Understanding the General Audience

On the morning of July 21, 2009, Washington Post books editor Ron Charles expressed some concerns about book reviewers on Twitter:

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At the risk of clearing my own throat (and with all due respect to Mr. Charles), I’m wondering if the 2008 winner of the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing really has a handle on the type of writing that is likely to attract readers to his newspaper section.

Mr. Charles’s editorial sensibilities call for clear and direct writing. But his other entreaties are problematic. He asks that a first-person perspective or a sense of playfulness through reference — vital variables that might permit readers to get excited, interested, or enthused about a book — be omitted from the equation. Mr. Charles cannot seem to corral the idea of grabbing an audience with each graf with the possibility that readers may be interested with what a particular voice has to say (see, for example, the rise of litblogs over the past six years). Indeed, if Mr. Charles is desirous of a more objective journalistic approach, should not the ideal reviewer be someone who permits a reader to make up her own mind? Mr. Charles’s sentiments appear to reflect a newspaper culture in which personality or perspective — those indelible human traits that make us interested in people on so many levels — don’t get a hot seat at the formal table. Unless, of course, the reviewer is “truly famous,” which connotes a troubling elitism that runs counter to Mr. Charles’s seemingly egalitarian-minded agenda.

We should probably ask ourselves whether there is even a “general audience” for books. I think a case can certainly be made, provided you keep in mind that a “general audience” doesn’t just consume the type of pretentious literary fiction involving suburban asshats and cricket bats. We have seen millions of people get excited over the Harry Potter books (and their cinematic counterparts; see the box office bonanza in the past week). As I discussed with Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan in a recent podcast interview about the romance genre, over 64 million people claimed to read a romance novel in 2004. If Mr. Charles is genuinely committed to a “general audience,” surely he would open up his books section to more romance coverage. (Certainly, Mr. Charles’s coverage of Nora Roberts is a start.) And if the Washington Post is sincerely devoted to attracting a “general audience,” they may wish to do away with the annoying and obtrusive registration prompts that pester us for personal information.

But let’s examine a typical lede for a Washington Post review. Let’s take, simply at random, the first fiction review on today’s Washington Post books page: Mke Reed on Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Here’s the lede:

As the narrator of Colum McCann’s new novel sees it, Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 triggered a quietude generally unknown to New Yorkers.

We can do away with the superfluous opening clause. There’s no need to inform the reader that this is a review about Colum McCann’s latest book. We already know this. So this leaves us with:

Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 triggered a quietude generally unknown to New Yorkers.

Okay, we have a few interesting concepts to play with here. There’s the exciting prospect of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk, which is rendered remarkably cold and objective through the bland reportorial phrasing. There’s the more intriguing concept of “triggered a quietude generally unknown.” That phrasing is clumsy, hardly as “clear” and “direct” as Mr. Charles demands. (Is the “triggering” a reference to 9/11? Were New Yorkers really quietly in awe for the first time in 1974?) But there’s some poetic potential here. Perhaps if we take the metaphor and front-load it at the beginning of the sentence, we might have a more compelling lede:

His high wire walk between the twin towers triggered an explosive awe among New Yorkers.

Okay, this isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement. If the reader is unfamiliar with Petit (or familiar with the 2008 Petit documentary Man on Wire), she’ll be compelled to move onto the next sentence. By switching “tightrope” to “high wire,” we not only provide cultural context for a reader (“Hey, isn’t that the Man on Wire documentary?”) who soaks up art more from cinema than from books, but we also neatly foreshadow the “explosive trigger” metaphor later in the sentence. (Do you cut the red wire or the green wire?) By removing the subjective “generally unknown” assumption about New Yorkers, we do away with a superfluous aside that has little to do with the paragraph’s main purpose here.

With a few modest editorial changes, not only do we have a lede that is more of interest to a general audience, but we also don’t insult the audience’s intelligence by littering their attentive bin with the detritus of clinical phrasing.

Of course, one can avoid these disastrous results by daring to write in the first-person. Ernest Hemingway once wrote an essay about writing in the first-person — which can be found in A Moveable Feast — in which he suggested, “When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you.” Hemingway was referring primarily to fiction, but the advice nevertheless points to one primary deficiency among the newspapers — namely, an ability to give the reader a sense that he is a colleague, not some peon to be dictated to, and that literature is something to be experienced rather than cheerlessly discussed over tea and scones.

The Bat Segundo Show: Robert G. Kaiser

Robert G. Kaiser recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #264.

Robert G. Kaiser has worked at the Washington Post since 1963. He is most recently the author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Still waiting for the lobbyists to work out a deal with him.

Author: Robert G. Kaiser

Subjects Discussed: Obama’s first executive order, revolving door bans, Tom Daschle’s recent troubles, “exceptions in extraordinary circumstances,” candidates for office with lobbying backgrounds, Gerald Cassidy, picking a character for a Washington narrative, the birth of the lobbying firm Schlossberg-Cassidy Associates, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Cassidy falling into second place, lobbying problems and the 1994 Republican Revolution, the K Street Project, lobbying and partisan politics, Cassidy’s lobbying style vs. Abramoff’s lobbying style, Tom DeLay, safe seats, John Lewis, Richard Lugar, Chuck Schumer, the likelihood of an equitable earmarking system, Columbia’s early lobbying efforts with the chemistry lab, peer review, attempting to sort out differing accounts concerning the Tufts Nutrition Center, Jean Meyer, Edward Bernays and why his influential essay, “The Engineering of Consent,” took a few decades to catch on in Capitol Hill, Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President, Roger Ailes, the abandonment of objective reality over the past 45 years, the Jim Wright ethics investigation and whether or not Cassidy was culpable in Wright’s downfall, Newt Gingrich’s rise, and the potential for a return to the comparatively virtuous pre-Nixon Congress.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

kaiserCorrespondent: You also bring up one moment in the book, where you depict Senator John Stennis — the man, of course, who wrote one of the first Senate ethics codes; in fact, the first Senate ethics code. And who had not raised more than $5,000 for all of his campaigns in the past. Now here he is up for reelection in 1982. And he needs to raise $2 million. He is now forced to accept this devil’s bargain. This leads me to wonder whether, in fact, there is even room for a Sam Rayburn type of Congressman anymore. Whether it’s even possible for someone of any ethical core to be in this deeply ingrained system. If John Stennis can’t do it, then who can?

Kaiser: Well, it’s one of my favorite stories in the book. I’m glad you noticed it. But all these things are complicated. For example, in today’s Congress, in the House, we have 435 members. Probably 200 of them — or even 220 — are in totally safe seats. That is to say, they can win reelection without campaigning at all probably. Or very minimally. And that’s because of the impact of, now, two generations of very aggressive gerrymandering. We call it redrawing of the districts and state legislatures every ten years after the census is done, in which both parties have accepted the same rule of thumb that the ideal outcome is to maximize the number of safe seats for our side and minimize them for the other side. You remember this episode in Texas, which actually lead to DeLay’s downfall, when he overplayed his hand on this subject and got the Texas legislature as soon as it was under Republican control to add four more Republican seats from Texas. Which he got away with initially. But he eventually got indicted for it. And that, I think, was the beginning of the end for DeLay.

Anyhow, there are opportunities because of these safe seats for people who don’t raise any money. And they don’t participate in the corrupt system at all. Which is an interesting footnote. It just means that a large portion of members are exempt from the usual pains and tribulations of trying to raise all this money. Not true in the Senate, where everybody is theoretically more vulnerable in a way. They all try and raise the dough.

Correspondent: But if there are so many safe seats, is it possible that there could be some sort of Sam Rayburn type in a safe seat? Someone who refuses to, of course, accept any money. Pays his own way, as Rayburn did.

Kaiser: John Lewis of Atlanta. The great leader of the civil rights movement and fascinating figure, who I know slightly. I heard him preach on Sunday before the inauguration in a black church in Washington, which I just went to by chance. I didn’t realize he was going to be preaching there. He gave a remarkable presentation. But John Lewis has a very safe seat in parts of Atlanta. He’s a revered figure. I have no idea how much he raises for his elections. I should probably check that out. But Lewis is a good example of a distinguished citizen in Congress who is not corrupted by this system, as far as I know. And there are people who build up a kind of invincible status. Richard Lugar of Indiana would be a really good example of this. Lugar: former mayor of Indianapolis, Rhodes Scholar, good citizen. Conservative Republican. Nixon Republican originally when he came to town in the 70s. Lugar wins reelection, as he did this time, by huge majorities and doesn’t have to do any bad stuff, I don’t think, to raise money. There are a number of such figures who could fulfill your definition, I think, of a Sam Rayburn-like independent man. But they are the exceptions certainly.

BSS #264: Robert G. Kaiser (Download MP3)

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WaPo Book World: History Repeats Itself

To jump off from the previous post, in 1973, Washington Post cut the standalone Book World section, leaving at the time only The New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times Book Review as the only standalone sections published in this country.

Does this sound familiar? The parallels increase once you plunge into Ronald Smothers’s New York Times 1973 article on the initial folding. The article is behind a paywall, but there are some interesting facts: (1) The section was closed because of the high cost of paper and because the tabloid format was a waste of space. (2) If you think the current dilemma of 12 tabloid pages is bad, consider that the 1973 cut reduced books coverage to a four-page pullout in the Sunday Style section. (3) Carol Nemeyer, then the staff director of the Association of American Publishers, is quoted: “a danger signal to publishers who see the outlets for advertising and media reviews diminishing.”

And of course, the article contains much of the same arguments. Former Book World editor Byron Dobell — perhaps the Steve Wasserman of his time — noted, “A book review supplement should not have to pay for itself in advertising any more than a sports section should.” In November 1973, then Book World editor William McPherson disseminated a letter, reading, “These are parlous times….Will the books that most of us hear about be the major selections of the major book clubs, the highly touted bestsellers, what George Plimpton is advertising on television, and certain sensational items like The Sensuous Woman?”

Now keep in mind that all this was occurring when there weren’t any of those pesky bloggers banging out diatribes in Terre Haute basements.

Book World, as we all know, was revived as a standalone section in the early 1980s. And in an era of Kindles, G1s, and iPhones, what’s not to suggest that Book World won’t emerge yet again as a standalone section in a new format?

I get very well that the Jane Ciabattaris of the world are terrified of the present. But fear and desperate anxiety has rarely solved anything. Instead of ranting and raving about doom and gloom, and starting meaningless email campaigns, it might help to be more constructive and pro-active about current realities. Yes, Book World has taken a hit. But it’s not nearly as severe as the one leveled in 1973. Yes, you won’t see a standalone section anymore. But what about the hundreds of reviews that are still going to be published this year?

Literary journalism isn’t going to go away if we keep fighting for it, but we must consider the present realities. Hysteria certainly didn’t work for Book World in the 1970s. But adjustment and reaching out to readers did. Let us learn from the lessons of history. This time, we even have a better way of getting the word out.

[RELATED: Kelly Burdick has some interesting ideas over at Moby Lives.]

Does The End of Washington Post Book World Mean the End of Books Coverage?

Even though there has yet to be an official announcement, the NBCC is once again unofficially “reporting” “unofficial” and unsourced news that Washington Post Book World will print its last issue on February 15, 2009. Efforts to reach Marcus Brauchli to clarify answers have been unsuccessful (the man does not want to talk, even though it is claimed that he’s the only one who can answer), but perhaps a clue to Washington Post Book World‘s possible demise might be found in this blog entry at Short Stack, whereby specific links to “hard times” and “good news” suggest a tenable connection.

Conjecture, however, is hardly journalism. It still strikes me as journalistically irresponsible to report unconfirmed and unofficial rumors, particularly after Maureen McLane’s embarrassing array of bread pudding posts over the weekend. While this approach may work for Harry Knowles or Perez Hilton, it’s a bit dismaying but not particularly surprising to see that it likewise works for Jane Ciabattari.

[UPDATE: Thankfully, Motoko Rich has done some reporting, getting some interesting quotes from David Ulin, Steve Wasserman, and Douglas Brinkley, and talking with sources inside the paper. As Ulin notes, the death of a Sunday stand-alone section does not necessarily translate into an end for robust book coverage. It apparently hasn’t occurred to some of the NBCC’s inflexible fulminators that merging books coverage into general cultural sections may actually get more people reading books coverage. Is not such an approach better for the long-term health of literary journalism? And does it not attract a broader readership who otherwise may not have known about a specific book or author?]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Teachout also has thoughts, adding, “Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.”]

