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Voting with Our Winkies

I keep hearing this statement from women about the presidential election:

“Don’t ask me to vote with my genitals,” they say, meaning, Don’t tell me to vote for Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman.

IMG_2013 (2)They’re right. If we voted for women only because they’re female, Carly Fiorina and Sarah Palin would still be around. These two are gone because they were ridiculously inexperienced, plus: you can’t cram femaleness down the throats of American voters, male or female.

Still, the fact is, the presidential election has been hijacked by genitalia.

From the moment Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” in a primary election, to his delight in describing the size of his penis, to his disgust at Megan Kelly’s menstrual period (“blood running out of her whatever”) and even at Hillary taking a bathroom break, genitals have been Trump’s way of avoiding serious subjects and generating headlines for himself.

But here is my hope:

After decades of hearing increasingly blunt slang about men’s private parts, I respectfully suggest the term “winkies” as a gentle way for women to refer to ours.

I’ve never had an erection or worried about genital size or understood what penis envy is all about. But I do know that just as the stars wink from above, wondrous reminders of life’s joys for women twinkle below.

The language of winkies is elegant and subtle. It connects our biological apparatus with life-inspiring things  — love, babies, growth, purpose, harmony. It overrides Donald Trump’s references to a woman as a “bimbo,” a “pig,” a “fat ugly face” or “piece of ass.”

And it defuses Trump’s hate-mongering of other men as “rapists,” “losers,” “liars” and “killers.” When he threatened Ted Cruz with plans to “spill the beans on your wife,” he again cheapened the whole conversation with genital-based remarks. So the erosion of winkiedom continued.trump-matthews-575x341

Then came the recent Chris Mathews interview about abortion, Here more blatantly than before was  Donald Trump stomping around our winkies to say that our choice about our reproductive organs and our belief in the moment of life’s conception were all for Himself and the government to decide.

So it’s no longer a question whether you even want to vote with your genitals. Donald Trump is saying his genitals overtake yours, if you let him.

Voting with my winkies, I won’t let him.

Back to Hillary

Most people acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced candidate by far. That fact alone should be enough for a landslide victory.

But it isn’t enough, and the reason is well known: Hillary has a trust problem. I find it painful to watch,  but she’s just not convincing at the microphone sometimes, not in the way Trump is.  Perhaps that’s why Trump supporters forgive his many gaffes — yes, he’s belligerent, they say, but at least he’s honest. Maybe he’s fibbing, but he would never lie to us. Not in the way Hillary could.

The red (unfavorable) line ascends while the black (favorable) drops

The red (unfavorable) line ascends while the black (favorable) drops

The most eye-opening umbrella poll (combining data from 10 polls in one) charts her “unfavorable” rating from 33.4% in January 2009 to 54.7% by the end of January 2016. That’s a lot of lost trust.

Things might not get better for Hillary, as TV comic Jimmy Kimmel “man-splained”  while she pretended to give a speech on his show: “You’re too shrill,” he said, followed immediately by: “You’re like a mouse up there.” “Is that what you’re going to wear?” “It would be nice if you smile” / “It’s too forced! Do you want to be president or a Lakers’ girl?” / “Oh my god with the sourpuss…”Unknown

It was funny and revealing. Hillary was a good egg about it. But the point landed beautifully:

Kimmiel: “You’re not doing it right. I can’t quite put my finger on it. You’re not ….”

Hillary: “A man?”

Kimmel: “That’s it! But listen, that was really cute the way you said it.”

The takeaway one couldn’t shake was that if Hillary Clinton were Donald Trump, she would wear her entitlement like a shroud.  She could, as Trump has said about himself, “go out and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” And Jimmy would really approve.

A book reviewer’s perspective:

Maybe it’s Hillary’s advisors. There must be dozens of them making pronouncements about her style of speaking, dressing, talking, debating and, unfortunately, writing.

This last — her writing style — is my purview. I’m a book reviewer who for 20 years has been decrying and pounding the table and worrying about the narrative voice that Hillary Clinton uses in her books.

She’s written three memoirs to date and I’m sorry to say they’re all overwritten and full of palaver. Here’s an example from page 26 of Hard Choices, her 2014 book about being Secretary of State:

“My confidence was rooted in a lifetime of studying and experiencing the ups and downs of American history and a clear-eyes assessment of our comparative advantages relative to the rest of the world. Nations’ fortunes rise and fall, and there will always be people predicting catastrophe just around the corner. But it’s never smart to bet against the United States. Every time we’ve faced a challenge, whether war or depression or global competition, Americans have risen to meet it, with hard work and creativity.”

Oh, dear. You have to prop up your eyelids to slog through the blah-blah effect that takes up about a third of this 635-page book.

It sounds so superficial that I used to joke after reviewing Living History, her 2003 memoir: Why, the committee that wrote this book should be ashamed: Two or three words of actual significance sneaked through.

The “Rape Capital of the World”

At the same time, however, I want to say, READERS, KEEP THOSE EYES OPEN, because when Hillary Clinton decides to take action, the writing comes alive, and big, trustworthy events take place.

Hillary Clinton in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Hillary Clinton in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

For example, on page 280, here is Hillary going to the “rape capital of the world” — the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (She was the first Secretary of State to visit an active war zone, according to the New York Times.) She went to Goma because soldiers on both sides of the conflict were raping women “as a way of dominating communities and gaining tactical advantage.”

This hideous idea, that rape has become tactic of war, systematically used to demoralize entire populations, was so brutal that women “could no longer bear children, work, or even walk,” she writes. And the practice wasn’t limited to Goma. Hillary would tell National Public Radio that rape as a weapon of war spread “from the Balkans to Myanmar, Sri Lanka to Guinea.”

Forget for a moment how many Secretaries of State risked their lives to enter a war zone. I want to ask how many of our highest officials before Hillary have mentioned the horror of soldiers raping every woman in sight as a war tactic?

Colin Powell’s report on “the atrocities in Darfur in 2004” included “exactly five sentences” on the subject in 2004. Madeleine Albright mentioned “organized rape” as a weapon of war in Kosovo in 1999. Condoleezza Rice spoke about it movingly on ABC News in 2008.

But it was Hillary who made international headlines in 2009; Hillary who declared it the responsibility of America to expose what is now recognized as an “epidemic of rape“; Hillary who introduced a mobile banking system for soldiers whose salaries were being stolen by corrupt officers; and Hillary who didn’t just meet with Congolese president Joseph Kabila but talked to rape survivors, aid workers, engineers, medical personnel and children in refugee camps that were getting larger by the day.

With Joseph Kabila

With Joseph Kabila

I go into this episode at length to acknowledge how quickly, and how deeply, Hillary Clinton learned to address complicated problems with long-term solutions during her term as Secretary of State.

In the Goma instance, for example, she could have waited for the usual State Department bureaucracy to grind out thousand-page reports nobody would read.

Instead she announced while still in the Congo that the United States would provide $17 million to “train doctors, supply rape victims with video cameras, send American military engineers to help build facilities and train Congolese police officers, especially female police officers, to crack down on rapists,” according to the New York Times.

And that kind of approach is just beginning. When it comes to women-related issues that too often get lost in obscurity across the world — issues like “domestic violence, forced prostitution, rape as a tactic or prize of war, genital mutilation, bride burning,” as Hillary’s “list of abuses” then included — Hillary Clinton knows how to work with her counterparts to find an answer.

Didn’t government used to be about getting things done? By comparison, the short-term, headline-making, genital-waving Donald Trump only wastes the world’s time.

John MacEnroe

The MacEnroe Syndrome

Maybe it’s the MacEnroe Syndrome — that tendency named after tennis player John MacEnroe to explode with righteous anger when officials make what he saw as the wrong call. MacEnroe played great tennis, of course, but perhaps his real performance was disguising that quivering lip, that scrunched-up face, so no one would see a little boy throwing a temper tantrum over which he had no control.

Trump’s version of this, whether attacking Rosie O’Donnell or China, is to distract people from how much anger he really carries around by acting tough and worldly:

       “Get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades. I really mean it. I really mean it. You’ve got to hit people hard and and it’s not so much for that person, it’s that other people watch.”

It comes on as a syndrome because blam! all of a sudden the weirdest outrage overwhelms the senses. By contrast, we may not like Hillary’s style, but she’s never apoplectic. Trump so believes in his sucker-punch persona that he wants his genitals to rule.

(Note: I quote the NYTimes and NPR above because [Donald, are you listening?] Hillary doesn’t brag. In Hard Choices we see that she did even more in the Congo and later at the United Nations about stopping rape as a war tactic (pages 279-282), and she makes clear these actions were only a start.)

So I don’t care if …

So I don’t care if Hillary sounds phony when her advisors tell her to  raise her voice at the microphones, or look angry for the cameras, or develop that male swagger that makes Donald Trump such a compelling fascist to some.

It’s Hillary’s actions that count — hundreds of acts as complicated and terrifying to contemplate as standing up to the rape epidemic in Goma. And hundreds of others require the kind of calm, firm, transparent testimony she gave to the bullying and interrupting Republican members of Congress, who made the House Committee on Benghazi “thoroughly discredited as a partisan sham.”images

That test of leadership included eleven hours of grueling testimony, from which she emerged as both trustworthy and presidential. Baited, patronized, attacked and dismissed, she never raised her voice, never responded angrily or tried to distract the proceedings by referring to genital size. She doesn’t have genital size from Trump’s point of view.  She doesn’t care about genital size.

And then, voila, her most formidable critics could not contain their praise. If the hearing had been “designed to go after” Hillary so she’d wouldn’t dare run for president, it failed. As a result, her approval ratings soared.

That lasted about a week.

I’d also like to say a word about how great it is to fall in love with Bernie Sanders, as Susan Sarandon and a lot of women voters have. Bless him, he was a fierce opponent of the war in Iraq (Hillary voted for it); he’s passionate about income inequality and Wall Street reform; he’s taught us all to prioritize the issues  (“your damn emails“), and I bet no one is more embarrassed and ashamed at Donald Trump bringing his genitals to the table than Bernie Sanders.

I worry that Bernie with so little foreign policy experience would, on his first day in the White House, be so completely overwhelmed at how close the world is to nuclear war that he’d want to call Hillary, who used to eat those Top Secret briefings for breakfast and digest them by noon, every day for four years as Secretary of State.damn_emails_2

But most of all, I worry that if Bernie loses the nomination and urges his supporters to vote for Hillary, it won’t be enough.

It’s like the Equal Rights Amendment. Remember? A simple statement that said women are equal to men. Introduced to Congress in 1923 — a shoe-in, right? — pronounced dead by 1982. And that was a trust issue, too. A lot of women believed it but did not trust it.

The parallel seems to be that in the United States, when complexity is reduced to simplistic ideas, voters are supposed to sort things out. That’s going to be hard in November when we  face opposites defined by cliche: Hillary wants to lead; Trump wants to rule. She is a feminist; he is the patriarchy. Hillary wants to be president; Trump wants to be king.

Not vote with your winkies?

Listen to them, girls — it’s the only shot we have.

Note: I’ve said all of this without mentioning Hillary’s first book, It Takes a Village, which is still the foundation of her candidacy. More about that, the recent fiasco about abortion, and a Hillary Clinton most of us don’t know in Part II.

 

One More Question Before Saturday

Preparing for my talk on “The Publishing Revolution” this Saturday, the host group, Sufi Women Organization, asked if women played a particular role in publishing history.

Vat a question! You wouldn’t think that women in the fine old “Gentlemen’s Profession” ever wielded a lot of power, and I’ll talk about why they didn’t — until, that is, a fantastic turning point in the 1980s.

A quick glimpse: Before then, just about every general book review section was dominated by reviews of white male authors — Saul Bellow, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Heller and others.

After the 1980s, a Big Shift took place when those same front pages ran reviews of books by women — and very often women of color — such as Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Bharati Mukerjee and more.

Want to guess why? (Hint: Think Bay Area.) Actually I’ve never understood it, but come for brunch on Saturday and let’s all figure it out in the Q&A!

A few seats are left and advance reservations are required (no tickets at the door) by the end of Wednesday, March 2. Here’s the info — see you then!

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

About that “Publishing Revolution”

I’m very excited to speak next Saturday 3/5 in San Rafael for Sufi Women on “The Publishing Revolution.”

For years I’ve used that term to describe what Holt Uncensored is all about. Now for the first time I hope to answer two big questions about it in one talk:

#1 From the start, why did Americans follow the British model by allowing book publishers to locate in one place (the Atlantic seaboard at first, now New York), thus dictating to the tastes of the rest of the country? We certainly took our beloved newspaper presses Westward; why not book presses?

#2 Why don’t we call the present Internet era a transformation? What is it about the print-to-screen process that’s made it a publishing revolution? (Hint: arrogance and outrage, to be describe calmly.)

Coming with me will be a giant USA map (4 by 6 feet!) held up thanks to Sufi Women with clamps and tape and more than one easel, plus a red dot laser pointer used by actual snipers to show the glorious mess in media and book industries we’re living with now.

The energy of the crowd brings its own surprises, so come with burning questions and remember, the fee may be hefty ($30) but you get a terrific brunch plus the ambiance of golfers swearing outside the windows and me swearing calmly inside..

Pre-registration required but the great Sufi Women have extended the deadline to Wednesday 3/2. Here’s the information:

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

P.S.: THANK YOU SUFI WOMEN, a spiritual and humanitarian  organization to beat the band.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

         “Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

         “Oh — well, I love to read!”

         “I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

          She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

         “Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

         “So you’re agnostic.”

         “Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

         “Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant Amazon.com opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character.  Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time.  When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice — not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up.  Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done.  The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle. 

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.  The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting — too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular.  It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her  expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget,  “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years,  it became a cliché. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel.  As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar,  or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.”  No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers — and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne — and that’s TOWNE WITH AN ‘E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry.  “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books.  “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice.  What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment:  #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F–K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather  Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS — a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we —Greg and his brothers — are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

     “You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

      “Excuse me?”

      “No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

     “All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

     “Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

     “Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

     “I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

     “Like …?”

     “I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

     “I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

     “I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

     “By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought –”

     “Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

     “Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

     “Yes, the kids are older now but — “

     “Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

     I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world — not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years.  That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road”  from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right?  So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience.  There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books  includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy?  Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos.  Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore.  Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the  interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this?  A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes.  But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team.  When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world.  But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which dont involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism;  her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll.  This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It  means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career— but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities — not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.

 

 

 

 

 

Something Literary

You’d think a traditional publishing person like me wouldn’t be intrigued by a tiny collection of iPhone snapshots such as this:IMG_1114Not a “real book,” right?  It’s smaller than a deck of cards, has fewer than 50 unnumbered “pages” and no text at all except the words iPhone Photos  Julie Gebhardt on the back page.

And yet I was drawn to this mini-book from the first moment I saw it, for one thing because it’s so cute (note the green push pin, placed there for scale) and is even kind of classy with its oversized spiral binding and heavy photo-card stock.

Production elements like these would have shot the costs up years ago, as would four-color printing (which I must say is sensational), but the price is affordable ($20) and shipping is free when you order directly from the author by emailing juliegeb@me.com.

But I kept thinking the term “snapshot” isn’t right, “collection” isn’t right, even “little” or “quickie” is disrespectful because there’s something bigger to ponder here, something even literary going on, which I’ll get to below. True, you can just flip through it like a keychain souvenir, but I guarantee that every time you close it, a larger conversation will follow you around in “real life.”

Julie Gebhardt

Julie Gebhardt

The author, Julie Gebhardt, caught the photo bug three years ago after acquiring an iPhone and reading a New York Times story about Instagram, the social network for sharing photos that’s used by subscribers all over the world (more than 150 million of them by now).

After downloading the app and looking at probably thousands of Instagram posts, Julie, or @juliegeb, began walking around the streets of San Francisco to see what caught her eye. Something as commonplace as building exteriors — walls, doors, windows,IMG_5865 gates — had personality and character when framed by her iPhone lens. She was particularly attracted to things that “are old and a little dingy, or made of cheap quality material, or that show the weathering of time.”

Even today, “I like corrugated metal any time I see it,” she says.  Aging paint, water stains, odd splotches, loose flashing — these may be signs that a building is falling apart or soon to be condemned, but for Julie they add a touch of animation and surprise to the eye, even if the thing itself is a little grim. IMG_1265

I’ve walked right by many of these scenes on my way to important appointments so it’s startling see the allure of decay — an ugliness that appears beautiful to me now, just because Julie decided to shoot them that way.

Sometimes you can detect a story behind the image. In the photo below, doesn’t it look like somebody was spray-painting that light blue color on the door oh, so carefully but messed up enough times with the blotches on the top and lower sides to think, All done! I have to go to an important appointment now — and left it that way? IMG_3313

This kind of Oh Well Art (not her term) happens often, she finds, when people are trying to spiff up or cover up rust or old paint or corrosion. So Julie created hashtags (categories within categories) like #sloppy_job and #graffitipaintout. That way, other subscribers can contribute their own photos, just as she can add to theirs.

For example, the photo on the right below, with its enormous bushy eyebrow sculpted over the door, appears in Julie’s feed as well as another subscriber’s as “Nature’s Comb Over” (#naturescombover).  IMG_8345

Things get a bit more complicated when the idea of intention crops up behind paint jobs of exteriors. When she came upon the brick wall below, for example, Julie believed she saw a Rothkoesque quality to clouds of different-colored paint and was particularly delighted by the unintentionial part, a dangling wire that so beautifully interrupts the action.IMG_5628

Soon she realized that any architectural element such as the drainpipe to the left (what gifted soul decided to paint it blue?) canIMG_6667 be part of that vast creative effort called “street art,” which is constantly percolating and newly visible wherever you look (or someone like @juliegeb looks) on the urban scene.

It was probably inevitable that Julie would make her own artistic decisions. She noticed that the iPhone camera doesn’t allow for much depth, so most of the photos are going to look pretty flat.  Instead seeing this as a problem or weakness, she developed an interest in “two-dimensionality as a style.”

In the photo below, for example, you have to look twice to see that a door is built into the graffiti-covered wall, and that theIMG_8841 artist — maybe commissioned by the building’s owner OR maybe just an unknown  person with half a dozen spray cans in a hurry because police or home owners or neighbors might be near and not happy — took the time to set it off by coloring inside the doorway lines, so to speak.

The startling orange-and-purple facade to the left offers a more dramatic and deliberate use of color that in turn defines the surrounding blocks of tile, wall and brick. And here Julie stands just far away enough so that the iPhone, IMG_5807for all its two-dimensional lens, can’t help itself: the leafy green branches billowing into the upper left corner give this photo unexpected depth and substance.

And this one at right is just a square of yellow wall with a mailbox, wouldn’t you say? (It’s another setting I’d walk right by without noticing.)IMG_8837 But I think because Julie sees a kind of geometrical art in squares upon squares sinking into that joyous yolky color, you can feel your fingertips anticipating the goosebumpy texture of the stucco wall beneath. Somebody also took the time to choose a stylish font for the address —  “the scroll of number 3 is so lovely,” sighs Julie. And there’s even a comical touch to the oval mail slot, which is stamped with the word “MAIL”  in case your letter carrier forgets what it’s there for.

So far, I’ve been talking about intriguing street scenes that Julie turns into photos with an artistic edge. But to get back to this gnawing feeling that something literary is going on in the book,  we need to see if that larger conversation I mentioned actually exists, starting with Julie’s notion of surrender.

You’ve probably assumed a continuing truth about street art is that everything’s changing all the time. Julie says most of the places she’s photographed are gone now — they’ve been taken down, painted over, razed, vandalized or re-graffiti’d shortly afterward, often overnight — which means every walk with her iPhone is going to be different: some new piece of something or overgrowth or fixer-upper or illustration is always going to pop out.

We would expect that to happen with a painting like this, where the beauty and IMG_8178freedom of the artist’s visual language (fascinating when you see it up close) might one day be dismissed as ugly by the owner of that building, who’ll “fix the problem” by covering it up with a layer of paint. That’s just the reality for anybody, artist or vandal, who takes to the street.

But it’s sad to see this enormous (see the pigeons on the sidewalk below), soulful face — part of a mural that Julie discovered in a back alley in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district  — already being eaten away by other people’s graffiti, which has begun to invade the picture from the sides and top.IMG_9945

“I have so much admiration for anonymous muralists who pour their heart and effort into these paintings,” Julie says, “and then just surrender them to the public. The minute they walk away, the art is transformed.”

Very often a sense of humor sneaks in that’s soIMG_5124-1 touching, like a wink from a dying building, that even people on their way to important appointments can’t help but slow down and chuckle.

Speaking of the humor that crops up in street art, while I’m not a fan of comic book art, I but have to say the question depicted in the painting below  — is it the colony of giant ants or the loss of his iPhone that causes this headless guy’s IMG_7942anguish? — offers a funny and arresting comment on modern life.

The always-changing nature of street art makes a person realize that for Julie, everything in a city scape must feel like nature in fast-forward, as in that YouTube video where you see the dead fox decaying and the skin peeling and teeth baring and the bones emerging while the remains of the fox get smaller and smaller until nothing exists in the spot where life once flourished — until the next object like a rock or egg or baby fox rolls into view.

Just as you could walk up to that fox and shoot a thousand different images, so do buildings on the street “host” something new or strange every day that will change in a second. Julie, bless her, respects this phenomenon but does not want to document it. She is not interested in going back to photograph the muralist in tears repainting his subject’s jaw or eyeball in the midst of cooing pigeons because that would be a human interest story and is really none of her business. Her iPhone is not there to intrude.

