On the conservative movement’s betrayal of conservatism and on editing THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW.
Sam Tanenhaus, who is the editor of THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and that paper’s vaunted “Week in Review” section, won the 1997 LOS ANGELES TIMES Book Prize for WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A BIOGRAPHY (it was also a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist). He is now at work on a biography of the late William F. Buckley, Jr. In between those two large books, he has seen fit to write a slim volume called THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM, which has just been released by Random House. A less eye-grabbing but possibly more accurate title for this work would be “The Betrayal of Classic Conservatism by Modern-day Conservatives.” This gist of this eloquent and searing work is to argue, and prove, that modern-day conservatism has turned its back on its core principles. For a movement that prides itself on acting as if it is in constant touch with old truths, the idea that it has turned a blind eye to its own history is no small charge. Interestingly, Tanenhaus comes to the matter with a calm, if not empathetic, perspective. He has clear respect for many old conservative ideas. But the fact that he has the nerve to detect imperfections in the current movement will no doubt mean that his important work will be ignored by rabble rousers like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who clearly have no interest in self-awareness, let alone self-criticism. In fact, the inability to look inward is one of the alarming traits Tanenhaus notices in the current conservative movement. He mentions being on a panel with some high-ranking conservatives where “not one of the three panelists acknowledged that the Republican Party and its ideology bear any responsibility for the nation’s current plight.”
Many provocative ideas flash through this book:
• On George W. Bush’s legacy: “During the two terms of George W. Bush, conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity, though few conservatives will admit it, just as few seem ready to think honestly about the consequences of a presidency that failed not because it ‘betrayed’ movement ideology but because it often enacted that ideology so rigidly….”
• Because Republicans are more intent on winning back power than seeing America overcome problems under liberal leadership, he calls the current conservative zeal to see Obama fail as “the movement’s appetite for destruction.”
• The wisdom of Edmund Burke, the grandpa of conservative thought, is brought to the fore. Tanenhaus dissects many of Burke’s ideas, including this one, which is a clear rebuke to rigidity of thought: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation…. [T]he restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule.”
Throughout the book, Tanenhaus keeps returning to the idea of “revanchism,” the idea that the only thing Republicans seem to care about these days is claiming “lost” territory, “taking back America” at any cost. (“Taking back America,” one is prompted to ask, and doing what with it? Giving it back to George W. Bush?) Which is to say that to many current conservatives, principles don’t matter as much as power does. Unfortunately, intellectually barren and rage-filled power-grabs, or “Oppositionism,” can be very effective. “[A]t almost every critical juncture,” Tanenhaus writes, “the revanchists have won the argument. They have done so by perfecting a politics energized by Jacobin-like marshalings of shared enmity. Oppositionism is a powerful tool. It can bridge differences among groups otherwise at odds.”
Knee-jerk Oppositionism, in an urgent time when Americans must find common ground, whether they like it or not, to subdue overwhelming problems, is most worrisome. A wise man once said that you do not prove superior intelligence merely by finding fault with everything in the world.
Recently, Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, charged that those Republicans who were intent on criticizing health-insurance reforms to the exclusion of offering any helpful solutions themselves, could fairly be labeled “nattering nabobs of negativism.” In such a context, the phrase does have a certain poetic ring to it….
We could not resist asking Sam Tanenhaus a few questions about his new book (see below). (Our publisher, Warwick Sabin, joined me in posing questions.) We could also not resist, while we had him on-line, asking a few questions (also below) about his day-job at the all-important NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW.
WARWICK SABIN: Let’s talk Southern politics. Some might say that the South is the last bastion of conservatism in this country, but based on what you wrote in your book, it could be argued that what passes for Southern conservatism is actually contributing to— if not causing—the death of the national movement. What do you think?
ST: A book could be written on the South and modern conservatism—a more complicated subject than many may suppose. To give one example, when “the movement” was in its formative stages—which began, in my interpretation, during the 1930s—the principal conservative tenet in foreign policy was isolationism, premised on distrust of any and all “entanglements” with Europe as its great nations moved inexorably toward a second world war. But isolationism gained little traction in the South, with its long tradition of military service, dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars and still alive in the modern era. In the classic fiction about World War II—the best example is Norman Mailer’s THE NAKED AND THE DEAD— Southerners are the most fearsome infantrymen. To this day, the South produces skilled fighting men and retains a pro-military culture. This background has also shaped Southern positions on domestic political controversies. Southerners did not much support the conservative movement’s first great crusade, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “loyalty/security” investigations in the 1950s, particularly when he targeted the U.S. Army, which he accused of harboring Communists. (The young Joe McCarthy, born and raised in Wisconsin, had been an isolationist in the period leading up to World War II.)
