The NYT Book Review Is Everything Book Criticism Shouldn't Be

The Review is famous as an arbiter of taste and quality. But the publication utterly fails to seriously engage with books and the publishing industry.

The year is 2002. It is 5 a.m, Sunday, on a quiet, leafy street. The silence is broken by the sound of metal upon metal as a mailbox is opened and closed. Suddenly, a loud scream rends the air. It is followed by a deep, full-throated sobbing and the soft, raspy sound of paper being shredded.

Someone somewhere has just read a review of her novel in the New York Times Book Review, and it is devastating. Someone somewhere now lies splayed in a fuzzy yellow bathrobe and pink bunny slippers, her left cheek imprinted by the grimy pavement while her right hand pounds desperately at the box, as if the action might reverse time itself. Her roommate, following the sound of her cries, has found her and is trying to get her up. The writer’s left hand clutches the now tattered remains of the review; the name “Michiko Kakutani” appears in the byline. A few phrases and words can be seen here and there: “a lot of pompous hot air,” “a definite dead end.” Slowly, the two make their way back to their house, the writer still sobbing, her roommate gently holding her up.

Michiko Kakutani’s 2017 departure as the chief book critic at the New York Times was greeted with bombastic reverence: Vanity Fair declared that she had been “the most powerful book critic in the English-speaking world.” The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz wrote that “her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers.” The Authors Guild declared that she had been the rare critic whose reviews could “make or break a book.” And the Times, no doubt keen to inflate its own importance, declared her “feared and revered” and noted that her departure—“the changing of the guard among critics” at the paper—was a “seismic change.”

Much of this, like the anecdote above, is an exaggeration. Still, Kakutani’s reputation helped solidify the Times’s Book Review and its Best Sellers List (which appears in the print version of the Review) as arbiters of taste and quality. This is an entirely undeserved reputation: while Kakutani’s reviews were occasionally, ah, bracing, she often seemed more focused on showing off her dexterity at snideness than reviewing books, sometimes adopting the voice of a literary character from a different book than the one she was reviewing: Holly Golightly in a review of Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing or Holden Caulfield when reviewing Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. (The results were embarrassing.) In recent years, the Book Review has become so anodyne, its reviewers so reluctant to express opinions that even Kakutani’s reviews might now prove a welcome distraction. As for any influence: A 2004 study of the impact of the Review on sales by Alan T. Sorensen and Scott J. Rasmussen found that while positive reviews increase sales, even negative reviews can positively impact sales. But the media landscape has since changed vastly. More recently, in 2023, the publicist Kathleen Schmidt opined that “media consumption has changed so much that big publicity isn’t necessarily effective” and that while “many authors dream of being reviewed in The New York Times, […] a review there rarely sells many copies of a book.” In a 2022 essay in The Nation, Kyle Paoletta writes about the Review having “less influence than it once had.” 

And yet, the Book Review, which has been around since 1896 (the Times was founded in 1851),1 remains influential, like the dying embers at the center of a slowly ebbing fire, and it continues to exercise its insidious influence upon the public, many readers, and book editors who are looking for examples of what the Review considers “good” or “great” books. Among the many ill effects: the Book Review tokenizes non-white writers in essentialist ways, reducing them to mere standard-bearers of their perceived cultures, and this attitude is too often replicated by even the most seemingly edgy review publications. Its emphasis on the Big Five publishers and book sales has meant that writers likely feel compelled to write towards what they imagine a Book Review critic might want to see. Despite all these issues, and its declining reputation notwithstanding, the Book Review has so long been imitated that its worst characteristics have seeped into that amorphous realm we might term “book culture”—a world where unspoken traditions about how to read and whom to read and why have taken hold and authors are compelled to write in ways that conform to gendered and racialized expectations or the apparently unrelenting public desire for more trauma memoirs.

By reinforcing in its content the worst trends in publishing, the Book Review ultimately perpetuates the material inequality so prevalent in the publishing world. Publishing is massively profitable—but only for top executives at a few places: their salaries can run in the millions. For positions lower on the hierarchy, the average salary (some hiked by unionization at places like HarperCollins) generally starts around $48,000, which is a dismal salary for someone living in a city like New York, where most publishing houses are based. In fact, the book industry is increasingly skewed to include only those who can work for free in unpaid internships or for meager salaries supplemented by family or spousal wealth. In turn, these up-and-coming editors and agents tend to seek writing from those in their own spheres of influence which means that, more and more, fiction and nonfiction work only echo worldviews of a very particular set of people (in mainstream publishing, this means a very liberal mindset rather than any kind of truly left perspective, with rare exceptions). While many have criticized the Book Review on grounds that it is boring and perhaps simply irrelevant, few have considered the long-lasting economic effects of its moribund style. 

