Reviewers & Critics: Pamela Paul of the New York Times Book Review

Michael Taeckens
From the May/June 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

A frequent complaint in literary circles is that negative reviews take up space that could otherwise be used reviewing better books. Where do you stand on the value of publishing negative reviews? Is it a necessary evil?
I don’t think it’s a necessary evil. I think we’re providing a service to readers. People are making decisions about spending time and often money on a book. We are providing information about whether it’s worth their while.

But it’s not as if we actively seek negative reviews. Nor do I think a “set-up” review is helpful—in which you recruit someone you know is going to hate a book to write about it. Generally speaking, our editors send out books because we think they are worthy of review and we look for writers we think will appreciate them. It does, however, happen that our reviewers don’t always agree with our assessment, and not infrequently, reviewers will turn in negative reviews of books we very much liked. But we can’t alter their judgment or kill those reviews: That would be journalistically unethical—unfair to our critics, who have been hired to assess the books in their own way; and unfair to our readers, who expect an independent assessment.

Lastly and importantly: I don’t think negative reviews always kill a book. I will sometimes read a very negative review and end up disagreeing with the reviewer; I’ve definitely bought books after reading negative reviews.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier?
No regrets. As a freelancer I had the luxury of taking a lot of time with each review I wrote. And as an author who has been on the receiving end of careless reviews, I took those assignments seriously. That doesn’t mean I haven’t written negative reviews—I have. But I like to think I did so thoughtfully. And I always take care to point out what an author does well. All writers know that criticism goes down much easier with a dollop of praise.

How many freelancers do you work with? Are there certain things you look for in a reviewer?
New York Times Book Review relies almost entirely on freelance reviewers. The daily reviews at the Times come from the three Times book critics. They are the critical voices of the paper, whereas at the Book Review we strive to have a constantly rotating cast of reviewers from the world outside the Times. We want variety. That means professional literary critics, novelists, academics, artists who work in other media or genres. I do not look for any “type” of reviewer, because again, I think the beauty of the Book Review is its element of surprise: voices from all corners of the world, young novelists and established critics, a range of political perspectives, unexpected matches between author and reviewer, and above all, writers who actively engage with the material.

What was the motivation behind the Book Review’s proliferation of various bestseller lists? I find them really fascinating, but I also sympathize a bit with those who bemoan that it takes up space that could otherwise be used to review more books.
We’ve actually reduced the number of pages of bestsellers in the weekly Book Review by three pages since 2011. There are more lists, but they rotate in print (and exist in their full bounty online).

Did you come up with the idea for the By the Book series? Out of all the star-studded personalities who’ve been featured thus far, do any stand out as favorites?
I did, though the desire for some kind of “profile” had been brewing at the Book Review for years.

There are so many people I admire who’ve done a By the Book, it’s impossible to name a favorite, but I will anyway: David Sedaris, because he was the first, and because he said yes. And then he was, of course, brilliant.

How do you think the field of book criticism has changed over the past couple of decades?
The world of newspaper criticism has changed dramatically because so many newspapers killed their stand-alone sections, folded their books coverage into other sections, reduced or eliminated their ranks of house critics, shortened their reviews in favor of features, etcetera. That’s the depressing part.

The good news is that the Internet has brought an explosion of new and exciting voices, and criticism that is free to range in format and length. I think that’s tremendously invigorating.

What are your thoughts on social media? Has it helped you in your current role?
I was dragged reluctantly into social media and now I love it. I find it exciting and helpful to be part of the literary conversation online or to observe it from the sidelines. I am constantly discovering new voices—novelists to keep an eye on, critics to offer an assignment to, opinions to pay attention to—via social media and on literary websites. At the same time, I am wary of “customer” or “user” or “reader” reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, where so much is suspect. 

What sorts of exclusive content is the New York Times Book Review offering readers?
The kinds of book reviews and literary criticism—the quality, the depth, the journalistic integrity—that the Times offers its readers is unfortunately increasingly hard to find. Fewer outlets are devoting the time, the space, the staff, the painstaking vetting and fact checking, the critical judgment to do this well.

We may be the only newspaper review that doesn’t cherry-pick the books we want to assign, but instead assesses the entire landscape (with the exception of a few categories like textbooks and westerns). Our standards for conflicts of interest are far more stringent than those of our competitors. We do not allow our contributors to review an author twice in our pages, for example. We work very hard to weed out conflicts of interest that wouldn’t bother many other outlets. We will often say no to a pairing, and then find that that reviewer has taken the book elsewhere.

Where do you see the future of book coverage in ten years?
I think our coverage is going to become increasingly international in scope. I would like to believe that American readers are becoming more open to hearing voices from other corners of the planet, and that readers abroad are interested in learning about the books we publish here.

I also think that just as the e-books trend slowed down and normalized, with the balance tipping far in favor of print books, so too will the drive towards quicky, bloggy online content tilt in favor of longer, more considered takes. There’s lots of quantity out there; not a lot of quality. And I think readers will increasingly seek to curate their own media consumption. There are so many books, and people have only so much time.

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
I always go back to the classics, and I love to reread. I very much want to reread both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, because I think those are two novels that really evolve along with the reader. Anna Karenina read at age twenty is very different from Anna Karenina read at age forty. I also tend to read books that are massively popular about ten years past their pop culture moment. I just read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and was blown away by everything that blew away readers years ago. Next up is Consider the Lobster.

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (