LA Times Books Section Gutted

L.A. Observed reports the terrible news that Orli Low and Susan Salter Reynolds have been let go from The Los Angeles Times. This leaves a skeleton crew of three manning what remains of the books section.

I haven’t met Reynolds. But I am particularly devastated to learn that Orli Low, one of the finest editors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, is no longer around. Let me tell you how good Orli was. Orli caught on to nearly all of my writing tricks very fast, constantly challenging me to find new phrasings and trusting me to clarify my arguments. Rather than dismissing my frequently oddball perspective, Orli always took the time to figure out where I was coming from, wanting to know the precise comparison I was making (even if she wasn’t always familiar with some of my more oblique references) and doing everything to preserve the spirit of a piece — even when we were facing a last-minute cut. Orli would often tell me over the phone to cut twelve or so words to make a piece fit. She learned very quick that I was a word units guy. This would be followed by our collaborative drowning of babies. Then there would be many unexpected discoveries as the piece transformed into something else.

What I admired so much about Orli’s editing was the way that she never gave up on a piece, even when she was facing crushing deadlines or needless space cuts, and even when there were guys like me who were perhaps a tad too attentive to the sentences.

I certainly did my best to make Orli’s job as easy as possible. But because Orli was so good, she always found the time to make a piece better. She had a great bullshit detector. And I responded very well to her combination of honesty and encouragement. Knowing something of what was going on inside the Los Angeles Times, I did my best to crack a few jokes and cheer her up over the phone. And if I learned that Orli was working on one of my pieces, I’d try to sneak in a few funny asides that I knew wouldn’t make the cut. To my surprise, a few of these bawdy subtleties found their way into the paper.

Orli helped to make me a better writer. And I know that other freelancers who worked with her felt the same way. Because of this, The Los Angeles Times‘s decision to fire her goes well beyond senseless and into the territory of “What in the hell were you thinking?” It is absolutely disgraceful and insulting for a newspaper to have fired an editor with so much talent and experience right before the holidays. The Los Angeles Times‘s books section simply won’t be the same without Orli. And I hope with all my heart that some outlet will have the smarts to snap Orli’s mad chops up, permitting her to continue what she did so well.

David Ulin: A Books Editor to Be Deactivated

If you are a humorless books editor packing mundanities (while also resorting to the groundless Sven Birkerts-style grumbling about online interlopers who express more enthusiasm about books in 140 characters than you can in 800 words) into a badly written piece about just how gosh darn hard it is for you to sit down and read, then you have no business keeping your job. David Ulin’s piece is not so much an essay, as it is a confession from an out-of-touch and calcified man who clearly does not love books and who lacks the courage to take any chances. He may as well have written an open letter of resignation — not just from his editorial position, but from the rustling possibilities of books. (If you don’t have the ability to “still [your] mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit [yours],” then you may as well sell overpriced stereo systems to unthinking schmucks.)

It has been disheartening to watch the Los Angeles Times‘s books coverage burn into mediocrity in the past year. While Sam Zell did indeed unleash any number of unsuspecting Santa Anas to fan this conflagration, the brigade trying to extinguish the fire are more content to let the foundation burn. Carolyn Kellogg’s once exuberant voice on the Los Angeles Times‘s book blog, Jacket Copy, has transformed from its early promise into soulless corporate boilerplate. Here is a recent opening paragraph from a post titled “Hello, cutie! New Sony e-reader scores on style”:

Yesterday Sony announced a new bargain e-reader: Just $199, it’ll be among the cheapest e-book readers around when it hits stores later this month. But it doesn’t look cheap — in fact, it’s really cute!

Beyond the troubling sense that one is intercepting a note handed from one bubble gum-chewing teenager to another, how is this any different from a recycled catalog description insulting the audience’s intelligence? Kellogg’s approach is vituperative in its own way, disingenuous in its abuse. Kellogg’s post isn’t so much a piece of journalism, as it is an unpaid Sony advertisement. (Kellogg, incidentally, was observed sheepishly trailing Ulin at BookExpo America and resembled not so much an independent-minded journalist, but Ulin’s executive assistant for a hopelessly institutionalized outlet. At what price an email address?)

