A prize-winning journalist once told me this story: Early in his career, writing on spec for The Village Voice or some such organ of the alternative press, he had ventured to the set of Blazing Saddles to interview Mel Brooks. Flush with the wine of self-importance, he flourished his press pass for the security guard outside the soundstage. Inside, however, he found himself merely the youngest and least consequential member of a flock (pod? pride? murder?) of reporters. While waiting for Mr. Brooks to appear, he tried to make small talk with Kenneth Tynan of The New Yorker. “So you guys are doing a profile? Must be a tall order to crank 5,000 words out in time for the movie premiere.” I have no idea whether Tynan wore small half-glasses at that or any other point, but I picture him gazing coolly over the top of the lenses to deliver the following riposte: “We are The New Yorker. We don’t do timely.”
This anecdote, in its 2005 version, was meant in part to tweak Tynan for his Olympian condescension, but there was envy in it, too: O, to write without the oppression of deadlines and “news hooks!” I thought of Kenneth Tynan and Blazing Saddles again last week, as I perused the contents of the second issue of N+1‘s new book review supplement, N1BR. Here were:
- Nikil Saval assessing Alex Ross‘ The Rest is Noise, a year and a half after its publication.
- Giles Harvey arriving six months late to the 2666 party, with a thoughtful dissent, no less.
- Nathan Heller offering trenchant insights on a John Updike novel from 1968.
- Rachel Aviv ranging over the decades-long career of Anne Rice.
We are N1BR, I thought. We don’t do timely.
Which is all to the good. It goes almost without saying that the current book-marketing dispensation, in which reviewers are given a brief window to render a collective judgment on, say, Tree of Smoke, has seemed more and more ludicrous the smaller that window has become – particularly as books, unlike their authors, live for hundreds of years. One of the knocks on online discourse has been that it pushes timeliness to the point of ephemerality. But as Open Letters Monthly‘s “Second Glance” column, Dan Green’s emerging side project, the brand new Second Pass site, and our Year in Reading series, not to mention our own Lydia Kiesling‘s Modern Library Revue, suggest, the departure from the economic vicissitudes of print may in fact help free us from the tyranny of the now.
To be sure, one of the purposes of literary journalism is to alert readers to the new. Still, the scarcity of advertising dollars, and the attendant lack of a profit motive, do seem to open up the possibility of writing about books because they are worth writing about, rather than because they came out last week. At which point the challenge becomes to write well. Here’s hoping the folks at N1BR, and others like them, will make arriving late to the party fashionable again.