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 latimes.com 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.

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14 Comments

  1. Ed, how do you really feel?

    Sadly, I don’t think one can buy a stereo anymore, only devices whose back sides look like the cockpit of a 757.

  2. [...] But, if you sympathize with this perspective be warned: you are weak and you just don’t love books enough (and you’re probably a calcified narci…. [...]

  3. Ed,

    Why do you always feel the urge to crucify or canonize? As with your post on Nicholson Baker’s recent essay (and frankly, with a lot of your angry outbursts), there’s room for a more moderated, nuanced view here. And your admission near the end that you’re no longer writing for the LAT sure makes it seem like your motivations lie in revenge, rather than in attempting understanding or genuine discourse.

  4. Anonymatopoeia: It might help if you had the balls to use your real name. See, I did. And I would say everything I wrote to David Ulin’s face. You should probably note that you recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times and that your interest in defending Ulin stems, in all likelihood, from your interest in getting repeat work. It’s an understandable impulse. I was once like you. And I was used and dropped like a sack of potatoes. Rest assured: you will be too. None of this detracts from the overall point of my piece, which has to do with the false (and misread) virtue that Ulin is calling for here. I could care less about any “revenge” you wish to read in this post. Your selective reading interpretation says more about your own motivations.

  5. You’re right that I’ve written for the LAT, but I tried to stay anonymous because I didn’t want to be seen as having a conflict of interest. I guess there’s no avoiding that accusation, but I promise that any association I have with them is not the reason I’m calling for a little moderation, though that may not be believed.

    Anyway, I really do admire your passion, Ed. It’s a great trait to have, and you are very knowledge about books and book-related matters. But I do think there are times when a few deep breaths (again, the recent Baker post comes to mind) might lead to a more nuanced point of view and an actual discussion.

  6. Geez, Ed, it’s hard to imagine there are that many 17-year-olds who read with the focus of Edmund Wilson. Qualitatively, Conroy’s (and Ulin’s) reading experience seems as valid as any other, it just serves a different end — that of immersive escape. Are you suggesting that one should never read that way, ever; or that there are certain authors who should never be read that way; or that an uncritical enthusiasm for indiscriminate reading is (a) inferior and/or (b) incapable of evolving into a more critical and systematic way of reading? If reading is “virtuous,” then that virtue inheres in the act itself, not in some useful or “higher” application of it.

  7. I agree with Andy that the way we read at 17 isn’t the way we read at 27 or 37 or whatever7. Most of us start out reading for some form of escape/entertainment and get hooked. You have to live a bit – and read a lot – before you can begin to think about what you read (and maybe, if so inclined, how it works).

  8. Thinking further about your post, I feel that you may be misreading Ulin’s intent in quoting Conroy. Is Ulin really holding this up a model of reading to aspire to, rather than illustrating the ‘Werdegang’ of many mature readers?

  9. Andy: You can read anyway you want to. But if you’re blaming your reading deficiencies (and your failure to approach other perspectives, which seems more than a bit xenophobic to me) on technology that you haven’t the ability or the discipline to control your contact with, then that’s egotistical projection. By this logic, should I blame the digital age for not finishing Vollmann’s IMPERIAL? Not at all. That would be as foolish as blaming the author. The onus is on me. I’ll read it as long as I damn well need to. Because I enjoy reading, the rush of other people who are not me, the perspectives that I may have missed, the world’s many real offshoots.

    Lee: A fair point, but one of the essay’s many fallacies is that it suggests that one cannot read and develop along the lines of what you describe while embracing the digital age. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have a Facebook account. These are non-essentials for me right now because I wish to live, to read, and to embrace other perspectives. It is possible to say no, to step away, while saying yes to the digital elements and helpful tools that don’t clutter your life.

  10. Ed, a failure to approach other perspectives? I certainly didn’t think that an essay (whatever its other deficiencies) that approached from a personal viewpoint the subject of the difficulty of finding time to read was required to weigh all other viewpoints. Do you think you would have liked it better had it been a reported piece? Or are you somehow referring to multiculturalism???

    What I still don’t understand is why your attack on Ulin’s innocuous piece of fluff has at its center your insistence that Ulin’s quotation from Stop-Time is somehow sinisterly selective and misleading. The quote has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with exuberant and wide-ranging reading with no concern for “self-betterment” or nuanced understanding. This is bad, or…?

  11. “But if you’re blaming your reading deficiencies [...] on technology that you haven’t the ability or the discipline to control your contact with, then that’s egotistical projection.”

    The problem with this sort of position is that it pretends that the external world, in this case technology, has no effect on us as individuals. That is, I am saying that my attention span has indeed been affected negatively by certain technologies. Could I manage or control this better? Of course I could. But it’s not easy. Whereas, minus the technology I wouldn’t have to make the same effort to simply discipline myself. You can say this is still my problem, and sure, it is, but it’s a problem that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And just because you are able to manage your time wisely does not therefore mean that it might not be a general problem that people are not. (I should say I’m not addressing Ulin’s article at all, since I haven’t read it. I doubt it says much that is new on the topic.)

  12. For me this is a particularly interesting discussion – here and elsewhere – since I publish my fiction first and foremost online. Obviously I’ve embraced some aspects of digital culture, but I can’t help noticing how it’s changed my own reading patterns. As a consequence it’s crucial to consider which expectations readers bring to the screen, which ways they are going to read – and whether my fiction will get the sort of attentive reading any serious writer appreciates.

  13. Another way of approaching this, Ed, is to ask if you mean that serious reading of fiction requires stepping away from the screen?

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