The executive editor of the New York Times last week clarified his position on the new direction of the newspaper's book review, after a blogging site's interview with him was, as he put it, "badly misread." The interview, with the "Book Babes" of the Poynter Institute (www.poynter.org), led the interviewers to conclude that the New York Times Book Review is planning to emphasize commercial fiction at the expense of literary fiction, up the number of briefs, and cover more industry news instead of particular titles.
But in an interview with PW, Bill Keller said that his meaning had not come across. In fact, he said, he intends to maintain the level of reviews for new and literary fiction, but that the format for doing so would change. "We need a greater variety of vehicles for dealing with fiction," he said, because, as most applicants to be the Review's new editor-in-chief had pointed out, "it's become a little formulaic, and rather than have two or three modest-length templates for writing about fiction, we should have a much broader variety." That could include long essays, Keller said, as well as briefs.
The newspaper has been searching for an editor since November, when Chip McGrath said he would step down to take a writing position, and an announcement is expected by the end of the month.
Briefs, Keller said, are a good way to cover a lot of what the magazine doesn't and will also buy some space. "There's grown a sense that briefs are dismissive," he said. "I just don't think it's true. Sometimes in 300 or 400 words you can tell readers as much as they need to know. Sometimes a book inspires a lot of interesting ideas, but sometimes it just inspires an appetite."
The original interview prompted a few readers to write in with concern. Keller responded by telling them his meaning had been lost in translation. "I can't claim that I was misquoted exactly, but I do think that interview has been misread—badly misread," he wrote in a letter that also referred to the bloggers as "the aforementioned babes."
Keller did acknowledge that he had discussed mass market fiction but didn't understand why that would bother people. "We already have Janet Maslin, and she doesn't treat it as a crime against humanity that you might want to read a Dennis Lehane book on the plane ride home for the holidays."
He said he would be able to add coverage without sacrificing anything else because of a plan he was developing to expand the section—and daily book coverage—that he would present to the business side of the newspaper once a new editor is hired.
Despite the increased focus on the more utilitarian briefs, it is actually the other direction that Keller favors as an overall mission. He said, "We'd like to move it more in the direction of a magazine for people who may not want to read the book."
After the initial interview, there was some concern in the industry at how the title mix might change (though, curiously, some of those who cried out had also been calling for an overhaul of what they say is a dusty publication). Publishers who specialize in literary fiction as well as more academic nonfiction expressed worries about change at a magazine they say gives play to titles that other commercial spaces don't. One publicist said that if fiction coverage is lessened, the house might consider reducing its advertising in the Book Review.
Keller responded that concerns going beyond the titles themselves would not be considered. "I think it's important to say that we're not publishing the Times Book Review for the book industry; we're publishing it for our readers," he said. "It is not the Review's job to protect and defend the publishing industry, any more than it is the job of our fashion reporters to protect jobs in the garment industry."