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Does Andrew Goldman, New York TImes Misogynist, Owe His Career to a Harvey Weinstein Headlock?

In recent months, The New York Times Sunday Magazine has published a remarkably tasteless series of misogynistic interviews that feel more at home in a pulp circular devoted to Bobby Riggs’s dwindling fan base than a renowned newspaper ostensibly committed to first-class journalism.

“I gather that people frequently assume you’re a lesbian,” began a question to esteemed Fresh Air host Terry Gross back in July, which went on to suggest that Gross had chosen to host Fresh Air rather than have children (a false insinuation which Gross corrected). Last month, the Times asked Whitney Cummings, “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?” And last Sunday, The New York Times asked the 82-year-old Tippi Hedren, “Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?”

These misogynistic queries all came from one man: Andrew Goldman, who took over the one page Q&A slot previously occupied by Deborah Solomon. Solomon’s questionable journalistic practices were exposed in 2007 by the New York Press‘s Matt Elzweig, and the longtime incompetent was pushed from her perch a few years later. (She last made waves debasing the 92nd Street Y and has disappeared from the New York media world like some troublesome bird obliterated into feeble feathers by a drunken gunman.)

But Goldman is far worse than Solomon ever was. He willfully infers a sexist half truth (“Did you sleep your way to the top?”) predicated on nothing more than his puerile imagination. This may have something to do with his lack of commitment to truth and fairness. As he revealed in a interview with The Slant back in April, Goldman was shocked that The New York Times would actually make an effort to get a quote right:

Two things surprised me when I started writing my column for the Times magazine. One, they insist on having an outside transcriber transcribe my interviews. They want to make sure they have a handle on the veracity of the transcript. Second, they actually call back the subjects and in full or in context read back the quotes to see if we misunderstood.

Goldman’s latest vulgar inquiry to Hedren led celebrated novelist Jennifer Weiner to tweet:

But as Galleycat’s Jason Boog reported this afternoon, Goldman, whose Twitter account has now been deleted, responded with the repulsive inventiveness of an eight-year-old sociopath who believes fart jokes or burning insects with a magnifying glass to be the ne plus ultra of comedy:

This resulted in a justifiable firestorm from New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum and Gimme Shelter author Mary Beth Williams, among others. Much of the exchange, collected before Goldman cowardly deleted the account containing his tweets, was put together by Jason Boog on Storify and can be found here.

While Goldman eventually apologized, this is not the first time that his hot and foolish head has steered him into trouble. On November 8, 2000, The New York Times reported that Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, got into a scuffle with Harvey Weinstein at a book party for Karen Duffy’s Model Patient. The conflict began when Rebecca Traister, who was also a reporter for the Observer, put forth a question to Weinstein that he reportedly did not like. As Traister was abandoning her interlocutory efforts, realizing that she wasn’t going to get any quotes from Weinstein, Goldman interceded. What followed was fairly hazy. Weinstein placed Goldman in a headlock.

Despite the considerable media presence, it was hushed up rather well. As David Carr reported in New York Magazine:

“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head. Weinstein deputized himself and insisted that Goldman apologize. His hubris would be hilarious if he weren’t able to back it up. Several paparazzi got pictures of the tussle, but Goldman bet me at the time that they would never see print.

I mailed him his dollar a week later. I’d talk to Goldman about it, except he now works for Talk magazine, which is half-owned by Miramax.

Did Goldman’s antics earn him the job at Talk Magazine? When Talk folded, Goldman ended up at Elle, where he put forth insipid questions to major names for many years (such as telling will.i.am. that Fantasy Island was created to provide “bathroom fodder for 14-year-old boys”) before falling upward into the New York Times‘s lofty heights. Perhaps Goldman should be commended for his pugilistic chicanery. Sometimes it’s not just who you know, but who puts you into a headlock.

10/10/12 UPDATE: New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has looked into this matter. Sullivan interviewed Jennifer Weiner about the incident and used this article as the basis for an investigation, asking questions to Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren about Goldman’s culpability. Lindgren replied:

We don’t publish material we believe to be misogynist or sexist. The blog post you sent me cited 3 examples, out of probably a thousand published questions that Andrew has asked since he took over the column. In the context of the full interviews, none of them struck me as sexist or misogynist. There were frank, sensitive questions, not declarations or assertions of his own. In the Terry Gross interview, Andrew is not making his own presumption about her sexuality. He is referring to an anecdote that was published in the introduction of her own book, which was made even clearer when she makes a joke about how widespread this misperception is. The Whitney Cummings question is perhaps a little cheekier but still refers to something other people have said about her — “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?”

10/19/12 UPDATE: In response to Sullivan’s investigation, associate managing editor for standards Philip B. Corbett issued a memo, extending the Times guidelines to social media. Moreover, Goldman was suspended for four weeks. In response, Jennifer Weiner offered the following tweets:

10/20/12 UPDATE: Despite Goldman’s apology and his suspension, Goldman’s latest Q&A with T.C. Boyle continues in the same misogynistic direction as Goldman’s previous Q&As, with Goldman suggesting that Boyle’s wife isn’t “letting the dishes pile up in the sink.”

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Jennifer Weiner IV (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jennifer Weiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #469. She is most recently the author of The Next Best Thing.

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Ms. Weiner previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #14, The Bat Segundo Show #198, and The Bat Segundo Show #346.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if Joe Esposito might be right about his questionable stature.

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Subjects Discussed: The summer heat, the size and details of Weiner’s entourage, bagels, physically scarred protagonists, broken people who work in the entertainment industry, the relationship between physicality and the emotional underpinning of a character, the writers’ room as group therapy session, using autobiographical details for fiction, exaggerating raw material, making the readers believe, the writer as precious snowflake, fighting TV network brass over the word “ass-munch,” Barbra Streisand’s litigious nature, the Eugenides Vest campaign and one percenter jokes, Louis CK, scheduling difficulties with Raven-Symoné, whether The Next Best Thing is roman à clef, television audiences vs. reading audiences, reaching young women, Girls, the YA market, Pippi Longstocking, talented TV writers who can’t manage people, Dan Harmon, pretending that adults are teenagers, why Weiner wants more, the inevitability of any arStist having haters, the Alice Gregory shiksa lit article, daddy complexes, Sylvia Plath, straying from characters who are besieged by financial problems, State of Georgia, pursuing fantasy-based elements when America faces high unemployment, tackling social issues in Then Came You, writers with obnoxious public personae, the income disparity between Weiner and her audience, social media and privacy, eclectic reading, getting behavior right, the income gender gap, unemployed men and gainfully employed women in a relationship, USA Today‘s review, Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything,” Garry Shandling, The Larry Sanders Show, gender lines in comedy, Ginna Bellafante’s gender reductionism in relation to A Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, cringe comedy, Peep Show, David Mitchell not reading his reviews, Janet Maslin’s factual inaccuracies in her reviews, redacted book reviews, when women are asked to please, ambition as a negative female quality, fears of losing an audience, Emily Giffin, Jane Green, the risk of taking breaks between books, Laura Lippmann, Lisa Scottoline, slowing the six to nine month book cycle down, Susan Isaacs’s generational epics, being known as a loudmouth vs. being known as ambitious, Macbeth, the book-a-year productivity, Philip Roth, the problems with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, being too eager to please, why it’s important to write a second book immediately after writing a first book, replying to readers on Twitter, Goodreads, trying not to look at reviews, writing a character who demands assurance, Nikki Finke, women taking responsibility for their own orgasms, Caitlin Flanagan’s oral sex sensationalism, sex as an obligation for women, whether or not The New York Times Book Review really matters, Cheryl Strayed outing herself as Dear Sugar, women winning the National Book Awards, Jennifer Egan, cultural arbiters rooted in nostalgia, fragmented books culture, the collapse of Borders, Dwight Allen’s snotty Stephen King article, living in a post-critical culture, attention, the gender imbalance in The New York Times Book Review, the considerable virtues of Pamela Paul, addressing criticisms from Roxane Gay, reduced stigmas against women’s fiction and genre in the last fifteen years, and the need for loudmouth women.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have to ask. Did you actually fight network brass over the word “ass-munch”?

