The New YorkTimes Book Review is rethinking its design and content and may decide to shrink some reviews from their typical length of about 1,400 words.
"Janet [Maslin] and Michi [Kakutani] review books very thoroughly in 700 or 800 words," said editor Sam Tanenhaus, referring to the paper's daily writers. The section will thus seriously ask itself the question, "Why do we need 1,400- or even 1,100-word reviews," when it's possible "to digest and present narratively large quantities of information" in comparatively short spaces, Tanenhaus said.
Speaking last week at the annual Publishers Weekly Summit, Tanenhaus said the section has made some small changes in the two weeks since he began the job, and a fuller relaunch is likely by the fall.
Tanenhaus continued to emphasize that the section could be more popular without sacrificing its roots or cachet. He said that literary novels and important nonfiction will continue to be the mainstays, but that the newspaper has already held discussions about how to cover more mass-market fiction. Tanenhaus also alluded to a new format for its briefs and said that the newspaper's evenhanded approach could give way in some places as well. "We want to use a judicious tone," he said. "But we'd like to use a little stronger opinion as well."
The issue of the paper's cultural affiliation was also a big one at the talk; Tanenhaus responded to an audience member's question about the "self-importance" of the section by saying, "Do we want everyone in the country to read it? Yes. But we're still a part of the New York Times," which he said militated against the kind of market research another paper might conduct. He added, "I don't find [the section], compared to how it used to be, all that rarified." Tanenhaus also acknowledged the difficulty of his task. "We're not the highest of highbrow, but we're certainly not the lowest of the lowbrow. We're somewhere in the big middle, and it's really hard to define the middle."