The NYTBR Blog Growing Pains

The New York Times Book Review‘s shiny new blog, Paper Cuts, hit the ‘sphere earlier this week with a considerable amount of fanfare. And based on early posts like the slideshow of ads, things looked good for Deputy Editor Dwight Garner’s maiden voyage into the book blogging world.

Fast forward a couple of days and the kinks are showing in a big way.

We have a half strike in the form of “The Skim”, which may or may not be a regular feature but is also not nearly as comprehensive or wide ranging as, well, what happens here every Sunday. To be fair, it’s not like a massive weekly link dump is trademarked, but a little more flavor in the link choices never hurts.

However, the missing half gets tacked onto the second strike in the form of “Living with Music” and its way-more-than-shadowy resemblance to Largehearted Boy’s “Book Notes,” a weekly feature going strong for over two years now. Just because a big institution can land names like George Saunders when bloggers are working more midlist-y territory does not make it any less of a ripoff. (I’ve also been alerted to similarities with Wendy Kaufman’s “If I Only Had an iPod” feature, which has run semi-regularly on The Happy Booker since summer 2006.)

Finally, it’s probably not a good idea to betray outright snobbery to your readership, even if it’s buried in the comments section. In the backblog of the Sunday Skim post, commenter Jen wondered why certain genres, like romance, never get NYTBR respect when some books are covered almost ad nauseum:

Writing romance – a genre that the book review has never covered even

in the cursory roundup form – gets an automatic skip (unless, of

course, your book is roman-a-clef-ish chick lit that gores a

recognizable NYC sacred cow, in which case your book will likely be

eviscerated by your thinly-veiled villain’s first lieutenant, or by a

Times-anointed author who’s already signed up as a contributor to an

anthology advancing the premise that the entire genre is trash.)

Jen’s comment is something of a bait trap, but it works, as she got Garner to reply as follows:

Reviewing romance novels: whew. We don’t have room to review so very

many things we’d like to; is reviewing romances really the best use of

our space? Can’t the readers who love them find news of them elsewhere?

Who does do a good job of reviewing them, anyway? Who is the Lionel

Trilling of romance critics? Maybe we should hire that person, whoever

he or she is.

Well, hmm, as the Deputy Editor of the NYTBR, maybe it’s your job to, um, find out? (though if suggestions are welcome, I vote for these folks – especially in light of Candy’s response to the Garner/Jen exchange.)Without getting into all the usual tropes of romance’s lack of respect and gender inequality, it’s high time the strongest-selling fiction genre had a critical champion who not only respected said tropes but could educate discerning readers on why romance novels appeal to a wide sector of book-buyers.

And as Jen points out in a subsequent comment, if the NYTBR has room to publish genre roundups of mysteries and sci-fi (not to mention an occasional horror column by Terrence Rafferty) it ain’t so hard to include even a token critical bone for romance.

It’s only been a couple of days of blogging for Garner, which is not really enough time to pass absolute judgment. But for Paper Cuts to be viable, it should steer clear of what other book bloggers do better and concentrate on the Book Review’s in-house advantages: namely, its rich archive of material, the ability to put said material in larger context and original reporting that might not fit in the print section’s pages. In other words, looking inward is a much better strategy than reaching out.

UPDATE: “Jen” reveals herself to be Jennifer Weiner, who goes on to explain why she decided to engage Garner. (thanks to LS for the tipoff.)