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: You did?

Weiner: Yes, I did.

Correspondent: Really? And there was this kind of exchange of viewpoints?

Weiner: M’hmmm.

Correspondent: And “ass-munch” was just unacceptable.

Weiner: Yeah, exactly.

Correspondent: Even though I hear twelve years olds say it all the time.

Weiner: Yeah. It’s like they said “blow job” on NYPD Blue and I can’t have an “ass-munch”? And they’re like, “We’re ABC Family.” And I’m like, “You’re a different kind of family. It says so right on your logo.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: I want my “ass-munch.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: And I was denied my “ass-munch.”

Correspondent: What other words did they deny you during this time?

Weiner: You know, it wasn’t words so much as people.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Weiner: Seriously. The part about not being able to make jokes about Barbra Streisand? I guess she’s both very sensitive and very litigious.

Correspondent: So that actually happened too.

Weiner: That happened too.

Correspondent: Wow. Were there any other public figures who were declared verboten?

Weiner: No.

Correspondent: Just Barbra? (laughs)

Weiner: Just Barbra. But, you know, the funny thing was we had this line about Bruce Jenner. And Honey, who is sort of the Auntie Mame character, is like, “Now you girls probably just know him as the crazy old lady in the Kardashian house.” And I was like, “Oh my god. Standards and Practices is never going to let this go.” I guess Bruce Jenner got the joke. In fact, we approached him to play the part. To come down the stairs, as if he’d been in bed with Aunt Honey.

Correspondent: Going from these battles with Standards and Practices back to fiction writing, I have to ask — I mean, especially in light of the one percenter joke idea, which, oddly enough, your recent Eugenides Vest campaign…

Weiner: I hope we talk about that.

Correspondent: Well, we can. I’d be happy to. But it is interesting to me that you come from television, your foot is laid down for things like “ass-munch,” for esoteric references or seemingly esoteric references.

Weiner: Yes, the one percenters.

Correspondent: How do you unlearn some of these necessary exigencies when you’re writing? When you’re coming back to fiction? I have to ask you about this. Because when you’re in such an intense show biz environment, having to produce and having to fight and having to compromise and having to go ahead and create art in a highly commercial medium, how do you go to a slightly less commercial medium, like books, and be true to that voice that established you in the first place?

Weiner: For whatever reason, I didn’t have a hard time with it. I don’t know if that’s just a way that I’m lucky. But I didn’t have a hard time going from, like you said, the very mediated world of commercial TV to the world of novel where it’s just you and the people in your head and “We’ll see you in a year with that manuscript.” It wound up being okay. But, God, I loved being in a writers’ room. I miss it every day.

Correspondent: You want to go back to a writers’ room?

Weiner: I would like to go back to a writers’ room someday. It would be different, I think.

Correspondent: Even with the battles?

Weiner: Even with the battles. Because I think that there’s cases where it goes so right and the stars kind of align. And then I also think there’s different ways of doing entertainment. Like Louis CK. Where it’s basically like “Okay, network, you give me X number of dollars. I will give you Y number of shows. And no notes.”

Correspondent: But that’s a very uncommon situation. It doesn’t happen to everyone. Even you probably couldn’t get what he has.

Weiner: Well, but then there’s people doing stuff on the Web. Where it’s like, I don’t want a network. I don’t want notes. I don’t need your money. I’m going to Kickstart this thing or raise money myself and it will just be my vision unmitigated. That’s what I think we’re going to start seeing more of. Because I think that there’s going to be increasing frustration with “You can’t say that!” Or “You can’t say that about that person.” “You can’t use those words.” “We want you to do it with this actress.” And that, to me, was the hardest part. I went out there. I wanted to do a show about a big girl. And the network, ABC Family, had a holding deal with Raven-Symoné. Who during that, Raven had been a bigger girl.

Correspondent: Yes. Also put into the novel.

Weiner: Yes! And I’m like, “Fantastic! That’s great!” I mean, I guess she won’t be Jewish But we’ll deal with that. And then I want to sit down and meet with her and talk about the part and talk about how she relates to the character and where the character comes from. And they’re like “She’s busy. She’s busy. She’s traveling. She’s on vacation.”

Correspondent: So she really would not meet with you.

Weiner: Would not meet with us.

Correspondent: Wow.

Weiner: And I remember thinking they kept saying, “She’s on vacation.” And I’m like, “On vacation from what?”

Correspondent: Why didn’t you just track her down yourself?

Weiner: She was in Hawaii.

Correspondent: She was in Hawaii. Why not fly on a plane?

Weiner: I should have!

Correspondent: And say “Raven, what’s up?”

Weiner: In retrospect, in retrospect.

Correspondent: So this is very roman à clef, it sounds like!

Weiner: It is a little.

Correspondent: But did she follow you on Twitter? (laughs)

Weiner: I don’t think she did.

Correspondent: She did not!

Weiner: I don’t think she followed me on Twitter.

Correspondent: Wow.

Weiner: I gave her a bunch of my books. I’m not sure she read them.

Correspondent: Did she overact? As you suggest? This particular…

Weiner: I think no.

Correspondent: I know you have to be careful here.

Weiner: No. I actually think she’s got great comic chops. I think that she grew up in front of a camera. I mean, this is a girl who shot her first commercial at age nine months. She’s been a working actress for her whole life, basically. Which produces its own kind of dynamic. Which is a very interesting dynamic where you’ve got a child supporting parents. And that’s a whole other book.

Correspondent: But going back to this issue of, well, you couldn’t meet with her. I mean, this has got to be extremely frustrating for you.

Weiner: Yes! Right.

Correspondent: Speaking as someone who is largely on the literary field, and sometimes goes into independent film and so forth, you know, this has got to be, from my vantage point at least, an extremely creatively frustrating experience. What does television offer that fiction does not?

Weiner: Well, you know what it offers? I’ll tell you…is an audience. Because the absolute…

Correspondent: You’ve got an audience though!

Weiner: But listen.

Correspondent: Alright.

Weiner: The absolute bestselling novel in its first week will sell, say, half a million copies. Okay, that is how many people will tune into the lowest rated rerun of a Kardashian show.

Correspondent: Which is frightening.

Weiner: Which is frightening and sad. But if you want to talk to young women, you go beyond TV.

Correspondent: If you want to talk with young women.

Weiner: If you want to talk to young women.

Correspondent: Why do you need that large audience?

