By Bill Marx.
Sometimes the incestuous workings of the Mainstream Industrial Cultural Complex become so obvious that the cogs in the machine can’t help but take note of the relentless massaging of the chosen ones. At one point Times book critic Dwight Garner approached an epiphany. Now a recent column by Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, suggests another mind is stepping out of the Matrix. Her piece is highly amusing, if only because she seems somewhat surprised at the miraculous beneficence reserved for the lucky few. It turns out that this month the newspaper couldn’t stop writing about (i.e. promoting) a book by Nathaniel Rich.
The author’s new novel was reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list.
Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families. (His father is Frank Rich, the former Times columnist; his mother is Gail Winston, an executive editor at HarperCollins; his brother is a comedy writer, a novelist and a regular contributor to The New Yorker.)
Golly gee, how could this happen? Great minds think alike? That won’t quite fly for Sullivan, but she isn’t a dogged whistleblower. “When reviews in the Arts and Sunday Book Review sections are combined with a feature story in a third—sometimes published within days of one another—it can look like a conspiracy to promote an author’s work,” ventures our reluctant muckraker. Notice how the strategically placed “look like” sits like a fig leaf on a silver platter. When asked about why, to the pitiless, such coincidences appear weirdly conspiratorial, theater and books editor Scott Heller (formerly of the Boston Globe) responds with the “Old Charlie stole the handle/ And the train, it won’t stop going/ No way to slow down” excuse.
He explained that The Times’s three staff book critics—Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner—make their own decisions about what to review. They do so without regard to, or knowledge of, what the editors of the Sunday Book Review, a separate entity, may have assigned or have planned. The Book Review has its own editor and staff.
“If it’s something I strongly want reviewed, I make suggestions,” Mr. Heller said. If the staff critics are not interested—or if the book has a strong Times connection, so that a staff review would be inappropriate—he may give the assignment to a freelance writer.
Nobody is to blame because nobody is talking to anyone else—it is pure serendipity that the son of former Times writer Frank Rich gets the kind of cheerleading most novelists would sell their souls for – in fact, some have. Too bad Sullivan is not enough of a sleuth to track down non-denial denials from the book critics in their fortresses of solitude: “Mr. Garner said that, though he talks on occasion to Ms. Kakutani, they never discuss what they are reading. Ms. Maslin swears her editor to secrecy after she turns the review in.”
This mega-spotlight is a bonanza for Nathaniel Rich because cultural coverage in the major mainstream media amounts (in too many cases) to an unthinking me-tooism — lazy editors let the Times dictate their choices for review and interview assignments because the paper’s selections confer instant middlebrow credibility. The artists anointed by the Times receive red carpet treatment on cable TV, NPR, etc. The losers in this arrangement are the talented artists and writers who could use coverage and support, but don’t have the celebrity juice or cushy connections to become part of the ‘unplanned’ deliberations.
Here’s the final twist of the knife in the backs of the marginal (which means most of us).
“In the best of all worlds, it would be healthiest to spread the attention around,” Mr. Heller said. “There are so many deserving writers out there, and it sends a wrong signal.”
In general, though, the current system is the most practical and “seems to work,” he said.
A system in which no one takes responsibility for what appears in the paper works out just great for the inside gamers, like Nathaniel Rich — not so well for the “deserving writers” left out in the cold. I agree with Heller on one thing — this sure isn’t the healthiest of all editorial worlds.