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A Newspaper Comeback Plan

PART A: TAKE THE QUIZ

If I were a newspaper publisher, I’d be waiting for that great sea change that’s bound to come when people who use computers start pining for newsprint.

Think that’s never going to happen? Take this easy quiz and see:

Dear Reader:

1) Don’t you get tired of looking at screens all day? There’s your computer at work, your computer at home, your TV, your cell phone, your camera, iPod, e-Reader, camcorder, iPhone. That’s about 10 different screens hitting our eyeballs all day.

2) Aren’t you running out of patience with bloggers like me endlessly citing “facts” you have to go verify? Not to mention all the bad writing, poorly expressed opinion and empty blather that parades around as “the democratization of publishing” (still a good idea but perhaps only in theory)?

3) Don’t you find it a blessing to read news sources where people are paid to write responsibly, where facts are already checked for you, where good critical writing has little to do with passing fashion or personal rant?

4) Has your healthcare professional encouraged you to take frequent breaks from the keyboard-and-screen so you won’t get RSL, tension headaches, blurry vision, stiff necks and back pain from holding arms and head at unhealthy angles for hours at a time?

5) Instead of discovering minor (to you) news by accident while you’re streaking around the Internet researching major (to you) news, wouldn’t you like everything that matters laid out for you every day by veteran editors and trained writers who can give you the world at a glance?

One Last Question

If you answered yes to three out of five questions, you may be on your way to a rich cultural mix that didn’t seem possible only a year ago. Here’s one more:

Wouldn’t it be a relief to find a nice resting place for those tired eyes, let’s say a noninteractive print environment that’s easy to read with no pop-ups, videos, podcasts or cookies? Just you and a cup of coffee and the morning paper. The world at your fingertips as you turn each page, the news (truly) factual and intriguing, reviews well stated without the hint of harangue, editorials put together by actual boards of knowledgeable (also paid) people.

But here of course is where newspaper publishers have to be bold. If they’re going to lure people back to newsprint, they have to put something in the newspaper that you can’t find on the Internet.

More in Part B next time.

Why Authors Are Furious, Part 2

I STILL DON’T BLAME THEM

As mentioned last week, I don’t blame authors for blowing up at reviewers who spoil the ending or otherwise ruin the experience for the very readers they’re supposed to serve.

This is a time when newspapers are trying to win back readers by saying, “Don’t bother with those slovenly customer reviews on Amazon! We have professional reviewers for you. We pay them for their skills. You can trust what they say.”

Uh huh. That would be fine if  these same critics weren’t violating every rule in the criticism handbook (not that there is one) about, you know,  blabbing key details that happen midway or stepping in front of the material to point at themselves or digressing endlessly until the subject of review (could be a movie or play, too) dies on the vine of TMI (too much information).

Giving Away the Ending

Here’s the kind of language I hate: After a long and thoughtful review of a certain movie (I’m not going to mention titles),  the otherwise fastidious Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer gives the whole thing away by writing: “In the end, Maggie is reconciled with TomAndrew Sarris as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment.” That’s great Mr. Sarris: In one swoop of betrayal, you’ve just told us the battling couple gets back together, there’s hope for the child and there’s no reason for readers to stick around for the ending.

Or this: “When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.” This from another writer yet, Chandra Prasad, giving thumbnail reviews of her favorite books to The Week magazine. Chandra PrasadDon’t you think in a 45-word review you could talk about something else you liked about this book?

This one kills me: “Mr. Hely doesn’t know how to end this book. In the final chapters he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaundiced humor.” First of all, NYT reviewer Janet Maslin who should be ashamed,  it’s not the business of critics to guess what the author does or does not know how to do.Janet MaslinSecond, there’s nothing more deflating for the reader than to learn that all the humor leading up to the end is going to fall flat.

Even a hint at the way a story ends wrecks the entire experience. Readers find themselves anticipating what’s coming rather than enjoy what’s unfolding. As much as I admire the usually disciplined Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York times,  I could not believe her comment that a first novel is “flawed by a predictable and unsatisfying ending.” Oh, how ruinously hath the seed been planted!  It’s hard to get hooked on a novel knowing it’s going to be “unsatisfying” in the end!

Michiko KakutaniHere’s Rule #1 of the (nonexistent) Critical Writing Handbook:  If you want to say something about an ending, or really anything that happens after the first chapter, don’t even allude to the part in the story where it occurs. Make your point but stay away from the timing. In the Prasad case, the critic might say, “the author is capable of shocking carnage, and ….” or in the Kakutani review, “the narrative can be predictable and sometimes unsatisfying, but overall…”

Ruining the Story

And what a let-down to say the least is Maria Russo‘s Sunday NYTBR review of a collection of related stories about a couple’s relationship:  “When, in the collection’s last story … the lovers appear to have drifted back together, even the most hardened cynic might grant them a smile.” Why, you rat, thinks the reader. You want to see a “hardened cynic?” Keep writing.

And I don’t care if it’s a trade magazine like Publishers Weekly reviewing a passing romance by Danielle Steel. There’s something  criminal about a review that says the author  “offers a satisfying twist at book’s end that most readers won’t see coming.” Yeah, well, they will now.

Rex ReedThen there are reviewers like Rex Reed (such a veteran! what a pity!) who announce that they won’t give away the ending but proceed to do just that.    “No spoilers,” says  Reed in the Observer,  “but things take some tragic left turn and two lives are needlessly lost … ” Oh, Rex, honey, two people die in the end? Granted, it may happen that the story forecasts the two deaths early on, so it won’t be a surprise to the viewer. But Rex, you have to deal with the reader now. Even the appearance of spoiling the ending (two people dead, Rex!) spoils the review now.

Here’s another I-promise-not-to-give-the-ending-away-until-I-decide-to-ruin-it review, this one from Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle: “All that can be said about their sojourn without giving away too much is that Carlos brings out the recklessness in Jessie and that she is the only one who boards the next Trans-Siberian train ….” That’s a classic example of “giving away too much.” Continue reading

Two Furious Authors Tell Reviewers Where To Get Off

I DON’T BLAME THEM


1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman

Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending. images

Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).

Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”

But  I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because  the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”

Two Reviewers Give It Away

Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”

No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she  then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”

Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)

The Fall of Lit Crit

I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But  boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ’em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you.  At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.

2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton

In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?images-1

You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.

Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.” Continue reading

A Personal Look at ‘Tinkers’


One of the best qualities of a good book is that it stays with you long after book’s end — and occasionally adds something to personal experience. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding (reviewed here, and with publisher’s terrific  background story here) keeps doing that and more.

I find myself  pondering one passage -  passed over at first reading -  in which a father who has severe dementia wanders away from his family home in rural Maine. 

His son has watched his father “receding from human circumstance” and sets out to find him. 

As the boy walks through a corn field, he imagines “breaking an ear from its stalk, peeling its husk, and finding my father’s teeth lining the cob. They were clean and white, but worn like his. Strands of my father’s hair encased the teeth instead of cornsilk.”

Later “as I hiked through the woods, I imagined peeling the bark from a birch tree, the outer layers supple, like skin… I would cut a seam in the wood, prying it open an inch at a time, and find a long bone encased in the middle of the trunk.”

The Opposite of Death

These images provide another example of  “the opposite of death,” Harding’s notion that our bodies  are reabsorbed by nature in such a wondrous exchange of matter that the human mind tends to glorify and even itemize the body’s contributions.

Granted,  the boy’s vision of his father’s bodily parts reorganized in nature seems a bit fantastic. But like so much of this extraordinary book, events in the characters’ lives have an unseen effect on readers’ lives.  

This past week I remembered having a similar experience going to the theater in New York after the death of my brother, who was for many years a stage manager, director and producer. He won a Tony for “La Cage Aux Folles,” but his lengthy climb to success had stretched through many plays and musicals up and down ol’ Broadway. 

For a long time after he died I would attend a play and not just imagine him in rehearsal but see his tall (6’4″) body embedded in the smooth wood of the stage, or stretched along the proscenium walls, or shining down from the ornate chandelier. If I went to a theater where he once had a production going, unless the drama onstage proved absolutely riveting, I’d find myself weeping  right in the middle of the play, even if it was a comedy. 

The sense that my brother was there surrounding me would become so intense that I had to open my mouth to let the tears stream in so that others in the audience – who may have been falling off their chairs laughing  – wouldn’t be alarmed by the wipings and snortings of this strange escapee in their midst. Continue reading

“Ms. Cahill for Congress”

A LESSON THAT NEVER ENDS

Well, this is the most upbeat and inspiring story I’ve heard in a long time.

It came out in joyous original trade paperback last fall but somehow fell through the increasingly narrow slats of our distracted media (see *personal note below). Now there’s a chance of resurrecting it, but more about that later, too.

The book is “Ms. Cahill for Congress” (written with Linden Gross; Ballantine; 246 pages; $14), and here’s  how it starts:

In 1999, a  gifted teacher named Tierney Cahill was introducing the concept of democracy to her sixth-grade class in Reno, Nevada, when she pointed out that in America, anybody can run for office.

Nobody believed her.  “You can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires,” one girl said.

Cahill tried again. “All citizens in our country have the right to run for office,” she said. “Would having a million dollars make things easier? I’m sure it would. But not having the money isn’t going to prevent someone from being able to run.”

And the class shot back. “Well, then, why don’t you prove it?” they asked. “Why don’t you run for office?”

*A Personal Note

It just kills me that during the presidential election,  Barack Obama stood for exactly what Cahill was telling her students – that anybody (even “a mutt like me,” as Obama half-jokingly to himself) can run for office and be taken seriously. Obama’s belief that the biggest lessons come to us from the ground up, not the top down, couldn’t find a better example than “Cahill for Congress.”

What stopped the media from seeing this book as a great story during and for the presidential campaign? Well, here is one idea: traditional media are failing because they’re  addicted to reporting ONE STORY ONLY – Olympics, Election, Super Bowl, 9/11, Oscars, Bank Disasters, War Hot Spots, or Environment [if fun, like electric cars for everyone]).

And newspapers have dropped to the lowest of the low, following rather than leading TV/radio  news. No wonder three more just failed. What newspapers have forgotten they do best is to give readers a feeling of community through stories all around us that we don’t know exist.  IF editors would get off their own addiction to the ONE LOCAL STORY (mayor, murders, teams, colleges, events, scandals) and assign some real reporting on long-unseen districts and neighborhoods, neglected arts and offbeat human interest features [plus wouldn’t advertisers love to appear in a center spread with a hundred fascinating websites per day called NEWS FROM THE INTERNET], the print version no matter how brief might find a grateful audience returning.  It would be great to see newspapers launch a simple  campaign that shows people enjoying the morning paper with their coffee under a headline like AH, THE LUXURY OF DOTS ALREADY CONNECTED or some fun thing. Of course they have to connect those dots first.

Continue reading

Things I’d Love to See #4

STOP STARTING WITH HARDCOVERS

(I began the series with Three Things I’d Love to See, but in the midst of a failing economy I think there are probably going to be quite a few more – you know, about 16. This one I’ve thought about for years and could easily have made the top three.)

Here’s why I know a book industry era has come to an end: One publisher after another keeps referring to hardcover books as “promotional copies for the paperback edition.”

Yes, hardcover books are selling so poorly that their only use for publishers is to get reviews, book interviews for the author and pave the way for a trade paperback edition that the real audience can afford.

True, the few hardcover books that hit bestseller lists can pay off big time, but these are known commercial hits that are worth giant marketing budgets from the beginning. Or so publishers think.

It’s a much more dangerous risk to try making an unknown author’s book a bestseller, which is why “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (before Oprah) was so thrilling: Ecco/Harper knew exactly how to manipulate the formula of big-sprawling-summer-novel+Hamlet gimmick+beautiful-writing+struggling author backstory+DOGS DOGS DOGS = Must Read.

A larger truth, however, is that mid-list and serious literary books by lesser-known authors rarely find their audience in hardcover. Those adventurous readers who watch and clip reviews, look for new voices and love heated book-group discussions most often wait for the paperback, and who can blame them? The cost of a hardcover book after sales tax is about $30. The cost of a trade paperback after sales tax is about $15. Continue reading

Three Things I’d Like to See #3

#3: RETURNING EDITORIAL POWER TO EDITORS

I think the saddest thing that ever happened in the book industry was the gradual devaluing of editors and all they stand for – their high standards, their belief in readers, their ability to nurture authors, their love of language, their patience, their dedication, their eye.

And most of all, their power.

Today we hear it like this: An editor will tell the agent that the house is prepared to make a bid. The agent conveys this to the author, who is overjoyed. The day of the auction rolls around, but the editor tearfully tells the agent that the marketing department has decided the house cannot make a bid, and that’s the end of that.

Or this: The manuscript has been copyedited, the jacket design approved, a good-sized marketing package underway until somebody shows the ms. to a Barnes & Noble buyer, who doesn’t like it for the standard reason (too depressing), and suddenly the wheels go in reverse: The marketing budget is cut, the jacket goes on hold, the author is asked to do a rewrite, and the editor looks like an idiot. But hey, the difference may be tens of thousands of copies, so who’s complaining? This question has so easily undermines the editorial process that eventually no one considered the long-term consequences.

Or this: Neither the agent nor the author can believe it, but every single rejection from editors who’ve seen the manuscript has praised the writing and the content with such excitement you can almost see the tears on the page. “We all love this book,” say the decline letters. “But nobody can figure out how to sell it.” Continue reading