The South became more identified with the movement a decade later (in the 1960s) when the Civil Rights “revolution” transformed American politics. But there was little affinity between the tribune of Jim Crow resistance, George Wallace, and right-wing intellectuals at NATIONAL REVIEW, who viewed Wallace as an unrepentant New Dealer—a “socialistic” champion of “the mass man.”
It is true, however, that in our day the movement, which has sunk into a condition of decadence, finds much support in the South. Some of the region’s elected leaders have joined forces with evangelical leaders to advance an outmoded politics of social and cultural conservatism that the nation at large now rejects. But even there, the reality of Southern politics is complex—for instance in its supposed opposition to Beltway elites. In fact, the co-authors of the evangelical right, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, were Beltway figures. Both were born in Virginia. Robertson’s father was a prominent Virginia Senator. The most charismatic figure on the right today, the Alaskan Sarah Palin, presents herself as a frontier libertarian Westerner, not as the upholder of traditions identified with the South.
WS: A few days after Barack Obama was elected president, a news article in THE NEW YORK TIMES declared that the South “is becoming distinctly less important” because it glaringly voted overwhelmingly against Obama. If the South is indeed yielding its disproportional influence over the course of national politics, is that in any way connected to your observations about the decline of conservatism?
ST: We live in the age of chronic, perhaps mandatory, overstatement. In the aftermath of Obama’s historic victory, many assumed (or hoped) those not swimming with the cresting tide would drown. But in fact the outcome of the 2008 election was relatively close. Resprinkle a few hundred thousand votes here and there, and the results in 2008 would have been reversed. In fact, Obama received fewer electoral college votes than Bill Clinton did in 1992, when the spoiler Ross Perot cost Clinton a majority of the popular vote. (In my view, the election of 1992 actually signaled the death of conservatism. What we’ve seen since is its denouement, which partly explains its aura of ideological decay. Movements, like civilizations, become most garishly self-parodying in their twilight phases.)
That said, it is true that some Southern and Sunbelt states were disproportionately hostile to the Obama candidacy in 2008, and thus stood outside the dominant centrist trend that yielded, among other results, a large contingent of Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives. Even so, the South today is less reliably “solid” than in the past, especially contrasted with the tradition of Southern politics that began in the post-Reconstruction era, when first the Democrats and later the Republicans each had the entire region locked up. This changed in 2008. Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida (each once a member of the Confederacy)—all went for Obama. True, none is a Deep Southern state, and each is more ethnically diverse—and includes more intrinsically Democratic constituencies—than, say, Tennessee, Arkansas, or Oklahoma (also Confederate states, or, in the case of Oklahoma, a pro-Confederacy Territory).
In sum, “the South” is not so easily characterized as in the past, in part because it is being reshaped by changes overtaking the nation at large. Who would have imagined Bobby Jindal being elected governor of the same state whose white voters not so long ago were attracted to David Duke?
Similarly, the Goldwater-Reagan preserve of the Sunbelt is less reliably Republican. In 2008, Colorado and New Mexico both went to Obama, thanks to their growing population of Latino voters and socially liberal suburbanites. In other words, regional identity, though still important in our politics, is giving way to ethnic and demographic shifts that have begun to reconfigure the national map.
It’s important to remember that the pivotal issue in the last election had nothing to do with regional politics at all. It was economic—the gravest financial emergency since the stock market crash of 1929. Had the stock market not collapsed in September, Obama might have failed in some Northern states—Ohio and Indiana both come to mind, and perhaps Pennsylvania, too.
What has any of this to do with the current condition of movement conservatism? In my book, I point out that voting patterns and poll ratings tell only a small part of the story. The exhaustion of the modern right is most evident in the distinct though not wholly separate sphere of ideas and analysis—in the sphere, that is, of the intellectuals. It is they who provide the dominant policy arguments and prescriptions and also shape the idioms and vocabulary of political debate. This is where the right has let us all down. It is all but impossible to find today the rigorous thinking of conservatives like James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers (in the 1940s–’50s), William Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (in the 1960s–’70s). These are some of the figures my book discusses. Our republic was founded by intellectuals who drew on the richest and widest sources—from ancient philosophers to Enlightenment philosophes. This quality of intellectual seriousness has all but vanished on the right. On THE NEW REPUBLIC’s website, Damon Linker, a gifted young political thinker, surveyed the reviews of my book in various conservative journals and noted that scarcely any had really examined what I had written or acknowledged that my narrative explores the world of conservative ideas and describes the lives and thought of its towering figures. Instead they resorted to heckling, with the familiar name-calling and trite labeling. This is a disservice to the great conservative tradition.
WS: Modern conservatism is thought to have come to power (electorally) as a result of the GOP’s so-called “Southern strategy” in the late 1960s, which divisively capitalized on the fears, insecurities, and prejudices of the region during a time of great change. But you argue in your book that conservatism found a foothold in the 1960s when William F. Buckley, Jr., denounced right-wing extremists and joined with Daniel Patrick Moynihan to forge a consensus with liberals for national stability. Which was it? Or was it both?
ST: It is dismaying, though not surprising, that race, the most complex issue in our politics, is so often analyzed in reductive terms by both left and right. Capturing the “Solid South” helped realign the GOP—first under Barry Goldwater, then under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—but it was by no means enough to secure the party’s dominance. Goldwater, the first Republican to deploy the “Southern Strategy” suffered one of the most lopsided defeats in presidential history in 1964. Nixon, though he was elected in 1968, failed to win a majority of the popular vote, thanks to George Wallace (who won thirteen percent of the vote and carried five states). Nixon secured the Wallace vote in 1972 (owing in part to Wallace’s near-assassination). But in 1976, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Democrat, reclaimed most of Dixie, and Bill Clinton took pieces of it too in 1992.
There’s another complication. The GOP was the beneficiary not only of white Southern resistance to Civil Rights legislation, but also of white Northern reaction to its own racial conflicts. The pivotal chapter in my book shows how the politics of race passed through two distinct phases—as the great peaceful desegregation protests of the 1950s and early 1960s, limited to the South, gave way only a few years later to the often violent uprisings in Northern cities (Los Angeles in 1965; Newark and Detroit in 1967). You’re quite right about the pact formed by Buckley and Moynihan, who jointly supported “the politics of stability” (in Moynihan’s phrase). Both agreed that the prime threat to that stability came from urban disorder and the anti-institutional bias of the anti-war activists, some of whom embraced militancy. The political figure who seized on this argument was Nixon, who put the Democrat Moynihan in his cabinet and with him devised far-reaching social programs. This was the peak period of bipartisan consensus, and it was the GOP that led the way. The party prevailed not by moving right but by occupying the center.
WS: You told me over dinner in Little Rock that a mostly unknown part of Buckley’s life was his upbringing in the South (since he always appeared to be a New England blue blood). How important was his Southern experience in determining his thoughts and approach to conservatism, since he came to define it in the modern era?
ST: Buckley’s Southern heritage is the great overlooked fact in his background and upbringing. Both his parents were children of the Deep South. His father, Will Buckley, though of Irish background, was born and raised in San Diego, Texas, a small town near the Mexican border. He was educated at the University of Texas and made his career as a lawyer turned oil-wildcatter in Mexico City and then Tampico. His intention, thwarted by the Mexican Revolution, was to raise his ten children as expatriates in Mexico, with its mixed-race Spanish Catholic culture. This made sense since Will’s wife, Aloise Steiner, came from New Orleans and also was a Catholic at home in a cosmopolitan Creole society. All these influences flowed through Bill Buckley, who was for many years perhaps the most influential Catholic in American intellectual life. (The subject of Catholicism and the American South deserves more study.) Bill Buckley is often identified with Kennedy-style Irish Catholic privilege because he grew up in Connecticut and was educated at Yale and spoke like a blue blood. But the family’s estate was furnished with Mexican artifacts, and Bill’s first language was Spanish.
Another interesting fact about Buckley and the South: In about 1940, his father purchased a winter estate in Camden, South Carolina: Kamschatka, the plantation Mary Chesnutt and her husband built in 1854 and where she wrote her classic Civil War diary. Bill’s younger brother Reid continues to live on property the family once owned in the area.
In its first years, NATIONAL REVIEW, founded in 1955, was a bastion of white Southern resistance to Civil Rights, but Buckley’s racial attitudes in those years was essentially that of “progressive” white Southerners. Thus he supported Jim Crow, but said integration made perfect sense in Connecticut, with its very different racial history. And his racial attitudes evolved over time. In his last years, he acknowledged the magazine’s biggest mistake was its opposition to the great Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. He also supported a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a time when John McCain opposed it. In a speech Buckley gave a decade ago, he cited Dr. King as a climactic example of how religion remained a vital force in American politics.
MARC SMIRNOFF: After having been an assistant editor at THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW from 1997 to 1999, then a contributing editor to VANITY FAIR from 1999 to 2004, you took over as chief editor of the REVIEW in 2004. Has the job been different in any way from how you envisioned it would be?
SAM TANENHAUS: The job is everything I hoped it would be and then some—mainly because my colleagues are so smart, skilled, and dedicated. It is impossible to exaggerate the collaborative nature of the work we do. I’m amused by commentary on the BOOK REVIEW that implies it is a vehicle of my personal tastes, prejudices, hobbyhorses, and quirks. In fact, almost every important decision is made by several of us, sometimes all seventeen or eighteen or us, acting in concert or reaching a compromise. The biggest surprise would be the internal, “technical” requirements of publishing a small magazine every week—requirements you’re very familiar yourself with as a magazine editor.
The most unexpected dimension of my job has been the online component. When I began, the BOOK REVIEW had strong web features. We’ve added new ones. There is our blog, Paper Cuts, originated by our Web editor at the time, Mick Sussman. It was initially written and edited by Dwight Garner (who has since left TBR to become a critic for the daily paper), but now many on staff contribute. We also do a weekly podcast (Dwight’s idea) built around interviews with authors and critics. Lately, we’ve added video interviews. The very first of those was with John Updike. It was recorded last fall, not long before his illness was diagnosed. Most recently, Lorrie Moore came in. All these interviews can be found on the paper’s website. Thursday has become my “media day.” Our current Web editor, Blake Wilson, arranges the bookings, and an experienced NPR engineer, Jocelyn Gonzalez, does most of the recording and all the editing.
MS: By the way, what does “contributing editor” at VANITY FAIR mean? Does the title really mean “contributing writer”? Because it’s not like you came into the office to edit copy or proofread or mark up layouts, right?
ST: Yes, it’s an altogether confusing term. One or another of my “official” brief bios says something like “ …contributing editor at VANITY FAIR, where he also wrote articles.” In fact, writing articles was all I ever did at the magazine. “Contributing Editor” is a term for contract writer. It may derive from the nomenclature of the old TIME magazine. In my case, the arrangement was kind of a half-time deal. I delivered two stories a year while I worked on the Buckley biography. My ill-defined beat included politics, culture, ideas. All three converged, bizarrely enough, in the one “true crime” story I wrote, about a suicide at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
MS: How did you prepare for taking over the REVIEW job? Did you read some back issues or some particular critics to help get you in the mood or to give you a historical perspective?
ST: The answer is yes, to both questions. When I applied for the job I was asked to submit a memo outlining my thinking. I had a clear notion of what I wanted to do, but I refined my approach by consulting hundreds of past issues. I spent much time looking at issues from the early 1970s when John Leonard, one of the TBR’s most innovative editors, strongly enlivened the section. I also read various commentaries on TBR, including the famous critique Dwight Macdonald wrote (in ESQUIRE) in 1963. I read this on the recommendation of Joseph Lelyveld, the former Executive (that is, top) Editor of the TIMES. I couldn’t find a reprint, but a friend at ESQUIRE let me read the original in their library.
MS: What do you spend most of your time doing at the REVIEW? Line-editing? Deciding which books to review? Making assignments?
