Glancing Inside the NYTBR Notable Books

By Neal Comment

Not to dis Bookslut librarian Raina Bloom’s statistical analysis of the 2006 NYTBR Notable Books list, but her statements about how more than half of the authors selected have written for the New York Times since 1980 aren’t really the most interesting facet of the list (and it’s hard to even figure out exactly what conclusions we’re supposed to draw about the femaleness of the women who wrote notable books but hadn’t contributed to the Times since 1980, though since this is Bookslut I assume it’s probably meant to be viewed as evidence of institutionalized literary sexism). The reason it’s not interesting, or perhaps I should say not significant, is that Bloom makes no effort to distinguish between the nature of those Times bylines: Who’s a columnist? Who’s a reporter? Who was just making a freelance contribution?

Look back at the criticisms of last year’s list, and you’ll note that the charges of cronyism were leveled specifically because of the number of Times employees who’d made the list. In that respect, this year’s list is a noticeable “improvement,” in that the only staffer I’m spotting at all is columnist Frank Rich, and let’s face it, The Greatest Story Ever Sold was reasonably notable. Sure, there’s a lot of Times contributing writers—in the nonfiction section alone, a quick check turned up Michael Lewis, Steven Johnson, Michael Pollan, Francine Prose, and Rich Cohen…but, again, what are you going to do? Those books are indeed pretty notable. Furthermore, as opposed to last year, when it appeared that drawing a paycheck from the Times meant you were guaranteed a spot on the list, it’s worth noting that critic-at-large Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson was spurned. (Along with how many other books by Times staffers? Darned if I know; that sounds like it might entail something suspiciously close to research.) And, despite our early prediction that frequent Review contributor Ana Marie Cox would be the Curtis Sittenfeld of 2006, Dog Days didn’t make the fiction list despite lavish praise from Christopher Buckley. Then again, the more cautious enthusiasm of Claire Dederer didn’t nudge equally frequent contributor Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams onto the list either.

I couldn’t begin to tell you what this all means; maybe 2005 just a bumper year for the Times writing corps, and now we’re seeing a leaner harvest. Or maybe there was a corrective measure in the selection. I’m actually more impressed by the list’s newfound equity between fiction and nonfiction: As opposed to last year’s 61-39 advantage to nonfiction, this year fiction and poetry combine to take the narrow lead at 51-49.