I have come to hold what I assume is a somewhat heretical opinion about The New York Review of Books: I don't really like it very much.
I don't presume that the following exposition of my reasons for holding this opinion should necessarily convince anyone with the opposite opinion to suddenly change it; I would just like to explain why I think the limitations of NYRB are symptomatic of problems with American "intellectual" culture itself, especially in terms of the way in which this culture now approaches not just literature but the role of books and writing more generally. I would not claim that the problems I have with NYRB in this context are problems everyone else ought to find as pressing.
The April 4 issue is also the "Spring Books" issue, so it seems an appropriate choice with which to illustrate my concerns. Presumably it represents the editors' own conclusions about what books should be considered important among those available in the spring "season," as well as an indication of the current preoccupations of the "intellectual" class itself. It certainly does not offer a representative survey of the kinds of books that are indeed available to interested readers during this season, but it never has pretended to do that. On the other hand, one is perhaps entitled to ask in the midst of what seem to be significant editorial changes at the New York Times Book Review, which historically has seen its mission as offering such a survey, whether a book review with the reputation of the NYRB ought to be expected, to some degree and in all good faith, to take up the critical slack the New York Times appears to be leaving. It has a smaller audience, to be sure, but the audience it does have is precisely the audience most concerned about these changes. (Everyone must be aware of them by now, so I won't rehash the details.) And, as I recall, The New York Review of Books was actually created in the first place to compensate for the temporary loss of the New York Times Book Review during a newspaper strike.
I would have referred to the attitudes of the "literary" class as revealed in the pages of NYRB, except there isn't much that's literary about it anymore. Maybe there never was, at least if this measured by the amount of coverage actually afforded to works of literature. The New York Review has always ranged well beyond literature and literary issues, but I remember first becoming a regular reader back in the 1970s because it was a reliable source of discussion about serious fiction and poetry, although it's possible my memory distorts. (However, a glance at the acknowledgements pages of William Gass's Fiction and the Figures of Life (1971), as well as The World Within the World (1976), reveals that many of the essays included were first published in The New York Review of Books, almost all of them reviews of Gass's fellow writers and other essays on decidedly literary matters.) To judge by the contents of the Spring Books issue, most readers must now come to NYRB because of an interest in history, cultural commentary, "learned" scholarship in non-literary disciplines, and politics (especially politics.)
Of all the works of fiction published this spring season, is it really the case that the only one worth reviewing in the Spring Books issue was Jim Crace's Genesis? (And is it merely my own misperception, or does NYRB not give more attention to British fiction than American fiction? They seem to have a real case of Anglophilia.) In almost every issue of NYRB, in fact, no more than two reviews of fiction are included, and frequently there's only one. The Literary Saloon is keeping a running tab of the nonfiction-to-fiction ratio at the New York Times Book Review, but the proportion of fiction reviews in relation to nonfiction reviews is consistently even lower at The New York Review--I'd guess less than ten percent.
This issue does include reviews of other "literary" books. There's a review of two biographical studies of Mark Twain and an omnibus review of Shakespeare. In the Twain piece the reviewer, Larry McMurtry (a frequent contributor to NYRB, which is itself a whole other problem), writes that "Twain is one of those authors who is, invariably, more interesting to read than to read about." So why are we reading about him? The Shakespeare review, by James Fenton, is an interesting enough discussion of the viewing Skakespeare vs. reading him debate, but it trods well-worn ground. How about some discussion of the merits of reading some contemporary writers, particularly since they have a hard enough getting read in the first place?
A literary scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, reviews Walter Laqueur's Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. Perhaps I'm alone in finding these "cultural histories" of various and sundry topics increasingly tiresome, but I sure do, and Greenblatt's essay does nothing to convince me I should read Laqueur's book, aside from the prurience of the topic. Greenblatt's a perfectly good writer (itself a minor miracle among current academic critics), but his review points up another feature of New York Review reviews that I no longer can manage to tolerate: many times these reviews are not reviews at all, merely excuses for the reviewer to substitute his own expertise and wisdom about the subject of the book for an actual critical evaluation of the book itself. A number of years ago I read a dismissive description of NYRB as the "New York Review of Themselves." At the time I thought it was just knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, but now I'm not so sure.
Something like this problem occurs in Garry Wills's "God in the Hands of Angry Sinners," which begins with some very interesting observations about The Passion of the Christ but then veers off into a lengthy discussion of the Legion of Christ, a radical Catholic group that is obviously of great interest to Will, but the analysis of which I frankly couldn't finish. Wills, like McMurtry, is an NYRB perennial, and although I admire many of Wills's own books, some new and fresh perspective from younger reviewers would really do The New York Review of Books a lot of good.
Finally there's the obsession with ongoing politics. I mostly share the political views that get expressed in NYRB, and thus I should perhaps welcome this forum for their dissemination, but I don't. It crowds out less tendentious and more thorough discussion of other kinds of nonfiction, as well as of fiction and poetry. Part of the Spring Books issue is taken up with a continuing discussion of Michael Massing's dead-on accurate dissection of the news media's coverage of the Iraq invasion. The subjects of Massing's criticism have yet to adequately respond to it, but why was his essay even published in The New York Review of Books? Why wasn't it published somewhere not only more appropriate for the subject, but where it might have gotten even more attention and had even greater impact? I'm glad I read the essay, but not at the expense of some worthy books that might have gotten the space.
I've gone on entirely long enough. To sum up: some good essay-reviews gets published in The New York Review of Books, and some worthy books get reviewed. But not nearly enough good writing--as opposed to just "books" in the perfunctory sense of containing pages with covers around them--is highlighted, and not nearly enough coverage of subjects that might help to foster a real literary culture is provided. It's become too much a "review" of the predictable and familiar by the smug and established. It's the very antithesis of "lively." I find it increasingly dull and ponderous, and I speak as someone who ardently wishes it were otherwise, that it was in fact the essential publication it could be (and perhaps once was.) One of my greatest fears is that the New York Times Book Review will merely become a more "popular," but also more superficial, version of what has become of the NYTBR.