Pamela Paul Talks Future of New York Times Book Review
This week The New York Times announced that Pamela Paul was replacing Sam Tanenhaus as editor of the Book Review. She spoke to Steve Kettmann about her predecessor, her plans for the future, and what it’s like getting reviewed.
The announcement this week that Pamela Paul has been named the new editor of The New York Times Book Review, succeeding Sam Tanenhaus, means possible change for America’s most storied newspaper review at a time when other venues are offering stiff competition (excluding the Beast, of course) and the publishing industry is changing at a rapid pace.
But Paul is not a fresh face at the Review, having been both a features editor and children’s book editor there. Tanenhaus is moving on to a full-time writing position, which is a welcome development; his writing on politics, especially the history of the conservative movement, is insightful and deeply informed.
Paul is an author herself with three books, including Parenting, Inc. and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Her writing on books and the arts has been impressive in its breadth, depth, and deftness. A particular highlight was a memorable back-of-the-Review essay last year on her diary of book reading, which begins, “With no small amount of trepidation, I lay open here the first page of my diary—high-schoolish stabs at intellectualism, fleeting girlish obsessions, deliberately obscure annotations and all.”
A changing of the guard can kick up the energy level anew and Paul’s appointment seems likely to do that. “Nine years is a long time—much longer than I expected when I joined the excellent team here,” Tanenhaus noted via email. “Naturally I’m delighted Pamela will be the next editor,” he said. “I’ve known her for a dozen years and early on in my own tenure made a point of bringing her to the section (and the Times) as a writer and later recruiting her to the staff as an editor and then manager. She’s an inventive, inquisitive journalist with a great feel for the changing moment and also for deep cultural currents. No less important, she is a wonderful colleague much respected by the TBR staff.”
Reached by phone, Paul was at first somewhat breathless, befitting someone with a high-profile, new job, but she opened up as we talked.
Are you worried about the future of books?
No, because fundamentally people love stories and they want information, and a book, to my mind, is still one of the best ways to tell stories and deliver information and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I think that’s part of human nature.
As a longtime fan of the Book Review, the one criticism I would offer is there are times, reading from Berlin or California, when it has seemed to me a little too focused on the tastes of people in Manhattan. To what extent are you looking to address a New York readership and to what extent are you looking to a national readership?
We’re a national newspaper now and that’s even more so with the Book Review, because we are the last freestanding book review section in the country, so I definitely consider our audience not only to be national but global. Just as we read The Guardian here at the Review, we have a readership in other countries. There are so many books that are conceived on a global way in the same way that’s happened in the film industry. We have an international audience. There are a lot of people who are interested in books in English who live all over the world, and we want to address them as well.
Did your mother pass on to you a love of books? She worked as a copywriter and later as the editor of Retail Ad World?
Absolutely. My mother is a writer and a huge reader, and I was named after the first English novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, first published in 1740.
Who have been some of your favorite critics? Writers you would read on any subject because you loved their approach or loved something specific about them.
That would require a lot of thought. I wouldn’t want to leave anyone important out. I don’t have the time to think of it right now.
John Leonard is amazing, and it’s a huge honor to have the job he once had. The Review under him was so lively and energetic. I love his enthusiasm, and I would say if I share anything with him, I’d say it’s that enthusiasm.
Who are some other editors of the book review whose tenure you look back on, maybe going back farther, not necessarily your predecessor Sam Tanenhaus?
I definitely want to talk about Sam. It’s an easy thing to come into a position if you had a publication that needed a lot of work (so you look good by comparison). But I’m coming into something that is in fantastic shape. We have an amazingly talented staff, both of veterans and recent hires. In the last couple of years, Parul Sehgal from NPR Books and John Williams from the Second Pass have both joined the Book Review, and we have people who have been here for years. Nobody knows his territory like Barry Gewen. Greg Cowles is amazing on poetry and fiction, as is Alida Becker, who covers a wide variety of territory, both fiction and nonfiction. Jen Szalai is filling in this year for Jen McDonald, who is doing a Nieman this year, and is another of the amazing editors we have on staff. She also edits both fiction and nonfiction, very versatile. She was previously an editor at Harper’s. My deputy, David Kelly, is a veteran of the Book Review for decades and is incredibly smart and keeps everything running smoothly and is also an amazing reviewer in his own right.