Kakutani’s reputation was built on a 38-year career at the 173-year-old Times, which she joined as a reporter in 1979 before becoming a book critic in 1983. Since then, the book review world has changed drastically, with fewer publications devoting money to books. For a while it looked like online blogs and Goodreads, a reader-generated online review site, might be plausible alternatives to more conventional media coverage of books, defying the norms set by professional critics. But by the 2010s, the blogs had mostly disappeared as their writers either stopped from the exhaustion of working for free or very little or, ironically, were absorbed into the mainstream. Goodreads, founded in 2007, was bought by Amazon in 2013 and has since become notorious as a den of pure spite. In June 2023, the author Elizabeth Gilbert announced she was “halting” the release of her forthcoming book The Snow Forest after hundreds of people on the site, many claiming to be Ukrainian, denounced her book for being set in Russia and “romanticizing the aggressor.” No one had read even an advance reader’s copy: all of the outrage was based simply on the fact of the location of the story. Gilbert, much to the consternation of many in the book world, capitulated to the hordes. 

Despite the apparent power of social media websites to “cancel” famous writers like Gilbert, these outlets are still more fragile than institutions like the New York Times. Consider, for instance, everything happening now to TikTok, which could be gone by the time this goes to print. Social media trends tend to wax and wane while readers seek reliable reviews. The Book Review, in this fragile and ever-changing world, still exerts too much influence on book culture.


Reading the Book Review is a joyless task because it is mostly so massively, stiflingly dull. There is a sameness and a flatness to the reviews, held as they are to some invisible set of Times “standards,” the most obvious one of which seems to be, “Never be interesting.” A recent review of Anthony Fauci’s memoir, On Call, describes it as “a well-pressed gray flannel suit of a book with a white coat buttoned over it,” as if its dullness is the best thing about it. Other than a mild comment about the overuse of “bureaucratese” (phrases like “proof of the pudding” and “pushing the envelope,” which are simply clichés), the entire “review” by Alexandra Jacobs reads like a dutifully written 8th-grade summary.  I have read reviews there by some of the wittiest writers whose prose sparkles elsewhere but who, when transplanted to the hallowed and hollow grounds of the Times, quietly shrivel and hush. To enter the world of the Book Review is to stumble into a boring tea party: everyone has nothing but niceties to murmur to each other, everyone is dropping quotes from Joan Didion and some dead white guys, and everyone’s tea is secretly laced with gin just to keep them going. 

If there are opinions, especially negative ones, they are offered tremulously, coddled in several caveats, as in the review of Fauci’s book. This is by design. In 2018, Pamela Paul, the Book Review editor from 2013 to 2022, said that it “has a long tradition of being a political Switzerland.” Paul eventually left her post to become an insipid bourgeois reactionary columnist for the Times opinion section, which indicates that even she grew tired of faking neutrality. But the principle still holds at the publication, where the reviews are so bland and sleep-inducing that one is tempted to hold every reviewer by their feet, upside down and outside a window, threatening to let go: Give me an opinion, damn it! Now! Or I drop you! A book review doesn’t have to be a vicious takedown in order to be interesting, but it should demonstrate some sense of a personality behind the work, of someone unafraid to deliver keen and original insights. 

Newspapers like the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle do still have book sections, and there exist some publications devoted to reviews, like the Boston Review (BR), the New York Review of Books (NYRB), and the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB). There are transnational publications, like the London Review of Books (LRB) and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). All of these vary in their purposes and personalities: the LARB, a magazine for refugees from academia, is the Goth-ish graduate student who drops words like “epistemic” in an effort to impress their theory professor. The LRB, the most idiosyncratic (and usually the most lively) of the bunch, is that very clever and slightly high uncle who tells you about the latest book he’s been reading when you stop to chat at the Christmas party. By the end of the very long conversation, you will have learned absolutely nothing about the book, but you will have received some fantastic insights into the career and life of Lord Byron (later, a Google search will reveal that the book is about a 20-century physicist). The NYRB is that very boring family friend who has no idea how to talk to anyone who’s not a tenured professor and consequently spends most of his time in an armchair. The only person who will talk to him is the Book Review, and the two promptly engage in a competition to see who can drop the most quotations. 

Most of the newer review publications came about in the shadow of the Book Review. Some were formed as direct rivals (the New York Review of Books slyly took on a similar name at its inception in 1963). Others, like the LRB, which began life as an insert inside the NYRB and is famous for its long essays, usually on academic books, have consciously set out to be different. The Book Review, amidst all this, has resolutely stuck to its guns and persisted in being the most boring of the lot, holding on to its dullness as a badge of pride.

Its age has meant that the Book Review has survived like and alongside the descendants of the robber barons who swooped into New York and stuck around long enough to place their names on public institutions, their money and philanthropy enabling them to buy respectability as a new aristocracy.

Much of the Book Review’s reputation is based on lies and confabulation. For example: the famed bestseller list is, alas, utter bullshit. This fact first came to light in 1983, when William Peter Blatty, the best-selling author of The Exorcist, sued the Book Review for not including his novel Legion in its best-seller list. Blatty claimed that the book had been selling well enough to be placed there. Blatty lost the case because the Times admitted that its decisions about who is included are editorial and not purely based on quantitative figures. In other words, “Yes, you’re right, we ignored your book because we run on a lie. The bestseller list is not about the numbers, it’s about what we like!” Essentially, the Times admitted its “sales” list was meaningless (even as their website densely notes that their “methodology” involves sales). Speaking to Esquire in 2022, Temple University professor Laura McGrath, who teaches courses on the publishing world, “compares The New York Times’  list to the original recipe for Coca-Cola: ‘We have a pretty good idea of what goes into it, but not the exact amount of each ingredient.’” In 2013, Forbes wrote about authors gaming their way onto the list with bulk orders.

Given all this, how and why does the Book Review, an armageddon-era cockroach scuttling around in the long shadows of nuclear towers, survive? 

Like its parent paper, the Book Review is less a cultural mirror (what is happening around you?) and more of a ladder for class ascension (who will or can you be?). The New York Times is not a paper of record as much as a guide to class assimilation and ascension: to read and absorb the Times is to learn (or so people hope) how to exist in a world that is in many ways brought into existence by the Times, one inhabited and controlled by the superrich. The paper’s real estate listings and reporting and its column “The Hunt” have long demonstrated that its core readership is either the very wealthy or those who aspire to be so. One column is titled, “She Realized Her American Dream With a Hamptons House” [that only cost $6.75 million]. Similarly, its “Vows” section features couples from wealthy and often celebrity families. Often, real estates and vows combine, as when wealthy newlyweds go looking for apartments. Over the years, the immensely wealthy have certainly grown more diverse, but their money remains the point. A recent wedding announcement about Sandy Dolores Yawn, a reality television celebrity, and her entrepreneur-gospel star wife, noted that their ceremony took place on a superyacht (we assume this is a term meant to denote a very, very, very big yacht, bigger than all the merely big yachts that the merely rich might use). 

New York is always a city of a new Gilded Age, each one representative of its era, and the Times is in charge of shepherding the denizens of each up the social ladder. As with clothing fashions, its fascination with the wealthy shifts according to the political tenor of the day. The paper might now adopt a sniggering tone towards Donald Trump, but in 1984, it was once deeply, madly in love with him: a 1976 profile began with the words, “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” In 1984, catching up with “The Expanding Empire of Donald Trump,” William E. Geist gushed about accompanying him on tours of his properties, without questioning the machinations behind his supposedly legendary dealmaking. The long article notes that Trump, who presented himself as a real estate magnate, had ditched his “flashy haberdashery” for more conservative “dark suits, white shirts, subdued ties and loafers.” Then, as now, the Times provided a seal of approval to an aspiring entrepreneur busily taking his family name out of Queens into Manhattan, where the newspaper’s imprimatur was one more step towards entrance into the elite(s) of New York. 

The Book Review is a ticket for entry into this world because one must not just be rich and successful, but cultured, able to engage in the topics of the day—and the best way to do that is through books. You might buy all the famed artworks you can afford, but to talk about them as a person of the class you’d like to occupy requires that you read all the “best” books that the Times will tell you about. The Book Review is like a culture sommelier, helping you sniff and sip through all the books, books, books, guiding you through an otherwise frightening world of words, words, words: it will tell you what to read or, at least, how to talk about the book you ought to read but might never get around to reading. (Similar to its NYT cousin, “The Ethicist” column, which instructs readers on proper—and often hideous—bourgeois morality, the Book Review will instruct you on proper bourgeois literary opinion.)

To ensure its blandness, the Book Review engages in that ever popular and deeply cringe-inducing tradition that we might call the Dinner Party Syndrome: the tendency to valorize writers (at least the big names) as People You Might Love to Know and Invite to A Meal with Other Writers. Bits of this exist everywhere, but it’s especially pronounced in Elisabeth Egan’s breathy and mercifully brief interviews with authors, gathered in her regular Book Review column, “Inside the Best-Seller List.” Egan tells us that Barbara Kingsolver has established a tradition of including recipes in her books: “In Demon Copperhead, a beloved character makes black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day. Readers can practically smell the carrots, onions and essence of Christmas ham.” And she cannot resist a bad pun: “Kingsolver also baked in an important message about addiction.” The Author here is a BFF and down-home neighbor: famous writers are Just Like Us! In an interview with the suspense writer Mary Kubica, we learn that she fosters as many as a dozen cats at a time. As Egan tells us, warmly, “If you think about it, the process [of the family adjusting to the adopted cats] isn’t so different from writing books.” We can see the long-lasting effects of such an approach even in the most cerebral-seeming publications. In a recent Yale Review essay, Merve Emre writes rhapsodically about “The Critic as Friend,” ending with her assurance to the reader: “I can suggest that you may come to feel as I feel about a person, a book, that you may want to know it as intimately as I do. I can help it pass gracefully from my hand to another’s, from the present into the future.” 

The BFF-fication of the critic-subject pair finds its expression in the unhealthy parasocial relationships that authors find themselves compelled to develop with readers on platforms like BookTok and Bookstagram. The result is that they can no longer retreat as, say, Joan Didion was able to, behind their literal walls, to maintain a distance from overly friendly and sometimes dangerously enthusiastic fans. They must instead give in to their demands for actual social relations and are caught in a world of perennial selfies, both virtual and in real life. And yet, as Elizabeth Gilbert found out, no amount of such intimacy can guarantee that your readers will come to your support: her Instagram has long been filled with breathy videos that often start with greetings like, “Hello, Family!” or “It’s your Lizzy!” and end with phrases like, “Sending you a lot of love!” Despite her relentlessly sunny chirpiness, all delivered in the style of an Aunty Karen, Gilbert still felt compelled to cancel herself. 

In keeping with its sommelier role, the Times only bothers with the Big Five publishers (soon, we suspect, to become The Only One, given the thrust towards consolidation). Forbidden from this world are books from independent publishers and writers without the cachet of known agents and publishers that Times employees are bound to bump into at literary parties. Self-published books (horrors!) are, of course, out of the question. The Times has never challenged or even really interrogated the increasingly exploitative structure of the publishing world and, indeed, many of its main critics, such as Kakutani, Dwight Garner, and Barry Gewen, have been able to use their status as critics at the paper to land publishing deals with places like Penguin Random House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Norton. While they and others might argue that their talent brought them such enviable deals, we should wonder aloud (as few are willing to do) if their (supposed) ability to make or break writing careers did not in some way help them to obtain their publishing contracts. 

This brings up the complex and occasionally thorny issue of ethics. The Times’s handbook of Ethical Journalism can be found online, and the paper’s critics, like A.O Scott and Dwight Garner, have also posted individual statements online. But, as with its war reporting, ethics magically disappear. Dwight Garner, senior editor at the Book Review from 1998 to 2008 and currently a book critic, is married to Cree LeFavour, who has published a handful of cookbooks, a novel, and a memoir, some of which are mentioned (more than once) or reviewed in the Times. She has also frequently written book reviews. Sometimes there is mention of the fact that she is married to Garner. Food and wine writer Florence Fabricant favorably reviewed a new brand, Rocket Broth, noting only that the line is the creation of “Sheryl Moller, a certified health practitioner and nutrition guide, and Cree LeFavour, a cookbook writer…” LeFavour’s father, Bruce LeFavour, was a well-known chef. His 2019 obituary in the paper notes that she confirmed his death, but it does not mention her marriage to Garner or that she is also a critic at the paper. Readers ought to know that books and broths recommended by the Times happen to be written and produced by someone who works at the paper (her reviews in the print edition occupy prime real estate) and whose husband occupies an influential position at the paper. But then, as we know from the poor quality of the Times’s coverage, such as their now-debunked Oct. 7 “mass rape” story, “ethics” at the Times is a fungible commodity. 

And then there is the matter of race and ethnicity. Like every other publication of its ilk, including the New Yorker, the Book Review has been accused, justly, of being blazingly white. Kakutani is Japanese American (and perhaps the most powerful woman of color to ever have occupied such a position anywhere), and Gilbert Cruz replaced Pamela Paul in July 2022. There are more people of color reviewing books, and more books by people of color are being reviewed, certainly. And yet: the Book Review remains blindingly white in its outlook, moving between a discomfort with unfamiliar voices and styles to outright racism. The Book Review proves that whiteness—not as a racial identity but as a particular worldview—doesn’t need actual white people to extend its dominion. Karan Mahajan, reviewing Zadie Smith’s The Fraud, notes approvingly that she has a “multicultural eye,” and while we might imagine a giant ocular being surveying the London of the novel, it’s not clear what this brings to the book, which he mildly critiques as uneven in structure before quickly moving on with fulsome praise. But if a writer of the stature of Smith has produced an unevenly structured book, can it really be a fulfilling read or is the reviewer simply assuring white readers that Smith has, yet again, provided a lively cast of non-white people for their pleasure? 

As for white critics incapable of engaging with the perceived Other: consider Dwight Garner’s review of the Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue’s You Dreamed of Empires, in which he writes: “There are many names in this novel, and they can blur. To American ears, some of the most magnificent—Ahuitzotl, Xocoyotzin—sound like elite anti-depressants of the sort that only Sofia Coppola and Bad Bunny can source.” Some commenters on social media pointed out that this is not only a deeply racist joke, but that the book includes a guide to pronouncing the names. Garner wrote this in 2024 (two years after Cruz took over), not 1954, as you might expect given its old-timey racism. Reading his words, I was reminded of a colleague’s boss who told his Indian employees that he couldn’t be bothered to learn their “difficult” names and would simply refer to all of them as “Ganesh.” Garner’s review of Enrigue’s book is a positive one, but he cannot resist several jabs, like his point that the writer, who has published several works translated into several languages worldwide, “has probably been best known as half of a literary power couple” and that “before their divorce, they were profiled in Vogue, adorably sharing a cigarette.” A white author featured in Vogue as part of a glamorous couple would have been written about with far more reverence, minus the sarcastic “adorably.” Here, Garner treats Enrigue as a curiosity. “Look,” he seems to say, “This adorable little foreigner can actually write! And haha, look at him preening in Vogue like one of us.” 

But blatant racism is not the only problem: works by non-white authors are rendered as tokenistic, considered worthy not for their brilliance as novels or nonfiction but as the work of racial and ethnic Others who have something to show us—a part of, say, the immigrant experience. Bich Minh Nguyen’s 2007 memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, is about growing up as a Vietnamese refugee and the now-standard “torn between two cultures” experience that included a version of the Bento Box story: an immigrant child is mocked for their food and… you can fill in the rest because this trope became so ubiquitous that it is now dismissed as clichéd. Nguyen, who has since changed her first name to Beth, wrote that first memoir when she was 33. Now, at 49, she has written a new one, Owner of a Lonely Heart, that continues the theme of her life story (really, there is only one) but with a new emphasis: her biological mother who stayed behind. But—worry not!—this memoir, reviewed by Sara Austin, also discusses food. Austin writes that Nguyen “was marked as a refugee by hostile stares and cruel jokes as a child, and as an adult in the way she can never quite unpack her bags in a new space.” 

