Sam Tanenhaus has the dream job of many bibliophiles: editing the New York Times Book Review. He not only gets access to all the latest, he’s in a position to influence what may become the greatest books of his time.
Luckily, the job has fallen to man of voracious intellectual curiosity, who has written widely on politics, literature and culture. His 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and a new volume, The Death of Conservatism, is winning great acclaim. UT Michener Center for Writers’ Director James Magnuson, who has invited Tanenhaus to campus to work with writers in the MFA program, calls him simply, “a person who knows everything about everything.”
That Tanenhaus produces remarkable prose and brilliant criticism of his own is even more impressive in light of the fact that the NYTBR receives as many as 1000 new books each week, 20 to 30 of which will get reviewed. Deciding just who gets that coveted coverage involves a massive and highly subjective winnowing which he has overseen since 2004, when he took over as editor-in-chief after having been on its staff for several years, a former editor at Vanity Fair, and a long-time freelance journalist and author. Eight to ten pre-reviewers, each working in an area of specialization — literary or experimental fiction, poetry, economics, geopolitics, children’s literature, etc. — cull the hundreds down to perhaps a few dozen which are assigned to on-staff and outside reviewers who write what eventually appears in the Sunday section each week.
The Times has run a book review section since 1896, and while there are dozens of equally prestigious reviews in the United States alone today, it remains the gold standard. A bad review in its pages can be, for an emerging author especially, as useful as a rave: It at least brings a book into the public eye, not an easy feat in an industry that cranks out millions of titles each year, 1 percent of which are ever reviewed anywhere. The power of any criticism to make or break an author’s fortunes and to influence what the reading public buys means that Tanenhaus’s tastes and predilections are parsed endlessly for clues to a marketplace that has always been chimerical, but is now shape-shifting as quickly as the technology and socioeconomic forces that fuel it.
Sam Tanenhaus will share his unique perspective on the book world in a lecture, “Does the Novel Still Matter?” at 7:30 pm on Thursday, November 3, 2011 at Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. He’ll discuss the state of the novel today and the authority of the novelist in what he calls a “post-literary” culture. The lecture is sponsored by the Michener Center for Writers, where Tanenhaus is in residence to work with students in Stephen Harrigan’s “Long-Form Journalism” seminar, co-taught by Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein. While on campus, he’ll also hold a seminar with Plan II Honors students, “Recognizing Good Writing: A Critic’s Criteria.”