Who are some of the writers you’ve been excited about in recent years?
Right now I’m reading, and it’s nothing original to say, but I’m reading Hilary Mantel and she’s amazing. I’m reading Wolf Hall, the first installment in a planned trilogy. In terms of memoir, I just read Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala, which I thought was remarkable in every way. I read Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon and it’s just a tremendous accomplishment. In his review in the daily Times, Dwight Garner wrote that it is “a passionate and affecting work that will shake up your preconceptions and leave you in a better place” and I have to agree. It’s one of those books you put down feeling like a changed person.
Speaking of Garner, since he’s a daily reviewer and doesn’t write for the Book Review, I assume you are free to comment on his work. He’s emerged as a first-rate book critic and always fun to read. I could read him every day.
Garner is fantastic. I have long been a huge fan. It’s thrilling to have him as a colleague at the Times. There are reviews of his where certain lines of the review stay with you as long as the lines in the book itself. In his review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, he wrote about having to put the book down and pace around.
He writes about the experience of reading a book. Here’s what he wrote in that review: “I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”
As Clive James writes, a good book review should be telling the reader what you think and how it makes you feel. Reading can be a very visceral experience and in a good book review that comes across. You never want to finish a book review and feel like you want to ask the reviewer, “Did you like it?”
You’ve published three books. How has the experience of being reviewed shaped your perspective on what a book review section can be and what it needs to do and not do?
For one thing, anybody who has been reviewed with rare exceptions has gotten favorable and unfavorable reviews. Having been on the receiving end is a great experience as a book review editor because it makes you stop and think really about fairness and to respect what it is that the author has done. By and large most writers take the writing of a book, and publishing a book, very seriously. So do their editors and everyone involved in the process down to the independent book seller or librarian who recommended a particular title to a particular reader. People really care about books, and we have to take that in consideration in our reviews and coverage of them.
Without going into too much detail, I did for example come across some oddly hostile reviews of your second book, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. But I guess that goes with the territory.
It definitely is a good experience to have, as painful as a negative review can be, but overall my experience with that book was great. To toot my horn, I think I wrote about something that wasn’t a popular thing to say at the time and still isn’t a popular thing to say now. I have no regrets about writing that book.
The Times said your job would be to take the Book Review in “new directions,” which sounds like building on many of the innovations made under Sam Tanenhaus’s tenure. Can you hint at any new directions you’d like to be pursuing? Or at least offer some glimpses of your thinking in how you will chart a new direction?
The world of publishing is in flux and we certainly want to keep on top of that. We did introduce some things in the last year. We’ve added a column, Applied Reading, and that’s the first time we’ve reviewed apps. We’ve also beefed up our audio books coverage. People are listening to books in the same ways that podcasts have become popular and that’s something that we will continue to expand on. But fundamentally what we are doing is reviewing books, that is our mandate, so that is our most important aspect, and I want to make sure that books we are reviewing are books that are of interest to our readers, books that matter, books that have something to say.
One big difference in the Book Review now compared to a decade ago is the presence on the bestseller list of e-books. How important a shift does that seem to you?
The e-books were introduced to the bestseller list in early 2011 and obviously that was a big move. The Book Review has done a good job of staying on top of things. We changed the children’s books list in recent months. The e-book, paperback, and hardcover were merged, for young adult and middle grade.
There has been a certain amount of doom and gloom from many in publishing in recent years, but talking to you, you seem to have a level of genuine excitement and enthusiasm about books that is refreshing.
Really? I think there is a huge amount of enthusiasm and excitement now. There is always going to be bitterness about publishing. That goes with the territory. But there are so many great websites on books now. Goodreads is like a lovefest. Slate and Salon, I guess they’re the Internet establishment now. I feel like there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about it. When you read a great book, it’s a big experience. I just think that reading a great book can be a life-changing experience, and I wrote about this in an essay on the back page of the review. I’ve kept a journal of the books I’ve read since high school. That’s my diary. That’s the story of my life, what I was reading. And I will say that essay probably got a greater response from readers than anything I’ve written in the Times and the overwhelming response I got was “Me, too!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.