Same book, new twists. Austin’s review says little about what Nguyen’s work contributes to the ever-growing genre of immigrant memoirs, has nothing to say about its politics, and only notes how it might make the reader feel: it is “poignant,” and “deeply ruminative and therapeutically self-indulgent.” Such is the kind of non-white fiction and nonfiction most favored by the Book Review. The immigrant’s story only exists to make us feel in a therapeutic way. This is not to blame Nguyen but a publishing and book review industry that seems unable to publish or review books by people who happen to be immigrants and are not just conduits for the same old stories. Nguyen had previously written two novels about similar life experiences but in fiction: like a squirrel hoarding its nuts for winter in its cheeks, she must feel compelled to carefully portion out bits and pieces of her life for literary consumption over the course of her writing career. Perhaps, in another decade, she will have the opportunity to capture a different slice of immigrant life, mining herself for yet another memoir (what might it be like to be the mother of second-generation immigrant children? we wonder, breathlessly). Might we ever reach a time when an immigrant writer writes about something other than stock immigrant experiences? 

Despite any appearance of autonomy, Nguyen and others like her are not free to create non-traditional immigrant narratives because the responses of reviewers create a closed loop of influence: when reviewers only react positively to the same stale stories and cannot conceive that the darkies also have interesting lives unrelated to their immigration status, publishers and editors are more likely to demand the same stock texts about immigration or, really, anything else. 

The Book Review may well wither and die under the weight of its own irrelevance, but it has had deleterious and long-term effects on writers and publishers—and it does not serve readers who look for work that disrupts their assumptions. Instead, the Book Review assumes they just want the same old boring oatmeal (immigrant readers, for instance, might be fed up with the same old trauma narratives). There are better and more interesting ways to think about books and book culture. One is to start thinking and actively writing about the economics of book publishing as part of the practice of reviewing books. Where the Book Review has for too long perpetuated stereotypes of books as fetish objects and authors as Sparkling Snowflakes we want to bring home to Mother, a better and more incisive book review culture would locate books firmly inside the material world, not outside of it. 

In this, podcasts—with more freedom and time and less pressure from traditional media—may be going in better, unexplored directions. Andrew Hankinson’s nonfiction podcast Logroll features writers who talk eloquently about their books within the context of the economics of publishing. In one episode, Hankinson talks to Sally Hayden, an independent researcher and author of My Fourth Time We Drowned, about refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe only to end up in detention centers in Libya. The conversation deftly connects the enormous difficulties facing these migrants with the trouble she had finding financial support for the project, all without being pedantic or engaging in white saviorism. Backlisted, a fiction podcast fronted by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller, considers little-known authors or lesser-known books by famous authors. The two share a deeply infectious enthusiasm for their subjects and a keen knowledge of literary forms and histories, proving that a “love for books” does not have to mean a choice between weird parasociality and excruciating dryness. 

In more conventional outlets: the Washington Post’s Ron Charles writes that Garth Halberg’s recent The Second Coming could have done with serious editing. Charles is not engaging in a snarky takedown but reflecting on an industry that churns out books, especially by star authors, without investing in committed editors. Editing was once considered an essential part of publishing, but this basic attention to detail is “unheard of today under a business model banking on the continual release of bestsellers and copycat stories.” Or, at least, considered secondary: I recently reviewed a book with passages repeated across chapters, a clear sign that no one at the prestigious imprint had bothered to give it a basic once-over before it went to print. In the Boston Globe, Lorraine Berry was one of the few (if any) book critics who pointed out that Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, based in Appalachia, is “a form of poverty porn, a slum tour where pity is the price of the ride.” (Berry also wrote about “A Day in the Life of a Freelancer” for Literary Hub, a rare piece where a writer discusses the near impossibility of creating a writing life of any stability or comfort unless one possesses independent wealth.)

It is, in short, possible to take a deep pleasure in books and the act of reading without submitting to a Book Review-led, ah, fiction that A Life in Books stands apart from the material conditions of the world. The way forward is not to replicate or improve the Book Review but to be done with it and its anodyne presentation, after cataloging its effects on book culture. More works by small indie presses need to be considered in more outlets, and “self-published” should not always be so stigmatized. We might also consider regularly reviewing books of the past, instead of only bowing to the fashions generated by major publishers. 