I have already explored at length Louisa Thomas’s unconscionably bumbling review from April. But I must ask how such pieces as Amy Wallen’s snarky assault on misfits make it into this seemingly esteemed newspaper? Much as Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff recently declared Richard Russo a “misogynist” because of her own inability to understand human behavior, so too does Wallen misinterpret humanity in attempting to “take down” Jennifer Weiner. Wallen cannot understand why a bank teller working at a low hourly wage might indeed find the financial lucre and an adventure of a bank robbery enticing. (When was the last time she worked a minimum wage job?) Wallen cannot comprehend how another character is attempting to corral the present with the past by revisiting place. (The fact that such snark appeared during the same week as Erin O’Brien’s moving essay about her brother makes Wallen’s piece particularly egregious.)

And at the end of last year, there were a number of surprisingly humorless pieces written by the overrated but occasionally enjoyable Brooklyn writer Edward Champion, an apparent legend in his own mind who was inexplicably assigned morose dead authors instead of the giddy subjects that serve this writer’s admittedly limited strengths.

But back to Ulin’s essay. If Ulin actually cared about anybody other than himself, then he might indeed devote his bumbling mind to another’s point of view. If Ulin truly sought contemplation in books, he would have a more tangible memory of Malcolm Lowry’s book rather than the beach he lived at. He also misreads Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (indeed, in the very manner that Conroy warned about). Here is the complete Conroy passage that Ulin quotes from:

It was the winter of my seventeenth birthday, presumably my last year of high school. I made a half-hearted attempt to pass my courses, knowing that in any event I’d have to go to summer school to make up for previous failures. I wanted the diploma that year. I wanted to get it over with so I could leave the country, go to Denmark and meet my grandparents, see Paris, but mostly just to get away from home. I withdrew into myself and let the long months go by, spending my time reading, playing the piano, and watching television. Jean too had retreated into himself. He’d watch the screen silently for hours on end, wrapped up in a blanket Indian fashion, never moving his head. Night after night I’d lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. I read everything, without selection, buying all the fiction ont he racks of the local drugstore — D.H. Lawrence, Moravia, Stuart Engstrand, Aldous Huxley, Frank Yerby, Mailer, Twain, Gide, Dickens, Philip Wylie, Tolstoi, Hemingway, Zola, Dreiser, Vardis Fisher, Dostoievsky, G.B. Shaw, Thomas Wolfe, Theodore Pratt, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, Frederick Wakeman, Orwell, McCullers, Remarque, James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, de Maupassant, James Jones, John O’Hara, Kipling, Mann, Saki, Sinclair Lewis, Maugham, Dumas, and dozens more. I borrowed from the public library ten blocks away and from the rental library at Womrath’s on Madison Avenue. I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Safe in my room with milk and cookies I disappeared into inner space. The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own. (Needless to say, emphasis added)

Conroy read so many great writers “very fast, uncritically, and without retention!” And this is the virtue Ulin calls for! This is the method of reading that Ulin cops to — an endless and uncomprehending cacophony that is less predicated upon understanding others and more predicated upon the accomplishment-centric egos of those “who have written” rather than those who “are writing,” or those “who have read,” rather than those who “are reading.” (Shortly after this passage, Conroy confesses that this milk and cookies ritual encouraged him to be a writer.) This is the apparent “state that is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture.” But it seems to me that if you are reading without thinking, without masticating, without having your heart and your humility and your dedication to others soar, while various internal angels and demons sing earnest hymns and ribald rockers to humanity and these are shared with others, then this is hardly a state to strive for. Ulin has confused Conroy’s ephemeral approach for contemplation. This has nothing to do with the digital age, but everything to do with personal choice, the rejection of smartphone trinkets, and one’s self-discipline.

These are disheartening statements to hear from the self-absorbed Bernaysian automaton who edits books coverage for The Los Angeles Times.

