What Is Pamela Paul Thinking?
After struggling to get out of marketing, a brief and quarrelsome marriage to Bret Stephens, and ascending to one of publishing’s most powerful perches, the former editor of The New York Times Book Review made a confounding choice to jump head first into the fractious culture wars
Toward the end of last year, Pamela Paul, then the editor of The New York Times Book Review, had a big decision to make. Both of her most recent predecessors in the post had lasted exactly nine years, and Paul, who was promoted to the section’s top job in April 2013, was coming up on that mark. It would be easy to imagine her following the path of those prior Book Review editors: Sam Tanenhaus, her immediate predecessor, had taken a writer-at-large position with The Times and turned to a long-gestating biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. Before him, Chip McGrath also took a writer-at-large post at The Times and began contributing again to The New Yorker where he was once deputy editor, while working on publishing projects like editing John O’Hara’s Library of America story collection.
So, it was a surprise to some in the literary world when The Times announced last March that Paul’s next posting would be as an opinion columnist and even more head-scratchingly, once she started publishing columns, that she had jumped head-first into the culture wars, a fray that, in the year 2022, it would seem that few would venture into voluntarily. In her second column about leaving Twitter — a topic, she wrote, that her friend Carlos Lozada, who is soon joining The Times as a columnist, begged her not to write about — she called the platform “vile” and full of “reactionary trolls and virtue-signaling vigilantes.” But, though Paul’s Twitter profile is now dormant, her subsequent columns have served as chum for the platform’s seething outrage cycles.
The announcement said that Paul “wants her column to help people question what has often become the received point of view.” Her early columns seemed to suggest that what that meant in practice was hostility to the cultural left, taking on #MeToo, transgender activists, “sensitivity reads,” among other topics. She set off a widespread uproar in July with a column, “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count,” which was cited sympathetically by trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Bette Midler, who had posted a tweet inspired by Paul’s column, soon apologized for transphobia.
Reactions to Paul’s career pivot from publishing and media circles have mostly been muted — partly because of the residual power of Paul’s connections at the most powerful book review in America — and befuddled. Asked at a party in July what he thought of Paul’s evolution, novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, who’d been mentioned in a Paul column several weeks before, playfully offered a way to write up his no comment reaction: “Alexander Chee only laughed and threw his head back.” In May, Gawker editor Leah Finnegan, who previously worked at The New York Times op-ed desk, wrote a screed titled, “Pamela Paul Is the New Worst Columnist at The New York Times.” There have been other vocal critics of Paul, like novelist Emily Gould. “I had previously assumed that her performance at The New York Times Book Review was due to a combination of incompetence and profound intellectual incuriosity,” she told The Fine Print, “but since she began publishing op-eds, it’s become clear to me that this was a generous assessment.” After the “Women Don’t Count” column, Gould said, “I made myself a T-shirt that said ‘Pamela Paul Retire Bitch’ because I have been so angry and offended by the op-eds she has been writing at The New York Times, several of which have been explicitly racist and transphobic.”
For some, the arguments Paul has proffered so far in her column have made them question their past interactions with her. Kyle Lukoff, a trans writer of children’s books, who met Paul at a literary event and sat on a panel with her in 2019 at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, found himself unsettled by the retrospective undercurrents in her columns. “We were sitting next to each other. We were engaging as colleagues, as professionals, as writers, and most of my books are about trans kids, and it is unsettling now to think how many other industry professionals have been polite to me in public, and are behind the scenes trying to undermine work — not just my work, but also the larger cultural conversation about trans people and whether or not we are allowed to exist,” he said. “It just makes me nervous. Who else have I sat next to who was nice to me, but was reading her op-ed on whether or not trans people should be allowed to exist and nodding their heads approvingly?”
Just what propelled Paul, after helming the occasionally contentious, increasingly recommendation-driven, but still relatively respectable Book Review, where she wielded vast influence primarily, apart from hosting the section’s podcast, from behind the scenes, into her newfound role as a Twitter main character?
“I was eager to return to writing full-time,” Paul told The Fine Print when asked what had started her thinking about moving over to the opinion section, “something I’d been doing on top of a very full-time job, on weekends and early mornings and nights.” The timing of Paul’s move was in keeping with the recent history of Book Review editors. “When she phoned not long ago to say she had news,” said Tanenhaus, “I guessed what it was.” McGrath, too, said the job could be wearying. “It’s a job where people are either kissing your ass or screaming at you,” he said. “I became aware that every Sunday, I was making a lot of people unhappy, and at a certain point, I thought, ‘Enough is enough, there’s no reason that you need to keep doing this.’” Why sign up for another role almost guaranteed to keep making people unhappy on Sundays?
According to Dean Baquet, who stepped down as executive editor of The Times on June 14, it was all Paul’s idea. “She came to me and said that she was interested in applying to work for opinion. I considered that, frankly, a loss for the newsroom. But I also felt like nine years is a long time,” he told The Fine Print. “I feel like part of my job is to encourage people to do what’s best for them. So I said, sure, I would help her — and by help her, that just means I made it clear to people in opinion that I thought she was an excellent journalist and a good writer and a clear thinker. But I was not, in any way, wanting to push her out of the job.” Baquet didn’t seem totally clear on what drove Paul to opinion, but he did have a sense of what drove her away from the Book Review: “Having been in my job for eight years, I think nine years is a pretty long time in a pretty intense job,” he said. “My sense, when she talked with me, is that it was just a chance to do something different.”
“I’ve been gratified by the response to my work thus far,” Paul said about the reception of her columns. “A columnist’s job is to explore ideas and pursue arguments without fear of what any critics might say.”
Paul’s path to the opinion section was, in some ways, fairly typical of an upper-middle-class striver struggling to break into an elite world. A middle-class kid from the New York suburbs, her Ivy League education fostered class and intellectual insecurities; her long stretch in the marketing trenches made a literary career seem out of reach; her short and quarrelsome marriage to her Times columnist colleague Bret Stephens, in which he pinned her down asking her to recall the name of a Somerset Maugham protagonist, redoubled her sense of competition. She’s oscillated between a commitment to privacy and behind-the-scenes work and an embrace of the sort of exposure that helped her get ahead. Early anonymous stints writing for The Economistand editing for McKinsey preceded a book in which she generalized the particular experience of her short marriage. Still, a memoir she wrote while editing the Book Review revealed much she’d left out of that story. By both her account and Tanenhaus’s, she hesitantly joined the staff of the Book Review before climbing to lead it, and since she departed the section, readers have surmised political undercurrents in the way she ran it. All of it led to a difficult-to-understand decision.
Pamela Paul started out as what she has called an “accomplished child,” a category distinct from geniuses and hard workers. As she explained in a 2012 piece in the Times, “the accomplished child does exactly what is expected of him. And nothing more.” She went through high school consciously trying to get into an Ivy but not necessarily trying to learn. “Sure, I studied for my standardized tests, but I also avoided taking any A.P. science,” she wrote — and it worked out: “It all went as planned. I didn’t learn much of anything.”
After Paul was accepted by Brown, a sense of inadequacy began to haunt her. As she wrote in her 2017 book My Life with Bob, having grown up in a Long Island suburb and educated in public schools, she felt like she was behind her classmates who’d been more thoroughly prepared at elite private schools. “Even my ‘good’ suburban high school wasn’t nearly as good as the ‘really good’ suburban high schools — the ones in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Winnetka, Illinois. Lots of people knew a lot more than I did, and I was behind, no matter how diligently I completed my assignments,” she wrote in her 2017 memoir My Life with Bob. “My college classmates seemed to read better than I did, drawing meanings and making inferences I hardly noticed. They shared this greater understanding in seminars, speaking with an eloquence I could hardly muster. In English class, I grew progressively quieter, retreating into early-childhood shyness.” Early on at Brown, she gave up on plans to major in English, choosing to spend her time in the less literary History department instead. Some of that seems to have followed Paul despite her future ventures into the world of books.
When it came time to figure out what she would do after graduating in 1993, Paul was frustrated by the possibilities available to someone with her family’s relatively modest financial resources. “I wanted to be a writer, which was impossible,” she wrote in her memoir. “I wanted to work in magazine or book publishing, but the starting salary at Farrar, Straus & Giroux was $14,500; a ‘good’ editorial salary was $17,000, and I couldn’t afford that.” Instead, she applied for a job at Quaker Oats. “I was in the interview and I found myself saying, ‘I really like Cap’n Crunch, but only with Crunch Berries because you sort of need the tartness of the berry to offset that sort of general sweetness of the main cereal,’” she recalled in a 2019 podcast interview. “I was just going on about this and the interviewer interrupted me and he said, ‘You know, many of us here at Quaker Oats enjoy Cap’n Crunch, too. But really, why do you want to work at Quaker Oats?’” She quickly admitted that she didn’t.
Instead of going straight into a job after graduation, she took off for a year of travel, flying to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. After she returned, she found work through her Brown connections at the children’s publishing company Scholastic. “After all my angsting over what to do with my life, I’d wound up moving back from Thailand to New York, abandoning a plan to switch over to Hong Kong, and taking a half-editorial, half-marketing job in publishing when it materialized during a pre-Internet visit to my old stomping ground, the college alumni services office,” Paul wrote in My Life with Bob. “We had a strategy to launch this whole series of businesses that help parents, and I was looking for an assistant for this particular set of new ventures,” said Steve Cohen, who Paul credits as her “first ‘real’ boss” in the acknowledgments of her first book, 2002’s The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony.
Part of what made Cohen think Paul was suited for the role was that he believed she’d tutored the football team at Brown. “That’s no small challenge,” he said. Paul clarified that Cohen’s recollection wasn’t quite correct because she hadn’t done any peer tutoring in college. “At one point for my work-study program, I did administrative work for the Sports Foundation. That group raised money from alumni for the school’s sports team,” she said. “Or he may be thinking about the fact that I was on the women’s rugby (football) team.” According to her old boss, what distinguished Paul on the job was that she didn’t seem to look askance at what he called “scut work.” “She was fearless,” Cohen said. “I would ask her to take on things that were neither editing nor writing, and she dove into them with an intellectual curiosity and an energy that was just terrifying.”
That didn’t mean that Paul had entirely given up on her literary ambitions. At one point, Cohen recalled, they conceived a cookbook for children that they would write together. “We actually paid a little bit of money for a mock-up of some pages,” Cohen said. “We were standing in an office in Scholastic. It was about 6:30 or seven o’clock at night, and it was an internal office. And we’re both hovering over these layouts, and we’re disagreeing, and it’s getting more and more heated. Finally, she looks at me she says, ‘Dad, I don’t think this is going to —’ and she stopped, and we looked at each other, and we suddenly realized what the relationship had turned into. And we never did the book.” Paul couldn’t recall the incident but said, “assuming that did happen, I’m sure we had a big laugh over it.”
Though Paul stayed in touch with Cohen, she felt ready to put away childish things and, as she put it in her memoir, leap “from the child’s playpen of Scholastic Inc.’s downtown headquarters, where I’d worked for three years, to the big-boys’ club in the midtown Time-Life Building.” The move allowed grandiose dreams of legitimacy and fulfillment to grow in her mind. “The publishing division I signed up for at Time Inc. was charged with creating books based on the company’s venerable quarry of magazines,” she wrote in the memoir. “I envisioned myself assembling handsome pictorial histories of World War II from the pages of Time, sifting dreamily through the photographic archives of Life and writing elegant and elegiac captions for each entry in the sumptuous coffee table books I’d help produce.” That didn’t pan out. “By some terrible misunderstanding, I’d been put to work on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar,” she wrote, “without doubt, a professional nadir.”
Around this time, she met and started dating fellow future Times opinion columnist Stephens, who, after graduating from The University of Chicago in 1995, had started as an assistant editor at Commentary. When Stephens asked Paul to marry him in 1998 and move to London, where he was going to attend grad school at The London School of Economics, she was quick to toss away her publishing job. In her memoir, she writes that moving to London without a job — and U.K. immigration laws which made it difficult for her to find a new one — led to a professional identity crisis. “Outside of job interviews, everyone assumed I was a housewife,” she wrote in her memoir. “Much of my day was spent food shopping, gym going, and household tending. My husband had a little money, so I could afford not to work. Don’t worry about it, he reassured me; after all, I was the one who’d had to quit a job to move to London. Having worked since I was 14 and risen to the dubious title of ‘marketing manager’ (yet another reason to ditch the Time Inc. job), I felt gratitude, guilt, discomfort, defensiveness, relief, fear, anxiety, and a growing sense of indolence. I roasted lamb chops.” Eventually, she hustled up some freelance work: a column on global arts trends for The Economist and a gig editing internal publications for McKinsey — ostensibly prestigious but anonymous work across the board.
“It was clear that both of them were novas,” said Cohen, who recalled no signs of marital discord when he visited the couple in London. “What do you think of any young couple? You wish them the best.”
While Paul’s first book, The Starter Marriage, was inspired by their divorce a year later in 1999 — “When I found myself unexpectedly divorced at 28, I did what any ambitious writer would do. I wrote a book about it. Isn’t that what aspiring authors are supposed to do these days? Experience trauma (incest, Ritalin abuse, a stay in a mental institution), reveal it in print, go wide on Oprah, sell the film rights, make a million,” she wrote in her alumni magazine in 2002 — there was deliberately very little in it about the particulars. But 15 years later, her book My Life with Bob, a memoir in the form of an annotated bibliography of everything Paul had read since she was 17, was much more revealing. “Here we were, having practically just met and now living together in London, separated from friends, family, jobs, and — not unlike Hans Castorp — cast away from our larger social tapestry. In theory and occasional reality, this was a lovely way to be in love. But with few other outlets, we began to turn against each other,” she wrote. “We disagreed about books, we disagreed about politics, we had different worldviews, and we disagreed about the way each of us characterized the other. We were still in love; we just found each other disagreeable.”
Given the framing of the memoir, it’s unsurprising that most of the arguments Paul recounts centered on books. Stephens recommended books that didn’t go down well with Paul: “Read [Paul Johnson’s] Modern Times, the defining road map to the twentieth century, my husband urged me; then I would understand his worldview.” She wrote that she was willing to take a chance on the book because “I didn’t know about Johnson’s slavish Thatcherism, his ardent defense of Nixon, his admiration for Pinochet, or the way he overtly manipulated historical fact to suit his political disposition.” But she found herself repulsed by the book and what Stephens’s admiration for it said about him. As she found out more about Johnson, she was even more appalled. “One day, browsing in Hatchards in Piccadilly Circus (the best London bookstore, btw), I came upon an essay in a Christopher Hitchens collection in which Hitchens described with gleeful and damning detail Johnson’s drunken boorishness and general despicability,” she wrote. “Hitchens recalled watching Johnson bully a female foreign editor at The New Statesman.”
Though she never connected Stephens directly with those tendencies in My Life with Bob, she did recount instances of intellectual bullying. “He playfully pinned me down in bed and demanded to know the hero’s name from Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage,” she wrote. “I’d finished reading the novel only six months before. ‘His object of desire’s name was Mildred,’ I answered miserably. Though I’d spent more than six hundred pages with the character, I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name. (It’s Philip.)”
As Paul described it, much of the marriage seems to have been marked by that sort of one-upmanship. “I started to read with an eye to anticipating the fights; I’d lap up books, magazines, and newspapers with purpose, accumulating statistical backup and rebuttals for future intellectual showdowns,” she wrote. “One of the worst aspects of arguing with my husband was that he unfailingly emerged victorious. Whereas my own memory was a dismal chamber of half-forgotten, half-thought-out notions that leaked precipitously, my husband’s was well stocked and airtight.” She added that Stephens’ ability to marshall the facts he’d absorbed into arguments “initially filled me with awed admiration. Here was someone I could learn from, like having my own private library of a husband. … But over time, my enthused approval congealed into an unattractive envy and, later still, a rage at him and a loathing for myself. How unfair that I didn’t share this skill, and what an asshole he could be when he used it so effectively against me.” Stephens did not reply to a request for comment on his ex-wife and fellow Times opinion columnist’s account of their marriage.
Three weeks before their first anniversary — “two days after our wedding pictures finally arrived from the photographer,” Paul noted in the memoir — Stephens initiated divorce proceedings. “Divorce is hard enough when you know that you’re done with a marriage; when you still feel like you’re in the middle of one, it is gut splitting. It was as if my entire existence had rested on a magic carpet rather than a concrete foundation, and it was ripped out from under me,” Paul wrote. “There was one night in Brooklyn, wailing in despair, inconsolable; the rest was a blur.”
The next couple of milestones in Paul’s writing career stemmed directly from that experience. When she wrote her first book review in the wake of the divorce, the unrelenting arguments had honed her and the subject of the book she was assigned, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, was immediately relatable. “I almost felt ready to write it,” Paul wrote in the memoir. “At the moment, I was feeling very much betrayed by the American man.” But she had also started moving towards a more self-revealing, self-confident sort of writing as a way to process the trauma. She took a personal essay writing class at The New School, where, from the start, she had to confront the fact that she wasn’t yet making a living writing. “I introduced myself as a media executive at Turner Broadcasting,” she wrote in the memoir, “which, alas, I was, still finding it hard to move from marketing into pure editorial work, even as I continued to write for The Economist at night.”
Paul left her job at Turner in 2000 and wrote The Starter Marriage before landing a job as an editor at American Demographics, a magazine “aimed at planners and marketers,” according to an archival description, and which Paul noted in a recent column “specialized in generational generalizations.” She worked there as a senior editor until May 2003, and the following year she married financial analyst Michael Stern. According to their Times wedding announcement, “Ms. Paul said she was reluctant to tell Mr. Stern she had written a book about failed marriages when they met on a blind date last year. Not only would she not tell him what the book was about, but she would also not give him her last name, her telephone number, or her e-mail address. … Several dates later, Mr. Stern remembered, when Ms. Paul finally filled in the blanks on her résumé for him, there were so many other things about her that interested him that her study of imperfect relationships did not alarm him.”
After that, she focused on freelancing, finding a community of writers at similar points in their careers. “Writers often prefer to write alone but adore complaining together. And so a group of us banded together and met once a month to do just that. There was no need for us to do any reading or writing for our meetings; what we needed was commiseration,” she wrote in the memoir. “We called ourselves the Invisible Institute. That’s how we felt, and to a certain degree that’s how we wished we could be if it weren’t for the fact that we simultaneously wanted people to read our work. Each of us had at least one book or contract under our belt; even so, we were far from sanguine about the process.”
The members of the group tended to be Ivy graduates who mostly, but not exclusively, focused on writing books where self-help masquerades as social science (or the other way around) of the sort that sometimes make a lot of money. According to the acknowledgments in books by other members, the Invisibles were brought together by Annie Murphy Paul and Alissa Quart. Over the years, members have included Five Days at Memorial author Sheri Fink, Quiet author Susan Cain, Do Fathers Matter author Paul Raeburn, conflict reporter Judith Matloff, One and Only author Lauren Sandler, Why We Can’t Sleep author Ada Calhoun, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks author Rebecca Skloot, This American Life editor Susan Burton, The Art of Screen Time author Anya Kamenetz, New Yorker contributing writer turned professional poker player Maria Konnikova, The Skies Belong to Us author Brendan I. Koerner, and Medical Apartheid author Harriet A. Washington. Konnikova told The Fine Print that “all Invisibles meetings and interactions are off the record.” But member Christine Kenneally, author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, was willing to share a few impressions of Paul. “I know her as someone with an extremely bright, dynamic mind, who always seemed to effortlessly produce three times as much work than the rest of us,” she said, looking to the present day. “I’m not at all surprised she returned to full-time writing — she never stopped writing — even as she performed many other jobs and roles.”
In 2011, Paul’s freelance writing career was flourishing, having publishing pieces in places like Time and The Atlantic, and her second marriage was going better than the first, producing three children, when The New York Times came knocking in the form of Tanenhaus. “She’d written very well for us at the Book Review and was an attentive reader of our pages as well as books when the deputy, Bob Harris, and I were looking for a new children’s books editor to replace Julie Just, who had become an agent and is now a senior editor at The New York Review of Books, Pamela informally helped us evaluate candidates,” he recalled. “It was obvious she was the ideal next children’s editor. She was reluctant to do it, however, because she had a good freelance writing career and had small children at home. But she agreed to come over on a three-to-four-day-a-week schedule.” By taking the job this way, Paul wrote in her memoir, she was “accidentally Dick Cheneying my way into the position.”
Paul’s productive perseverance impressed her new boss as much as it had her circle of friends. “She was an immediate success,” Tanenhaus said. “In three to four days on-site, she got more work done than the normal good editor would do in five days. In those days, we had a copy desk — erudite, skilled, exacting, as a group among the most respected editors in the entire newsroom. They weren’t happy when ‘backfielders’ as they were called — the assigning editors who commissioned and edited reviews — were late getting copy ‘over to the desk.’ Pamela was a marvel, got her own copy over not mere days but weeks ahead of schedule.” When Tanenhaus, itching to write more, retired from the job in 2013, he recommended Paul as his replacement. “The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, was a bit annoyed when some of my writing appeared in other publications (New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New Republic, etc.). He asked why my byline wasn’t appearing more in The New York Times. Jill Abramson suggested we could solve the problem if I became a full-time writer-at-large and handed off the editing. I was more than ready to do this,” he recalled. As for his replacement, he said, “The obvious choice was Pamela.”
When Paul took over The New York Times Book Review, she had to accept the strictures of the job. “The Book Review job is among the most sensitive jobs at The Times. It’s high profile. The world of literature and publishing is highly political, highly personal. People get insulted when they get bad reviews, people feel insulted if their books aren’t reviewed. And we also live in a time when people are very personal and open in their attacks,” Baquet told The Fine Print. “That’s something that book editors have to deal with. I think it’s unfair, but it also probably comes with a lot of power, and — my own view, since I get whacked a lot myself — if you have a lot of power, sometimes you just have to put your head down and deal with it.”
McGrath said he found himself having to submerge his own opinions when he moved over from The New Yorker to the Book Review. “I felt I couldn’t go around being terribly opinionated about books and writers. I mean, I had my own preferences, in many cases very strong ones, but I felt that as the Book Review editor you can’t make that known,” he said. “The great fear, the sort of paranoid thing, is that writers and publishers always want to think that the fix is in. If a book gets badly reviewed, you the publisher, you the writer, you have two choices, you can think, ‘Oh, well, maybe it wasn’t as good as I thought,’ or you can think, ‘The fix is in.’ And the latter is the default position. And because The Times is The Times, I think you really have to seem to be objective and above the fray a little bit. So I was very careful about that. And I was very careful, frankly, I had a lot of friends who were in the publishing business, and I kind of, in some instances, sort of distanced myself from some of these people, just because I didn’t want to get into a position where I felt compromised.” By the end of his run, McGrath was still looking to maintain that distance. “I live in the suburbs and for the longest time, I dreamed that when the kids grew up, which they had, and went off, that my wife and I would move into the city,” he said. “When I came out of the Book Review, I thought, ‘Nope.’ I couldn’t wait to get out of town. Just get me out — get me out of here.”
“Chip is correct that just as political reporters and editors in the newsroom keep their political opinions to themselves, so do editors of the Book Review with their opinions on books and authors,” Paul told The Fine Print. “We also take care never to weigh in on books before our critics do. At the Book Review, decisions about whether or not to review books were not generally made by the editor. Those decisions are made by preview editors, as the Book Review’s senior staff editors are known. They are hired for their diverse tastes, backgrounds, interests and areas of expertise to make calls on books that lie within their respective buckets. The idea is that they base their decisions on their own critical judgment as well as with an eye towards the broad interests and tastes of our readers. I did, however, select which authors and critics would appear on the Book Review podcast.”
After taking the job, Paul formally broke her Invisible Institute connections. “I’d joined the other side and could not in good conscience or without conflict of interest continue on their team. The Invisibles threw me one last dinner party and then went on without me,” she wrote in the memoir. “No doubt I am now held accountable for any negative or nonexistent reviews among their members.”
Yet even as she edited the Book Review and wrote books, shards of her own opinions about cultural politics seemed to seep through — including ones that would later end up in her columns. In a September 2019 interview on WNYC’s All of It with Allison Stewart to promote her book, How to Raise A Reader, which she co-wrote with former Book Review children’s editor Maria Russo, Paul makes a case for exposing kids to books that uphold systems of oppression. “When the kids get older, they can. It’s a really interesting lesson to absorb both the good and the bad in stories. My 12-year-old son, for example, just read, of all things, Tarzan, and that is an incredibly racist book, but he was able to see it for himself. And he put it down, and he said, ‘Wow, there is a lot in this book that does not hold up well,’” she said. “So some of it is trusting your child, too, at a certain point to see that. That’s part of them becoming a discerning and critical reader. And then you can have that conversation, ‘Wow, why? How did they depict African Americans in that book or Africans in that book?’”
Moments later, a noticeably uncomfortable Russo cut in, countering, “But of course, if your child is a member of a minority community, you want to make sure that that’s not the only books that your child is exposed to. It’s really important for children to see themselves in their books, and a child of color who, all they see is books with white children in them — that’s doing damage.” Paul’s July 24 column gets at a nearly identical idea: “But which material upsets which people changes over time; many stories about interracial cooperation that were once hailed for their progressive values (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help) are now criticized as ‘white savior’ narratives,” she writes. “Yet these books can still be read, appreciated, and debated — not only despite but also because of the offending material. Even if only to better understand where we started and how far we’ve come.”
Almost as soon as Paul stepped down, readers were writing about the politics behind her Book Review. “While claiming to be a political Switzerland, the Book Review has seemed to skew to the center-right, with conservatives reviewing conservatives, centrists reviewing centrists, and very few leftists to be found,” Kyle Paoletta wrote in The Nation a month after Paul’s new job was announced. “When I spoke with Paul, she explained that she saw the journal’s mandate as reviewing ’a wide variety of books coming from a wide variety of perspectives, across the ideological spectrum.’ Yet it seems a large portion of that spectrum goes mostly ignored: Rare is the issue that features anyone who contributes to Jacobin or New Left Review, even as their counterparts on the right receive prime billing.” Her columns touching on transgender issues especially have inspired a pointed round of reflection. “In retrospect, one can see certain editorial choices most certainly being influenced by these politics,” literary agent Erik Hane told The Fine Print. “Jesse Singal’s review of Helen Joyce’s book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality comes immediately to mind.”
Writers for the Book Review also started looking back at how their reviews were edited. In an Instagram post, young adult novelist Patrick Ness posted the original opening for his review of Lukoff’s book Too Bright To See: “The culture wars have come for your transgender children. Around the country, legislatures – mostly the same ones who object to quite so many people daring to vote in a democracy – are enacting a variety of laws against transgender boys and girls.” He noted in the post, “Ms. Paul asked me to change my original opening — stating how transgender children are under attack — into something less political and’ more focused on the book.’” The version of the review as published opens with the line, “Now here is a beautiful little book that carries a great, great weight on its shoulders.” The second paragraph discusses the changing legal landscape in much less polemical terms. In a subsequent post, after The Times pushed back on Ness’s account, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Pamela Paul was not the assigned editor for the review you’re referencing, nor did she have contact with Mr. Ness during his writing of the piece,” Ness noted that his editor told him, “As I anticipated, Pamela would prefer for you to focus on the book here and nix most of the first paragraph.”
The original review overjoyed Lukoff, but the recent revelations have tempered that feeling. “It feels tainted in the sense that I feel like I was slavering for the approval of an institution that is indifferent — no, that is hostile to my existence. That’s embarrassing for me as someone who respects myself. I don’t want to beg for support from someone who doesn’t,” he said. “But at this point, it almost feels like a coup. I wonder what was running through her mind when she accepted the review in the first place? I’m wondering what that says about my work, what that says about my own relative privilege as a white person and a man? I wonder what that says about Patrick and her opinion about him? I’m curious more than angry, now.”
Paul’s comments on these reevaluations came across as relatively sanguine. “I think our readers understand that being an editor in the newsroom and a columnist in opinion are two different jobs, and I think the work of my team at the Book Review and on the books desk speaks for itself,” she told The Fine Print. “I’m very proud of the journalism we produced during the eleven years I spent on the desk, nine of them as the editor, and I look forward to what the next editor brings to the Book Review and to the greater books report.”
Paul didn’t have to become an opinion columnist. Historically, Book Review editors have had a number of options upon leaving the job. When McGrath was preparing to leave the Book Review, he thought about switching from book reviewing to book editing. “I was friendly with Bob Gottlieb, who I had worked for at The New Yorker, and Bob was encouraging me to do that. He said, ‘I think you’d be a great book editor,’” he said. “I did idly think about it. The fact that you’ve been the editor of the Book Review makes you — or did back then anyway — seem desirable to the publishing community.” Russo and Just — like Paul, both former children’s book editors for the Book Review — departed their Book Review posts for roles in publishing; Just was an agent at Janklow & Nesbit for many years, and Russo joined Astra Publishing House to work on their mineditionUS program. McGrath acknowledged, however, that that path might not have been an option open to his successors. “The Book Review, sadly,” he said, “is not as powerful or as meaningful as it once was.”
On the other hand, McGrath noted, Book Review editors don’t tend to leave the institution’s fold immediately. “The Times has had a long history of absorbing Book Review editors back into itself,” he said. “If you think about it, John Leonard [Book Review editor from 1970 to 1975] became a columnist and Harvey Shapiro, who succeeded him, became an editor at the Book Review. Mike Levitas, who went I think from the city desk or the Metro desk to the Book Review, and then he went back to being a kind of editor at large. Becky Sinkler, who preceded me, she simply retired. I got absorbed back into the paper. Sam got absorbed back into the paper.”
Paul said she had primarily considered options within The Times, too. “If I hadn’t become a columnist I would have been very tempted to stay at the Book Review,” she told The Fine Print when asked if she’d considered options other than the opinion section. “Running the books desk is a dream job and I had an incredible team of colleagues there; it was a hard place to decide to leave.”
Times insiders cautioned that it was too early to try to pin down Paul’s direction as a columnist. “If a column is a cross-country drive, she’s barely into New Jersey,” Tanenhaus told The Fine Print this past May. “Based on my reading, it takes a year or more for writers to find their way. This has been so for giants like Bill Safire, Frank Rich, Tom Friedman, and Maureen Dowd as well as for skilled newer practitioners like Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat.” McGrath, however, detected a particular precocious determination. “Boy, she’s come right out of the blocks,” he said. “Normally, it takes a columnist a year to find a voice, and it’s been kind of surprising to me how quickly she’s found her feet.”
Baquet wasn’t surprised. “She lives in the world of ideas. Any books editor really lives in the world of ideas. They read, they talk to people about their thinking. You have to read a lot of nonfiction, you’re sort of connected to the world of ideas. So I’m not shocked that that ended up showing up in her column or that she was ready for it,” he said. “She’d also written before, she’d written a book. And I think that probably made the transition easier than for your typical editor who hasn’t sat at a typewriter except to screw around with somebody’s lede and then finds themselves writing.”
The former executive editor still seemed a little miffed to have lost Paul from the newsroom. “She was a terrific books editor. I think she was independent. I think she’s diversified the voices in the report. Every study showed that there were more women writing about books in the pages of The New York Times. I think she was a really important figure in the life of the paper,” he said, adding, “I think she’s a good columnist.”
“Columnists choose what they write about and readers of The Times judge columnists by the substance of their work and enjoy encountering and wrestling with the ideas on the page — and that’s completely fair,” Paul said. Her columns seem to be subsiding into a groove where her exact opinions might be unpredictable, but they won’t venture outside of the range of “Gen X white woman concerns” that she claimed the right to weigh in on in her first column. Her critics seem to be moving on to other targets, too — Gould shut downher T-shirt sales on August 5. Before an unscheduled column about the attack on Salman Rushdie, Paul’s previous column was about her generation’s struggles with taking control. “By the time Gen Xers got a shot at the top job, being in charge was no longer as attractive as it used to be,” she wrote. “We were probably never meant to be the boss. Baby boomers and millennials have always had a finely tuned sense of how important they are. Gen Xers are under no such illusion. Temperamentally prepared to be criticized and undermined at all times, we never entirely trusted the people in charge anyway.” Perhaps that’s why she chose to stop managing the Book Review and start churning out opinions.