Franzen and Tanenhaus not in cahoots

Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel has had more than enough publicity, what with its reviews in the New York Times Book Review and the Times’ daily book review, the backlash by Jodi Picoult, and what New York Magazine called the backlash to the backlash.

So, as this particular tome-I-will-not-name has been discussed enough, I would add one thing the Times editor and book reviewer Sam Tanenhaus was not criticized for, and that is the possible conflict of interest in reviewing the book at all.

In his novel, Franzen holds the Times on a pedestal, as the publication of record for the liberal, urban gentry. Not only is the newspaper mentioned in the first sentence of the novel, Franzen uses it throughout the work to characterize protagonist Walter as a socially-conscious, and perpetually — if gratingly– well-informed citizen. The paper then, ironically, documents Walter’s undoing.

I’d say that number of mentions makes the newspaper, if not a minor character, then at least a major plot device. By giving Franzen the most glowing review of his career, wasn’t Tanenhaus also promoting his own publication?

Tanenhaus doesn’t think so. He told me as much in a talk at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and deflected the question, saying that Oprah’s endorsement had sold far more copies of Franzen’s book than his own review, and that perhaps there would have been a conflict of interest if the New Yorker reviewed the book, as Franzen had a contract with that publication.

Perhaps ‘conflict of interest’ is too strong a phrase…but Franzen and Tanenhaus have certainly created an echo chamber of self-congratulation and/or mutually beneficial product placement.

Interestingly, Tanenhaus also shrugged off the argument that his publication upholds male over female authors. He said other publications have similar numbers on the male to female ratio, and many writers on his staff are women…women that continue to privilege male novelists, apparently.

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