the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 4   --   November, 2001

The New York Times Book Review
Summer 2001

A Selective Survey

Fiction versus Non-Fiction
Books originally written in foreign languages
So what ?
Other Observations


       In past issues the complete review Quarterly has commented upon some of the shortcomings we have found at The New York Times Book Review. The notorious 2001 April Fool's truncation of the Book Review (and specifically the "Books in Brief" section) led to our vitriolic editorial, Withering Reviews. In 2000 we expressed some concern about some of the book coverage in On the Cover / Uncovered. (We have also written extensively on the consequences of Tasini v. The New York Times, but that is a somewhat different issue -- and we also complain ceaselessly about The New York Times-online's offensive registration policy.)
       It's not that we are set on picking on The New York Times Book Review. We read it. We admire it. We recognize and acknowledge its position as leading arbiter of the American literary world. No other publication provides as much coverage while reaching as large an audience. Indeed, it is its very significance that leads us to cast a critical eye on it
       There aren't that many places that provide a great deal of book review information. There are an enormous number of customer reviews, but they are generally short, of limited use -- and often highly unreliable. Publishers Weekly and a number of similar professional publications (for the publishing industry and for librarians) offer brief reviews of large number of titles, but there are few national newspapers and magazines reaching large audiences that provide more than a few reviews a week. The New York Times Book Review is one that does, and even after cutting back its coverage still provides far more than most.

       A number of issues of the The New York Times Book Review gave us pause over the past year or two, with two features in particular striking us: it seemed that there were considerably more reviews of non-fiction books than of fiction titles, and there seemed a dearth of reviews of titles originally written in foreign languages.
       These may seem like trivial complaints, and on some level they certainly are. Nevertheless, these are matters of concern to us. We feel that both fiction and writing originally published in a foreign language (fiction and non-fiction) are generally under-represented in review-coverage. As The New York Times Book Review is a leader in the field it, in part, sets an example. Perhaps others do not follow it (indeed, some newspaper supplements, though generally providing less reviews overall, seem to offer a distinctly higher proportion of reviews of foreign writing), but the choices at the Book Review surely do exert some influence.
       Writing that was originally published in a foreign language is, of course, a particularly problematic area, as so little of it is translated into English in the first place (an embarrassment in and of itself). One would imagine, however, that proportionally more of it might be reviewed in America (than works originally written in English), as it has, in a sense, been at least twice-vetted: most of these books were either great critical or popular successes when first published in whatever language they were written in before even being brought to the English-language market.

       Previously, we have examined as much as one month of issues of The New York Times Book Review. In this survey we have considered the thirteen issues published in the summer (June through August) of 2001, a sample that is hopefully large enough to be truly representative. (There are, of course, difficulties with this -- as with any -- sample. The summer months are a slow period in the publishing world, and the book review sections tend to be even thinner than usual. Still, we believe that this period should give a reasonably clear picture of the general trends at The New York Times Book Review.)

       (Please note that for the purposes of this survey all reviews in the occasional "Children's Books" section have been ignored. The survey-reviews from the 3 June 2001 "Summer Reading Special Issue" -- in Gardening, Travel, and Cooking -- have also been disregarded.)

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Fiction versus Non-Fiction

       It may seem almost pointless to argue about whether there should be more reviews of one or another type of books (we already hear cries of: Poetry ! out there). There are too few reviews of all types of books, and an argument could be made for almost any type of book deserving greater attention. In part, our belief that there should be greater coverage (generally speaking) of fiction titles than one finds now is a personal bias, not to be taken any more (or less) seriously than any other reader's opinion. Still, regarding The New York Times Book Review, we believe there are some additional points that suggest the bias we perceive in their coverage is well-founded.
       In particular, we start out with the first issue considered in our survey -- 3 June 2001, the "Summer Reading Special Issue". This issue, like the December "Holiday" issue, contains a list of recommended books, "Books for Summer Reading". Chosen from the books considered over the previous six months, "it is meant to suggest some of the high points in this year's fiction, poetry, nonfiction, mysteries and science fiction."
       The list from the 3 June 2001 issue recommends:        (Note that at least one of the genre-titles -- P.D.James Death in Holy Orders, recommended as a mystery -- was actually reviewed as a "Fiction" title (not in the briefer "Crime" section).)

       Generously ascribing the Paul Celan to the woefully under-represented poetry section (and leaving the P.D.James aside in the genre categories for the moment) we find that the straight division between what are here called Fiction and Nonfiction books is 64-70 (47.76 percent fiction, 52.24 percent non-fiction).