For my own part, I spend long hours disconnecting entirely from all forms of technology, applying the discipline required to understand another person’s perspective, which often humbles my own. Who cares if the perspectives are old or new? (Certainly, William T. Vollmann does not in his mammoth book, Imperial, which I continue to peck away at.) Indeed, knowing past perspectives and folkways recently erected permit one to discover how humanity regularly dupes itself. And reading Ulin’s essay allows us to understand his perspective, which comes across as that of a prejudicial and undisciplined narcissist. Or perhaps he’s just a permanently anxious man who might better love the world if he realized that his thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as significant as he believes them to be. Or if he wasn’t busy firing people and striking “eccentric” freelancers of his list (save Tod Golberg) because he desperately wants to keep his salaried position.

Better Than a Thousand Hollow Words

Like oh my God! I would SOOOOOOOO like to meet Louisa Thomas, who like reviews, like, books for the Los Angeles Times, and who, you know, seems to like people. Reading her review, I became convinced that she was, like, the kind of BFF (!!!!) who would, like, go with me to get Häagen-Daz. And we’d like spend the whole day gagging each other with our spoons, wondering, like, why there’s those, like, two funny dots over the first A. I think we would be friends. And I also think that if I decided to, like, enlist Louisa Thomas into my more libertine activities, she’d totally participate in what Sir Richard Burton once described as the Seventh Posture.

The quality of a review doesn’t depend on the personality of the reviewer, but, for fuck’s sake, one expects some minimum of critical acumen. Some of my favorite reviews were written by people who liked to digress or get excited about a strange subject, but they never made the profound mistake of lionizing the author’s personality and losing sight of the text itself. And yet the editors at the Los Angeles Times permitted this dopey and idiotic review to appear, perhaps because they view their audiences with contempt, they believe that lowering the bar as much as possible is the way to attract readership, or Thomas is sucking somebody’s cock.

There is no way to read this review without hating it, without recoiling at how it takes four fucking paragraphs before we actually know anything about the book in question. Louisa Thomas would appear to lack intelligence, would appear to have nothing worthwhile to say about books, would appear to have taken on this assignment and put on her rosy and phony enthusiasm because she wasn’t professional enough or emotional enough to do her job and tell us WHY THE FUCK SHE LIKED THE BOOK.

Liking the author is moot. I like any number of authors, but don’t care for their work. I love any number of books, but think the authors behind them have been total asshats. (Fortunately, 95% of the authors I meet are friendly.) None of this matters in the slightest. I have praised volumes written by assholes and savaged tomes crafted by nice guys. To gush about how much you like an author is to capitulate to the poisonous celebrity culture that is presently deracinating the possibilities of independent thought. It is to accept, as Louisa Thomas clearly accepts, the coward’s knee-jerk sprint to conformist groupthink. It is to waste words, sabotage paragraphs, and to offer nothing original. It is to accept the superficial.

We’re told that Thomas is “a contributing editor for Newsweek.” Here are a few exemplars of Ms. Thomas’s analytical chops:

“A confession: I can’t wait to watch the new DVD of ‘Twilight’-a movie I’ve already seen.”

“What makes a thriller work is a million-dollar question, but why they matter is more than an economic concern.”

And when presented with the opportunity to talk with Yiyun Li, what pithy words did Thomas rustle out of her? “I’m fascinated by people I can’t understand.” Personally I’m fascinated by inept interviewers who choose this generalization, above all others, for a profile piece about a highly acclaimed novelist.

If newspapers are going to publish vapid articles written by Louisa Thomas, why indeed should they be saved? When the Los Angeles Times publishes junk like this, it makes me want to reach for my metaphorical revolver so that I can convey to a few stubborn editors just how serious the situation is. When an editor publishes an article this vacuous, he is committing an act of self-sabotage. Newspapers are not in the position right now to print homogenized junk that speaks down to the reader, nor should they be alienating high-profile ex-editors who can get people fired up and pissed off about books. Newspapers must take more than a few chances right now and demonstrate to the public why this medium is worthwhile. I’m not against having fun in a book review, but speculations on whether Joanna Smith Rakoff has had a few “nice times” in Brooklyn restaurants have no bearing whatsoever on a book’s value. It’s an insult to an audience’s intelligence, and such reviews demonstrate that a newspaper doesn’t really deserve the literary stature or the acclaim it continues to lavish upon itself.

Clarification at the Los Angeles Times

David Ulin has offered some clarifications about recent changes at the Los Angeles Times. In addition to talking with the decidedly more trustworthy Sara Nelson at Publishers Weekly, he also specified the changes that are in store in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

[UPDATE: Ulin has appeared on KPCC. Meanwhile, the books coverage at Not the L.A. Times appears pretty dire and Kassia Krozser offers more thoughts.]

Kris Lindgren Axed at the Los Angeles Times

I’ve confirmed with multiple sources that editor Kris Lindgren has indeed been laid off from the Los Angeles Times. Her last day is Friday. This is a terrible loss for the books section. I worked with Kris on a few reviews, and she was a fantastic editor, often forcing me to come up with some taut sentences in a very small window of time. (That’s part of the fun of journalism.) She was also one of the few editors who not only knew many of my esoteric references, but was very curious about many of the literary precedents that I cited. I certainly hope that her great talents will land her somewhere safe.

For those keeping score, that leaves books coverage duties at the Los Angeles Times down to three people. Sara Lippincott and Josh Getlin have also been laid off.

[RELATED: A remarkable exchange between Lee Abrams and a young Chicago Tribune reader.]

Developments at the LATBR

This morning, L.A. Observed posted an open letter sent by four previous editors of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Calling the forthcoming termination of the Sunday Book Review “a historic retreat from the large ambitions which accompanied the birth of the section,” ex-editors Sonja Bolle, Digby Diehl, Jack Miles, and Steve Wasserman went on to write:

Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review, a philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of the city and the region, will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.

Chicago Sun-Times Books Editor Teresa Budasi, however, isn’t buying some of this. This afternoon, on the Sun-Times Book Room blog, Budasi wrote, “Now is the time to take what you’re left with and do what you can with it. Just as the newspaper business as a whole is trying to figure out ways to reinvent itself, book review editors must do the same, whether it be by running shorter reviews, beefing up online content or what have you. Stop complaining about loss of culture and glorifying the past and move into the 21st century — where books are still plenty and people are still reading!”

Meanwhile, Rachel Deahl, the incompetent “journalist” at Publishers Weekly, is spreading rumors and misinformation, claiming that another LATBR editor besides Sara Lippincott is getting the axe. Her source, however, is not anyone currently employed by the Los Angeles Times, but Steve Wasserman. Hearsay doesn’t hold up in court and it shouldn’t hold up in reporting. And if there’s anything that I can report that comes from within the Los Angeles Times, I will report the news here. In the meantime, until there’s an actual statement from the Times, I think that one should dismiss Deahl’s third-hand information until the real news kicks in.

[RELATED: Deahl has also reported that Hartford Courant books editor Carole Goldberg has received the boot. But given Deahl’s handling of the LATBR news, I will make attempts to independently verify this information. (via Sarah)]

[UPDATE: Independent confirmation of LATBR cuts and Goldberg.]

L.A. Times Layoff Developments

L.A. Observed reports that publisher David Hiller has resigned. The site has posted his memo, which ends, “I’m sorry I won’t be here to pitch in, but I’ll be rooting for you.” Meanwhile, editor Russ Stanton announced today that editors will begin informing the 150 people who will be leaving. There is no word yet on how the books section will be affected by these layoffs, other than the previously reported merging of books reporting into the Calendar section once the Book Review/Opinion section is eliminated at the end of the month.

Los Angeles Times To Lay Off 150 Editorial Staffers

Radar is reporting that 150 staffers in the newsroom are to be laid off and that the number of pages published each week will be reduced by 15%. I have emails into the good people over at the Book Review to see what, if any, impact this has had upon them. If I learn anything that I can report on the record, I will. This is terrible. More at the LA Times. Nothing yet from LA Observed.

[UPDATE: My sources inside the L.A. Times indicate that there hasn’t yet been a list of names released. Only the number. Layoffs to come later. If I am able to determine any additional information that I can share, then I will keep folks posted.]