The “Bad News = Good News” Rule

One of the things that’s always worried me about American journalism is the “Bad News Is Good News” rule.

That is to say that a murder, riot, scandal, war or earthquake is “good” because  it boosts circulation, while human interest stories about everyday life are run-of-the-mill, or “bad.”

After Roseburg: Obama calls on "news organizations"

After Roseburg: Obama wants media reports

True, it’s only human to be attracted to catastrophe and turn away from ho-hum goodness. But the job of the journalist, I’ve always thought, is to find the deeper story in the everyday, to write that story with a fresh angle and to bring to the surface every fact that might otherwise be overlooked.

President Obama spoke to this issue after the recent mass murders in Roseburg, Oregon, when he asked “news organizations to tally up the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks, and the number of Americans killed by gun violence, and post these side by side in your news reports.”

Funny how nobody’s done that before. As’s subsequent graph reveals, no one has been killed by foreign terrorists since 9/11, while an astounding 10-12,000 Americans have been killed annually by homicidal crazy people acting on their own and armed to the teeth with guns. graph: 0 deaths from terrorism, about 12,000 a year from crazy people with guns graph: 0 deaths from terrorism since 9/11, 10-12,000 a year from gun homicides

“We spend over a trillion dollars,” Obama pointed out, “preventing terrorist attacks” but nothing “on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”

Well, it’s this insane “Bad News” rule: A mass shooting has occurred every day so far in 2015, and each time the press rushes in to exploit the Slaughter Scene with repeated coverage of bloodied victims, crowd hysteria, killer profiles, weeping families, think pieces on “how they [the killers] got their guns,” and the usual update about the “the divide” over anti-gun legislation that “reflects divisions between rich and poor, urban and rural areas” and zzzzzzzzz.

Deeper coverage happens before bloodshed. As Obama said, “our common life together” is at stake, It’s not the killer but the community we need to hear about. But each time it takes a  killer to bring reporters into a community in the first place.

Extending Forgiveness

The “bad news” rule came to mind over the summer when the  press rushed from one police shooting of an African American to another without providing wider or deeper coverage.

We did see quickie bios of victims on the news, parents worrying about drug and gang cultures and the endurance of the black church in the South. But these sidebars quickly moved aside for the guts of the story — outraged African Americans on the verge of terrible violence.

"In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness"

“In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness” — from


Then came the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the astonishing moments afterward when family members faced the white supremacist charged with the murders and said  they forgave him.

        — “I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

        — “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … As we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.”

       — “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”

This was not the usual media story of African Americans erupting with outrage after each episode of oppression and charging en mass to loot and destroy stores and homes.

This was, rather, a response of dignity and grace that called for sensitive discussions among journalists and a larger understanding of community life beyond the church.

"Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness" --

“Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness” —

Remember the Amish families who forgave the murderer of 10 girls in the Amish school in 2006 — and the Amish man who held the killer’s sobbing father in his arms for an hour?  It was a cop-out for journalists to say “their religion” was the reason they could forgive.  Acts of mercy are everywhere in American life, but perhaps that’s the kind of “good news” that’s too subtle to report.

Devising Strategies

Earlier this year, I expected more thoughtful news coverage for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.

But the press kept emphasizing the “bad news” aspect that kept selling the familiar story — police use of tear gas, charging horses and  billy clubs breaking the bones of marchers who were peacefully attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago.

The confrontation begins at Edmund Pettus Bridge

Before the violence on Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965

That anniversary did call for film clips and articles showing the carnage on the bridge that occurred in 1965, of course. But there was a missing story, too, and this is what happened inside the African American community as protesters prepared for the the next try.

I’m taking the quotes below from Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins), an eye-opening memoir by the two founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

Their book takes us behind the scenes of Glide’s stunning history as a civil rights mover-and-shaker for the last 50+ years. But what really touches the reader, I think, is the depth of humanity and the potential for positive change that they believe exist in all of us.

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

For example, after Cecil watched the Edmund Pettis Bridge attacks from his office at Glide, he got on a plane the next day and flew to Selma. He didn’t know anybody there but walked through the kind of community he knew well –   organizers, ministers, teachers, healthcare workers and food vendors who were working out of store fronts and tailgates without much money or volunteers to start up the march all over again.

A few days later Cecil flew back to San Francisco and put out a call from Glide for volunteers and contributions. Then he returned to Selma, this time not by himself but with two planeloads of volunteers and $45,000 in cash, which he divvied up among workers he had met in Selma during his first trip.

At that point, law enforcement was bolstering its ranks from every possible corner of Alabama while volunteers poured in from all over the country.  When Cecil joined the organizers who were laying out strategies to lessen police power,  something beautiful happened behind the headlines. As he recalls,

…the sheriff of Selma was deputizing civilians right and left and assigning them places on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the horrible conflagration I had seen on TV had occurred before.

Even now, the organizers of the march from Selma would need all the help they could get.

When a call went out for volunteers to distract the deputies from the main part of town, I joined a group of marchers taking buses to the mayor’s home to demonstrate for voting rights. This nonviolent act would probably be interpreted by law enforcement as a threat to life and property and would thus draw a number of deputies away from the city.

About 600 of us arrived at the house, but just as we assembled on the sidewalk and started our demonstration, the mayor’s wife ran out the front door with a gun in her hand. It was a little silver pistol.

“I’ve got six bullets!” she yelled. “I can take six of you niggers out!” We stood there facing her with our arms linked and were careful not to step on the mayor’s property. She appeared just wild enough to shoot but didn’t seem to know how to unlock the safety. 

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selma’s mayor.

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selma’s mayor.

It was a lethal yet humorous scene that got even more comical when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, each one carrying a baton, a cigar, a gut, and at least one gun.  Collectively they looked like the classic image of the big, hulking, Southern white cop with everything sticking out. Trying to line us up for arrest, the officers realized there were too many of us to fit in the overcrowded jail, so the deputy chief made an announcement.

“You niggers think you can come here and share a cell with Martin Luther King? Well, he’s the last person you’re gonna see.”

They commandeered our buses and loaded everybody back on to take us to a large high school gymnasium with two big basketball courts that would act as makeshift holding cells — one for women and one for men … We sang freedom songs from the many marches of the civil rights movement, and we even made up new lyrics.  Soon our voices, our clapping, and our cheering for justice resounded with a spirit that nearly lifted the gym off the ground.

[Cecil goes on to say the marchers were so committed -- and having so much fun -- that the police decided to release all 600 people. Nobody moved.]

We had no leader or spokesperson, no time to huddle or vote or make sure everybody agreed. And yet, all the people in both gyms just quietly shook their heads as if we had all planned for this moment all along.

Number of protestors swell from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

Number of protesters swells from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

To me, this was the potential of community at its rawest, most instinctive core. It proved as never before that when African Americans got together, a power they thought they never had emerged as a uniting force. It spoke of independence, of deciding for ourselves, and it spoke of unconditional acceptance — we trusted one another as deeply as we trusted our own families, and the deputies knew it. They were furious.

“Why, you niggers are crazy to stay here,” the chief deputy said.

“Book us, then!” people called out. “We’re not moving.” As long as our 600 remained, dozens of deputies had to guard us, or (so they thought) we’d tear the place up.

Quite the contrary — our message was nonviolent. It said:

We’re not going to fight you. We’re going to confront you with our love and with our goodness, because that’s who we are, in the face of who you are.  Even if you choose to use violence, we will bring about change. Against your violent inhumanity, we will match you with our nonviolent humanity, so that even you will be changed.

It’s too bad that scenes like this, which occurred everywhere in diverse African American communities throughout the civil rights movement, got lost in the shuffle of media emphasis on violence and brutality — and, too, on celebrity.

American history rightly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr.,  as a gifted and charismatic minister  whose leadership inspired 25,000 demonstrators to take part in the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery. But the spirit that really did move mountains to change laws and cultural traditions came as well from millions of African Americans then, and continues to inspire millions today.

How that everyday trust among people binds communities in the face of an unknown future is the story of a lifetime for any serious journalist. But maybe it’s too “good” for mainstream media.

[Note to readers: I worked editorially with Cecil and Janice during the writing of Beyond the Possible.]


Oliver Sacks (1933-2015): A brief remembrance

One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult “to negotiate your San Francisco hills,”  he said.

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.

My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.

Going down California Street, Nob Hill

Tough on the knee: going down California Street

Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be “conspicuous, don’t you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.

But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act ‘conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! You’re famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe what’s going on in the mind.

I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a “linguistically complete” language all its own.

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students’ protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).

But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.

We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when it’s nurtured by the community and culture around it.

Vintage edition, today

Vintage edition today

Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.

And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain “conspicuous,” thank heaven, forever.



Hey Bernie! Listen to Barney

If you’re already in awe of the fact that rogue Senator Bernie Sanders has been drawing as many as 10,000 people to hear his speeches about running for president, here’s an episode from Barney Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (Farrar), that may be of interest.

Barney Frank

Barney Frank

Early in the 2000 presidential campaign, Frank, the irreverent and tough-minded Democratic congressional representative from Massachusetts, sent a memo to Al Gore’s advisers about Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

Although observers were saying the vote between Gore and George Bush would be close, few worried about Nader’s effect on the campaign — except Barney Frank, bless his iconoclastic heart. He believed that Nader could pull enough votes away from Gore to give Bush the win.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

So Frank came up with this great idea. He sent a memo to Gore’s advisors proposing that a group of high-level Democrats meet with Nader to convince him to drop out of the race before he could become a real threat to Gore.

Of course, Nader considered Democrats loathsome and ineffective and surely would have refused any such meeting. So, Frank writes, “I suggested that Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder and I — an African American, a woman and a gay man — become core members” of a delegation Nader could not turn away.

It was a prescient move on Frank’s part, and it kind of wrenches the gut to read about it in his book, since we know that Gore could have won if Nader had dropped out of the running and encouraged his supporters to vote Democratic.

But no. “The (Gore) campaign’s first reaction,” Frank recalls, “was not to have one. My memo was ignored,” and as a result, nobody held Nader responsible for the consequences of his continued candidacy, and Bush creaked into office.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

And what a cautionary tale it is! Every time Socialist-turned-Democrat  Bernie Sanders hits these high numbers, a little voice from 2000 is saying, Well, hooray this early in the campaign for a guy like Sanders whom many people love. But let’s learn from the RALPH NADER FIASCO OF 2000 (not Barney Frank’s words) that there IS a difference between Republicans and Democrats so we can be sure to make the pragmatically correct move and help Sanders step out when the time comes.

Warning: Policy Wonk Gobbledygook

Glimpses behind the scenes like the Nader memo are everywhere in Barney Frank’s memoir and should make this book more fun to read than it is. We expect it to be entertaining because in person, Barney Frank is a genuinely witty political presence. (About Ronald Reagan falling asleep during meetings, Frank once announced, “It’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. It’s what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”)

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Frank’s  publisher describes him as a “disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew,” so he’s been accustomed, he writes, to “being in the minority.” And yet even with that garbled New Jersey accent, after 32  years in the House of Representatives (he retired in 2013), Frank’s ability to surprise and delight makes him oddly charismatic whenever he speaks into a microphone.

The problem is that whenever Barney Frank puts the same material down in book form, his message is so burdened with policy-wonk gobbledygook that the eye glazes over midway through every sentence.

Here, for example, is what he says about the long-term problems of having an idealist like Ralph Nader around in 2000:

“My fervor in this effort was stocked by more than my fears of a Bush victory. Throughout my career, I’d been troubled by my allies’ tendency to choose emotional gratification over tangible, albeit insufficient, progress. The fact that Nader appeared eager to help the right regain the presidency because he found the Democrats imperfect perfectly illustrated what was wrong with this approach.”

Wait. You what? They who?

What he means is that the Naders of the world use “extreme negativism” as a kind of “game theory” that says, “never let the other side think you’re satisfied.” When you play this game, you “maximize your gains in fact by minimizing them in characterization, until and unless you are 100 percent successful.”

Okay, the gobbledygook turned bippity-bappity there but his point is that if you complain about  your opponents giving you anything, they’ll “soon realize they can obtain the same response by giving nothing at all,” and that would be the end of negotiations.

I tried listening to Frank read his story for the audiobook version from Macmillan Audio, and the experience is much better.  His jowly marbles-in-the-mouth way of speaking keeps the ear intrigued in parts where the eye would stumble.

Barney Frank and Tip O'Neill in 1982

Barney Frank and Tip O’Neill in 1982

For one thing, you can’t help but laugh when Frank tries to do his impression of the Irish accent that made Tip O’Neill famous as the Speaker of the House when the two became friends during Frank’s early years in Congress.

One very touching scene occurs when Barney was forced to come out as a gay man in the early ’80s before the release of a book that would have exposed his homosexuality. In those days being “outed” could ruin a politician’s career, so Frank sought help from the influential O’Neill, who didn’t know much about gay life or gay language but promised to help. Approaching sympathetic members of congress to support Barney when he came out of the closet, O’Neill, also famous for his malapropisms, told his aides, “We might have an issue to deal with. I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.” (Frank’s reading: “I tink BAH-ney is gonna come outta da rum.” )

Surprise in San Francisco

There are plenty of surprises in the book, especially for San Franciscans who remember the exhilaration that spread across the city and the national LGTB community when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to legalize gay weddings in 2004.  Despite the many ways Barney Frank strengthened the gay rights movement throughout his career, he reacted like a negative fuddy-duddy when Newsom proposed the idea in a phone call to Frank early on.

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Opening City Hall to same-sex marriage would be a “well-intentioned mistake,” said Frank, and even today he believes it was a “drastic move” by Newsom that “regrettably bolstered the GOP argument than an antimarriage amendment was needed.”

In fact, Frank says, the backlash that occurred after photos went viral of gay couples celebrating outside San Francisco’s City Hall crippled the whole gay-marriage movement so much that Newsom’s actions “made no substantive progress at all.”

Man of the People

Well, you don’t have to agree with him to admire Barney Frank’s reputation as a man of the people, whether “the people”  liked the way he represented them or not. Take his dislike of folksinger Pete Seeger’s hit, Little Boxes, written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. “The song was a mockery of the postwar housing that had been built for working-class and lower-middle-class Americans,” Frank says.  Even at the time, “I recognized (that disliking it created a) gulf that divided me from many others on the left.”

And he hated the lyrics, Little boxes on the hillside / And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same. “At one concert I attended at Harvard, most of the audience — filling Harvard’s largest venue — appeared to find this a hilariously accurate critique. They were oblivious of the fact that these ‘little boxes’ had been built on a large scale to be affordable by families who would not otherwise have been able to be homeowners.

Pete Seeger sings 'Little Boxes'

Pete Seeger sings ‘Little Boxes’

“The aesthetic disdain Seeger and many of my fellow students felt for these units was not, I knew, shared by the occupants, most of whom were happy — and proud — to own them…But Seeger, and many of his listeners, preferred to think that the capitalist profit-making system was depriving people with limited incomes of the chance to live in large, individually designed houses — which they of course could not afford.

“When I insisted that the inhabitants of this ‘ticky-tacky’ were very satisfied with their ‘little boxes,’ I was often told that they did not have the knowledge — or the sensibility — to know they were being mistreated.”

Goodbye, Barney

Goodbye, Barney

Well, good for you, Barney Frank, fighter for the little guy you have been from the start, and always on your terms. I just wish you had written this book a little more — oh, how to say it — down to Earth, where you always leveled with us before.


The Harper Lee Backfire

Don’t you think the whole debacle about Harper Lee’s “new” novel sounds like a Christopher Guest mockumentary?

For Your Consideration movie poster

For Your Consideration movie poster

Guest’s satires on American foibles about dog shows (Best in Show), folksingers (A Mighty Wind), small town theater (Waiting for Guffman) and the Academy Awards (For Your Consideration) portray big, big hopes for greatness building up all over the place in ways that are so, so stupid and so incredibly American that we have to laugh, even if the parody stings a little bit.

Go Set a Watchman jacket

Go Set a Watchman jacket

In the case of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, big, big print runs and really absurd hopes for another To Kill a Mockingbird are backfiring all over the place while a lot of people are making big, big money whether the author wanted the book published or not.

You have to admit, it’s funny.

On the one hand, we have America’s beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, turning into the worst, most fatuous and disgusting racist of the new century.

On the other, what timing! Go Set a Watchman comes out in the midst of kill-a-mockingbird-1edwhite police officers killing African American men more frequently than ever, the mass murder of an African American bible study group in Charleston and a President calling for new gun control laws that prompted this no-nonsense patriotic reply: Yes SIR, Mr. President! Our response to mass murder by yet another white supremacist is to … remove the Confederate flag! That’ll show we in the South mean business. Just ask Atticu– well, better not.

In fact, a mockumentary might use this occasion to get to the heart of the real problem about Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

First, just to confirm: It’s a fine novel that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m glad it’s taught in schools.

But come on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a white person’s view of racism that’s set the tone for scores of books and movies since its publication in 1960. It says that bad white people created slavery a long time ago, so now good white people have to fix the damage. African Americans get to stay in the background for the sake of this heroic modern story.

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

This view also goes back to that awful 1961 book, Black Like Me,  in which a white person darkened his skin — under a doctor’s care, mind you — so that he could travel in the South and tell the world what it’s like to be black.

We couldn’t trust African Americans to tell us this same thing because after all, they’re black. It could be emotional and confusing to explain their experience to objective white America.  As Atticus Finch says in that new blockbuster from HarperCollins, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

Isn’t he great?  Such a kind man, and he shows us why truly committed white writers are needed to set history straight. Wouldn’t Atticus have loved William Styron, for example, the humble white author who in 1967 wrote  The Confessions of Nat Turner in the voice of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

“I was especially lacerated and hurt that [The Confessions of Nat Turner]  was labeled racist,” Styron told an audience at the Library of Congress. “That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.”  Aw.

But see? Here is another  kind white man generously pushing African American writers aside so that he can become the heroic figure. “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation  and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.” What a guy. He knew the words “politically incorrect” would shield him from increasing criticism only for a while. In the end, he said, what really mattered was creating “a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.” Who else would know?

Also, a good mockumentary about Go Set a Watchman would feature heartfelt comments from all the legal advisors who’ve been in and out of the author’s nursing home for years. You’ve got to hand it to them. They not only helped Harper Lee unearth the manuscript that she herself kept buried for decades.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including "One Flew Over the Cosmo's Nest."

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”

They also took helped her apply for a trademark in 2012 on important To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise (there’s a Tequila Mockingbird guide to cocktails, you know), and create Mockingbird Co., a nonprofit company to control literary rights like a spinoff play that’s been running in the famous courthouse of Lee’s hometown (though it’s now closed, apparently because of the nonprofit).  Royalties from the novel still bring Harper Lee something like $3.2 million a year, so you know she’s anxious to pick up extra dollars for those hardworking agents and lawyers and friends who’ve recently stepped into her life.

The mockumentary would also interview the publisher at HarperCollins who ordered only a “light copyedit” of the Watchman manuscript so that nobody could be blamed for Atticus Finch turning into a big, fat American bigot.

Of course, the question could be asked:  What about those dedicated lifelong editors with high editorial standards who might have advised Harper Lee to be careful of shocking readers over the abrupt transformation of Atticus Finch? Well, those editors got to stay in the background, too. Who, after all, would want to change a word of the historic question Atticus poses to white people everywhere: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do  you want them in our world?” Nobody was going to touch that one.

As to marketing, that’s easy in the case of Go Set a Watchman, the publisher could say: You just make a big, big deal of its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird and keep silent about its, um, difficult contents right up to publication date. That way readers could pre-order millions of copies and have the fun of discovering an all new Atticus Finch by themselves.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the mockumentary concluded with big, big dumpsters all over the country collecting piles and piles of a book everybody bought but no one wanted to read? Nothing like a giant literary embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day mucking up the legacy of “our national novel,” as Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As the credits roll, the camera could then go back to the classroom and show us books being taught that all audiences love, written for example by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Octavia Butler, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Al Young, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Gaines, Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alex Haley, Sherley Anne Williams, Bell Hooks, Walter Mosley, Paule Marshall, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Edward P. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Marita Golden, Lalita Tademy, Frederick Douglass, Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, Cynthia Bond, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jesmyn Ward, J. California Cooper and Pearl Cleage, to name a only a few.







Brooke Shields and the Publishing Revolution

This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir, There Was a Little Girl (Dutton), about the death of her mother and former manager, Teri, in 2012:

“I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.

Teri and Brooke Shields

Teri and Brooke Shields in the 1970s

“They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?

“The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.

“ ‘I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.’

“ ‘Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.’ ”

[The back-and-forth conversation goes on. The Times reporter keeps insisting; Shields keeps refusing. Finally, the Times reporter gets one question answered (about the location of a city) and that's it. Brooke thinks it's over.]

“A few days later … I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.

“The first line read, ‘Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.’ What an opener!

The 1978 People headline reads: "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films"

The 1978 People headline reads: “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films”

“The obituary’s author highlighted—completely out of context—the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse—’Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.’ This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.

“Who the fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.

“Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. I ran into the kitchen and began pacing around the table as I sobbed and rambled: Why are they so cruel? Why can’t they let her be? Why can’t they let her die without being nasty?  Why can’t they be kind to her just once? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.”

So: what does this excerpt say about the “publishing revolution”?

First, there is the obvious point that huge changes in computer technology in the ’80s-90s were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry. What followed was the phenomenon of millions of readers leaving print for screen, and millions of writers publishing their own blogs, books and websites.

But the motivation that fuels a revolution rather than simply a transformation in publishing is this very outrage that launches Shields’ book — that of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” and publishers who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.

Brooke Shields in a scene from "Pretty Baby" (with Keith Carradine)

American Film, 1977 — Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine in “Pretty Baby”

When even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the status of being an outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of people across the world who are furious with media entitlement.

Granted, Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, she did manipulate the fashion and magazine industries, and she did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon. 

But none of that, Brooke insists, “damaged” or “wounded” her, as press stories suggest. Early on, she even grew accustomed to that brutish tendency of magazine publishers to make controversial subjects like Brooke and her mother defend the media’s rapacious appetite for scandal.

New York magazine, 1977. The caption reads: "Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell."

New York magazine, 1977. “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.”

What did cause hardship in her life (Teri’s alcoholism, for example) is, Brooke insists, for her discuss through that fine old platform for personal  truth, the full-length book. 

In the case of the NYT obit, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone. When it comes to an obituary, she says, the facts of a person’s life are sacred (as every obit writer used to know).

Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to anything that will increase audience ratings. Where was the human decency? she says about the New York Times in particular. After all, someone’s mother just died.


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

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 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 or

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.


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.