This Week in Books: It’s Pamela Paul Week
All hail the queen.
I’m thrilled to inform you that everyone is talking about Pamela Paul. A politely ruthless profile from Molly Fischer has synced up serendipitously with a new book-related opinion column by the erstwhile editor of the most influential book periodical in America, generating some exceptionally civil feedback. Silvia Moreno-Garcia even logged back on to Twitter to make a thread (for what feels somehow like the hundredth time someone has had to articulate this at length, no clue why the concept can’t seem to stick!) refuting the idea that any sort of meaningful monetary cancellation was perpetrated against American Dirt. (Yes I regret to inform you, if you weren’t aware, that Pamela Paul has, this very week, written about American Dirt—“What about January 2023 makes it a good time to return to the book and its detractors?” queries Max Read (linked above, c.f. civil), in awe of her majesty’s discourse-shaping prowess, to which I say, this was asked and answered in Molly Fischer’s profile: “In her new role, [Paul] prefers to write her columns well in advance, to avoid the discomfort of working under a deadline.” We support a self-care icon eschewing news pegs.) Rather, American Dirt was merely criticized. Criticized, probably most famously (yet not by any means initially) in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. The New York Times Book Review as edited by Pamela Paul. Yes, friends, you heard correctly—as Max Read and others online have pointed out, Pamela Paul’s powers of discourse are such that she has established a vertically integrated outrage machine, seeing the process through from initial cancellation to reactionary backlash.
But hold on, I feel a weird urge to describe something about the New York Times that might not be strictly relevant. I’m not entirely sure I’m getting this right, but (*puts on monocle, straightens cravat, extends pointer, slaps blackboard*) as I understand it there are two distinct entities: the holy trinity of Daily Times Books Critics (of whom there are always three, for undoubtedly Illuminati type reasons—the current triumvirate are Dwight Garner, Alexandra Jacobs, and Jennifer Szalai—and who have the godlike mandate to write about whatever they want) and the Times Book Review, which is a Sunday section formerly edited by Paul (currently edited by Gilbert Cruz) which in recent years I think has not had staff critics, just freelancers assigned books to review by the editors working under the chief editor. I believe Lauren Groff’s hedged review of American Dirt appeared in the Paul-edited Review whereas Parul Sehgal’s nearly simultaneous savaging was penned from her position in that era as a Times Book Critic. The Critics seem to be appointed by (and sourced from) the Review, but once you are a Critic you report to the daily books desk editor (the current one is… I know not whom, I can’t figure it out? Formerly it was John Williams, who moved to the Washington Post last year), who seems to basically just try to help the Critics decide what books to review. I mean I’m sure it’s more involved than that. But the Critics get to say whatever they want, that’s the point. Once they are appointed their words become inviolable. They are high priests of the age of mechanical reproduction, walking amongst us but not of us, perceiving truths long forgotten, inheritors of a dead divinity…
But what if I’m splitting hairs. What if Pamela Paul really did directly oversee both reviews, seeding chaos, planting the subject of her own future hot takes, a diligent gardener in the poisoned spring of life… Could it be possible…? No. No. I tell you, that would be too perfect a thing, and the world rarely chooses perfection.
Anyway! Covid seems to have left me alone now. Just a cough that won’t go away, you know the drill. A bad two weeks. I definitely had some brain fog for a day or two. I, uh, forgot what month it was when I was trying to reschedule a haircut. I was living in the future. I was seeing deep time. Like Pamela Paul, I became unshackled by currency, relevancy, the moment, and was floating in the eternal now. I was streaming things no one has ever thought to stream in sequence before. (In one day: Bi Gan’s 2022 short A Short Story, Sheree Folkson’s 2005 miniseries Casanova, and half of Hideaki Anno’s 2016 feature Shin Godzilla. I do not believe this watch order has ever been achieved before by mankind. I have tread where no living thing has dared before me.) It was lame. It was endless. It was the eternal pandemic. It was the eternal moment before the pandemic. January 2020, stretching into infinity: American Dirt discourse stamping its boot on a human face, forever.
The End of the World is made possible by subscribers like YOU. Subscribe now to read past item #6.
1. “The Rules According to Pamela Paul” by Molly Fischer, The New Yorker
Molly Fischer profiles Pamela Paul.
…When I asked Paul about writers who shaped her thinking on such matters, she initially demurred. “I don’t want to name names,” she said. “Whenever you name names, you think, Oh, I should have said this other person.” Her reticence caught me off guard. For nine years, Paul’s job was running a book review; today, she expresses opinions professionally. I had not imagined myself to be venturing onto sensitive terrain.
2. “Editing the New York Times” by Max Read, Read Max
Max Read gives some notes on a recent Pamela Paul opinion piece about American Dirt.
Maybe not the place to fully go into it, but this is an interesting point to me -- should we all just assume that all publishing hype is B.S.? What about readers or writers who are not as savvy about the likely exaggeration of a marketing campaign? What are the consequences of that for the industry and for readers?
3. “The Conch Shell Conundrum” by John Paul Brammer, ¡Hola Papi!
John Paul Brammer responds to the same opinion piece.
I’ll even say that, yes, in my view, there does exist an overzealous, vocal minority of readers and writers, most of whom online, with a censorious streak. Fine. But what you’ve failed to realize is that it wasn’t the book itself that led so many people to take issue with it, it was the way it was presented to us—as a definitive statement on the Mexican experience, as an urgent work that would give a voice to the voiceless and humanize the undocumented. It was not Latinos who called it that. Publishers did.
4. “Kafka Gone Wild” by Rebecca Schuman, Slate
Rebecca Schuman interviews Ross Benjamin about his new translation of The Diaries of Franz Kafka (Schocken).
Thanks to a blistering new translation by acclaimed translator and writer Ross Benjamin, the NC-17 Diaries of Franz Kafka are, for the first time, available to the English-speaking world. Anglophone Kafka fans are about to find out that the author of The Trial also once fantasized in great detail about a friend “stuffing his giant member” into women.
5. “Fisting at the End of the World” by Will Harrison, The Baffler
Will Harrison reviews William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself (Semiotext(e)).
…A young Chantal Akerman skimmed a total of $4,000 while working the 55th Street Playhouse box office during the premiere engagement of L.A. Plays Itself, netting more money during this period than Halsted. The very fact that Akerman used this windfall to fund Hotel Monterey, her debut feature, would have ensured Halsted’s place in the cinematic canon (or at least its endnotes), but that would be underselling him…
6. “John le Carré’s Search for a Vocation” by Jennifer Wilson, The New Yorker
Jennifer Wilson reviews A Private Spy: The Letters of John Le Carré (Viking), edited by Tim Cornwell.
Ironically, it was as a writer that le Carré did the bulk of his fieldwork, coming face to face with the major political conflicts that defined his lifetime. To research his novels, he travelled to the heart of conflict zones… If he had still been a spy, his new line of work would have made a great cover story.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial