Inside the NYT Book Review: ‘How I Write’ Interviews Sam Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism and Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, talks to Noah Charney about a typical day at work and what he looks for in a great piece of criticism.

Earl Wilson, The New York Times / Redux

Where do you live?In Tarrytown, New York. My wife found employment in Westchester when I was jobless and writing a book, so we moved up from Manhattan and stayed. It’s now been 22 years.

Describe your typical day at the review.It’s a sequence of routines, though they vary depending on the day. Today, for instance, three colleagues and I discussed galleys of eight to 10 books, and settled on potential reviewers for each. Next we’ll review letters and see which we might publish. I’m having lunch with a colleague (at another section of the paper) at 12:30. We have our headlines meeting at 2:30—the copy editors present choices. I am leaving early because I teach a lecture course (at the New School) at 4 p.m.

How many books do you read each month for the review and for pleasure?Depends what you mean by “read.” I look at half a dozen for the job, then typically another dozen or so for various writing assignments, and perhaps half a dozen more for my current book project. For pleasure and edification, I’m slowly making my way through Henry Adams’ very long history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

How many books per month are sent by hopeful publishers to The New York Times Book Review? How are books selected?Several hundred, at least. The number varies by season. We review about 1% of the total sent to us. We select by reading the galleys. Most of this is done by our exceptional staff of “preview editors,” my very smart colleagues. Each reads at least 1,500 advance galleys a year. Multiply that by the five to 20 years they’ve been on the job, and you’ll get the idea these people know a good deal about books.

What do you look for in a good book review? Is there one review that you have written or read that you feel is somehow representative of an ideal review, a model for aspiring book reviewers?Engagement, narrative drive, the weaving together of description and argument, at least some attention to the prose. I’m not a style fetishist, but I detest verbal automatisms and meaningless stock phrases like “this novel isn’t perfect.” (Is there another one that is?) I am also not a fan of “voice-y” writing, which often strikes me as lazy. We’ve published some fine reviews in my time. Some I especially admired: Stephen King on a biography of Raymond Carver, James Wood on Flaubert (which made it into his primer on fiction), Leon Wieseltier on Saul Bellow, Lee Siegel on Norman Mailer, Francine Prose on Hans Keilson, Donna Rifkind on Roger Rosenblatt’s new book, Rosenblatt’s own review of Ian Brown’s memoir. My own reviews tend to elongate into profiles or longer considerations, not a useful model for anyone, I’m afraid, but especially not for a younger reviewer getting her feet wet. I’m addicted to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books: I have been for 35 years, and tend to favor that mode of rigorous argument. I’m proud of having written for both.

Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?I worked hardest and longest—seven to eight years—on my biography of Whittaker Chambers, and I learned the most doing it.

What is a distinctive habit of yours?All are bad. The worst is not listening. I am working on it, though.

What is a place that inspires you?Even after all these years, the streets of Manhattan.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.Since I write nonfiction, can we substitute “narrative-argument” for “plot?” If so, I’m not sure there’s a routine. An idea will jump into my head, usually as a result of my reading and the endless, incoherent loop of “thoughts” running through my head. Then I try to stay alert for material I can include. Otherwise, there’s no logic or “process.” Tony Judt once told me that he wrote a detailed outline for every chapter of his great history, Postwar. I can’t imagine having so orderly a mind.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?I work, by choice, in a hideous unfurnished basement “office” not far from the washer-drier. The walls are unpainted concrete. There’s a window above the desk that admits ground-level light. Sometimes a neighborhood cat, a calico, wanders by and peers in. The office itself is dismal, contiguous dusty crowded surfaces piled with slumping hills of books, file folders, the whole of it thoroughly disorganized. I’m always searching for a “document” I can’t find. Visitors are appalled, but I like it. Also, it’s poorly insulated. I’m content to freeze in winter and broil in summer. Physical discomfort concentrates the mind.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?Because I work at a newspaper, I prevail on a colleague to generate typeset proofs of whatever I’m working on—long galleys with narrow columns, broadsheet-size. It helps most when I’m stuck: even bad sentences shine a little more brightly in type, so I feel a little better, and plunge back in. I also reread writers I admire, and try to glean a phrase or thought that will get me going.

Describe your ideal day.Writing in the morning, jogging outdoors, and then going to the gym. In the afternoon watching NFL playoff games or grand slam tennis tournaments on TV, while getting steadily drunk on vodka tonics in a huge glass.

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What is guaranteed to make you laugh?Almost no prose makes me laugh. When a reviewer says something or other made him or her laugh “out loud,” I assume he or she is lying. Once I was going to write about this—how reading almost never makes me laugh, though it continually delights and amuses me. The exceptions: Philip Roth, who on occasion (and in long stretches of The Anatomy Lesson) makes my stomach hurt. And there’s one line in Updike’s Rabbit at Rest (when Rabbit and the family are touring the Edison museum in Florida) that makes me giggle each time I read it. No idea why, apart from its being obscene, though there’s plenty else obscene that doesn’t make me laugh.

Do you have any superstitions?I’m a hopeless mass, or mess, of superstitions. In fact they dominate my waking life. I read my horoscope each day in two tabloids (New York Post and New York Daily News) and other people’s too. I pocket every penny I see, but only if it’s heads-up. If it’s tails-up, I know something bad is going to happen. I also count on my fingers the number of syllables in names, phrases, sentences—it’s good luck if the numbers end in five or ten (that is, on one hand or two), bad if they don’t. I refuse to watch my favorite football team, the Jets, on TV because whenever I do, they lose. (I have friends who automatically blame me whenever the Jets lose, and that’s a lot of blame.) I could go on. It’s quite insane.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.I never wrote a research paper in college or grad school. Not one. I have spent the many years since trying, futilely, to catch up. Also, I devoured almanacs when I was a teenager, and so still remember the birth years (though not dates) of old Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?Updike, as long as he promised to write at least one more Rabbit novel.

What is your favorite snack? Twizzlers, the thick oversize orangey-red ones. I think they’re called peel-and-pulls. I eat them only at the office, however.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills, and the last three “Rabbit” novels by John Updike.

What phrase do you over-use?“Are you fucking kidding me?” My favorite five words in the language.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?Five hundred to 1,000 words, with at least one phrase or description that feels alive, though I’m probably fooling myself.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?The same my father gave me (which I stupidly ignored): go to law school.

What is your next project?I am inching along on a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr.