Anis Shivani, a champion of university presses and one of the most badass commentators on the publishing industry as a whole, wrote a scorching condemnation today of the New York Times Book Review, hoping that its internet banishment to behind the paywall will keep it from spreading its limited view of the bookscape further. While it’s tough to argue with the claim that the Times spends preciously little of the Book Review’s intellectual capital on university press books, it may be premature to call them thoroughly useless simply because they have a definite editorial viewpoint. Most savvy readers now know to take a look at multiple reviews for a book (because they’ve been burned by more than one Amazon five-star review), and because people have Anis have platforms that are close to as visible, and much more viral, than any Times reviewer.
What we do love, though, is the suggestion that the Times should review Marjorie Cohn’s The United States and Torture, which is a vital collection of the most important legal thinkers discussing our role in the spread of cruel and unusual punishment during the War on Terror. But even if the Times missed it, you can find coverage at truthdig and Consortium News.
Here’s Anis on the NYTimes:
The glorious decadence of the Times’s book review section holds broad lessons for reviewing and criticism, so it’s important to break down where the tyrannous review section failed, and point out better paths for a more democratic future. The Times’s book section, like any reviewing outlet, hews close to a certain agenda, and it’s necessary to point out where in practice adherence to this agenda hurts acknowledgment of important books while elevating unworthy books and writers. The Times has been a very important contributor to the formation of recent American literary taste, showering praise or holding it back according to an occult hierarchy of values perceptible only to its elite cadre of editors. If we believe that literary taste in America today is debased–weighted toward the transitory and derivative, rather than original advances in writing–then the Times bears its share of responsibility for propagating the collective delusion: for example, that Philip Roth is a writer worthy of the Nobel Prize, or that Jonathan Franzen is a writer in the league of Balzac.