But it is there to capture the images she treasures. “I broke into a run when I saw this,” she says of the scene below.  “It’s a hillside near the ocean with a little IMG_8171shed in front that has no door and a rotting-away floor that’s full of sand. No roof exists, and the hill above it is bulging down  the back wall.  To think they’d [the owners or the army or the coastal commission] would paint this exterior bright red at some point is amazing to me.”

Right, the red paint, even when fresh, would be lost on the seagulls and snowy plovers that inhabit the coastal dunes, so even the people who built this shed surrendered their casual artistry to the elements at one time. And then Julie came along to capture that incredible mixture of beauty and decay that fits so well with the endless carving-out of cliffs and coast by ocean waves and weather.

The idea of surrender has a literary bent to it, I think —  a writer must surrender the work-in-progress to the reading public or it will never be finished —  but that’s not enough of an answer to my gnawing question about something literary going on in Julie’s mini book of photos.

I do know that just browsing through it gives me the impression that a larger conversation is taking place, and that philosophical connections are being made all over the place.  You can see an obvious example in the way Julie pairs photos in two-page spreads, often using color —  IMG_1122

— or themeIMG_1154–or artistic intentionIMG_1164as her bridge. (Pardon shoddy photos — these were taken of the book with my iPhone and they didn’t come out too good.)

But it’s in the pairing below that this larger conversation really comes out, at least to me, and I do think it has a literary nature. Both images are similar because of the color blue, of course, but it’s their differences that make an impression: the photo on the right emphasizes rigidity and corrugated metal as we have seen, while the photo on the left is fizzing with excitement, tossing about balloony yellows and stringy pinks and sly greens in a 1950s palette gone slightly berserk.IMG_1116

“I shot these two photos on different days,” Julie says, “but they have a relationship that’s more than a happy accident. Maybe it’s the piece of cardboard in each that might have drifted in, or been placed there. Who knows?”

Right, we don’t know anything except what we see: “An insanely dizzy wall on the left that seems to dance around a garbage bin, of all lucky things, across from the quieter but still varying tones, also of blue, in straight lines that nevertheless have a flow to them.”

Hold that thought for a moment as we apply the same curiosity to the photo below. Granted, it’s just IMG_1141a keyhole, one of so many locks that Julie started a hashtag called #keyholelove, to which hundreds if not thousands of Instagram users have already contributed. This one’s got some touches of red and green paint that could be accidental (another #sloppy_job photo?) but seem polished and deliberate.

In fact, says Julie, this keyhole is part of a huge and colorful mural that extends along the backs of several fences in the Mission District of San Francisco (where street murals abound). Of course you don’t have to know the keyhole’s function as a small detail in the overall canvas to sense a certain gravity about it that Julie doesn’t need to interpret: Her eye has focused on this one aspect of the mural, the brass lock. She loves it, and her camera loves it. She shot it close up in a way that makes me, the viewer, love it, too.

But the photo gains in significance when Julie as author puts it next to another picture with a completely blue exterior that also happens to have a keyhole, and this one shines out with no paint on it at all.

IMG_6575I find it kind of amusing that the vast Rococo design of the wrought iron with all its squares and circles, its graceful Xs and Os, its blocks and scrolls and flourishes, started out as just a gate to keep the bad guys out, and then somebody decided to make it stylish and pleasing.  And then again, the whole artistic presence of the thing was designed to fade and recede as the eye zooms in on that tiny, shiny brass keyhole.

Granted, the gate is painted that way to make it easier for the keyholder to find the keyhole. That’s fine. But look what happens when Julie pairs it with the keyhole-in-the-mural:IMG_1130First,  I like the idea of a universe arranging itself around a tiny speck, as we see on the right, placed as it is across the spiral binding from the unique and purposeful image of the similar tiny speck (now so big it’s a universe of its own) on the left. That’s one “conversation” between the pages in which we viewers get to participate (and only if we want to!).

But there’s more. As you flip through the book, every pairing of photos brings up the same Big Idea, something we humans ponder all our life, which may be stated in this way:  Time rushes by so fast in our high-tech, fast-paced world that suddenly we’re old, and our tenure is almost over, so the question is whether it’s possible, while hurrying off to important appointments,  to slow down and actually find meaning in life.

Julie’s book says YES, people may get jaded and hardened by the chaos of street life, but just the act of noticing something like what these pages bring to light can give life meaning. This is hardly an original thought (Buddhists sum it up with the word mindfulness all the time, although that’s more a spiritual practice), but it is an unexpected discovery in a tiny book like Julie’s.

Another question: Does this dialogue between readers and photos happen only as you turn the pages of Julie’s book. Yes again, I think — some kind of power is exchanged even without the presence of text.  For example, look at this: IMG_1155

On the left is a walled-off mausoleum sort of building with heavy columns and portico that’s hard to see because the whole thing is boarded up and surrounded by fences. (Another advantage to iPhones, says, Julie: “The lens is small enough to shoot through the tiniest of holes”).

On the right is such a rare discovery that I’m going to enlarge it below.  Can you guess what it is (I couldn’t at first)? IMG_3150Here’s what happened:  Julie and her husband Allen (also taking pictures but with a “real” camera) got into “this abandoned old warehouse that was entirely covered in graffiti,” she recalls. “The walls, the ceiling, the doors were all drenched in color and shafts of light were streaming down through broken windows, so just being inside, just seeing the character of the place was thrilling.

“Then in the middle of the floor we saw this ruined piano, every key ‘defaced’ by paint and tiny drawings, so I leaned over the keyboard looking straight down and shot it, missing keys and all. What comes forward is so abstract in shapes and colors that all we can see is  transformation.”

Again, we readers don’t have to know that it’s a piano keyboard, because something’s being said in a conceptual way that will come to mean whatever our eye decides it to mean. But what I feel most gripping about it is the way this photo relates to the deadly silent building on the left, which by contrast appears to have been caged up, locked down and blacked out for years. Here it is again:IMG_1155So when I talk about a conversation going on, I don’t mean to say these two photos actually tell us something. I mean there’s a connection here that’s interactive and open to participation with the reader. And when something like that keeps bubbling out of a book, page after page, with the kind of energy that strikes a nerve as deeply as it does in Julie Gebhardt’s teensy spiralbound collection, well, that something is literary.

Admittedly, I get romantic about these things, but because art is subjective, I also get to draw the line.  This photo on the left may IMG_3335-1show us exuberant examples of street art all talking at once  (ain’t the color gorgeous?), thereby forming a remarkable avant-garde image that only Julie Gebhardt can see amidst the mayhem. But I have to admit it’s messy and repugnant to me. If I came upon it in the street, I’d  walk right by with my face turned away. Perhaps  that too is a testament to the author who uses her book to present rather than hit us over the head with what she sees.

But because I’m also the traditional book publishing person, I remember when costs were astronomical and people had to (still have to) fly to China and Italy just to print expensive art books, which the publisher then had to ship to bookstores where very few customers could afford them. And then after a few months the bookseller with heart sinking had to ship the books back to the publisher who either dumped them off as remainders (sale items) in Australia or pulped them regardless of artistic message because nobody ever saw or appreciated the art.

Which brings us to today. Don’t you get weary when people keep asking whether the use of computers and the rise of the Internet are “good” or “bad” for books, for publishing, for bookselling, for reading? The fact is, technology has this infuriating way of changing the world before we know it. Asking questions about its value gets us nowhere. The Internet (like the other universe) is indifferent to human needs and wants.

But if Julie’s book teaches us to slow down and notice things that give life meaning, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the Internet as one big sorting machine that uses a toolbox like Instagram where talented, self-taught people like Julie are actively supported by an international community of millions. By the way, her personal followers total 28,542 as of yesterday.

So if you think a traditional publishing person like me should decry the way websites on the Internet may be gutting mainstream book publishers like Rizzoli, Abrams, Taschen, Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, Aperture and others of the once-honored opportunity to produce gorgeous oversized artbooks that sell comparatively few copies (well, enough to libraries, colleges and some collectors to make a buck);  and also may be robbing independent bookstores of hundred-dollar-plus purchases (Rizzoli’s All the World’s Birds sells for $350, but give them credit, that’s a lot of birds); let’s remember that before the computer revolution, the odds for unknowns like Julie to get anybody in the book industry interested in her potential as an author were zilch, especially for a tiny book like _________ (you see? it doesn’t even have a title).

Today we don’t talk about the bookstore or gallery approach where very few people get to view an art book, let alone buy it. Today we talk about the community approach where Julie felt encouraged to see “nothing precious” about jumping into a rushing stream of 150 million other photographers, and where she is increasingly supported by an audience she built from scratch that loves and appreciates her work.

Plus! It’s not just the mini book she created at Social Print Studio that’s for sale. Five of her photos are featured in This Is Happening, a book about the Instagram phenomenon from Chronicle Books. The wonderfully named Casetify has snazzied up many iPhone

Julie Gebhart iPhone case

iPhone case from Casetify by Julie Gebhardt

cases with Julie’s images, such as the one on the right, and thanks to Blurb.com an even more adventurous 60-page collection of Julie’s photos is available in hardcover ($36.95) and softcover ($25.99).

You can buy her photos at all sizes and in different frames, and at least one museum has displayed photos like this one below, which shows Julie finding a way to bring depth to that tricky two-dimensional style, after all (note the teensy red chair to the right: another speck in the universe! Okay, will stop here.)

IMG_4880I’ve probably finished “reading” Julie’s book a dozen times by now, and I always come away  thinking that the next time I start to dismiss some discomfiting  image on  the urban landscape, I’ll have been taught by Julie to notice if there’s something creatively interesting, even frameable there, for me.  And I’ll ponder more about it because of the book’s continuing conversation.

That’s all I’ve learned from the blessed thing, and yet what I’ve learned is kind of monumental. After all, when “real life” is out there calling, you want to have the eye to see it.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘According to Our Records…’

Of the many chilling scenarios Dave Eggers lays out in his futuristic novel, The Circle (Vintage; 512 pages; $15.95) the one that scares the dickens (not Charles!) out of me popped up in emails recently from two fundraising political groups, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Eggers is not a great writer of fiction (a bit clunky and shallow) but his warning about tyrannical forces growing at Internet companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others is both visionary and truly terrifying.

This illustration is not from the book -- it's Apple's proposed new campus in Cupertino, Calif.

This illustration is not from the book — it’s Apple’s proposed new campus in Cupertino, Calif.

The story follows Mae, a talented Internet worker who lands a job answering customers’ questions at The Circle, the most powerful corporation in Silicon Valley.

The perks there are plentiful, some unusual — not just state-of-the-art fitness programs, gourmet cuisine, a daycare center, famous people giving TED-type talks at lunch; but also a bocce court, dog kennel, dormitory, all-night parties, national candidates holding town hall meetings and fantastic art everywhere (a Calder mobile hangs in the 40-foot atrium).

Business terms at The Circle have been renamed to reflect a warm, happy, never judgmental, always positive and inclusive atmosphere. Mae isn’t employed by a corporation, for example — she’s part of a “culture.”  The Circle doesn’t exist on company property; it has a “campus.” Mae doesn’t work in Building A, B or C; she works in a glass-and-oxidized-copper environment called Renaissance.

How can Mae best rate her job success?  Well, no stuffy performance reviews are conducted, no boss makes impatient demands. Instead, customers respond to surveys after Mae helps them, and soon questions from The Circle pop up in her email, such as (I’m paraphrasing), “Do you understand why you might want a 99.5% success rate rather than a 99.4?”

Glazed spheres at proposed Amazon campus will provide "a comfortable, park like place to brainstorm."

Glazed spheres at proposed Amazon campus will provide “a comfortable, park like place to brainstorm.”

But the best part of The Circle is its elaborate network of social groups. There seem to be hundreds of them, and no matter who you are, a perfect fit is possible for all sorts of people with multiple interests.

Say you’re a parent with a disabled child; a lover of bridge who likes to hike; a French-speaking gourmet who plays left-handed tennis. Groups are available to help you improve every hobby/recreation/pastime/career/recovery program/golf swing/wine appreciation/spiritual interest/Ken Ken score.

And if you forget to join a group, don’t worry — The Circle knows, and soon a query arrives (still paraphrasing): We’ve noticed your love of word games and research on chlamydia make you a perfect candidate for the Scrabble Fans with SIDs group …

And so the net descends.  One needn’t have read George Orwell’s novel, 1984, to know that routine collection of information about employees’ professional and personal activities can become a way of life without anybody blinking an eye. Soon everything about you is known to somebody.

I don’t work for a company like Mae’s but recently started wondering about the a net descending from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Samsung's new campus will "feature sports facilities, cafes and 'collaboration zones' "

Samsung’s new campus will “feature sports facilities, cafes and ‘collaboration zones’ “

I subscribed to these websites for updates and have contributed small amounts of money.  Soon emails for more donations arrived — fine, that was expected — and with them came the phony “personalized” plea in which a computer shoves your name in the text to make you feel appreciated.

The tone sounded a little desperate —

“Look, you’ve received a number of emails from us about all of this — but this is deeply important. PATRICIA HOLT”

— but who cared.  I was accustomed to the increasingly sensational declarations (“Mitch is FURIOUS,” “Boehner is CRYING”), and to the fact that “they” — the anonymous operators behind these websites —  liked to show that an official file existed on me with a long and important- sounding identity code:

Name: Patricia Holt

Supporter Record: VN96C9W3FW0″

And “they” liked to use hyperbole (“we actually have SERIOUSLY INCREDIBLE news”) and suggest that tiny invasions of privacy had already been accomplished:

“We know that everyone from President Obama to Sen. Warren has emailed you…”

(It’s funny: I expected Obama’s name, but Elizabeth Warren? Let’s leave her out of this.)

And soon they liked to demonstrate that I was being watched a little more blatantly than usual:

“PATRICIA HOLT: According to our records, you haven’t chipped in yet to fight Boehner’s lawsuit.”

Maybe it was the word “yet” that did it, meaning they’re waiting for me to kick in.  The voice wasn’t terribly Orwellian, but it did have a hint of swagger, of knowing too much, of applying pressure and expecting right behavior.

So I unsubscribed (not that it’ll do any good), but I keep wondering: Is this how it starts?  A tone that gets increasingly personal, a dismissal of privacy, a hint of something threatening?  — and will I ever really get rid of them?

In The Circle, Mae makes the mistake of trading a bit of her identity for every step up the corporate ladder. By the time she reaches the inner circle, we worry that her voice — once so independent, so insightful — will sound like everybody else’s.

Eggers, however, is not only saying that power is seductive. He’s saying that that today, right now, we the people are giving away our power for really stupid stuff.

Facebook's proposed housing campus will bring employees within walking distance to the office.

Facebook’s proposed housing campus will bring employees within walking distance to the office.

You think grocery-delivering drones from Amazon are a cute idea? Watch them turn into darling mechanical stalkers near Mae’s office. Don’t we all want more transparency from public figures? After reading The Circle, we’ll wish for more Anthony Wieners. Won’t “company towns” (nearby housing) give Internet employees more time to create new ideas?  Exactly: soon office and home will be so comfortable that nobody will venture off-campus again.

You can’t help looking up from the book to ask similar questions of real life: For example, aren’t micro-donations of $5 or $10 the new thing today? Don’t they stand for the kind of democratized funding that balances the scales against billionaire bigots like the Koch brothers?  Isn’t this version of “one-click” the new way to rebuild the Democratic Party?

Well, maybe that’s the way quickie $5 donations started. But then like so many Internet phenomena, it wasn’t enough. Sign a petition, fill out a survey, give a few bucks, put your signature on Obama’s birthday card (huh? why, I would never … )  and “they” have their hooks in you for more and more and more. Emails were pouring in, ostensibly from Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, GOP Shutdown Watch, Democrats 2014, requests@dscc, rapid-response@dscc, alert@dscc, updates@dccc, urgent@dscc, breaking@dscc, Democratic Headquarters, DCCC Rapid Response, Stop the GOP, polling-alert@dscc, paul@dscc, Patrick McHugh, Matt Kehres (DSCC Digital Director), Kay Hagan, Julia Ager (DSCC Rapid Response Coordinator), Jennifer O’Malley (Senior Advisor), DSCC Grassroots Victory, Democratic Victory, Emily Bittner (DCCC National Press Secretary) and many others including (sob) Elizabeth Warren, all with addresses going back to info@dscc.org or info@dccc.org.

For me, this guilt-inducing, name-calling, threat-evoking, whack-a-mole approach to fundraising ain’t the Democratic Party I want to support.  And, sorry to say, faced with similar emails from others, I’m close to feeling that way about Emily’s List, Food Democracy Now, MoveOn, Credo, Courage Campaign, Environment California and a bunch of groups I used to believe in.

 

 

 

Thank You, Roger

Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wanted to knock each other’s block off frequently on their TV show, as shown in the provocative documentary Life Itself, that’s just been released.

arguing

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert bring it on

But their unique chemistry will always be missed, I think, because they brought to the screen two very different (and often opposing) approaches to the art of reviewing.

Ebert was the objective critic who emphasized reason over personal opinion. He never gave thumbs-up to a movie without offering evidence — images, themes, plot, dialogue, etc. — to support his argument.

Siskel was the subjective one. He used the “I” voice a great deal, as if to say that personalizing a movie was the only way to view it critically. Siskel saw himself as a kind of Everyman who didn’t need to prove his point — after all, if he liked something, it had to be good.

So Siskel might say, “I was impressed by the director’s decision to … ” or “I laughed out loud in the scene where … ” or “I hated it when she ….”

Whereas Ebert might say, “the suspense builds when he …. ” or “she’s in love because … ” or “a strong foundation is laid early when ….”

On the set of 'Siskel and Ebert and the Movies'

On the set of ‘Siskel and Ebert and the Movies’

Of the dozens of great examples you can find on YouTube, a favorite of mine is the navy courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, Ebert turned thumbs-down on the film because, he said, “the script fatally undermines the key scene in the whole movie.” His evidence:  Tom Cruise’s character tells us exactly how he’s going to trap the bad guy (played by Jack Nicholson) before Nicholson takes the stand.

“Now why would a screenplay give away a surprise like that?” Ebert asked. “Why didn’t they figure we were smart enough to see the courtroom scene and figure out for ourselves what it was Cruise was trying to do, and then see if Nicholson falls for it or not?”

Siskel conceded that A Few Good Men was “a predictable movie” but gave it thumbs-up anyway. “The screenplay was surprising for what it didn’t do,” which he found delightful: This movie brought together two gorgeous Hollywood actors, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, whose characters don’t fall in love or end up in bed. Watching Ebert try to hide his revulsion over what he saw as indulgent and foolish on Siskel’s part is half the fun.

Sometimes Ebert got so personally offended by a movie that he sounded more subjective than Siskel. This was the case with Blue Velvet, a controversial film that was called “a masterpiece” by some and “sick and depraved” by others.

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signal

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signs

Siskel took his Everyman approach to the film by saying he was thrilled by the movie’s sexually kinky, often perverted theme.  “I sat there and this (movie) did for me … what Psycho did when I was a lot younger, which is, ‘eyes open and oh, my god, we’re really getting in over our heads.’ And that’s an experience which is challenging, shocking, but mesmerizing. And I liked the picture.”

Ebert blasted Blue Velvet for being “cruelly unfair to its actors.” He criticized director David Lynch for “asking [the star] Isabel Rossellini to be undressed and humiliated on the screen as few actresses ever have been, certainly in non porno roles.”

Siskel scoffed at this, saying that Isabel Rossellini was a big girl who could get over any embarrassment she felt from the movie, just as Janet Leigh had after the shower scene in Psycho.

Ebert believed that at the very least, the director was inconsistent. By the end, “[Lynch] tries to take the edge off [Rosselini’s] shocking scenes by turning the whole thing into some kind of a joke. Well, either this material is funny, in which case you don’t take advantage of your stars, or it isn’t funny, in which case it shouldn’t have so much campy and adolescent dialog along with the really powerful sexual scenes.”

In a dismissive tone that makes you realize why he could irritate Ebert so easily, Siskel intimated that a critic’s job is to review the movie, not worry about the actors’ or viewers’ reactions.

“We can’t divorce our reactions,” Ebert said hotly. “It’s not how Isabel Rosselini reacts to the fact she’s standing there nude and humiliated on the lawn of the police captain’s house with lots of people watching.  It’s how I react, and that’s painful to me to see a woman treated like that, and I want to know that if I’m feeling that pain, it’s for a reason the movie has, other than simply to cause pain to her” (my italics).

Wow.  It’s tempting at this point to think of Roger Ebert as a budding feminist rather than an objective critic, but then, his use of the “I” voice refers less to himself or the audience and more to the integrity of the movie. To Ebert’s mind, every viewer has the right to demand that a film tell us which way it’s going to go — from cheap manipulation to creative vision — especially when the emotions we feel because of that movie are painful. If the director is going to equivocate around and debase his actors for no artistic reason, everyone should be infuriated.

last photo

Thank you, Roger

Ebert wrote more than 20 books in his lifetime, but I think he’ll be remembered as a true film scholar with a genius for critical conversation. Siskel had a gift for talking about the movies, too, but he never reached as high or took as many risks as Ebert did. It was only when the two were sniping and griping at each other that they hit a nerve between art and commerce, and then we all got to pitch in.

 

A Glorious Mess, But a Mess

When my book group read the novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, we were surprised at how breathtakingly beautiful it could be, yet how “boring and muddled” at the same time.

Eng’s book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and won the Man Asian Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This seemed incredible to us.

“What were they thinking?” members of the group asked about judges of these awards — and about critics who praised the novel but never mentioned its serious flaws.

Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng

This is why I love book groups — we get to take the book apart put it back together again. We talk about what works and what doesn’t, and by the end, so many points of view are expressed that the book changes — deepens, opens, enlarges — before our eyes.

On the Good Side

One of Eng’s talents lies in capturing a moment so vividly that you can almost hear the camera click. This is one, set in the stillness of a Japanese garden deep in a Malaysian forest:

            “In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.”

Reading quotes aloud lets us sink collectively into the gorgeousness — pardon my teenage hyperbole — of the author’s writing style.

This one below prompted gasps of admiration, even though everyone had already read it. On a makeshift runway at the end of World War II, when Japan knows it’s lost the war, a reluctant kamikaze pilot revs up the engines for a suicide mission.

            “The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. paperback edition

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” U.S. paperback edition

These quiet reflections can be missed in the heat of a violent story, but what pops out over and over is Eng’s unbelievable vocabulary.  He seems to have a gift for inserting a single, sometimes exotic, always completely unexpected word in an otherwise matter-of-fact sentence.

Here, for instance, is what happens when Yun Ling, the narrator of the novel, takes a breath in cold weather:

“I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath shape this cobweb of air that only a second ago had been inside me  …”

There’s nothing unusual about watching one’s breath take shape in the chilly air, but the word “cobweb” is so visual and unusual that it transports us right into the scene.

Eng tosses these linguistic bon-bons into sentences all over the place — “the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops,” for example. Or “the lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.” Rather than refer to the sides of mountains, the narrator chooses a more tactile, even voluptuous word:

            “The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of morning melting down their flanks.”

Here’s the last glimpse of a morning sky: “The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.” At twilight, “above the trees, the line of mountains serrated the sky.”  Water pouring over a cliff “broaden(ed) into a white feather as it fell ….”

Sometimes Eng changes the point of view — as below, from human to insect — before we realize what’s happening:

        “At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s light bulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.”

At other times, Eng deliberately confuses visual and audible words so that the sound of a bird’s wings, which humans almost never hear, inspires the sight of natural forces we never see. This occurs when a pair of storks fly off a treetop as the narrator watches:

           “It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.”

On the Bad Side

So while we admired Eng’s artistic precision, it was a huge disappointment to watch this potentially stunning work of fiction turn clumsy, amateurish and awkward.  Eng’s characters are at times stiff and wooden, the story ragged, the dialogue inauthentic and the writing so heavy-handed that it drags the whole novel down.

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. hardcover

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” hardcover edition

Most irritating to me, the stickler of the group, is Eng’s dependence on sentences that begin with present-participle phrases (the “ing” version of a verb), like this:

Going behind a stand of bougainvillea trees, I enter a bower of low-hanging branches … ”

Wincing at the pain in my knees, I kneel at the oldest gravestone … ”

There’s nothing wrong with one or two of these “ing” phrases in a novel, but Eng has developed a kind of addiction to them that lands two or three on a page.

Soaking my hands one evening, I heard..”

Wrapping a hand towel around my left hand, I went…”

Gesturing them to the rattan chairs, I went …”

I’m not saying that readers throw up their hands and say, “Oh no, participial phrases, shoot me now!” Quite the opposite — most people don’t see the problem and just keep reading. In time, however, a sing-songy rhythm emerges that makes the best writing sound childish. Our eye grows weary of sameness of style; even poetic writing will sound as sluggish as mud.

For Eng the problem gets worse when he breaks the rules of grammar by creating that bad boy of English grammar, the DDM (Dreaded Dangling Modifier).  This is simply the “ing” word describing the wrong thing, as in this sentence: .

Turning (the envelope) over, a thin wooden stick…fell out onto my desk.”

Well, it ain’t the stick that’s turning the envelope over, it’s the narrator. A simple fix, following the author’s sentence construction, might read like this:

            “Turning (the envelope) over, I saw a thin wooden stick fall out onto my desk.”

Again, most readers aren’t conscious of the Dreaded Dangling Modifier, but they’ll stumble over it just the same, and after a while, confusion will register.  The sad part here is how easily Eng’s sentences could be corrected, perhaps like this (again following the author’s sentence construction):

            Mistake: “Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital filled me with disquiet … ”

            Suggested fix: “Entering Tanah Rata, I was filled with disquiet at the sight of the former Army Hospital … ”

            Mistake: “Being the only child…my father’s main purpose in life was cultivating the fortune… ”

            Suggested fix: “Being the only child, my father discovered that his main purpose in life was to cultivate the fortune… ”

            Mistake: “Sinking lower into the tub, the stiffness in my body slowly dissolved… ”

           Suggested fix: “Sinking lower into the tub, I felt the stiffness in my body …”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," British paperback

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” British paperback

Some book group members looked at these sentences and said, “Sheesh! Where was the editor?” Who could blame them?  DDMs are fixable problems that a professional should spot and correct immediately.

Still, I’ve always felt that question isn’t  appropriate because in a way it’s none of our business. As critics and readers, we don’t know how bad the manuscript was when the author turned it in. It could have had a thousand DDMs, most of them caught and fixed by heroic editors, but a few allowed to remain since they were cherished by the author, who refused to have them corrected. Hard to believe but this happens.

Or it could be that the publishing house just doesn’t care. In the midst of huge upheavals facing the book industry, especially the corporate-takeover era that initially cut editorial budgets and inflated marketing departments, fewer and fewer editors get to read the manuscript all the way through, let alone try to maintain editorial standards.  Typos should never exist in a published book. But in the paperback edition with an Author’s Commentary in the back, this sentence makes to sound as though nobody’s even decided on British or American spelling:

Yun Ling realises realizes this when she leads a group of visitors ….

To me, the greater tragedy is the trickle-down effect. In the current issue of Essence, a magazine for young African American women that I’ve admired for years (it’s way too commercial now but that’s another story), two bylined columns about the subject of “body love” begin with DDM mistakes:

            Mistake: “As a kid, my feet seemed to grow faster than my body.”

            Suggested fix: “As a kid, I noticed my feet growing faster…”

            Mistake: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, people naturally assume I’m an athlete.”

            Suggested fix: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, I am often mistaken for an athlete.”

These are the lead sentences in an important feature for the magazine, and sure, readers may not notice the tiny bit of confusion created by DDMs, but the lack of clarity will have an effect. In magazines, you have no time to horse around! If you don’t sweep every story clean of mistakes, readers will go off and play Candy Crush in a second.

Eng's first novel, "The Gift of Rain"

Eng’s first novel, “The Gift of Rain”

The great joy of the Internet, I think, is that we’re all writers of record somehow. We send out a tweet or text or an article or a book as do millions of others, and one way to separate our message from the chaos around is to write clearly and accurately, even gracefully, with our readers’ needs in mind.

Premature Awards

For book industry observers, this brings up a related problem concerning judges of literary prizes who want to encourage young writers by giving them prizes too early.  These judges forget that awards exist to celebrate excellence, not to help authors get better.

In fact the reverse is what happens. You can’t expect promising writers to improve if they’re given the kind of accolades that Eng received when his first book, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  Maybe that’s the reason The Garden of Evening Mists is such a mess — a glorious mess, mind you, and well worth reading, but in terms of literary awards, a mess that shouldn’t even be in the running.

And Yet

And yet, how my book group rooted for Tan Twan Eng!  We loved his potential so much that we’d like to sit him down and say, “No more dangling modifiers for you! Get rid of those participial phrases and concentrate on your friggin’ gifts!”

P.S. I can’t leave The Garden of Evening Mists without providing one delicious chunk of Eng’s stunning narrative, warts and all (with a real beaut of a DDM in the middle). It’s too long at the end of this already too-long column, so i’ll post it next time.

 

Use Your Words, Not Your Fists

Let’s say you’re the publisher at the New York Times and you know that an executive editor is slamming her fist into the newsroom walls so hard that holes appear in the plaster. These holes are so unsightly that other employees have placed wall maps over them to cover the damage.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

It’s not a rumor — the editor is known for this behavior, and you know it keeps happening. The company has a Workplace Violence Prevention Program* that  states even the threat of violence can be grounds for dismissal, so of course you, the head of the New York Times, are gravely concerned.

*Note to reader: These days just about every major company has this kind of policy. I’m assuming the Times does, too, but don’t know for sure.

So: to the question: Should you fire this person?

Let’s add that you call this editor into your office and say, “Your admirable work here means nothing now!  Don’t you realize we have a policy against any violence in the workplace, and that this policy  leaves me no choice? Personally, I can’t believe you’ve been slamming your fists in the walls here, at  America’s newspaper of record! People here are dedicated to the power of words (not fists).”

I bring this up because as we know, it isn’t a woman who’s been slamming her fist in the walls at the New York Times — it’s Dean Baquet, the former managing editor who worked for Jill Abramson, and who’s now replaced Jill as top editor.

Dean Baquet

Dean Baquet

Of course, nothing was said about Dean’s fist-slamming when publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired Jill a few weeks ago. No, most of the talk (some of it by Arthur) concerned Jill’s behavior  — she consulted a lawyer over salary matters; she hired a co-managing editor without checking with Dean; she was “difficult,” “stubborn and condescending,” and so forth.

When people questioned whether Jill was fired because she was a woman, Dean came forward. He granted an interview to National Public Radio to assure listeners that this was not so. The “turmoil” surrounding his promotion was over, he said. And he wanted to make an unequivocal statement.

“I do not believe Jill was fired over gender,” he said.

So there you have it, and thank you, Dean.

More important, here’s what he really meant:

“I get to stay because I’m a man.”

Oh, excuse me, did my finger slip on the font-size key?  Well, let’s leave that statement as big as it is, because what other reason could there be?   Dean admitted  he’s been throwing fits as well as fists in the newsroom for some time now, and everybody knew about it.

Am I going out on a limb here to say out loud what we all know is true?  That a woman would never have been able to get away with actions like that?  Shoving your fist through a wall because your boss overruled you?  And doing it a LOT?  And not being embarrassed by a newsroom covered with wall maps to hide behavior that’s in direct contradiction to workplace policy?

Oh, all right, Dean says. Now that punching walls is out in the open, he’s going to be a good guy and open up about it.

“I feel bad about that,” he told Politico magazine. “The newsroom doesn’t need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum.”  Gee, ya think?

Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson

Then, coming to Jill’s defense like the fair-minded man he sees himself to be, Dean said:  “I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer. That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”

Isn’t that sweet.  He’s not saying Jill’s the “bitchy woman” — that’s what others have said. He’s the humble guy accepting that second role, the one where he’s the … well, he’s characterized as … Wait a minute, Dean sees himself as The guy who is sort of calmer?

Maybe Dean is just a selective puncher.  When it comes to why he’s sometimes capable of slugging things and sometimes not, he says this: “In each case, I was mad at somebody above me in rank. It’s not an excuse, but it is a fact.”

Well, Arthur, you old publisher on the top of the Times’ power chain, I’d watch my chin if I were you.

 

Reading the News Critically

I’m not a fan of former Secretary of Labor (2001-2009) Elaine Chao, but I don’t like snarky put-downs masquerading as news stories, either.

Elaine Chao and then president George Bush

Elaine Chao with president George Bush

Take the front-page article in the New York Times last week by Jason Horowitz about Chao and her husband, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who’s currently up for re-election.

“At Harvard Business School,” it begins, “Elaine L. Chao kept card files on her classmates, then later kept tabs on their careers.”

Fine. Not sure what it means, and “kept tabs” is never explained, but okay.

Sentence #2: “As labor secretary, (Chao) had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief, and employed a Veep-like staff member who carried around her bag.”

Goodness. Somebody carried her bag when she was a Cabinet member? I wonder if Secretary of State John Kerry ever tells an assistant to carry his briefcase when he shakes hands with, you know, the Pope or Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. I bet his career would topple.

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

The word Veep in the article refers to the TV comedy show about the Vice President of the United States, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as petty, narcissistic, manipulative and incompetent.  Because she’s followed around by silly and obsequious assistants, the NYT’s mention of Chao and her “Veep-like staff member” is meant to be disparaging.  There are no quotes, no sources, no photos to support this contention because hey, this is gossip disguised as news. It’s simply too catty for attribution.

As to the “gold colored coins,” these were given out at a competition among rescue teams at the Mine Safety and Health Administration — an agency Chao directed as Labor Secretary. I doubt she “minted” these souvenirs like a despot starting a new currency. But putting her name in “bas-relief”?  I dunno, maybe it was an act of hubris. If so, let’s see it!  How many taxpayers dollars were spent on the things? Show us the budget!

In fact, the purpose of this piece is not to provide proof of any claims but to show, according to the headline, how Senator Mitch McConnell is “Girding for a Fight” in his reelection campaign and “Enlists His Wife” to help him.

No news there, right?  A lot of politicians ask their spouses to help with campaigns — it would be odd if McConnell didn’t.  And it must be a plus that Chao, “renowned for her strong sense of self,” whatever that means (and “renowned” by whom?), “can recite the names of people who have donated to her husband – and how much they gave, friends say.”

Oh, those friends, how they gossip.  “Those who have encountered Ms. Chao describe her as an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.”

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

In the context of the article, this has an accusatory ring, making Chao sound ruthless and Machiavellian. But why?  For someone in politics, isn’t being “an unapologetically ambitious operator” a compliment? And as to “a short fuse,” everybody from Bill Clinton to John McCain is said to have one of those, so it  must be okay for a woman to have one, too, right? (Why, look at Jill Abramson, the first woman editor of the New York Times! Or wait a minute….)

But then we learn the worst. Elaine Chao may attend football games at Louisville, but “she wears dark sunglasses so that she can furtively doze off.”  Whoa, who said that?  Would you call the source reliable?  Is there a source or did the reporter make it up?

At a time when newspapers are dying, and journalistic standards continue to fade into the chaos of Internet voices all shouting at once,  it’s important to recognize “news” stories that replace fact with innuendo and sources with generalities like “those who,” and “friends say.”

Most of the time,  I’m grateful for the New York Times. Regardless of its own management chaos, it’s accurately portrayed as the nation’s newspaper/website of record. But that means you don’t put a hit piece on the front page of the news section.  If you do, you should be called on it.