The Living Arts Section
The New York Times
Reviewed by John Brady
Wednesday, April 19 2000, 1:11 PM
I have been a reader of the New York Times for the last eight years. I started reading the paper on a regular basis when I started graduate school in 1992 and for the last two years have had a seven day subscription. Often on Saturday nights I will dream expectantly of the portentous plop of the Sunday Times on my front porch. Generally, I have to say, I am very pleased with the Times. However, recently I've noticed a fall-off in the quality of the Living Arts section, especially in terms of its reviews.
Some types of reviews in the section are consistently superior. This is true, for instance, of the music reviews. The rock and pop music critics are all very strong and each has a distinctly critical voice, which is rare in this era of corporate dominated journalism. Moreover, these critics present a fairly wide spectrum of music, paying attention not only to the stars, but also to artists struggling at the margins of the pop world. I don't know particularly much about classical music, but I consistently enjoy the newspapers review's of classical performances primarily because of the style in which they are written. In their fussy dissections of a particular performance's sins against musical conventions, these reviews constantly skirt along the borders between informed critique, intellectual pretense and naked cultural snobbery. I'll read these reviews with great anticipation, wondering, "Will they go too far this time? Will they finally shoot off over the lip of the cliff into unabashed high cultural haughtiness? Or will they reign themselves in at the last minute and save me from throwing away the paper in disgust?"
No, the problem is not with the music reviews or, far that matter, with the dance and art reviews, which are also very good. The problem of the Living Arts section lies with the film and book reviews. The departure of Janet Maslin has seriously hurt the quality of the film reviews. Even if I didn't always agree with Maslin's picks and sometimes found her to be far too easy on blatant Hollywood pap, I enjoyed her critical voice and her clear and concise review style. To this point, none of the reviewers who are now at the paper have been able to develop an identifiable critical personality and a compelling critical style. Consequently, the film reviews lack the punch Maslin supplied.
But it is the book reviews that really get my ire up. It took me a while to identify exactly why I found them so problematic. It is not so much the books that are chosen for review, although here I wish the book reviews editor showed the same diverse tastes as the music reviews editor. The real problem lies in the fact that the book reviewers consistently ignore the larger cultural contexts that give the books under discussion their cultural meaning and political valence. Instead of reviews that reach beyond the book's pages to survey the larger political and cultural landscape, the reviews hermetically seal their objects of discussion into a cultural and political vacuum. They are, in other words, not much more than book reports. Snappily and intelligently written book reports, to be sure, but book reports nonetheless.