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Murder, He Wrote

Bill Keller’s frank words about the Book Review perturb—and peeve—publishers.

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Publishers are still reeling from Bill Keller’s pronouncements on overhauling the Times Book Review as he seeks a replacement for editor Chip McGrath—and, of course, by cultural apparatchik Steve Erlanger’s remark that “to be honest, there’s so much shit. Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.” They were equally nonplussed by Keller’s musings on fiction: “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the nonfiction world,” he opined to Poynter.org, before proposing more coverage of potboilers.

By last Monday, Keller was rapidly backtracking. An e-mail clarification sent to editors insisted he’d been “badly misread.” There would be no “dumbing down,” no “zero-sum game.” Some publishers, like FSG’s Jonathan Galassi—who was about to draft an angry letter—seemed placated. “He might be regretting that interview,” Galassi says, “but his response took care of it, in my view.”

But not everyone is quite so hunky-dory with Keller’s semi–mea culpa—followed by his assertion that the NYTBR should be more “adversarial” toward the book business. “Publishers have never expected the New York Times to come to their rescue when we publish ‘bad books,’ ” one editor retorts. “We’re more worried about its declining influence! The cover of the Times Book Review doesn’t mean you’re going to sell a single copy. Meanwhile, look at the USA Today book section—that’s the hot place to advertise.” Agent Eric Simonoff concurs: “What’s missing is the pledge to return it to the level of influence it once had.”

Another agent, Andrew Wylie, has a different concern. He likes the weekly milquetoast reviews. “There are a lot of bars to have brawls in,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be in the pages of the Review.”

“If publishers are anxious, that’s not gonna cost me a lot of sleep,” Keller says. “The Book Review is not written for the publishing industry.”

His choice for editor, meanwhile, is awaited with more excitement than the new Harry Potter. Finalists are said to include Little, Brown and Newsweek veteran Sarah Crichton, Slate columnist Ann Hulbert, and The Atlantic Monthly’s Ben Schwarz, who seems to share some of Keller’s biases. “Lots of my best friends write literary fiction,” he says. “But it doesn’t play the same role in the lives of intelligent, informed Americans as it did 50 years ago.” (That doesn’t appear to have improved his chances, though, according to a well-placed source.)

Keller says he expects a decision before the end of February. “I think his mistake is going to accelerate the hire,” says one editor. “It’s clear he stepped in something, he couldn’t get it off his shoe, and he needs to hire someone to clean up the mess.”


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