ST: I do very little line-editing, and have been doing even less of it since December 2007, when I also became editor of the Week in Review. A big surprise to readers is that I seldom decide which books to review. The calls are made in almost every case by one or another of our four “preview editors,” plus our senior editor, and our deputy editor. On rare occasions, I’ll ask an editor to reconsider a book that got passed over or may read it myself, to be sure our decision was just. Assignments are made collaboratively. The preview editors, who read galleys (or advance reading copies) on their own time (their on-the-job hours are spent editing), come into my office with a stack of books they’ve decided should be assigned. The Deputy (Bob Harris) and Senior Editor (Laura Marmor) also join the conversation. We then have a free-for-all, tossing out names. This is the most fun part of the job. I often tell people the most important decision we make is whether or not to review a particular book. Sometimes it’s an easy call, sometimes not.
MS: It is not ridiculous to presume that the chief editor of THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW should be more aware and sensitive to the contemporary literary scene than any other living creature. Okay, that’s a lot of pressure…but, again, the presumption is not utterly ridiculous. So with that kind of pressure on you, or near you, do you ever get time to pick up an old book and read it without any concern about its relevance to your job? Or does the pressure of all these authors clamoring to be reviewed in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW make it impossible for you to enjoy reading that is not work-related?
ST: I’m always reading (and rereading) old books, though in some instances they do have relevance to my work. I write a fair amount myself—in fact, I wrote a short book this winter and spring and have been at work for some years on a biography. Both those projects involve a great deal of reading in old books, usually nonfiction since my main areas of interest are twentieth-century politics and political thought. Apart from that, my vice is re- and often re-re-re-reading . I can’t seem to go very long without immersing myself in a vintage work by Bellow, Mailer, Roth, Updike, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, or Garry Wills. These were the collective gods of my youth and remain the inspirations of my, um, mature years.
MS: Since taking over as chief editor, what has been your favorite accomplishment at the REVIEW?
ST: See above, our new online features, for which I deserve no credit, since smarter people thought them up. I’m proud that we’ve been strong advocates of young novelists—including Charles Bock, Benjamin Kunkel, Joshua Ferris, Tom McCarthy, Marisha Pessl. Literary fiction deserves all the support we can give it. We’ve helped it along by restoring the front-cover review that was a signature of the TBR for most of its history. I’m also proud of the attention we’ve given to poetry. We did the only all-poetry issue in TBR’s history and also have a regular column, written by David Orr, one of the best young critics writing today.
MS: Your biggest mistake?
ST: Too many contenders there! We did an all-Iraq issue that, as a reader pointed out, did not include a single essay that dealt with oil. That was a regrettable oversight. We also need to open our pages up to newer and more diverse critical voices. We try to do it, but have a considerable distance to go.
MS: I heard you speak once and you touched on a fascinating phenomenon. It seems like every time an author gets a bad review, he or she immediately suspects a conspiracy or hidden motive or some scandalous intent: “the reviewer is jealous of the author”; “the reviewer has a personal conflict with the author”; “the reviewer once dated the author's wife”; “the reviewer did not read the book”; etc. The possibility that the reviewer genuinely disliked the book is never considered, even though every author (and not just every reviewer) is himself or herself a collection of strong, personal likes and dislikes. How often do you deal with irate authors, and is it possible to calm them?
ST: It’s dispiriting how often a favorable review is assumed to reflect personal animus rather than a considered judgment. And you’re quite right that authors who themselves have often been sharply critical in their assessments of other writers take umbrage when their own work is treated irreverently. At the TIMES, I think we sometimes make a fetish of presumed “ethical conflicts” and sometimes forget the reviewer’s pact is not with the author (or the publisher) but with the reader, who is less interested in backroom politicking than in reading a strong, informed piece of criticism. Now and again I’ll send a note to an author I think may have been treated not quite fairly in our pages, but for the most part I suffer alongside them in unspoken sympathy. A book review editor can’t sell out his reviewers. I take responsibility for everything we published.
MS: Obviously, you write books yourself. Have you ever had an experience with a reviewer who you think had less than ideal motives when reviewing one of your books?
ST: You bet. It’s been instructive, and humbling, to have had a book published while I’ve been in the catbird seat. I now find myself on “the side” of aggrieved authors everywhere!
MS: Although the space devoted to reviewing books in print publications has declined, the publication of books continues to be brisk, if not overwhelming. We are surrounded by books. What evolutionary step do you foresee in all this?
