No Affirmative Action For Conservative Books
Micah Mattix disagrees with Tim Graham, who dings The New York Times for not reviewing bestselling conservative books. Mattix:
The Times can review whatever it pleases, and there is nothing odd in it ignoring run-of-the-mill books by conservative personalities like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. After all, even The Wall Street Journal’s somewhat more conservative (and excellent!) review section ignored Palin and Limbaugh, and rightly so.
It is a little odd, however, that The Times mostly ignores interesting books by serious conservative writers…
I agree with all of this. Limbaugh, Palin, et alia are not hills conservatives ought to be willing to die on, so to speak. There are an incredible number of titles published every year. You really can’t imagine. When I was at the Dallas Morning News, for example, the books sent for review piled up in a large room; I am sure that maybe only two percent of all the books sent by publishers were ever reviewed, in part because there are fewer and fewer pages in newspapers for reviews. Book review editors have a responsibility to their readers not to give notice to crap (and I include under that rubric similar pseudo-books published by left-wing personalities). Newspaper book reviewing really is a zero-sum game, in that every column inch given over to a junk book, however popular the book and its author may be, is a column inch taken away from a serious, worthwhile book.
That said, I would not be surprised if an analysis of the books the Times reviews every year showed a strong and consistent bias to the left. Nor would I be surprised if this were largely unconscious. We all live in bubbles, and few bubbles are as impenetrable as that around New York media and publishing. Part of what makes it so thick and opaque from the inside is that people within it consider themselves to be so cosmopolitan. They often don’t know what they don’t know.
I remember going around with my agent trying to sell Crunchy Cons — which, by the way, was favorably reviewed by the Times; my recent Little Way was not reviewed — to a publisher, and meeting with an editor at a top publishing house. I was a writer at National Review then. I found it so interesting that this particular editor seemed to think that conservative books were all about Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the usual crowd. Those books were bestsellers then, and I wouldn’t blame him a bit for wanting to publish those moneymakers. The interesting thing was the impression he gave that he simply did not know or did not care to explore ideas from the right. He seemed to assume that all conservatives were vendors of red meat. To be sure, an editor at a different publishing house — a cultural and political liberal, she was — did buy Crunchy Cons, and was a pleasure to work with. Not everyone is the same, obviously; I’m generalizing here.
If I were a book review editor, I would try to strike a balance between the Worthy and the Popular, with a bias toward the Worthy. Sometimes, attention must be paid to a new book by a popular writer, even if it’s not very good, because the public understandably wants to know about it. A good book review editor, though, would be the sort of person who reads as widely as she can, so she can keep informed of what might be worth attention, and exercise taste and judgment in whether or not to feature a review.
For example, that mega-selling book about the little kid who says he went to heaven is one of the books that demands to be reviewed. Why? Well, for one thing any book that sells millions of copies tells us something about our culture. Something about that book touches people. It could be a junk book, but it at least merits consideration. Second, even if you don’t believe in heaven, or in this kid’s story, there may be worth in analyzing what it is about the book that makes it so compelling to so many people, even if it’s just fluff to you. Me, I’m a religious believer who thinks these things can be true, but who tends to react strongly against pop spirituality books. I would have been unlikely to have commissioned a review of that heaven book for my book review section, but I would have read the book before deciding that, simply because the book was a phenomenon. As it happened, I did actually read the book because I wanted to see what the buzz was about. Though it was a pretty short and simple book, I would have commissioned a short but thoughtful review of it because it speaks to a profound human longing, and does so unusually well for its genre. But I digress…
The question is not, “Why does The New York Times ignore run-of-the-mill conservative books?” The question is — questions are — “Does The New York Times have a habit of ignoring serious and challenging conservative books, and if so, why?
Maybe the more important question is: “Who cares?” Book reviews don’t sell many books, not anymore. I was talking to some publishing friends the last time I was in New York, and they were saying that the business has changed so much that reviews, while appreciated, aren’t an important part of marketing. One friend said that the big houses don’t even place a premium on getting their authors on Today or GMA anymore. Anything helps, of course, but what makes a bestseller is such a crapshoot that nothing apart from Oprah’s endorsement means anything.