Weiner: I want to talk to young women. I mean, I remember watching TV as a young woman and there was never anybody who looked like me. Unless she was the butt of a joke or the funny best friend or somebody tragic. Somebody who needed a makeover in order for good things to happen. And I have daughters. And they’re both blonde-haired, blue-eyed. They’re very cute little girls. I’ve basically given birth to my own unit of the Hitler Youth. I don’t get it. But I want to make shows for girls where the heroine doesn’t look like Blake Lively. Where the heroine looks like a regular girl and still gets everything. Gets the guy, gets the jokes, gets the great clothes, gets the great job. That’s what I went out there to do.

Correspondent: Well, Jen, I’m all for creative idealism as much as the next person. I mean, this program prides itself on its creative control. However, you got Raven.

Weiner: I went to the wrong place maybe.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Weiner: I got Raven minus thirty pounds.

Correspondent: You really can’t always get what you want when it comes to television. So it seems to me that wouldn’t you be better off? You know, you can do pretty much whatever you want, I’m thinking…

Weiner: In a book.

Correspondent: Within a book. That you can’t do through television.

Weiner: Well, you know, I hope though — and I think I’m going to keep banging at that door. Because I do think — you look at a show like Girls on HBO.

Correspondent: Which I’m a big fan of, oddly enough. I never expected to say that.

Weiner: Yeah. But I think that there are people on networks who would say, “Well, no, we don’t want people that look like that on TV. We have to sell Valley Fitness commercials.” Well, HBO does not have to sell Valley Fitness commercials.

Correspondent: No.

Weiner: They just have to have subscribers.

Correspondent: They also don’t need that great of an audience.

Weiner: Exactly.

Correspondent: Which is why they have the shows that they do.

Weiner: Right. They can have a hit if half a million people watch. Where a network, you’d be cancelled before you got to the first commercial. So there’s places it can happen. There’s ways that it can happen. And I would like to keep trying.

Correspondent: But you have very skillfully evaded my main question.

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: Which is: You have an audience.

Weiner: I do.

Correspondent: You have a great audience.

Weiner: They love me.

Correspondent: You have an audience of girls and young women and women. And I’m saying to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic. Why isn’t that enough?”

Weiner: Well, that’s an interesting question.

Correspondent: (laughs) Nice media training there, Jen. (laughs)

Weiner: Well, you know what? I think that I’m someone who’s wired to want more. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s daddy stuff. I don’t know. But I see gaps and problems and imbalance and inequity. And for whatever reason feel compelled to talk about it. You know, whether it’s the New York Times not covering women.

Correspondent: We’ll get to that.

Weiner: We’ll get to that. Whether it’s television offering a range of beauty that goes from a size zero all the way up to a size two. And it’s like, well, maybe I can do something about that. And I feel like I need to try.

Correspondent: Yeah. But it seems to me that you’re reflecting some sort of personal imbalance and stretching it into some sort of societal imbalance, creating yet another form of imbalance. I mean, why isn’t the work itself enough? Because you can always stretch yourself on that canvas. You can always try new things on the page.

Weiner: But again, who’s reading?

Correspondent: I’m reading. You have millions of people reading you.

Weiner: I don’t know if fourteen-year-old girls are — I think they’re reading Twilight. And that concerns me some.

Correspondent: They’re also reading. I mean, China Miéville, he’s writing YA books and he writes his literary books.

Weiner: This is true.

Correspondent: You can do something like that.

Weiner: I’m actually working on a YA book.

Correspondent: You are?

Weiner: Yes. Thank you for asking. I’m writing — you remember Pippi Longstocking?

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Okay, so, ten-year-old girl who is living alone with a monkey named Mr. Jingles.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Weiner: And I remember reading that and loving it. Because she has these adventures and she’s kind of an ass-kicker. Like she’s got huge feet and she sort of takes on the mean boys. And I’m like, I read it as a girl and loved it. I read it as a mom to my daughter. And I’m like, this is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Why is this child living by herself with a monkey? Like what the…you know. So what I’m writing is a story about a girl who comes home from school one day and discovers her parents are missing. They’re just gone. And she doesn’t tell anybody. Because she knows that the instant that people realize her parents aren’t there, she’s going to be shipped off to her horrible aunt in Texas. And she sort of scams her way through a school year and figures out all of these tricks. My favorite one is that she signs up for a diet service to deliver her all her food. She doesn’t know how to cook. So she’s an ad on late night TV. Like “We’ll bring you three meals and two snacks every day.” So she calls up and she’s like, “It’s for my mom. I want to surprise her.” And the lady’s like, “Oh honey, that’s so sweet. How big is your mom?” So she makes up the biggest number she can think of. So she’ll get a lot of food. So I am interested in thinking about YA and thinking about reaching an audience that way. But I think television just offers — it’s a great canvas to tell a story. It gives you space. It gives you time. It gives you visibility.

Correspondent: You’ve got visibility. You’ve got time.

Weiner: Yeah, I know.

The Bat Segundo Show #469: Jennifer Weiner IV (Download MP3)

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keplersbooks

Paid Author Events: The Future of Independent Bookstores?

It was a humid Wednesday afternoon, and I was outside BookCourt with a microphone.

That morning, a New York Times story about paid author events ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Some independent bookstores, hurting for cash, were now charging admission for a reading. Sometimes it was as little as $5. Sometimes it was the price of the hardcover for an off-site event. What had once been free was now the cost of a pint at happy hour.

These developments began in April. In Colorado, Boulder Book Store announced that it would charge $5 a head to attend an event. In California, Kepler’s demanded a $10 gift card to admit two people through the new paywall.

Was this reasonable? Or was this a form of gouging? Wasn’t the purpose of an author event to give the customer a chance to sample the goods? And would such a practice, as Ann Patchett suggested, scare off those who didn’t have the clams for a hardcover?

And why had nobody talked to the customers about this?

The time had come to sweat in the sun and ask every person leaving BookCourt to take part in “a journalistic survey.” I talked to as many customers as I could before the next thunderstorm broke. Some people were skeptical. Others were kind, but in a rush. One woman ran away, calling me “one of those goddam bums.” (In my haste, I had forgotten to shave and I was wearing an old T-shirt.) But most were accommodating.

Listening to the Customers

During the afternoon of June 22, 2011, we conducted several interviews with book customers outside Bookcourt for this story. Listen to Glenn Kenny discuss his thoughts on author events with Our Correspondent. (3:27)

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Lucas, a smiling 50-year-old man who doesn’t work, told me that he doesn’t really attend author events, but that he “bumps into them.” He said he wouldn’t pay for an author event, largely because he views it as a meeting. In his view, the reader shouldn’t pay to meet people. “It’s very bizarre to go to an author meeting or gathering. Because basically you meet authors through their books. So I read their books. And I sort of dream about meeting them. But I don’t really want to meet them.”

Miriam, a 35-year-old consultant, told me she attended two to three author events a year. She likes “to learn about the work that goes behind the writing.” Asking stimulating questions and “the author’s voice” were also big draws. She said that she would pay $5 for an author event “if it was an author I liked.” The $5 fee wouldn’t make a huge difference, but she felt that “these things should be free to get the maximum number of people.” Miriam said that, if she were intrigued, she would pay for a debut or an unknown author event. But the biggest reason that Miriam went to events was knowing the author in question.

Patty Greenberg, a 60-year-old stay-at-home mom tightly gripping the leash of a rather large and very well-groomed poodle, told me that she only attended one author event a year and that she would only pay $5 if she was really interested in the author.

A 24-year-old dancer who claimed to be “Devon Alberta” (stage name or lark?) said that he doesn’t attend author events, but that he would pay money “if he liked the author.” He would even purchase the book if this was the cost to attend. Why does he attend author events? “I always like to have access to the writer and the way that they communicate outside of the text.”

Then there was an unexpected run-in with the film critic Glen Kenny, who told me that he attended five author events a year. Would he pay? “Five dollars is about reasonable if I wanted to go. And if there was seating.” Kenny confessed that he mostly goes to events if he knows the author, but he is interested in the presentation. “Just a window into his own perception of what he’s doing, I think, is often conveyed through reading.” He pointed to key differences between seeing Martin Amis at an event when he wasn’t well-known versus when he was well-known. But he did admit that an author event “doesn’t necessarily enhance my appreciation of the work.”

Brandon Pederson, a 24-year-old gentleman who identified himself as “a real-time highlighter for Major League Baseball,” said that he usually attended four author events a year. He said he would pay $5 if he “was sold on them being someone I would give $5 to” — note the way Pederson views the money as going to the author, not the bookstore. Pederson said that he often attended author events because “friends told him to.” I suggested to Pederson that surely he had free will. He then told me that he was new to the city and interested in “theory” and “fiction that pushes what fiction is.” He enjoyed hearing authors talk about books, sometimes buying them to be signed. But if Pederson was asked to pay $5 for an author he hadn’t heard of, then his criteria changed: “if the work sounded relative to what I was interested in.”

Jen, a 27-year-old teacher, told me that she probably hadn’t been to an author event at a bookstore. She was fond of going to author lectures –”usually authors that we’re reading about and stuff that we’re taking excerpts from.” Why did she avoid bookstore events? “Honestly? Probably because it’s not marketed that well. I don’t know about them.” Jen said that she would pay for an author event at a bookstore, but, like the majority of the people I spoke with, it would depend on who the author is. She would pay for favorite authors, but she wouldn’t pay for debut or unknown authors. “Not unless it was a friend I was trying to help out.”

Another 27-year-old teacher named Lynn, accompanied by a highly animated dog, was an even bigger fan of author events than Jen, in large part because she teaches English. She copped to attending 40 author events a year and she was the only person I talked with who had read the New York Times article. Why did she attend author events? “I’m bad in bars.”

While paying for an event would make her think twice, Lynn said that, despite her teacher’s salary, she would pay $5 if she had to because she loved independent bookstores and wanted to see them flourish. “There’s a reason I don’t buy used books.” But she did say that her husband would probably give her a hard time if she was forced to pay out $200/year.

Lynn told me that she had been disappointed by some author events. “I just go to go. It would have to be more of a schtick. Some do interviews. And some just read. I might be a little more thoughtful about the events that I go to.” I asked if she would want more from a reading if she was ponying up a Lincoln. “Yeah,” said Lynn. “Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Like other paid author event supporters I talked with, Lynn said that she would have to be somewhat familiar with a debut or unknown author to attend a paid author event — perhaps through a story in The New Yorker or One Story.

Will Paid Author Events Create More Demands?

“Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Listen to Lynn, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, discuss her thoughts on paid author events with Our Correspondent. (1:59)

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Doug Stone, a 40-year-old writer, said that he attended somewhere between three and four author events a year. Asked if he would pay $5 for an author event, he replied, “Well, it can’t be anybody.” Stone said that readings had a certain feel of inclusiveness that might be diminished by asking people to pay. “I’ve been to bookstores where you’re browsing and you didn’t even know there was going to be a reading. Then all of a sudden, we’re doing a reading. And you go over and you’re introduced to people.” He felt that charging money changed the spirit of the event and audience expectations. “The readings that I’ve enjoyed the most, they’re just a free event.” But Stone was not averse to someone passing the hat after an author event, if certain needs were stated. “I would put ten frigging dollars in that hat.”

* * *

What do these conversations tell us? It reveals that people like Lucas and Doug Stone often attend author events when it is random and that these happy accidents can produce potential acolytes. Nearly all of these customers see the author event as an experience to get to know the author beyond the book. Attending an event represents a perceived social experience. A $5 fee not only created the distinct possibility that debut, experimental, and unknown authors would be cut out of the loop, but it created new demands upon authors and bookstores. Would authors be required to perform? Should the authors be compensated? Would the audience demand more?

“Paid author events are common in Europe,” says novelist Stewart O’Nan. “In fact, a free author event would be uncommon, and even those are subsidized by the publishers and bookstores in co-op fashion, with the author being paid for each and every tour appearance. Because the author, when not writing, is being asked to be a performing artist. What other professional would be asked to travel across the country and perform their work for free? Even the lowliest dive bar has to give the band half of the door. This ain’t open mike night. The store provides the venue & the advertising & logistics, so they should definitely get a cut, but the author, being the attraction, should definitely be compensated.”

“Author events are a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, in a way,” says memoirist Alison Bechdel, who also offered an idea of authors performing foot massages for a small fee and splitting the take with the bookstore. “It’s understood that the bookstore and the author and the publisher all have a stake and a responsibility, but it’s a complex, overlapping mix in which you all depend on one another and work as hard as you can to have a successful event. All three parties want to sell the book. But there are other, less commodifiable, elements in the mix. It’s worth something to readers to have access to an author. It’s worth something to authors to have the opportunity to reach readers. It’s worth something to bookstores to get traffic and possible new customers. And when, inevitably, there’s an event that no one shows up to, the toll is not just financial — it’s depressing.

Stephanie Anderson, manager of the independent bookstore WORD Brooklyn, concludes that the author is being compensated on some level. “We’ve definitely noticed a strong correlation between how much an author and audience connect and how many books sell. I know royalties aren’t huge, but they are a good reason to want to sell a lot of your own book.”

I reached Tayari Jones by telephone as she was in the middle of a very involved indie-friendly tour for her latest novel, Silver Sparrow. Jones said that she was very grateful to the independents for their support of her book and that she wanted to do whatever she could for them. But she did express some reservations about paid author events could solve present problems.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Jones. “But I think that charging money feels punitive.”

Jones brought up a hypothetical example of a customer driving all the way from Detroit to an Ann Arbor bookstore and being turned away because she didn’t have the $5. “Can you imagine that?” Jones said that she didn’t want anybody turned away. Would this mean authors and publishers subsidizing author events for those facing financial hardship? I asked Jones if she would pay out of pocket. “$100,” said Jones. “I could front twenty people.”

Jones has adopted one strategy of informing her audience why it’s important to purchase a book at an indie — even if members of her audience have already done so. “It’s worked every time.” She notes that when such a request comes from the author (instead of the bookseller), it tends to have a less partial perception.

* * *

“My bottom line is this,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner. “I don’t think authors have any business telling readers where or when to buy their books. Would I love it if everyone bought my new hardcover the day it was published at Headhouse Books, which is my neighborhood independent in Philadelphia? Absolutely. Do I understand if they’ve got e-readers, or can find the books more cheaply at Sam’s Club or Target, or wait for the paperback, or visit the library because a hardcover isn’t in their budget? Absolutely. I’m grateful to have people reading my books, however and whenever they do it.”

Weiner hopes that struggling independent booksellers can consider the long-term customer. “Maybe the graduate student or young mom who shows up at my reading isn’t going to drop $27 on my newest hardcover, but maybe she will buy a trade paperback, and a few Judy Moodys for her kid. So the store’s making money, even if it’s not on my book. Or the putative reader won’t buy the book that day, but she’ll get it in two weeks. Or she won’t get it at all, but she’ll tell a friend, who will then buy a copy.”

Still, as former bookstore marketing manager Colleen Lindsay has observed, the author event is fraught with significant costs, including expenditures for returned books and those customers who couldn’t purchase a book that they wanted.

Off-site events, such as WORD Brooklyn’s recent ticketed event with China Mieville, have made a difference. “I think ticketing the event and having the vast majority of the books pre-purchased ended up making the event a better one overall,” says Anderson. “We and the venue were able to properly plan because we knew how many people were coming, which made setting up and transitioning from Mieville’s interview to his signing much easier (and meant he could spend more time with fans). It also meant that the act of commerce was essentially disassociated from the event, because everyone had already paid. There was no pressure to buy, because everyone had already bought. The staff could spend more time talking with people and helping out, instead of running a million credit cards. We did have some backlist titles available for sale and sold a few, but most people just got right in line with the book they had gotten when they walked in the door, and it all went very smoothly.”

Yet O’Nan suggests that shifting to a pay-for-play model generates additional problems of writers competing with celebrity writers. “Sarah Palin will sell a truckload more books and draw much bigger crowds than, say, Tom Wolfe,” says O’Nan, “who will sell a truckload more books and draw a much bigger crowd than, say, Steven Millhauser. In the end, is the idea merely to turn out the largest crowd and make the largest profit (and to sell the largest number of copies)? If so, book Sarah Palin. If it’s to enjoy the genius of a master storyteller, call Steven Millhauser. I’ll pay good money to see him.”

“There many be some evolution towards a revenue share model similar to what you see at a music venue, where they book in an act and share the door with the performer,” says Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco. “We’d be open to considering that type of model. We already have a similar arrangement with the performer as our monthly adult cabaret event, The Literary Clown Foolery.”

Jones, O’Nan, and Weiner all tell me that they work very hard at their author events.

“I bring an A-game regardless,” says Jones. “There could be no more additional pressure.”

“I go out and give my all every time, whether I’m being paid decent money at a big university or reading for free at a tiny library,” says O’Nan.

“My secret weapon is baked goods,” says Weiner.

But do performance elements — what the dedicated bookstore customer might call “schtick” — create new demands for authors and bookstores in the 21st century?

Glenn Kenny suggests that some of these performance elements have been there all along. “I remember going to benefit events,” says Kenny, “which combined readings with music. It was something that McSweeney’s did after 9/11 at Angel Orensanz that had Chuck Klosterman reading from Fargo Rock City and David Byrne doing a PowerPoint presentation. So those things, which are packaged like entertainment events, they make more sense to be paid events, per se. But a plain reading might not necessarily be it. But I can’t rule anything out.”

While Weiner says that she would pay considerably more than $5 to listen to author Jen Lancaster, which she compares to “attending a stand-up performance,” author events can sometimes work in reverse.

“Some authors just aren’t very good at the performance component of this job,” says Weiner. “Which doesn’t mean they’re bad writers. It just means that maybe they aren’t necessarily the ones publishers and bookstores should send on the road and make readers pay to hear. And yes, there is something a little off-putting about charging for an event and the author, and her publisher, and whoever interviewed her if it was a Q and A, not seeing a cent of the money, particularly since publishers are the ones who pay to send authors on the road. I can see that independent bookstores feel like they need to take a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to cultivating revenue streams, but maybe there’s an approach where a bookstore could say, ‘If we clear more than X dollars that night, we’ll split the cost of the author’s plane ticket and hotel stay with her publisher.’ And anyone who volunteers his or her time to interview an author should at the very least get a gift card, or a few books for their trouble.”

It remains to be seen if paid author events will become a new regular fixture at this early stage in the game. In the meantime, some authors simply hope to go on with their business.

“The road of thinking that what we do is simply quantifiable — my ‘words’ or my ‘appearance’ having some fixed value — is the path of madness,” says Jonathan Lethem. “I’m just glad that anyone cares at all to either read the work or come catch a glimpse of me, and anything a bookstore can do to go on being a bookstore is just fine with me.”

“Everything is an experiment in the book business,” says Sherman Alexie. “We are talking about writers and independent booksellers. We are not talking about economic geniuses. We are all flailing.”

(Images: Rebecca Williamson, Daniel Huggard, bitchcakesny, Steve Rhodes)

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Jennifer Schuessler: “Literary Occupation: Housewife”

On September 21, 1832, Maria W. Stewart became the first African-American woman to lecture on women’s rights. She was jeered at by male crowds, who pelted her with tomatoes. A few years later in Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott received a similar reception when she pointed out that it was “not Christianity, but priestcraft” that had subjected women. Mott’s remarks, along with those of other women, were widely ridiculed by the press. On November 5, 1855, The New York Times would write of Mott:

The evident sincerity of feeling and intensity of thought produce a strong impression on the mind, but the utter absence of imaginative power stripped the impression of those almost higher attractions which beauty of illustration lends. Still, though the absence of this quality may neutralize the effect as far as popularity with a general audience is concerned, the effect on those who came with a preconceived sympathy with the ideas of a preacher, is likely to be more powerful, in proportion as the enunciation is simple and unaided by the poetical assistance of sensuous flights of imagination or classical touches of cultivated intellect.

In other words, Mott was merely some sincere country bumpkin who could only preach to the already converted. As far as The New York Times was concerned, Mott’s rhetorical approach, despite “a large and eager congregation,” could never reach the higher plains of cultivated intellect.

These ugly and prejudicial avenues were revisited on June 4, 2011, when The New York Times published a baffling article by Jennifer Schuessler. Schuessler suggested that, any time a woman author tweets a 140 character message, she is engaging in a literary feud. Was Schuessler longing for a presuffrage America? Or a continuation of the complacent and sexist approach from 150 years before? It certainly felt that way. Despite claiming that feud watchers “question whether Twitter feuds really qualify” (and who is a feud watcher anyway? Jonathan Franzen when he’s not watching birds?), Schuessler condemned numerous women for speaking their minds. By criticizing the establishment, numerous bestselling authors were somehow transformed into a mindless mob. And if Schuessler has possessed the linguistic and argumentative facilities of her 1855 counterpart, she might very well have claimed that these women carried an “utter absence of imaginative power.”

After serving up a laundry list of all-male literary “feuds” (Theroux v. Naipaul, Vargas Llosa v. Garcia Marquez, Moody v. Peck), with the feud defined as “a willingness to throw actual punches along with verbal jabs,” Schuessler writes:

If the literary feud has lost its old-school bluster, it might be tempting to lay the blame with what Nathaniel Hawthorne might have called “the mob of damn Twittering women.” These days, in America at least, it’s women authors who seem to start the splashiest literary fights, and you don’t need a stool at the White Horse Tavern to witness it.

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that those who have tweeted critical comments (the names cited in the article are Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Ayelet Waldman, and Roseanne Cash) wish to engage in physically and verbally aggressive behavior, or that they have little more than barbaric contributions to offer to public discourse. In Schuessler’s defense, there is a modest case that Waldman, in defending her husband, was engaging in ongoing ressentiment towards Katie Roiphe. But the other women cited in Schuessler’s piece were not. If Weiner and Picoult “led a Twitter campaign against what they saw as the male-dominated literary establishment’s excessive fawning over Jonathan Franzen,” one must ask whether a campaign constitutes a feud.

The feud, as described by Schuessler, is one predicated upon hatred for another person. When an author receives a black eye or a knockout, this is little more than an ignoble pissing match revolving around egos. When Paul Theroux writes a poison-pen memoir condemning his former friend Naipaul, does this stand for any corresponding set of virtues?

Yet when a group of women is trying to raise serious questions about the manner in which books are covered by the media, can one really call it a feud? The evidence suggests nobler intentions. In an August 30, 2010 NPR article, Jennifer Weiner stated that the establishment is “ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books.” On August 26, 2010, both Weiner and Picoult were interviewed at length by The Huffington Post‘s Jason Pinter about their positions. And it becomes clear from Pinter’s piece that the purported “mob of damn Twittering women” isn’t just “a Twitter campaign,” but an attempt to start a discussion.

Schuessler also condemns “a similar crew” who “took aim at Jennifer Egan” after Egan declared chick lit as “very derivative, banal stuff.” But in refusing to identify the “crew” in question (and only getting a quote from Katie Roiphe, who had little to do with the “feud”), Schuessler proved herself to be an irresponsible journalist. The conversation about Egan’s remarks extended well beyond Twitter, with detailed essays appearing for and against in such outlets as The Frisky and The Millions. Does such a debate really constitute a feud?

When Roiphe says, “The nature of Twitter is you don’t need to think about what you’re saying. Most of us need to think more about what we’re saying, not less,” she demonstrates her total ignorance of the way in which Twitter works. As seen by the Egan remarks and the Franzenfreude statements, there was an initial emotional outcry on Twitter that became dwarfed by a more serious discussion. People formulated their thoughts and wrote lengthy online essays. If the comments to those essays were somewhat heated, there remained numerous efforts by thoughtful people to maintain a civil debate.

So when Schuessler gets Waldman on the record to speculate about how Jane Austen might have engaged in a Twitter debate over Naipaul’s recent comments, Waldman (perhaps unwittingly) upholds the status quo: “Only those of us with impulse control issues take our snits into the ether.” But this falsely suggests that Twitter encourages nothing less than our worst impulses and that one’s initial outburst can’t be tamed into a more rational discussion. It also upholds a dangerous double standard: a man is permitted to speak his mind and punch somebody out (presumably for the amusement of “feud watchers”); but if a woman does anything close to this, she’s little more than “a damn Twittering woman.” If the purported paper of record — an outlet that suggested a few months ago that a gang-raped schoolgirl had it coming — is seriously equating today’s talented female authors with Freidan’s “happy housewife heroines,” then it is clear that The New York Times is ill-equipped to operate in the 21st century.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jennifer Weiner III

Jennifer Weiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #346. She is most recently the author of Fly Away Home. Ms. Weiner previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #198 and The Bat Segundo Show #14.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to be frightened by The Motherland sometime soon.

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It seems to me that you are really gravitating more towards this extremely dark expanse of human behavior. At least from my vantage point. And it seems that you really want to push further in this direction. And yet, to some degree, you almost stop short of really pushing yourself fully into something so dark. And I know you’ve got it in you. So I’m wondering: why ride the comic tone? Out of obligation to your readers? Or what here?

Weiner: Well, I think, for me, it always feels natural to have both. To have the darkness and the comedy. That’s just how I am as a person. And I think that my own family history has made me that way. There’s been horrible things that have happened, but me and my sister and my brothers always wind up laughing about it. Because what else can you do? But it’s interesting. That darkness. Because it’s a tough tension to maintain. And I don’t want… (pause) See, here’s the thing. I don’t think writers choose the books they’re trying to write. I don’t think writers choose the tone they’re going to take. I think that it’s a blood type. Like it’s what you’re born with. Stephen King gave the example. He and Louis L’Amour could be sitting at a pond. And Louis L’Amour would come up with this Western about water rights in a town that was having a drought, and what would happen? And Stephen King would write about something that comes slithering onto the banks, and first takes the dogs, and then takes the cattle, and then takes the kids. It’s just the way you’re wired. And I think that I’m wired, for good or for ill. I mean, there was a lot of sad stuff in Good in Bed too.

Correspondent: That’s true. But we’re talking about rape.

Weiner: Rape.

Correspondent: We’re talking about neglected children.

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: And during those sections in both of these last two books, it gets really, really serious.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: And then we go back to the laughs. But I’m wondering why not go ahead and spread this further? It’s not to say that you can’t explore light and dark. You can do a double plot thing. Like Crimes and Misdemeanors or something. I don’t know.

Weiner: (laughs) And then when you turn the book over…

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

Weiner: …they go shoe shopping!

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly.

Weiner: Well, who’s doing that well? Zoe Heller obviously.

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Who else? Who do you like? Because Zoe Heller’s funny too.

Correspondent: I’ll bring up Richard Russo. Richard Russo does that very well too. And in fact, I….

Weiner: Mmmmm. My mother loves him.

Correspondent: I’m trying to go ahead — you and Russo are actually on the same team here. You know, that whole description of the development of the grocery store?

Weiner: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: I could find that in a Richard Russo book, as I could in a Jennifer Weiner book. He writes about this kind of stuff too.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: You write about this too. And I’m telling you. What do we do to get some kind of diplomacy here?

Weiner: But I…

Correspondent: It’s not Russo’s fault that your mother was blabbing about him!

Weiner: Oh my god.

Correspondent: It wasn’t his fault.

Weiner: Okay, let me set the scene for you. The year is 2001.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Weiner: And my first book is out. And I’m in a bookstore with my mother. And I’m signing stock, as you do. And my mother, who is very friendly and chatty. This woman comes up to her and says, “Oh, I need a great book for the summer. Have you read anything?” And my mother says, “I just read the best book. It was funny and it was sad. And the characters felt so real.” And I’m like, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And my mom’s like, “It’s called Empire Falls by Richard Russo.” And I’m like, “Mom!” Because do you think that Richard Russo’s mom is up in Maine pimping my books?

Correspondent: But your mother was probably pimping your book too!

Weiner: Uh uh.

Correspondent: No?

Weiner: Mmm mmm.

Correspondent: Not at all?

Weiner: Well, maybe a little bit.

Correspondent: Oh okay. Well, there you go.

Weiner: But I think the woman asked what she read that she loved. And I think that [my mother] read Good in Bed in galley months ago. But, no, I love Richard Russo. But I don’t know.

Correspondent: So wait. You have read him.

Weiner: Of course!

Correspondent: Okay. Okay. So this is…

Weiner: I’m not a philistine here!

Correspondent: (laughs) So what’s the issue here? It can’t just be your mom. There’s something else going on here.

Weiner: I like Richard Russo. Have I talked smack about him?

Correspondent: Yeah. You’ve been suggesting, “Oh. Richard Russo. I don’t talk about him because of this whole mother thing.”

Weiner: It’s a joke! It’s a joke!

Correspondent: Okay.

Weiner: I like him. I don’t like Jonathan Franzen.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Weiner: But I don’t think Jonathan Franzen likes anybody. So I think it’s all good. Like I don’t think he wants me — I don’t know? Does he want to be liked? Did you read the essay that his girlfriend wrote?

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Where was it? The Paris Review?

Correspondent: Kathy Chetkovich. It was in Granta. [EDITORIAL NOTE: Issue 82, to be precise. Now behind a paywall, but an excerpt appeared in The Observer. See above link.]

Weiner: Granta.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Weiner: Weird guy. About birding.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. But actually, since we’re talking about the literary world…

Weiner: Yes!

Correspondent: I should also bring this up. Why give so much credit to The New York Times Book Review? I mean, this whole thing with the full-page advertisement.

Weiner: I know.

Correspondent: And I read your Twitter feed. And I know that you’re there on a Friday afternoon. At 5:00. When they put up the new articles. And you are looking through those articles.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: Why? Why give these folks credence?

Weiner: Well, you know what it is? They’re kind of the only game left in town. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I used to work, once had a free-standing books section. And there used to be — I think the Hartford Courant, where I grew up, had a books section once upon a time. But honest to god, the truth is that my dad read The New Yorker and read The New York Times Book Review, and would get all of his reading suggestions from those two places. So if you weren’t in there, you didn’t really matter. And I think that I internalized that to a very great extent. But honestly, I think that the die was cast when I went with Atria instead of Simon & Schuster. Like way back in the day. When I was choosing who was going to publish my first book. And it’s like, well, Atria is much more commercial. And I knew that I loved my editor. I love my editor still. I love my publisher. They got the book. Like on a really visceral level. They were going to a great job of promoting it. Do a great job with me. But I wasn’t going to get reviewed by the Times. But then again, if you call your book Good in Bed, are you ever going to get reviewed by the Times? I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Unless you name it The Surrender.

The Bat Segundo Show #346: Jennifer Weiner III (Download MP3)

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(Image: pplflickr)

That Old Reading Magic

My review of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. And just to be clear on this, I filed my review weeks before I offered my thoughts on the Newsweek contretemps and before my second interview with the man.

But there’s an additional issue that worries me, one recently voiced by Jennifer Weiner. Like Russo’s latest novel, Weiner’s book, Best Friends Forever, includes a lengthy chapter in Cape Cod — a surprisingly dark and creepy flashback that reveals significant behavioral details — and, like Russo, concerns itself the theme of adults having to come to terms that they are indeed their own parents. Both novels approach the subject from entirely different perspectives. But because Weiner writes from a female-centric perspective, her novel is judged an ersatz beach read and because Russo writes about men, he is “a misogynist.” Such cavalier assessments, which violate John Updike’s first rule of trying to understand what the author wish to do, underscore the more troubling issue. A novelist who writes in a light and straightforward tone about human behavior is often written off by the critical snobs, particularly if the novelist has any commercial success. Weiner and Russo, in other words, are really on the same side.

And here’s Weiner in her blog post:

After the fifth or sixth time this happened, I pulled Fran aside and explained that I doubted that Mrs. Russo was endorsing my book, so she needed to quit pimping Richard Russo’s work. Which I still haven’t read, but probably should.

But Weiner, as it turns out, was wrong. At the end of my interview with Russo, I asked him if he had read Jennifer Weiner. He said that he hadn’t, but that he had read and enjoyed Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. But he assured me that he would read Weiner at the earliest opportunity.

It was very heartening to learn that Russo was committed to reading “high” and “low,” far and wide, and literary and commercial. Reading isn’t about confirming your preferences or your perspectives. If it were, how could anybody be passionate about books?

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Are Bookstores Being Too Censorious With Author Events?

Jennifer Weiner is a best-selling author. And while her latest novel, Best Friends Forever, proved popular enough to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, this didn’t stop a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Framingham, Massachusetts from raising a censorious eyebrow.

Some bookstores have begun instituting informal policies which preclude authors from using four-letter words during a public reading. And even dependable draws like Weiner are being asked to hold their tongues. These developments — reflected most recently in the Weiner case — raise new questions about just how much an author is allowed to get away with in the 21st century and whether bookstore policies that are understandably intended to protect children are going too far.

The trouble for Weiner began when she playfully announced the “potty-mouthed” nature of her Best Friends Forever book tour on Twitter. Shortly after her Philadelphia reading, Weiner later tweeted that she had received a warning:

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Weiner carried on with the Framingham gig without setting off any F-bombs, and applied her saucy language instead to the inscriptions. (After tweeting about the Framingham event, the organizer of a subsequent off-site event in St. Louis encouraged Weiner to be extra raunchy.)

“I can’t imagine it’s a blanket B&N policy,” said Weiner. “I kicked off the Best Friends Forever tour at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Triangle in New York City, and I said ‘cock’ like nine times and told a story about a Hitachi Magic Wand, and the manager seemed perfectly okay with it (my poor editor, who brought her parents to the reading, not so much). As much as I’d like to turn this into a ‘corporate stiffs censor freewheeling lady writer because the world hates it when a lady succeeds’ story, I honestly think it was just this one bookstore, that one afternoon, making a not-unreasonable request.”

A list of questions was sent to Mary Ellen Keating, Barnes and Noble’s senior vice president of corporate communication and public affairs. But there was no response. I was able to reach Margaret Moore, the community relations manager of the Framingham store, by phone. But she was extremely nervous, even when I assured her that I was merely determining questions of policy. I did receive a return phone call from Maddie Hjulstrom, a regional community relations manager at Barnes and Noble, who was gracious enough to talk with me.

Hjulstrom informed me that the email had been sent by Moore when Moore had “learned that Ms. Weiner’s language was colorful at her discussions.”

According to Weiner, the Framingham controversy arose out of concerns that the reading area was adjacent to the children’s section and that Weiner’s scheduled reading time — 3:00 PM — would be too early to account for the hallowed ears of tots.

“Because the event was on a Sunday afternoon,” said Weiner, “I think the bookstore managers reasonably expected that there would be kids there, and felt that they could reasonably ask me to tone down the cussing.”

This was confirmed by Hjulstrom, who told me that the objections had to do with the microphone’s close placement to the children’s department and the possibility that Weiner’s amplified words might drift like cigarette smoke into a 1980s restaurant’s nonsmoking section.

“We want to be respectful of young families and children,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t regulate where children are in our store. At 3:00 PM, it might be a problem.”

Had Barnes & Noble ever received any customer complaints because of an author or a poet using salty language during a reading? Hjulstrom told me that she couldn’t give me an example of the Framingham store having received a single customer complaint, but that the region, as a whole, had received a few complaints.

The Barnes & Noble “no salty language” policy is, according to Hjulstrom, “not a written policy, just common courtesy.” It is something that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

“All we can do is ask,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t enforce. We don’t kick them out of their store. We just ask them to respect the children who are in the stores.”

I asked Hjulstrom what might happen if an author used salty language, but did not receive a single customer complaint.

“I’m not comfortable going into what ifs,” replied Hjulstrom. “I just want to deal with the facts.”

But the prohibition causes one to wonder why bookstores — even with the possibility of a child lurking around a bookstore late at night — would be so offended by a monosyllabic exclamation that anyone who has ever stubbed a toe is quite familiar with. Were there efforts by Weiner and Barnes and Noble to broker a last-minute deal?

“We didn’t try to broker a compromise mostly because there wasn’t time,” explained Weiner. “The best solution would have been either to hold the event somewhere else, or after dark, and with just over twenty-four hours, on a weekend, to either reschedule or relocate, that just didn’t seem feasible. And again, once I got over my reflexive ‘the MAN is trying to SHUT ME UP’ paranoia, it didn’t seem like a crazy thing to ask. I’ve got little kids, and if I took them into a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon to pick up the latest Sandra Boynton or ‘Junie B. Jones,’ I probably wouldn’t be thrilled to find some lady standing behind a microphone talking, as I tend to, about ‘wall-to-wall cock.’”

Still, independent bookstores such as San Francisco’s The Booksmith have conducted numerous author events in its children’s section, closing the section off to make room for the audience to sit down. Booksmith co-owner Praveen Madan informed me that, while there are generally no kids around at the time of the event, his bookstore doesn’t make any concessions if an event takes place in the middle of the day.

“We take freedom of speech very seriously and even the suggestion of us laying down any kind of censoring guidelines for authors makes me cringe,” said Madan. “And the issue here is more than freedom of speech. We believe it’s important for authors to be authentic and credible, and sometimes being authentic requires saying things that might end up offending some people. I would rather shut down the bookstore and sell falafels than try to engineer an author’s talk to make the author more palatable for a certain audience. You should be clear about what business you are in. We are in the business of intellectual discourse and opening people’s minds to new ideas and possibilities. If you want to be in the business of reinforcing people’s existing belief systems, than you should run a religious institution or radio talk show, not a bookstore.”

It’s also worth observing that prohibitions on what an author can say at a reading can sometimes have unexpected side effects. As Tayari Jones observed on her blog recently, the author can feel oddly shamed when contending with a complaint.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, formerly of McNally Jackson and now working hard to open the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene this autumn, says that there was never a policy prohibiting language or controversial topics at an author event when she worked at McNally. But she did mention that she hoped to be more sensitive to such matters at Greenlight.

“We don’t intend to set any blanket policy,” said Bagnulo. “I think for the most part we will trust our customers to know whether an author is going to be inappropriate for their children or potentially offensive to their own sensibilities. As long as we make clear from the outset what the event is likely to contain, we won’t try to restrict or prohibit authors from anything they’d like to say.”

Even if the event is scheduled in the middle of the day?

“Not unless it’s an event specifically geared toward kids,” replied Bagnulo. “For example, at McNally we held a Halloween event that had kids programming earlier in the day, and some adult authors reading later that had lots of graphic blood and gore.”

Before the Framingham incident, Weiner had never received any complaints from a bookstore for her act. But censorship issues aren’t limited to the big box stores. Weiner alluded to an incident that came from an ostensible independent:

“In 2001, when Good in Bed came out, I did hear from one independent bookstore somewhere in the Midwest that an older gentleman had objected to a cover featuring the book’s poster (naked legs and cheesecake) in the window. But that’s as close to censorship as I’ve come.”

For what it’s worth, Weiner did say that she would do an event at the Framingham bookstore again: “I’d just make sure it was an evening event, or that it was held somewhere far, far away from the innocent ears of children.”

“In general, we feel that authors these days have become rather conservative and risk averse because they are trying to become bestsellers and are afraid of stirring controversy,” said Madan. “I wish more authors would pick topics that might be controversial and not worry about offending people. There are important topics being ignored and we all tend to surround ourselves with people we agree with and we like.”

“I think that indie bookstores work to create an environment of mutual respect between authors and audiences,” said Bagnulo, “where what is controversial is taken in context as part of the conversation, and there’s enough transparency of intention that people are unlikely to be offended.

“It’s not a bad idea to mention ahead of time, ‘Hey, I work blue,’” said Weiner, “but it’s never been a problem in the past, and I don’t really expect it to be a problem going forward.”

smiley

Jane Smiley is Snobby Enough to Aim Low

Just so you know the heights of her hauteur, Jane Smiley’s latest review is about the snobbiest nonsense you can imagine from a book review section. The kind of afternoon balderdash “dictated but not read” by a humorless patent attorney and dutifully revered without quibble by fawning sycophants.

Unable to get her arrogant and elitist mind around the idea of a pink book, or rather what’s inside a pink book, Smiley spends four paragraphs devoting her Pulitzer Prize-winning “talents” to sentences that one would expect from a precocious tot who feels entitled to win first prize at the science fair without going to the trouble of setting up a booth. It’s the kind of Bart Simpson summary one expects from a surly shrew shirking her duties. I mean, I’m not much of a fan of the Ten Days in the Hills paperback cover of a woman in a black bikini top. It’s a gaudy orange color scheme that gave me a great desire to barf before I hurled the paperback across the room to secure my salubrity. But you won’t see me mentioning this eyesore of a cover. No. It just ain’t germane when discussing books. Particularly when Smiley’s inept “literary” style is evident from Ten Days‘s first sentence (which, believe it or not, contains the unintentionally hilarious phrase “his eyelids smooth over the orbs of his eyes,” which makes one wonder whether Smiley has confused the simple act of sleeping with opening up a Dremel contour kit).

I happen to have read Certain Girls and, while I have some problems with the book, I’m not going to pin them on genre. After all, as John Updike’s first rule of reviewing states, “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

Smiley, however, lacks the perspicacity to elaborate on how precisely Weiner is “boxed in by her chosen genre,” which she does not even have the decency to name — presumably because typing in the word “chick” into her computer will cause her to faint in the politically correct California heat.

In fact, with the exception of Goodnight Nobody, Certain Girls is possibly the least “chick lit” title in Weiner’s oeuvre. This is because its two central characters are 42 and 13. Even a snob like Rachel Donadio understands that chick lit involves female characters who are in their twenties and thirties and generally involves a happy ending. But without giving anything away, something tragic happens to a major character near the end of Certain Girls. There are a surprising number of geeky asides (even a reference to Doctor Who!) that are not typically found in a typical chick lit title. Of course, Smiley assumes that because Certain Girls has a pink cover, it must, as a matter of course, be chick lit. Which is a bit assuming that because Smiley has won a Pulitzer Prize, she must therefore be a good writer.

Presumably, this inept review wasn’t edited. How else can one explain how such hackneyed turns of phrase like “laugh-out-loud wit” and “smart and edgy” made their way into the review? But, of course, the last thing you want to do is suggest to your “name” reviewer that she’s turned in turgid jerkoff material for the unadventurous.

But if Jane Smiley had asked me what I thought of this review, I would have said, “Do you really expect to collect a paycheck for this piece of shit, Jane? Why didn’t you cite a single textual example in this 900 word review? Don’t you dare write for this paper again until you can learn how to write!” That would have been the more daring and intriguing way to get Jane Smiley to actually write something that I’d be even remotely interesting in reading.

Or maybe Smiley really isn’t that great of a writer or that deep of a thinker to begin with. I mean, what can one say about a writer whose prose style is tailor-made for the New York Times Book Review? I’m thinking we’re dealing with a writer who’s about as much fun to read as a 1972 issue of a home decorating magazine.

I must confess that the continued adulation of Jane Smiley is a mystery to me. I’ve kept quiet for a long time about it. But Smiley has now crossed the line by bringing her dismissive hubris and a dullard’s reading sensibility to a newspaper book review section that once valued content before name recognition. Small wonder that newspaper book review sections are losing credibility.

[RELATED: Jennifer Weiner recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show in relation to Certain Girls.]