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And now for the Back Story on …
Reviewing the Book Review
The Times Book Review is 125 years old — a moment for celebration, but also introspection. Parul Sehgal, a critic and former editor at the Book Review, looked back critically at its legacy. This is an edited extract from her thoughts on why now is the right time to delve into the past.
My brief, you could say, was to review the Book Review, to consider the coverage of “women, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. writers” and changing mores in criticism. But what revelatory news could I possibly bring? The word “archive” derives from the ancient Greek arkheion, sometimes translated as “house of the ruler.” Who wanders there with any illusions?
What could those reviews contain? Some misjudgments, to be sure — masterpieces misunderstood in their time. A few preternaturally sensitive assessments. Fluorescent condescension and stereotype. Above all, the pleasant and dubious satisfactions of feeling superior to the past.
And yet. In recent years, The Times has faced scrutiny of the racial and gender imbalance in its reviews. One survey, which looked at nearly 750 books assessed by The Times in 2011, across all genres, found that nearly 90 percent of the authors assessed were white.
But what about the reviews themselves: the language, the criteria? When “women, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. writers” were reviewed, how was their work positioned? What patterns can we trace, what consequences? And what do we do with this knowledge — how can it be made useful? When we come to know, what do we really see?
That’s it for this briefing. Have a great start to the week.
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news, and to Parul Sehgal for the Back Story. You can reach Natasha and the team at [email protected].
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