There will undoubtedly be resistance to much of this and, sadly, writers are often the most obstinate about perpetuating myths about books and publishing. Esquire’s Kate Dwyer regularly reports on the publishing world, but her work is based on interviews with celebrity authors like Ayad Akhtar and Tom Perrotta, who are published by the Big Five, get excellent advances, and whose success and/or class status means they don’t have to take on day jobs to pay the bills. In a recent article on debut novels “failing” to launch, she again focused on books at the Big Five, thus reproducing the idea—made popular by the Book Review—that those are what matter most and what should be counted. In such ways, we see the lingering effects of the cultish era (and aura) of reviewers like Kakutani and the mythology of the publishing world created by the Book Review

The dawn of the internet did not bring about a democratization of book reviews for the better—let us look again at Goodreads as an example of what can happen and then, quickly, look away. We still need critics to review publications that bring in intellectual and other histories while making judgments about books but without fetishizing books or authors. Good book reviews take their subjects and genres seriously: a romance novel deserves the same consideration as a satire of, oh, say, the publishing world. The style and purpose of the publication matter: a scholarly review will require a different set of facts and suppositions and a demonstration that the reviewer knows the history of a book’s subject; a website devoted to fans of an author or genre might allow for more emotional responses tempered by some kind of critical appraisal; and an outlet like the Boston Globe is more concerned with communicating ideas to a larger, broader range of readers.

Even with all these differences, there are still some basic principles of reviewing: reviews should in some way let readers know whether or not they should buy or borrow the book; readers should be able to trust that there are no conflicts of interest (consider, again, LeFavour and Garner). If a book is about 1950s suburban planning, it is pointless to spend three-quarters of the review ranting about gender imbalances in the workplaces of the time. We get it: you have a feminist politics, yay, but does the book provide an interesting history of its subject? Basic questions should be answered in some way: is the book’s thesis provable? If a novel, does it fulfill the basic requirements of plot and character? If it’s the kind of fiction that eschews such old-fashioned conventions, fine, but does it engage a reader in any way or is it simply like the sticker on a new Hermès bag: it doesn’t exist, and if you have to ask, you don’t know its value? Most of all, a review should deliver an opinion (this may seem like an obvious fact but, again, consider the Book Review).


Kakutani retired by taking a buyout from her employer as the paper struggled to restructure and cut costs. In the years since her departure, she has written lavishly produced books that offer nothing more than warmed-over liberal takes on “democracy,” a favorite subject of hers. They have not gone over well: reviewing her 2018 The Death of Truth in the Times, Chris Hayes wrote with the despair of a man who wondered how to retrieve lost hours, observing that “it feels like spending a few hours scrolling through the #Resist hashtag on Twitter.” Her more recent The Great Wave: The Era of Radical Disruption and the Rise of the Outsider can be described entirely by its title and reads like a transcript of a TED talk: a simple and simplistic claim, repeated ad nauseam with great sincerity.  

Despite a lackluster response to her books and even searing critiques, Kakutani will probably keep getting book contracts while far more talented and interesting writers struggle even with article pitches as publications everywhere shutter or struggle to find resources. The Book Review, in all its stodgy glory, continues to exist. A 2006 C-Span interview with its employees featured editors talking about the seemingly complicated processes that bring it to life, but the Review to date has no explanation for why a “best-selling” author like Miranda July might receive the attention of no fewer than three separate print pieces (invaluable real estate) and a podcast devoted to her latest book, All Fours, while independent publishers and debut writers struggle to get their copies seen. Does the Book Review create the market for a book or reflect it? How much of the coverage of July’s book has to do with her status as a Hollywood-adjacent influencer-style figure, possessed of the kind of glamor rarely seen in the publishing world? Even if it disappears tomorrow, the Book Review’s lasting legacy will be that it perpetuated the inequalities of a publishing world and replicated its false and damaging hierarchies by only paying attention to stardom or the potential thereof. It creates a demand for tired stories, repackaged endlessly in new guises and, too often, the publishing industry forces writers to write towards the Book Review

Over the course of its long existence, it has shaped literary tastes without any real commitment to appraisal or critique, and it has taken pride in its ability to carry on a tradition of nothingness, no real engagement with books, only an often smarmy, worshipful reverence for (certain) books and (certain) writers. In a 2004 review of Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs, John Leonard—who hated the book—offered himself up as an exemplar of the best kind of critic. He reveals that, years ago, the Times had asked him to review John Cheever’s last novel, after the assignment had been turned down by many other critics who had balked because the book was not that good and they didn’t want to simply perform what Leonard called “a random act of kindness” to Cheever, who happened to be dying at the time. Leonard revealed, cheerily, that he was the one who agreed to review the novel because, “it never occurred to me that a thank-you note to a wonderful writer, a valediction as it were, would get me kicked out of any club I wanted to belong to, so I immediately said yes.” In other words, Leonard was unafraid to admit he had no integrity as a reviewer, and the Times was happy to print his review.2

As Succession’s Logan Roy might put it, these are not serious people. 

