BOOKISH BILL: It was bound to happen sooner or later: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has landed in his first controversy.

This story first appeared in the January 28, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It began last Wednesday, when the media news site Poynter.org posted an interview with Keller, cultural news editor Steve Erlanger and two journalists from the site, Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel, known as the Book Babes.

Keller agreed to sit down and discuss his plans for the book review, although he has not yet selected a candidate to replace Chip McGrath, who is stepping down as the section’s editor to write for the paper full time. Keller told the two journalists, “Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward nonfiction…Of course, some fiction needs to be done. We’ll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.”

“To be honest, there’s so much shit,” chimed in Erlanger. “Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.”

By early this week, Poynter had received a deluge of e-mails complaining about Keller’s plans for the review.

“The New York Times has no idea what they’re talking about,” Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull Press, wrote in one of the 20-some memos posted on Poynter, before calling Keller’s priorities “ass-backwards.” One reader sent in another titled, “Publishers — Revolt!” while others sarcastically noted that by the Times’ own logic, the paper should stop covering films and review only documentaries.

“It just seems he would never have reviewed Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen, yet he’s holding them up in the interview as the authors he’s following,” Riverhead publisher Cindy Spiegel told WWD. “I thought the interview was a parody when I read it because given his criteria it would seem The New York Times’ mandate was not to cover culture at all.”

Keller has since backtracked somewhat and written a response to the article, which is being sent to angry readers who e-mail in complaints to the Times. While Keller prefaced the response by saying that he was not “misquoted, precisely,” he said the interview had been “badly misread, to the extent people think there is a groundswell of opinion for dumbing down the review, or abandoning new literary fiction.” He said that the interview presupposed that there was a “secret blueprint” for the section when none exists yet, that “any proposal I make will include an expansion of the space devoted to this subject,” but that the section’s coverage should be “more discriminating and less formulaic in its coverage of new fiction.”

And speaking to WWD on Tuesday, he said that he had no regrets about the decision to be interviewed by the Book Babes, or about the plans to make significant changes to the section.

“The effects of that interview have been to get a lot people talking about the book review, which can’t be a bad thing,” said Keller. “Generating a certain amount of agitation in the book industry about whether it’s going to be serving their interests is something which I don’t care about because that’s not our job and I welcome a lively debate about what it’s going to be.

“Is it a bad thing that people are talking about what’s going to happen?…We’re not going to hire some patsy. We’re going to hire a serious-minded person with high standards and a lot of opinions and we’re going to give them a lot of license to redefine the book review.”

A partial list of prospects for the job certainly indicates that Keller isn’t planning on taking the section downmarket. While Keller declined to discuss who the candidates are, sources said the preliminary list included the Guardian’s “Observer” editor Robert McCrum; Sarah Crichton, a former editor of Newsweek and publisher of Little Brown; frequent book review contributor Judith Shulevitz, and New Republic contributing editor Ann Hulbert.

But maybe all the hubbub is unwarranted. As Keller said, “I’ve heard more from reporters who cover the book industry than disinterested readers” of The Times.