved me quite far without getting overly aesthetic, as in these sentences about an album of photos: "...it also documented my son's never-ending, never truly acceptable self-cancellation.  In the space of a few pages his winter self was crossed out by his summer self which in turn was crossed out by his next self" (p. 235).  Original and poignant.  If you want to listen in on a tenacious book club discussion of Netherland, Slate's Audio Book Club podcast of 7/15/08 (45 minutes) is quite good (on iTunes use keywords:  Slate's Audio Book Club;  then look for date).  They also discussed The Great Gatsby on 11/24/08.

To Review or Not To Review
A refreshingly candid conversation about book reviewing begins around Minute 6.  Dwight Garner speaks about the necessity of making brisk judgments when choosing which books to assign for the NYTBR (given the multitude of books begging review, the gavel could fall as early as page 40).  Although it was against the rules to signal his opinion when assigning, he hoped the assignee would not turn in a "hapless" piece, because a poorly-written review would make even a terrific book ineligible for the cover.  Of course the mere selection of a book for review anoints it with a certain positive status.  (In a 10/6/06 Barnes & Noble "Meet the Writers" interview (available on on iTunes), Joyce Carol Oates said she doesn't review books she doesn't like.)

The Vending Machine Simile
Tanenhaus points out that favorable reviews are harder to write than critical ones (if only Michiko Kakutani had been on the panel to limn this observation!).  Garner now writes reviews instead of assigning them, and at Minute 12:30 he likens his three-step writing process to "trying to push over a candy machine"--surely a first in book-reviewing similes.

Generous, Voracious, and Prolific
Leisl Schillinger, bless her generous reader's heart, opens every one of the 20-40 supplicants that arrive unbidden on her doorstep every week, and says, "I literally feel the responsibility to see if I think I can write about them" (Minute 11:30).  Some lucky ones have made it through to the NYBR.  Tanenhaus and Schillinger also discuss the fine art of quoting in book reviews.  Schillinger's method of noting text and themes made me think of the Kindle and the Sony Reader--perhaps ideal tools for a reviewer's searching and annotation (and also perhaps too expensive).  Since book reviewers are an endangered species these days, they're unlikely to boost the ipso-presto! numbers floated by e-book reader marketers.

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