The Rules According to Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul and I met twice, in the same Times conference room, and on both occasions she wore a black biker jacket. She paired it with soft skirts in floral print or pink stripes: a look to suit a provocateur temperamentally averse to provocation. “A kind of writing that I don’t like to do myself is deliberately contrarian writing—like, people who are just pushing buttons and testing waters,” she told me. “That’s not my way. To my mind, the role and responsibility of a columnist is to always write what you think.”

Yet, since stepping down as editor of the Times Book Review to become an opinion columnist, early last year, Paul has produced a body of work—deliberately contrarian or not—that reliably results in buttons being pushed. Her inaugural column, “The Limits of ‘Lived Experience,’ ” took up the question of who has “the right” to address culturally specific subject matter. For example: “Am I, as a new columnist for the Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?” Paul wrote. “Not according to many of those who wish to regulate our culture—docents of academia, school curriculum dictators, aspiring Gen Z storytellers and, increasingly, establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts.” One representative response, by the press critic Dan Froomkin, read, “Wow. New @nytopinion columnist comes out of the gates with a straw-man panic attack on wokeism. Just what the place didn’t need.”

Subsequent Paul columns dealt with #MeToo overreach (“Often the accused are convicted in the court of Twitter”), Internet vigilantes run amok (“In this frightful new world, books are maligned . . . because of perceived thought crimes on the part of the author”), and the growing use of the term “queer” rather than “gay” (“Confused? You should be!”). Paul wrote that she saw left and right alike abandoning women (on the left, by using trans-inclusive language; on the right, by passing anti-abortion laws) and banning books (on the left, by inculcating “self-censorship”; on the right, by banning books). These missives, which often circled the subject of online outrage, were greeted with the same—and also with a measure of surprise. Paul had written essays for the paper not infrequently during her tenure at the Book Review. That work, however, had tended toward anodyne meditations on standing desks or summer camp. Now she had become “a blunt object on the opinion page, whacking away at conflicts over cancel-culture and appropriation that had burned their way through Twitter,” as Ben Smith put it in a column last fall.

“I don’t think of myself as a blunt object,” Paul told me. “What I’m trying to do is write about things with a little bit more nuance and complexity than you might find on, let’s say, Twitter.” Paul herself has left Twitter, a choice she described in her second column. (It opens by acknowledging that a colleague advised her not to write about leaving Twitter.) Her remit as a columnist is broad, and she generally regards her subjects as “books and culture and ideas, sort of way-we-live-now”—a sphere that encompasses consumer concerns, the workplace, and social issues.

When I asked Paul about writers who shaped her thinking on such matters, she initially demurred. “I don’t want to name names,” she said. “Whenever you name names, you think, Oh, I should have said this other person.” Her reticence caught me off guard. For nine years, Paul’s job was running a book review; today, she expresses opinions professionally. I had not imagined myself to be venturing onto sensitive terrain. “I try to talk about dead people, which is what I always did at the Book Review,” she said. “O.K., here’s a dead person who I’ve always enjoyed reading: Christopher Hitchens.” She appreciated his breadth of knowledge and sense of humor, she said, and especially his unpredictability—even if, yes, he might sometimes be a bit of a button-pushing contrarian. “I disagreed with him,” she allowed. “Like, I think women are super funny. I went to see Amy Schumer on Saturday night—I don’t know who’s funnier than Amy.”

At the Book Review, Paul saw it as her role to submerge her own perspective. “It was never about my opinion,” she said. “I never wrote any book reviews. I didn’t write an editor’s letter. . . . My rule for the Book Review is that my name should never be in there, and it never was.” Paul is, by her own account, an inveterate rule follower and homework finisher. (In her new role, she prefers to write her columns well in advance, to avoid the discomfort of working under a deadline.) In thinking about the Book Review’s mandate, “I was not going to come in there and be, like, ‘Let’s start this whole thing from scratch,’ ” she said, adding that she spoke with her two immediate predecessors, Sam Tanenhaus and Charles McGrath, and also with Dean Baquet and Arthur and A. G. Sulzberger, the Times’ former executive editor and last two publishers, “to make sure that I was carrying out the mission of the Book Review as they saw the mission of the Book Review.”

An editor’s work happens behind the scenes, where individual choices can be allowed to recede into the backdrop of institutional dictates. “ ‘Gatekeeper’ is such a freighted term,” Paul told me, regarding the Book Review’s function. “I think of it more like we were performing an act of triage.” To write—at least, to write opinions—requires sacrificing that posture of studied neutrality and risking self-exposure. Among writers, Paul said, “I admire people who are fearless.”

Writing an Opinion column for the Times was once a job that took place within fixed and narrow parameters: around eight hundred words, twice a week. Such columns—along with their counterparts at a handful of papers, newsweeklies, and TV networks—represented “a really small world of pronouncers pronouncing,” David Shipley, who used to oversee the Times Op-Ed page, told me. Shipley left the Times in 2011; he helped found Bloomberg Opinion, and last year took over the Washington Post Opinions section, where he’s been encouraging writers to experiment with new formats. Likewise, the Times has “made a concerted effort” in recent years to give columnists “more space and freedom to explore the issues of the day that most interest them, beyond the form of an 800-word piece,” Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times’ opinion editor, wrote in an e-mail. “Columnists work with our video teams, write newsletters, record podcasts and often report out long-form work.”

But, if the old Opinion columns came with formal constraints, they also came with outsized power. “They set an agenda,” Frank Rich, a Times columnist from 1994 to 2011, told me. “They had a quasi-monopoly in public discourse, because everyone read them.” When Anna Quindlen joined Opinion, in 1990, she was, at thirty-seven, the section’s youngest columnist and only woman. “You got the job and you were automatically a Delphic oracle,” she said. “It was scary as hell.” Quindlen saw herself writing on behalf of an underserved female audience, which meant taking on such topics as abortion and Anita Hill, and, on one occasion, criticizing the Times in its own pages: in 1991, she wrote a column condemning the paper’s coverage of a high-profile rape case. (She won a Pulitzer the next year, and left the section in 1995.) Quindlen had lunch with Paul before the new columnist started last April. “We talked a lot about fearlessness, which is critical to the job,” Quindlen said.

Paul’s admiration for fearlessness comes into sharper focus upon reading her books. Her first, “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony,” was published in 2002; her second and third, “Pornified” and “Parenting, Inc.,” began as articles she wrote as a contributor at Time. More recently, she has published “My Life with Bob,” an account of her experience as a reader; “Rectangle Time,” a picture book about reading; and, two years ago, “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.” (She is also a co-author of the parenting guide “How to Raise a Reader.”) Paul told me that, to understand her as an author, the best place to look was her picture book, a suggestion offered only half in jest. She has a long-standing affinity for children’s literature, and first joined the Times as an editor for children’s-books reviews. A more obvious point of entry would probably be “My Life with Bob”—the titular Bob is Paul’s “Book of Books,” a record of everything she’s read since high school. “My Life with Bob” takes this volume as the spine for an autobiography, stretching from her shy childhood and education at Brown to her postgraduate travels abroad, her eventual pursuit of a writing career, and her marriages and family.

The through line is Paul’s pleasure in reading, and the constant presence of books in her life. She develops a “literary crush” on Spalding Gray after reading “Swimming to Cambodia” while travelling in Southeast Asia, and tears through “The Hunger Games” while in the hospital after giving birth. Nineteenth-century novels help her parse the modern world; in the wake of the Bataclan shooting, she writes, “Les Misérables” offers a call to “fight back against fanaticism.” She reads, she explains, because “books answer that persistent question, ‘What is that really like?’ ”

The path that Paul describes taking as a reader, however, is shaped by an acute sensitivity to the judgments—real or imagined—of those around her. There are books that she’s supposed to be reading, she feels, and people are watching to see whether she does. As an elementary schooler at the library, she writes, “I liked to imagine the clerk surveying my outgoing stack with admiration and approval,” maybe thinking, “She’s one of us.” She fears that this good opinion will be lost if she’s seen checking out Judy Blume. Later, a sense of youthful obligation drives her to complete “bad boy” classics like “The Catcher in the Rye” and “On the Road,” even though she “hated” them. Arriving at college, Paul is mortified by what she perceives as her classmates’ critical sophistication; too cowed to major in English, she is nonetheless determined to catch up, setting herself such tasks as reading through the Norton Anthology of English Literature and the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. “It wasn’t until I was in my thirties,” she writes, “that I understood it was O.K. and even right to read what you wanted rather than what you ought.” She wistfully regards the approach taken by her father, “an unself-conscious reader, in it for his own pleasure and curiosity.” Even from the vantage of the present, Paul sees in every book recommendation “a kind of threat”: “If you read this book, then you’d know better.”

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