       Taking all the books into consideration, the percentages are:        One imagines that these proportions will also be reflected in the choices of books reviewed in The New York Times Book Review generally. The division between fiction and non-fiction titles provided by this recommended reading list certainly seems like a good benchmark against which to judge the review coverage at The New York Times Book Review. We naturally expected them to cover books in a similar ratio. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
       The first surprise comes in that very same 3 June issue, where 16 (!) non-fiction books received coverage (in 14 full-length reviews) -- and only 4 fiction titles received full-length reviews. (There were no (adult) Books in Brief reviews in that issue.)
       (One reason we were wary about choosing the Summer Reading issue was because it seemed possible that The New York Times Book Review would want to recommend lighter fictional fare for the summer. Their choice of an overwhelming number of nonfiction titles to lavish attention on in the same issue suggests that this was not the case.)

       Looking over the entire period in question (the thirteen issues published June through August 2001) we counted full-length reviews of 197 titles. (Note that some full-length reviews covered more than one title: we counted each title, not each review. This skews the results slightly towards non-fiction titles, which were more likely to be lumped together in a single review. There were, however, also instances of two fiction titles covered in one review -- as well as one fiction, one non-fiction title covered in the same review.)
       Counting all reviews --- including those in the Books in Brief section, Crime, and Science Fiction (but not counting Children's Books) -- there were 313 reviews.

       The number and types of books covered were:

NYTBR reviews - June to August, 2001
Month all NF NF full all F F full all P P full Crime Sci Fi
June 63 51 27 21 2 1 10 3
July 52 40 45 29 3 1 10 3
August 38 26 39 27 8 1 10 0
TOTAL 153 117 111 77 13 3 30 6
       Looking only at full length reviews -- the ones that really count -- one sees that non-fiction books clearly dominate. Almost 60 percent of the books reviewed in full-length reviews were non-fiction, and less than 40 were fiction of any sort. Or, to put it another way, fully 50 percent more non-fiction titles received full-length coverage than did fiction titles (i.e. for every 2 fiction titles, 3 non-fiction titles were covered). Which is a far cry from the benchmark divide found in the "Books for Summer Reading" list.
       The divide narrows a bit if one includes titles covered in the Books in Brief section, but non-fiction titles still outnumber fiction titles by over 37 percent (more than a third).
       One significant note, however: as one sees from the month-by-month numbers, the situation changed over the course of the summer, and in August there were actually more full-length (and full-length plus brief) reviews of fiction titles than of non-fiction titles . A trend or a statistical aberration ? One hopes the tide has turned -- but it remains to be seen.

       Looking at all reviews, including the cursory Books in Brief ones and the short genre reviews (Crime and Science Fiction -- all of which count towards the fiction total), the non-fiction domination still stands (though it is much narrower). Where on the "Books for Summer Reading" list the number of fiction books (lumping together Crime and Science Fiction with the Fiction) was 11 percent greater than the non-fiction total, there were still nearly 7 percent more non-fiction titles reviewed overall during the period surveyed than fiction titles (again, including the genre reviews).
       The disparity is much smaller but still seems noteworthy to us. It is also inexplicable to us. Among the consequence is that a far higher percentage of the fiction titles reviewed are apparently being recommended as "highlights" than non-fiction titles. (We are getting a bit ahead of ourselves -- the books covered in the issues we surveyed will only be on the recommended list for the Christmas Holiday issue -- but, unless the Book Review does a complete about-face, there will be far fewer fiction titles to choose from than non-fiction titles, so if the total numbers chosen are similar to the summer-list then a far higher percentage of fiction titles will have been deemed noteworthy than non-fiction titles. Does that make sense ? Is The New York Times Book Review covering more bad non-fiction titles, or is their fiction selection just much more finely tuned, not even bothering with the lesser efforts in the first place ?)

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Books originally written in foreign languages:

       Americans are remarkably indifferent and uninterested in foreign literature -- indeed, generally in books originally written in foreign languages. The impression we have is that The New York Times Book Review is as well.
       (Note that there is a difference between foreign books and books originally written in foreign languages. Many books by foreign authors are published in the United States (and reviewed in The New York Times Book Review) -- but almost all of them were written in English (by authors from Britain, India, Canada, etc.). We are concerned specifically with books that have been translated from other languages into English -- fiction and non-fiction.)

       What do the numbers say ? Pretty much what we expected:

Foreign Titles - NYTBR June to August, 2001
Month Foreign NF+F+P percent All books percent
June 6 92 6.52 105 5.71
July 4 100 4.00 113 3.54
August 5 85 5.88 95 5.26
TOTAL 15 277 5.42 313 4.79
       (Note that it is not always possible to ascertain whether a book was originally written and published in a foreign language (The New York Times Book Review amazingly occasionally doesn't bother to tell readers whether a book has been translated or not). We feel fairly confident we identified all the foreign-language books, but can not be entirely certain.)

