Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, is a very brave man.
On May 22, the NYTBR—which Tanenhaus took over almost exactly two years ago—will name the finest work of fiction published in the United States since 1980. Borrowing an idea used by the Herald Tribune in 1950, when it named Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man the best fiction book of its era, Tanenhaus and his staff asked hundreds of fiction writers and critics—from Don DeLillo to Gary Shteyngart, from Bill Buford to Harold Bloom—to submit one title as the winner. There were no nominations, no shortlist; jurors could (and did) vote for everything from John Updike's Rabbit books (which qualified as a set, even though the first two volumes were pubbed pre-1980) to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (just made it: 1980). The winner will be the title that received the most votes; the TBR will also publish the names of books that received multiple votes, along with an explanatory essay by Times critic A.O. Scott. (Tanenhaus will moderate a panel on the survey at BEA.)
On the face of it, and, I admit, a couple of levels down, this is a great idea. (File under: things I wish I'd thought of first.) I'll also admit that since I talked to Tanenhaus, I've been torturing myself and my colleagues with queries and guesses about what the winning title will be. (Could DeLillo be a judge and a frontrunner? Will Philip Roth make the list?) All Tanenhaus and Co. will say is that it's possible that the best fiction writer's name will also appear on the also-ran list, suggesting that whoever wins isn't a one-trick pony.
There's no doubt about it: I envy Tanenhaus this publicity- and perhaps advertising-generating vehicle, even if he does say that the winning publishers have not been alerted in advance, à la Oprah, and therefore are unlikely to buy extra ads in the issue. Cash investment or no, to be named the New York Times Book Review's best fiction of the last 25 years has to be a brand-builder for both the winner and its bestower.
Still, I can't help feeling that Tanenhaus is really in for it. I can see those cards and letters and e-mails now: the ones full of carping from publishers, authors and jurors who feel that in one way or another, they most certainly wuz robbed. Maybe the list of judges wasn't diverse enough in politics, ethnicity or gender, some will surely say. Maybe the arbitrary 1980 date excluded somebody's brother's best friend. And hell hath no fury like a major writer scorned.
But Tanenhaus—who freely admits that some writers turned down his offer to join the jury because "you can't quantify art" and because, less forthrightly, they might have been hoping to be crownees rather than crowners—doesn't seem worried. "There's a sense of sport about this," he tells me. "And at the same time, this is something that matters"— to readers, to writers, to the whole bookish world.
Or, to put it more crassly: every time someone conducts a conversation about books, no matter what they say, somewhere there's a publisher smiling.
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