James Wood is moving from The New Republic to staff the book review beat at The New Yorker. I'm intrigued to see how this all turns out, since while Wood's a smart, sharp critic, besides being famous, he doesn't immediately jump out as the perfect book critic for The New Yorker. (The perfect book critic for the New Yorker? I don't know. Clive James, probably?)
But think fast -- what exactly is the New Yorker style for book criticism? The movies section has its own style that probably wouldn't pay off for books. Besides Jane Tompkins, or to a lesser extent Louis Menand, I can't think of a dedicated book reviewer. Even John Updike writes as often about art or culture as he does literature. And really, when I think of the New Yorker's books section, I think of great write-ups of biographies, the less-than-compelling briefly noted section, and longer, more journalistic profiles of authors. The best essays are hardly ever straight reviews of new(ish) books.
It's worth thinking about how publications create their own compartmentalized styles -- maybe driven first by strong personalities (with Pauline Kael being the best example) which then become institutionalized identities. How does that translate to a different author, a different audience -- even a different appearance, on text or screen? And how does that identity take off in the broader culture?
At least one person has a hilarious take on the whole thing:
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at The New Republic, said that “The New Republic plays many significant roles in American culture, and one of them is to find and to develop writers with whom The New Yorker can eventually staff itself.”