Q&A: Pamela Paul's New Book Review

Kevin Nance

Pamela Paul, the new editor of the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR), now occupies the hottest seat in American literary journalism. A former New York Times columnist and the NYTBR’s former children’s book editor, she succeeds Sam Tanenhaus, who moved into a writing position at the Times this past April. The author of the nonfiction books The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony (Villard, 2002), Pornified (Times Books, 2005) and Parenting, Inc. (Times Books, 2008), Paul recently spoke about her new position.

You must have a sense that the eyes of the literary world are upon you. Does that feel good?
[Laughs.] Yes, it does feel good. It’s a big honor. I’m awed by both the institution itself and the responsibility that you have to so many different constituents—the readers, primarily, and also the authors and publishers. Having written a few books myself, I know what it’s like to want to know if you’re going to be reviewed, and then to dread the review, and then be thrilled by a positive review or incensed or driven to tears by a negative review. It’s obviously a publication that has a huge impact on authors and publishers, and also on readers, by letting them know what’s out there that’s worth their precious time. 

The NYTBR is one of last of its kind. At the same time, there are a lot of new literary websites. Do those things increase the pressure on you?
I think there’s at once too much information about books and not enough. You can spend an entire day reading through very worthwhile book blogs and reader-generated websites and publishers’ websites. But at the same time there’s less coverage in the world of traditional, authoritative book reviewing in newspapers. So there’s an opportunity for us to be a place where readers come to read about the most important or exciting books, and to read the best and most exciting criticism of those books. 

Even before this sadly diminished critical landscape occurred, the review that every author has always wanted most is the one in the NYTBR, and that hasn’t changed. So everything you do, every decision you make, will be parsed, analyzed, and no doubt criticized by some. I would think that would be nerve-racking.
You know, it could be nerve-racking; it could also be exciting. As children’s book editor, I had even less real estate in the section than the adult books get, but there are nearly as many children’s books that come out every year, certainly an overwhelming number. I tried to increase the number of books I covered, even within the constraints of having just a few pages a month, and hopefully I can do that with adult books as well. But I do think there’s an understanding out there, among our readers and the publishing industry, that there’s no way we can cover the whole landscape. What we hope to do is curate the best-of, and make smart decisions about what to cover, and covering what we do pick really well.

The novelist William McPherson, who edited the Washington Post Book World in the 1970s, recently told me that back then, there were around forty thousand adult trade books published every year. Today that number is even higher.
It’s much higher, and there are not only books coming out of the traditional publishing world; you also have e-books, e-singles, you have self-published books. You know, as much as people bemoan the state of the publishing industry, the appetite on the part of readers for stories hasn’t diminished. In fact, it’s grown. But we’re inundated with information that often isn’t worth our time, and we really want to know, “What is it that should land on the must-read pile?”

Recently I interviewed Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010 for his novel Tinkers. The NYTBR did not review it when it came out, which the paper itself later noted. So that was one that got away.
Well, the truth is, there’s never the one that got away. There’s the twenty, there’s the thirty, there’s the forty that got away. As the mother of three small children, I’m accustomed to saying, “Everyone makes mistakes.” We can’t get everything right, and we can’t cover everything, simply by the number of pages we have. We’re not able to arbitrarily say, “Let’s just make the Book Review sixty-four pages,” if the resources and ad pages don’t support that. I can tell you that we would love to review as much as we could, because we’re all voracious readers and believers in books of all kinds. So the most painful thing, really, is the winnowing out.