Is the New York Times book review truly a haven of centrism and neutrality? Lara Takenaga had a cozy, criticism-free talk with Book Review editor Pamela Paul (Times Book Review editor since 2013) and section staffers Gregory Cowles and Barry Gewen. The piece was posted online in October 2018 but not printed (in a shortened version) until this week under the headline: “‘Political Switzerland’ for Books.”
The online deck of headlines expanded on that laugh line: “....Pamela Paul and two other editors of the New York Times Book Review explain how they use the section’s long tradition as a ‘political Switzerland’ to try to bring conversations to the center.”
The “Switzerland” quip is from Paul, referring to the section's supposed ideological objectivity and neutrality. But a glance at any Times’ book review section (from either before or after Paul’s editorship) renders that assertion laughable.
Some of Takenaga’s questions, and the replies (questions in italics):
How do reviewers’ political opinions factor into the assignments?
Gewen: We desperately try not to set up books. We try to avoid going to a writer driven by a political agenda and who may have formed an opinion about the book without even having read it. That probably distinguishes us from a lot of the magazines, like National Review and The Nation. They have readerships that expect a certain political agenda. We pride ourselves on not having a political agenda.
In my mind there’s an almost platonic notion of what the center is, and we try to bring the discussion to the center.
How do you ensure that editors’ political opinions don’t influence which books are assigned?
Paul: There’s a range of political opinions and leanings among editors here. The Book Review has a long tradition of being a political Switzerland. We have critics on the right and the left, and we review books by authors on the right and the left. We hope that’s what makes us interesting to our readers.
Do you try to balance how many liberal- and conservative-leaning books are covered?
Gewen: I don’t take account of that. If it’s a worthy left-wing book, we’ll review it. If it’s a worthy right-wing book, we’ll review it.
Here are just a few of the sections' non-“Switzerland” moments:
Trump assassination fantasy fiction. The October 28, 2018 Sunday Book Review included a short story section, “Five Novelists Imagine Trump’s Next Chapter.” In the case of novelist Zoë Sharp’s contribution “How It Ends,” a fantasy about a Russian plot to assassinate Donald Trump, a botched plan that is fulfilled, in a disgusting “twist,” by a member of the president’s own Secret Service detail.
In August 2017 the paper ran a review of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean’s deceitful history of the free-market movement, months after criticism of the book from outlets across the political spectrum. The online headline: “How the Radical Right Played the Long Game and Won.”
Despite Gewen's denials, the review section also displays a long-standing pattern of liberal reviewers giving bad notices to conservative books (like those from Jonah Goldberg) and liberals enjoying books by fellow liberals.
To be fair, the bias didn’t start with Paul. Former Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus delighted in making the cable news rounds accusing the GOP of racism.