The New York Times Books section has some work to do.

The New York Times Books section has some work to do.
April Sikorski via Wikimedia Commons.

Though I admire the force and energy behind their latest project, 100 Best Books of the 21st Century, the result is imperfect. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t great. 

A good example of its dodginess would be number 98, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, summarized in the list thus: 

A famed opera singer performs for a Japanese executive’s birthday at a luxe private home in South America; it’s that kind of party. But when a group of young guerrillas swoops in and takes everyone in the house hostage, Patchett’s exquisitely calibrated novel — inspired by a real incident — becomes a piano wire of tension, vibrating on high.

Mixed metaphor aside, you can actually guess almost everything that happens in Bel Canto from that description, which isn’t really a compliment. It’s an entertaining and emotional novel that plays out like a sort of video game of an opera, counting down to the explosion that is implied from the start. It’s also a novel constructed out of heavy symbols—a personification allegory about the human heart using European opera singers, East Asian businessmen, Latin American child soldiers—with all the attendant stereotyping and very little else going on under those symbols’ surface. 

I’m not saying it’s a terrible book, but it’s not good enough for what this list is supposed to be. And in the spirit of being difficult I’d like to offer a small caveat in the form of the information that I ignored the email solicitation for votes and I think a number of other book critics did too.

Of course, saying that makes me the most ungrateful cunt in the universe, and I was sort of pleased that they asked me, because everybody is a little susceptible to flattery. I’ve certainly helped give the overall Times a hard time in recent years, for very good reasons. Their coverage of trans and nonbinary life and disregard for the lives of Palestinian people sits very, very uncomfortably with the beliefs of the people whom audiences find to be the best and most entertaining younger writers (Jamie Lauren Keiles and Jazmine Hughes, for example) at work today.

The NYTBR is, however, a little bit separate from the rest of the paper, and so the reason I didn’t take part actually pertains to their own problems, not their bosses’.

I’ll refer you briefly for more information to Maris Kreizman’s excellent recent essay (vol. 7 of The Maris Review) on the fall of a big old pillar in publishing’s temple, the impact of which has hurled a bunch of dust and debris into the air so that nobody can see anything or wants to go anywhere near the structurally suspicious temple:

It began with whispers and DMs: Did you see what so-and-so wrote? Was so-and-so always like this? Did you know that so-and-so was once married to so-and-so?
Yes, I’m talking about Pamela Paul, the once esteemed editor of the New York Times Book Review who is now writing Bari Weiss-lite columns for the Opinions section. 
I feel naive for being so shocked. Even after I thought I’d been properly jaded by a couple of decades working in media, I still believed that there were a few positions one simply couldn’t hold if one was, well, a hack. 
Since her column began in 2022 Pamela Paul has come out as a smug reactionary, bravely coming out against DEI, bravely speaking up for billionaire TERF, JK Rowling, and bravely asserting that campus protests for Palestine lack the moral clarity of previous anti-apartheid demonstrations. It was bad enough to learn that she held such a large variety of terrible opinions and to begin to contemplate how such opinions may have influenced book coverage under her reign at the Book Review. 
But the even greater shock, at least for me, is learning she’s not even skillful in expressing her terrible opinions. Her work is mostly a potpourri of hateful takes intermixed with mundane garbage.

I don’t need to retread the foolishness of Paul’s work—Maris has done a great job of trudging through the archive for those links. Max Read did an excellent analysis a while back. But her point here is exactly right. I’ve got no problem with a conservative thinker who does their work properly and Paul does not. There are aspects of the NYTBR which made sense once it all came together: Daphne Merkin’s gibberish, Paul's American Dirt commentary.

Maris is clear that actually the current editor of the NYTBR is great! His name is Gilbert Cruz and none of this is his fault. However, a great deal of trust has evaporated in the wake of the revelation that Pamela Paul is an actual procedural idiot—as in, she doesn't understand what makes criticism good and cannot write it herself. It is going to take a lot of work to restore it. That work is going to have to come in the form of good and reasonable and consistent book criticism. 

It’s still possible to do, but there are too many holdover regulars from Paul’s reign writing and no indication at all that the desk has soul-searched at the practical or theoretical level about what she did to their professional reputation. There are also a lot more stories about her behavior behind the scenes with employees that I can’t repeat here but please know that she deserves every drubbing that comes her way and more. What she doesn’t deserve is this graceless retirement to the tubthumping section. 

Anyway, the point is: The NYTBR brand is a bit fucked, nobody wants to work with them yet, it’s not going to happen for a good minute, and they should hold off on vote-based critical activities for a while.