Martin the moribund

Why is the New York Times' publishing columnist so lame?

By Kera Bolonik
Published April 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Every Thursday for the past two years, people in the publishing industry have been gathering around the proverbial water cooler to discuss Martin Arnold's column, "Making Books," in the arts section of the New York Times. Their fascination, however, is anything but reverent; instead, it's with a mixture of amusement and bemusement that book editors, agents and publicists ask how a reporter at the paper of record could be so out of touch with his own beat.

To the dismay of those who consider the book industry interesting, Arnold covers inane topics that run the gamut from writers' pets that appear in author bios ("No doubt years from now those afflicted with bibliomania will look back and be puzzled as to why so many of our present-day writers included their dogs and cats and other curious items and achievements in their book flap 'About the Author' sketches") to publishing houses' thirst for new novelists ("Keep pecking away at your personal computer. There's a growing market for first novels, and there may be a yearning editor looking for you"). In the words of one literary agent, Arnold "writes as if he has no sense of the industry."

"Arnold's column is meant to be provocative, but instead it's ephemeral and ineffectual," explains a Random House editorial director, who, like most publishing professionals with complaints about the Times and like everyone interviewed for this story, adamantly refused to speak for attribution. The marketing director of a major nonfiction house is equally exasperated: "He states the obvious as if it's new and exciting, when his subject matter is often completely dated."

A major problem, notes another agent, is that Arnold "never features interesting topics or perceptions. He seems not only to lack a clue, but also passion. He opts for superficial treatments of easy-to-read, ready-made topics." Arnold sees it differently. "I usually write what I find to be interesting. The hardest thing about the column is coming up with the ideas, but there's no set formula. I pay attention to the news [of the industry] but not slavishly. I teach myself [about publishing] as I go along."

But in the years of Arnold's tenure as a publishing industry columnist, critics complain, he has consistently ignored the most timely and pressing publishing stories. His most recent "trendspotting" pieces have included the "new" marketability of the short story, which Arnold attributes to Francis Ford Coppola's (not particularly high-profile) magazine, Zoetrope, and the subsequent commercial success of last year's story collection "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" by Zoetrope contributor Melissa Bank; literary parties that benefit literacy campaigns; and the deluge of biographies of and memoirs by recent sports figures. "If there are trends happening," comments one agent, "they're not new if he's reporting it."

Perhaps the most astonishing of Arnold's omissions is that he has yet to substantively address the consolidation of publishing, a change that has shaken the industry to its very foundations. The mergers of powerhouses such as Putnam and Penguin, HarperCollins and Morrow/Avon, and Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell have transpired unremarked upon by the Times' publishing columnist.

Also baffling is Arnold's silence on the matter of last October's biggest publishing scandal, St. Martin's recall of J.H. Hatfield's "Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President." The biography alleged that the presidential candidate had been busted for cocaine possession in Texas in 1972 and had had the charges erased from his record with help from family friends. Hatfield's allegations relied entirely on unnamed sources, and his credibility was shattered when the Dallas Morning News revealed that the author had served five years of a 15-year sentence in a Texas prison for trying to hire a hit man to murder his employer. The incident highlighted the fact, little known outside the book industry, that many nonfiction titles go to press without even the most rudimentary fact-checking.

It's unlikely that the political subject matter kept Arnold from commenting on the Hatfield affair -- on July 22, his column, "Stumping at the Bookshelf," took up the scintillating topic of how presidential candidates use their memoirs as campaign tools. But the extensive Times national desk and media desk coverage of Hatfield's disgrace "never seemed to have filtered down to Arnold's column," remarks one agent.

In the weeks that followed the cancellation of the publication of Hatfield's book, Arnold never alluded to the scandal, which could have made for a compelling and highly relevant "Making Books" column on the subject of how publishers vet not only books but the authors themselves. Instead, Arnold's columns around that time dealt with the increase in epic-length books ("They're Bigger. But Better?" Oct. 28); an author abandoned by a series of exiting editors at St. Martin's Press ("Pat Jordan. An Author in Limbo," Nov. 4); and editors who have left big publishing houses to pursue careers as literary agents ("Why Editors Become Agents," Nov. 11). According to Arnold's boss, John Darnton, the Times' culture editor, Arnold "simply didn't think to write a feature on the subject. It was covered as breaking news, so I don't consider this a major oversight."

"I try not to do what the rest of the paper does," responds Arnold when asked why he skipped the story. "I write a column, not features, not reported pieces. So much coverage was done in the news sections on J.H. Hatfield that it seemed redundant to me to do a piece on it at the time. I don't like to run with the crowd."

