Consolidated Cultural Elites and the New York Times Book ReviewRoundup
tags: book reviews, publishing, New York Times, popular history, Trade Publications
Professor of History at Princeton, author of Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
The New York Times Book Review’s “100 Notable Books of 2022” list is a revealing document. No other American publication has anything like the Times’s cultural influence. For any author who cares about reaching a non-specialist audience, having a review in the Times matters greatly. At some universities, a professor getting a book reviewed there is big news. (Just to get this out of the way, only one of my books has ever been reviewed by the Times, somewhat snarkily, and that was in 2001).
So what history books did the Times Book Review this year consider not just worthy of review, but of inclusion in its all-star end-of-year list? By my count, sixteen of the 100 fiction and non-fiction titles on the list can be considered history. Not a bad total, considering that the field has to compete with memoirs, current affairs, science, art criticism, and other popular non-fiction subjects.
Perhaps not surprisingly, only six of the sixteen authors are full-time academics. Among them are prominent historians such as Yale’s Beverly Gage (G-Man), Harvard’s Caroline Elkins (Legacy of Violence) and Oxford’s Pekka Hämäläinen (Indigenous Continent), as well as younger stars like Tufts’s Kerri Greenidge (The Grimkes). The ten non-academics are mostly either journalists like James Kirchick (Secret City) or full-time freelance book writers.
I’m not particularly bothered by the low batting average for the professionals. The Times is not The American Historical Review. And history has always been a field to which talented writers without a formal position in the professoriate, indeed often without graduate training, can make superb contributions. Among the authors included this year on the list are Adam Hochschild (American Midnight), Mark Braude (Kiki Man Ray) and Stacy Schiff (The Revolutionary). They are all terrific, engaging, entertaining writers who do serious research and adhere to high professional standards. I’ve assigned Hochschild’s books in my courses.
Rather more surprising, and depressing, is the fact that none of the sixteen books were published by university presses.