The Closing Of The Back-Of-The-Book

Josh Chafetz mourns it:

[N]o one else in Washington, nor precious few outlets anywhere, does what Leon did with the back of the book. Leon cared about culture and about ideas, not as adornment, but as ends in themselves. And he cared enough to write passionately and to commission passionate pieces about them. In an era of click-bait, the TNR back of the book ran long-form, thoughtful pieces about the arts, about culture, about ideas and their histories. In an era of vanishing book reviews, the TNR back of the book routinely ran lengthy reviews of books one might not otherwise encounter. In an era of laid-off critics, the TNR back of the book had a deep bench of drama, art, music, dance and literature critics. In a city obsessed with “winning” the 24-hour news cycle, the TNR back of the book played a much, much longer game.

Think for a second about what has happened to book reviews. Most newspapers got rid of them years ago. Try finding them on the NYT app. With TNR’s back-of-the-book gone, we’re left with a few pages in The New Yorker, the TLS, the wonderful New York Review of Books (but that institution too seems vulnerable, given its aging leadership), and a bunch of newish cultural outlets that vie for attention when TNR could command it. Everything else is Amazon and stars. But the review section is not just a feature; it’s part of a critical eco-system that sustains a higher culture in a democracy. Losing it can be fatal to a democracy that hopes to rise above mass-cult.

In my time at TNR, I wrote for both the front and the back, and no one seemed to mind. In fact, you were expected to be a reporter or political writer who could always dip your toes into the high culture of the back-of-the-book. I also had the privilege of being the second-in-command at the back of the book for a while. There are too many stories to tell, but I always revered that section and protected it almost as fiercely as Leon did. We became estranged for lots of reasons – and Dishhead will be aware of the long-running feud (another characteristic of TNR-style journalism). But we were and are as one on the role of high culture in our democracy, even if I sometimes felt that TNR’s literary section was sometimes unnecessarily obscurantist and impenetrable on purpose. Alyssa remembers “the publication’s simple confidence that culture was an important subject that required no justification to sell to readers”:

You didn’t have to have a policy hook, or even the draw of Misty Copeland’s rising star, to write about dance there, as Jennifer Homans, the magazine’s dance editor who resigned [Friday], did so beautifully. Culture could provide answers that policy analysis could not, as it did in Rebecca Traister’s marvelous “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” a synthesis that drew on everything from Esquire’s beauty metrics to Amy Poehler’s rebellious, dirty sense of humor, to the criminalization of parenting to explain how women have been kept subject to men’s opinions. I return to that piece at least once a week. I don’t necessarily agree with Jed Perl on the politicization of art, but we are of accord that the fate of art matters even if it shifts no policies.

This is a philosophy that guides a lot of more general-interest publications, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books where Daniel Mendelsohn, among my favorite living critics, brings the same attention to Greek poetry and the spasms of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway. But it’s a bit rarer, I think, among Washington publications that think of themselves as policy-oriented, or in sections like op-ed pages where culture yields pride of place to policy and politics.

Damon Linker calls Leon “one of the greatest editors in the history of American letter”:

From 1983, when he took over the back of the book, through the early years of the 2000s, Wieseltier’s pages were just about the only game in town for serious writing about culture. Only The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, each with a couple dozen reviews in every issue, came close to matching the cultural heat and light that Wieseltier managed to generate with a handful of essays and reviews, and a modest budget, in nearly every issue of TNR.

Today the cultural landscape is different. Not only are old-media opinion journals (The Nation, for example) publishing much smarter and unpredictable review essays than they used to, but there are a slew of digital outlets covering cultural topics in a variety of interesting ways — The Believer, n+1, The New Inquiry, Tablet Magazine, and many others — as well as old-time (Boston Review) and new-fangled (LA Review of Books) cultural journals whose content can be easily and instantly accessed online.

The question, as always, is whether the increased quantity will match (let alone surpass) the quality Wieseltier managed to achieve in issue after issue of TNR.

Cynthia Haven is pessimistic:

At this point, saving TNR will not be done by will alone. It takes more than ideology and snark to produce something that endures. You cannot buy gravitas, any more than you can buy reputation. What’s missing is what Czesław Miłosz used to call “piety” – a feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature – or perhaps what Susan Sontag called “an education of the heart.”

It has less to do with education and more with a certain amount of living, suffering, patience, tenacity, endurance, wisdom, and the willingness to pay, pay, pay (and I don’t mean with cash). My concern is that people such as Hughes and Vidra have no idea what it means to be caretakers of a century-old literary institution.

Or maybe they’ll learn.