ST: This is the great imponderable of our literary moment. I’m a terrible prognosticator, so I won’t offer any answers apart from the obvious observation that history unfolds along lines we can never fully discern in real time.
MS: Again, in hearing you speak, I know that you are very sensitive to the truth that a review in the NEW YORK TIMES often has a big influence on the fate of a book. Just like every author wants to be on “Oprah,” every author wants to be reviewed in the NEW YORK TIMES. But you guys and gals can only review a small fraction of the actual number of books that are published each year. Is there anything that the book world (publishers, readers, authors, reviewers) can do to change this scenario?
ST: Thomas Mallon, a superb novelist and critic, once told me the dirty little secret of book reviewing, including at TBR, is that in fact too many books are reviewed. It was easier to say this some years ago, when several newspapers had robust stand-alone Sunday book review sections. Today there is only TBR, and we’re looking anemic ourselves—our weekly page count has shrunk fifty percent from only a year ago. It’s a concern, not only for authors and readers but also for reviewers, who practice an art whose cultural status seems to be going the way of the German mark during the Weimar Period. I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.
MS: In a famous 2003 essay in THE BELIEVER, Heidi Julavits argued fairly persuasively that too many book reviewers were snarky—i.e. mean-spirited. On the other hand, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote a beautiful essay for HARPER’S in 1959 that still seems to resonate, in which she argues that book reviewing is too soft, that every book, no matter how pallid or common, is disingenuously praised. Where do you stand on this, Sam? In general, are book reviewers too nice or not nice enough?
ST: I think it was Stravinsky who said there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. The same is true for books and also for criticism. Some of our more ornery critics—Walter Kirn, for one—write excellent reviews. So does a more sympathetic critic like Liesl Schillinger. We need both kinds. Niceness and not-niceness are beside the point. The best reviewers abandon themselves to the work in question, dwell inside its world, and then recreate the experience on the page for readers. It’s really hard to do and only a few really succeed at it.
MS: Some of us nut-jobs believe that criticism, at its best, can be literature. Have you published anything in the REVIEW that you think qualifies as out-and-out literature? In other words, what’s the best piece you've published since becoming editor?
ST: Of course the best criticism is literature! See Trilling and Wilson above, not to mention Dr. Johnson, Hazlitt and Coleridge and Arnold, Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick, Cynthia Ozick and Joyce Carol Oates. James Wood is as much artist as critic. Ian McEwan’s appreciation of Updike was a brilliant literary performance. And there is the great U himself, all those gems in THE NEW YORKER. I’m very pleased that TBR essays published in my time have been included in anthologies by some of these writers. I can’t single out one essay in my five years as the single best, but I’m proud of the profiles Rachel Donadio wrote of V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion and of the essay A.O. Scott wrote to accompany the survey we did on the best works of American fiction published since 1980. I’m not allowed to identify either the book or the reviewer, but in November we’ll be publishing an essay on a literary biography that is a particularly superb piece of writing. I can say only that the reviewer is a household name—but not one you might naturally associate with the author he discusses.
MS: There are no secrets between us, Sam, right? Please tell us the name of a person who you keep trying to get to write for the review but who keeps saying no.
ST: Martin Amis. Ian MacEwan. Lorrie Moore. Thomas Pynchon. I could go on. I’m still hopeful Pynchon will come in for a video interview, though, and after him J. D. Salinger.
MS: You are working on a book about William F. Buckley, Jr. Have you read any book reviews by him that you completely disagree with?
ST: Bill Buckley was a very genial book reviewer, as it happens, and often wrote superbly for TBR.
MS: What is the best criticism anybody has ever made against THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW?
ST: Auden once said TBR could make room for longer essays if only it did away with “the art”—meaning the illustrations. We have a brilliant art director, Nicholas Blechman, who makes us look spiffier than we deserve, but part of me agrees with Auden. Why do readers need to be diverted away from words?
MS: Writers and editors remember all sorts of weird comments and thoughts. Sometimes they cut out quotations from something they’ve read and post them near their computers. Sam, what line have you published during your reign at THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW that has given you the most pleasure?
ST: I’ve mentioned, or dropped, many big name contributors. I left out Kinky Friedman, author of the single most memorable lead written in my five-plus years at THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW. Here it is (from November 28, 2004): “There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.”