When Arnold does focus on relevant or interesting issues, as he did in a column entitled "Literary Advocates for Black Voices" (Jan. 13), about the challenges black agents face in dealing with a primarily white industry, he often overlooks some of the most crucial players. "He didn't even bother to mention Janet Hill, a hugely influential editor at Doubleday, who heads one of the most prestigious African-American publishing programs in the business. I mean, she publishes E. Lynn Harris!" exclaims a senior editor from the Bertelsmann Group. "His column is all over the place," says another publishing insider. "He always jumps to the wrong conclusion, dedicating too much space for one lame publishing topic and not enough space for all that he tries to take on."

These aren't the only bones that readers are eager to pick. Arnold is notorious for his countless glaring errors, particularly his infamous and consistent misspellings of major editors' names, such as Random House senior editor Daniel Menaker ("Menaka") and Knopf editor Jordan Pavlin ("Pavlon"). Arnold admits to getting "a lot of mail from all over the country pointing out errors in grammar." "Making Books" strikes many in its audience as the only unedited section of the Times. "I am absolutely astonished at how badly written his column is, especially when the Times prides itself on good writing," remarks a senior editor at a mainstream house. A Times insider surmises that Arnold "doesn't seem to be held to the same standards as other reporters. It's as if his column is being treated like an Op-Ed."

Yet Arnold is far from being an amateur. An award-winning journalist who has been on the Times' staff since 1959, Arnold has served as an assignment editor on the metropolitan desk, the founding editor of both the media department and the now-defunct law page and the deputy editor of the New York Times Magazine. In 1997, after a yearlong stint as associate style editor, Arnold was named senior editor on the culture desk, where he edits Critic's Notebook and Art in America among other features, and began his book-publishing column a month later.

"Joe Lelyveld [the executive editor of the Times ] came to me with the idea for the column," explains Arnold, "and Darnton wanted a book presence on the culture desk." Darnton says he felt that Arnold's earlier post as head of the media department -- which previously included publishing -- made him an obvious choice for a column whose objective is to provide a window into the publishing process for readers, as Darnton stresses, not industry insiders.

Nevertheless, publishing people make up a core audience for "Making Books," and many of them long for the return of the industry column "Book Notes," which faded away after Darnton was named culture editor in 1996. "When Sarah Lyall did her weekly 'Book Notes' column, it was the first thing I'd look for," one agent reminisces. The marketing director agrees: "Both Sarah Lyall and Doreen Carvajal provided a perfect blend of insight and compelling news." In 1995, Lyall moved to London to live with her new husband, former Faber editor in chief Robert McCrum, and Mary Tabor kept up the weekly column until its eventual dissolution.

One Times reporter is careful to assert that "'Making Books' is not the replacement for 'Book Notes.'" According to Darnton, whose department's publishing sections include "Writers on Writing," the daily book review and Arnold's column, "We have no plans at this time to extend the culture desk [coverage of publishing] or to bring back 'Book Notes.'"

Meanwhile, industry people are baffled by the lack of concern the Times has demonstrated for the column. "I would think that the culture desk must have heard some criticism by now -- it's not like this is happening in a vacuum," says one publishing insider. "The Times' historical lack of interest in the publishing industry allows Martin Arnold a freer hand. I mean, it can't all be blamed on Martin Arnold. The coverage has never been sterling."

One Times reporter says that the paper thinks "a good reporter can effectively report on anything well, and it is generally believed that it is good to get a wide variety of experience." This reporter adds, "The paper really stresses youth, energy and availability. The sense that I get about the perception of older reporters, though, is that they've lost their edge, so they get moved to easier beats." Another Times insider explains that "as reporters grow older, they tend to go on one of four routes: [They move] through the editorial ranks, become specialists or work on long-term investigative projects, or they get put out to pasture by working on more feature-y pieces." Because the paper is unionized, it is extremely rare for a reporter to get fired, and the Times is notorious for keeping old "Timesmen" around long after they've become ineffective.

None of the Times insiders could say if Arnold was effectively put "out to pasture" with "Making Books," but one was quick to clarify that "in previous years, the culture desk was considered a plum position, and the older reporters that moved to the desk were being rewarded for years of hard work. But this is no longer the case now that Darnton and [projects editor] Martin Gottlieb are here. They have expanded the coverage by leaps and bounds, with more breaking news stories than ever about the arts."

While the culture desk has, in fact, expanded its film, fashion, television and theater sections, many readers have noticed the shrinking coverage of the publishing industry. Notes one publishing insider, "From what I can tell, the New York Times does not think of publishing as an interesting enough industry to warrant coverage. Publishing simply does not bring in the advertising the way fashion and other cultural subjects do."

"Maybe the Times feels guilty for their lack of publishing industry coverage, but they devote more time to interviewing minor movie and television stars than they do authors," sighs the marketing director. The Random House editorial director concurs: "If the paper wants to do a service to the publishing industry, they would write about authors."

Laments the senior editor at Bertelsmann Group, "I don't understand the poor coverage. Books are interesting, and publishing is an integral part of New York's culture."

Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

MORE FROM Kera Bolonik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books The New York Times