Dumbing Down the Imagination

Bookseller Ann Kristof has a wild red mane that reflects her Celtic roots. Her dream was of composing imaginative children's books and she has an affinity toward fictional literature in general and historical novels in particular.

Bookseller Ann Kristof has a wild red mane that reflects her Celtic roots. Her dream was of composing imaginative children's books and she has an affinity toward fictional literature in general and historical novels in particular. "Reality is too scary," she confesses, from behind the counter of "WordsWorth", a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The counter is hidden beneath a spread-out copy of this week's New York Times Book Review. It seems unlikely the paper's editors view Kristof as their target audience. Last winter, when Book Review editor Charles (Chip) McGrath announced his resignation, the paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, promised "dramatic changes" in the selection of book reviews to be published in future, namely - a concentration on non-fiction.

"Of course, some fiction needs to be done," Keller said. "We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me."

This is bad news for Kristof, who not only is a regular reader of the supplement, but is literally dependent on it. The store's employees are barred from browsing through any other material while operating the cash registers. Actual books, claims the management, would distract them from attending to the customers. During the often long spells between transactions, the young woman may only entertain herself by leafing though the slim magazine, in which she is already sensing a reduction in the treatment of children's literature. "It's sad," she muses. "It gives a sense that literature is not taken seriously."

American author and editor Sven Birkerts says similar things - more elaborately. The publication of Keller's comments prompted Birkerts to publish a "literary rant" on the website of Agni, the magazine he edits. Birkerts wrote that he views Keller's attitude as a neglect of the imagination, "what is, in the sphere of the arts - and, by extension, the sphere of private soul-making - the very life-force."

Waiting the storm

Birkerts is very concerned about the forsaking of fiction in the interests of creating a new, perhaps more political spirit in the supplement. He is equally disturbed by Keller's readiness to promote familiar stars while consciously ignoring young and more experimental writers, referring to the literary world as a "delicate environment", one whose growth will be put in jeopardy were it to suffer violent interferences such as this one.

In March, Keller announced the appointment of a non-fiction author as the Book Review's new editor. Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor, is the biographer of musician Lewis Armstrong and of suspected spy Whittaker Chambers. Despite how this choice lined up with Keller's earlier declarations, the supplement seems today very much as it did in the past.

It contains about two parts non-fiction for every part fiction, a weekly page dedicated to a certain genre (like science fiction or crime literature), an essay on the reading life and, of course, the best-sellers list. In the last week of June the review even dedicated a special edition to new short story collections.

Were the fears premature? Birkerts believes this is the calm before the storm and The New York Times Book Review is on its way to resembling the New York Review of Books, which, despite its name, is more a weekly collection of polemical and political essays than a book review. "I believe we will see the changes early in autumn," he says, and in the meantime he has taken advantage of the current flexibility by publishing in the supplement a review of two works by African American absurd writer Percival Everett, who certainly doesn't resemble John Updike.

While calling Everett's books "Monty Pythonesque", his own review is no less whimsical, and openly stretches the boundaries of the review as a medium. He even abandons all reviewing mid-page and turns to a description of an old Steve Martin television sketch, followed by the question: "Why did I think of this now?"

While sitting in a room full of books at the literature department of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Birkerts reads through the Book Review's edition bearing his strange piece. Jim Concannon, the book editor of The Boston Globe, reads it too from over his shoulder. "I can already sense a change of energy," he says. "You can tell that a new man is in the picture and that he is involved."

Selling the soul

Birkerts responds with a raised brow. "I don't necessarily say that's a good thing," the silver-haired and gentle mannered Concannon defends himself. "In any case the Globe is not going the way of the Times."

A few moments later, while speaking at a panel on "Book Reviewing in America Today", Concannon sound far less diplomatic. "A book review editor who downgrades fiction is selling his soul, and his section will inevitably turn into a version of the op-ed page," he says. "In tough economic times, good things often inevitably shrink or vanish. Usually they come back, but I'm not sure that that's going to happen in this case."

This week he checked on the book reviews in The Philadelphia Inquirer and found that they were minimized beyond recognition. Will that section survive? "I wouldn't put my money on it. The same goes for the reviews in The Miami Herald. Here in Boston we have a special audience that allows us to feature a great selection of unique subjects. The New York Times will continue to produce a fine book review. What I worry about is what is going to happen in Cincinnati, in Des Moines, in Las Vegas, in places that lack such a tradition."

All members of the panel, which features prominent writers and critics from around the United States, know that not only Ann Kristof is dependent on book reviews. The 1.7 million weekly copies of The New York Times' supplement decree each week the fate of scores of writers. Moreover, the whole of American culture uses this and similar publications as a mirror. They present the nation's literary agenda, an agenda that can be altered by one man.

In an age in which television and cinema dream for us, any damage done to the status of fiction by such a cultural powerhouse certainly does threaten the imagination. Reutilizing the pages of Book Reviews for subjects that draw more expensive advertising carries with it further danger, as noted by Sean O'Connell, an historian of American literature who publishes reviews in Atlantic Monthly magazine.

According to O'Connell, newspaper editors ignore the responsibility they share for the preservation of what is an art form in its own right - the book review. The reviewer, he says, is given several hundred words, which he or she must efficiently use to present an opinion, analyze, entertain, compare, describe - taking care not to reveal the ending, and even poeticize a bit.

As strange as this might seem to a writer whose book was ever demolished by a reviewer, some see the review itself as a literary treasure worthy of preservation. Will it persevere and to what extent? Ann and her co-workers are sure to discover this in the coming months. If what they see does not please them, they will have to weather long empty shifts with little to enliven their spirits, at least until another new editor is appointed.