It is easy to dismiss any criticism of the Book Review by claiming that it does not matter or that it is simply part of a mainstream publishing world. But as many writers know too well, the shoddy standards set by the Review have long tentacles, creating book markets even in the indie world (where trauma narratives and stock immigrant stories still seem to rule). 

Ultimately, much of the conversation around books and publishing ignores a vital fact: what we need is not a world where writers might aspire to gigantic advances or viral reviews to sell their books but one where they are supported in their work and are free to create and perhaps even fail—to tweak Dwyer’s judgmental term—in their endeavors without worrying about their next month’s rent or meals. 

We could continue to have long and ultimately meaningless conversations about “The Role of Critics and Criticism” (Emre has created something of a cottage industry in this realm of thought), but these usually ignore—and this bears repeating—the material conditions of publishing. Writers are not creative geniuses spinning books out of thin air but people who have to eat and find shelter while pursuing their work (the same is true of critics, unless, like Emre, they exist in that bubble somewhere between academia and influencer culture). Talking about the economics of publishing does not mean that books are rendered less meaningful or even, dare I say, less magical, less able to transport us from everyday life. 

But we can (and should) also think about books and their markets as elements of a constructed reality. A bestseller is marked as such by a meaningless gold star on a book cover, which tells us nothing about actual numbers, its quality, or whether a reader ought to read it. Whose books are reviewed or not depends on any number of unseen factors (including whether or not you are at the right parties or, you know, married to the right people). “Diversity” in publishing is often another way to compel non-white authors to provide cultural therapy to white readers. 


Online and real-life discussions about the influence of the Book Review (waning or not) often result in calls to support more independent publishers, who cannot afford to hand out sustainable advances to writers. The underlying logic here is that writers are on their own: if a writer truly wants to write, they will simply find a way. But this assumes that a writer is not a professional writer consumed by their work but, rather, someone who works on the side, perhaps after a long day at work or on the weekends, for whom writing is a hobby. Such an attitude also leaves untouched the world created by the Book Review, where only a few authors receive massive advances (Lena Dunham’s $3.5 million comes to mind, as does the Obamas’ $65 million) and others don’t make enough to actually live on but must still, somehow, write. In the meantime, too many writers are persuaded by publications like Esquire that they will be the Special Ones to get big advances when, in fact, the system is rigged. This ecosystem, where writing is simply not considered labor, remains untouched. 

The solution is not to continue the dichotomous system where the Book Review and its kin survive by only reviewing Big Five or academic publishers while indie presses (supposedly) deliver different fare. It is also not to fetishize ill-paid “indie” writing and the idea that good writers will just keep writing, because that simply means that “good” writers will also have to be independently wealthy to even write for small presses. For any real change to occur, we have to strip bare the fabrications and confabulations upon which so much of the publishing industry is built. Revealing the cracks and regimes of power within the NYT’s Book Review is only a start. To build a new ecosystem means admitting that the old one is rotten to the core. Karl Marx, as we have pointed out several times in this magazine, had to keep pawning his winter coat to survive and could never have produced his work without the financial support of Friedrich Engels. What is true of the original Marxist is also true of countless novelists who have relied on friends, families, lovers, and clients to help keep them writing.

We can fantasize about and through books all we want, but we cannot wish away the fact that books are made in and of the world itself. This includes the books we’ll never read because writers have been denied the means to create them.

notes

1. The New York Times has the second largest circulation of any newspaper in the U.S, behind the Wall Street Journal. The print edition of the Sunday edition, which features the Book Review, sells more than twice the number of copies than the weekday edition. The Book Review is included in the print edition of the Sunday paper and is also available as a stand-alone subscription.
2. Disclosure: Dale Peck is an editor and comrade of Yasmin Nair. 


Yasmin Nair is a Chicago-based writer who writes frequently about publishing. Her last essay for Current Affairs was “Who Can Win a Nobel Prize?” Nair’s work is archived at www.yasminnair.com.

More In: Media

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs