When The New York Times redesigned its Arts section a few months ago, book reviews were pushed off the front page to obscure spots at the back of the section.
Every so often, the newspaper will run a front page "tease" directing readers to a book review running inside. But all in all, the newspaper has lessened the importance of daily book reviews, backing away from a proud tradition.
For years, publishing and book news has been a centerpiece of the Times' cultural coverage, with a five-person staff writing daily reviews, giving a different perspective from the Times' Sunday book section and its contributors from outside the newspaper.
The redesign also de-emphasized theater, classical music and dance, giving splashy layouts to entertainment and pop culture in a likely futile effort to draw younger readers.
With that disturbing movement gaining force, I was surprised to see that staff writer Dwight Garner made the Arts front page Wednesday morning with a scathing review of a new Elizabeth Bishop biography by professor Megan Marshall, previously praised for a bio of the 19th century female transcendentalist Margaret Fuller.
The front page attention for a book Garner castigates as a failure shows the increasing importance of Bishop, who has joined Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath in the pantheon of American women poets. It also reflects The Times' recent push to give more recognition to women's issues.
With all of the attention given Bishop during the last 20 years or so, I was surprised at Garner's noting that a major biography of her hasn't been published since Brett Miller's "Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It" in 1992.
Garner doesn't see Marshall's book as a worthy successor, calling it "dull and dispiriting." Garner goes on to blast Marshall for interweaving details of her personal life into the book.
Although Garner ripped Marshall, I enjoyed a piece by her on the New Yorker's web site in October that unveiled a late-life romance between Bishop and a younger woman. Here is my Southern Bookman report.
If Garner's negative review is on-target, the field is still open for a new major biography of Bishop. As Garner notes, prospective authors will have a wealth of new information to examine.