       The number of foreign-language books reviewed seems to us to be shockingly small. (As a point of comparison: more than five percent of the titles under review at the complete review haven't even been translated into English (see our list of foreign books under review).)
       Not counting the genre reviews, just over five percent of the reviews cover books originally written in a foreign language -- a proportion that seems to have held steady for quite some time. Note also that this does not just refer to foreign fiction -- in fact, the titles are fairly evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction.
       Perhaps one shouldn't count genre reviews -- but foreign-language mysteries (and, occasionally, science fiction titles) do get published in translation -- and The New York Times Book Review does occasionally review such titles (as it did again in its 28 October 2001 issue). Including them, one finds an even sadder total.

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So what ?

       So what ? readers might ask. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps other priorities are more important: coverage of New York authors, timely non-fiction. Certainly a case can be made for other overlooked or under-represented areas: poetry, republished classics. But we believe the two areas we focus on are of particular significance (and most significant where they overlap: foreign fiction). Even given the limited resources of The New York Times Book Review (i.e. even if they can't simply publish more reviews) we believe it would be worthwhile if they reapportioned their coverage appropriately.
       Certainly readers of The New York Times Book Review should be aware that they are particularly likely to overlook significant publications in these areas (fiction, and works originally written in a foreign language) if they rely on this review-forum. Perhaps they don't care, but at least they should be aware of it.

       Fiction -- serious fiction -- may no longer be taken quite as seriously or be as influential (though one wonders when it was actually taken more seriously, or was more influential), so perhaps the argument for a shift to more non-fiction coverage is persuasive -- though we note it still doesn't explain why The New York Times Book Review's summer reading recommendations list includes more fiction recommendations than non-fiction ones .....
       As to works originally written in foreign languages, it seems inexcusable that in the modern world and as part of the global community American readers and reviewers are so unwilling to expose themselves to other points of view, other literatures, and other ideas. Coverage of foreign works should be essential in this day and age, and it is amazing that The New York Times Book Review joins in this general American provincialism and turns a largely deaf ear to what was originally said in other languages.

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Other Observations

       In the course of conducting this survey we were struck by a number of other features of The New York Times Book Review. (We did not pursue these more closely, though we will probably consider them in future issues of complete review Quarterly.)

       Looking at the The New York Times Book Review best sellers lists, we were surprised to find that many of the books had not been reviewed in The New York Times Book Review itself. This is particularly true of the fiction lists.
       Taking only a single issue (perhaps not a representative one), we found that on The New York Times Book Review hardcover fiction best sellers list of 26 August 2001 out of fifteen books only two titles had received full-length reviews in the Book Review, while two more had been briefly reviewed in the "Crime"-section (one of which -- Hostage by Robert Crais -- however also got a full-length review in The New York Times daily edition). The full-length reviews were of books by John Irving and Alice Hoffman.
       Not even a third of the best sellers reviewed -- and only two get the full-length treatment ? It sounds like a serious disconnect from the book-buying audience. Granted, the complete review, which covers more than its fair share of obscure books, probably shouldn't be complaining about unworldly elitism, but it is still a curious fact. We wouldn't deem most of the bestselling authors on that particular list -- James Patterson, Catherine Coulter, Barbara Delinsky, Stephen Coonts, J.A.Jance, Elizabeth George -- worth our reviewing-time either, but surely it is problematic when a leading review forum like The New York Times Book Review doesn't provide coverage of the authors people most want to read about.
       (Curious, too, is the fact that considerably more of the non-fiction best sellers have been reviewed. How to explain that ?)

       Okay, maybe the best seller list reflects all of the book-buying public, while the readers (and the editors) of The New York Times Book Review are more discerning (though apparently only regarding fiction, not non-fiction). That brings us to a second oddity: many of the prominent advertisements in The New York Times Book Review are for books that receive no coverage in the Book Review itself. Advertising has admittedly always baffled us, and we have no good explanations for why most companies bother with it, but this strikes us even more pointless than most examples. Advertisers apparently believe that The New York Times Book Review audience is receptive to "information" (if one can call advertising that) about these titles -- but the editors don't. Who is right ? To us it looks sort of like fast food outfits advertising in a gourmet magazine. Sure, in part publishers take out these ads to stroke an author's ego, or to show the bookchains that they are committed to a title, but those seem like pretty lame reasons -- especially given how pervasive the practice is. Many of these books are also very successful ones (at least in terms of sales-numbers), so the advertising would seem to offer little bang for the buck. Or are we just completely overestimating the readership of The New York Times Book Review and does it in fact lap up these titles as soon as it sees those full-colour spreads ?

       Ah, the never-ending mysteries behind The New York Times Book Review !

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© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
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