[UPDATE 3: Sarah Weinman notes, “Instead of passive intake, this is a world of active consumption and discussion, where people seek out what they want, when they want it at their own discretion. Looking for guidance and seeking things out aren’t mutually exclusive, but readers should be – and are – suspicious of entitlement and suspicion that comes with books coverage being wholly separate from the larger world.”]

[UPDATE 4: To jump off from Terry and Sarah’s thoughts, one advantage that a print-based newspaper has over a blog is the manner in which a reader can discover an article adjacent to another, much like the way in which you discover an unexpected book next to another in a library or a bookstore. Given this exploratory reading tendency, does it even make sense for any newspaper today to maintain a stand-alone books section? I’m wondering if the time has come for newspapers to stop segregating books coverage. A naturally curious reader, interested in the many pressing issues of her day, might very well find a newspaper book review to be of value. Hell, the reader may not even know that the newspaper features books coverage. Maybe the time has come for newspapers to stop considering how a newspaper’s house style dictates the tone, and think more about how individual voices bring life, passion, and informed arguments to a newspaper. The gatekeeper may no longer be the outlet; it may very well be the individual reporter herself. Authority may now arise from an individual’s reputation and voice, rather than the trappings of institutional newspaper culture. And given how rigid, gaffe-ridden, and humorless many of these institutions are, this development may not necessarily be a bad thing.]

[UPDATE 5: A contrarian print-partisan take from Lizzie Skurnick, whose mind is in the toilet.]

[UPDATE 6: The Post itself offers a report, with quotes from Brauchli. According to Rachel Shea, three quarters of the roughly 900 reviews each year will be shifted over to the Style section. Shea herself invites comments from readers.

Carolyn Kellogg: “A lot of effort has gone into bemoaning book review changes and it’s hard for me not to think that, coming from book critics, it’s both self-serving and a little cheesy. And it’s certainly less interesting than engaging with books.” Meanwhile, Scott Esposito calls out newspapers for not getting “with the 21st century and [figuring] out how to sell bookpage adspace to entities other than publishers and bookstores.”

Orthofer: “[M]an, do we miss paper coverage.” And to address the print sentiments of Elizabeth Foxwell and Joe Flood, it’s worth observing again that there will still be a print section that you can curl up to. It’s just going to be merged into the rest of the newspaper. Flood observes that the review was “printed on the cheapest paper available – the CVS coupons are on much better stock.” Maybe the time has come for newspapers to adopt POD as a viable curling up option.]

[UPDATE 7: I’ve located an article from 1973 depicting the then closing of Book World. The pertinent parallels and details can be found here.]

The “Save Gary Coleman” Petition!

Even though I have yet to hear back from Marcus Brauchli concerning the future of the Washington Post‘s book coverage, and not a single journalist or NBCC board member has confirmed a specific decision, I believe that the time has come to blame what nobody really knows on actor Gary Coleman.

Coleman, who once ran for California governor and is therefore thoroughly qualified to know about the Washington Post‘s internal decisions, needs to be saved. The information needs to be extracted from Coleman’s seerlike skull. And the action needs to happen now. Before Friday, January 23rd. By email. Because we all know how email gets lost and caught in spam filters. But a campaign like this sure beats sitting around and speculating. One suspects that Coleman can handle the pressure. And besides, everybody needs a scapegoat. And perhaps Coleman knows something that not even Marcus Brauchli knows. Let us always consider our strangest hunches.

Here is the plea to Gary Coleman and his editors:

“As chronic speculators and worrywarts, we write to implore you to go to Washington, DC, and kick a few asses. There are bloggers writing in Terre Haute basements who actually love what they do, and they are apparently being read and hired by some newspapers. The only solution is to beat a few people around and prevent these upstart bloggers from having the same prestige and influence of newspapers. As book critics, we have earned the right to write reviews that we believe enriches culture. Yes, it may read like the equivalent of castor oil sometimes. But it is our God-given right to pollute books section with bland and humorless drivel.

“We believe that you have important information about the newspaper business contained within your head, and that you have been rather selfish about sharing your vital data with the elitist book critics. We therefore wish to save you, so that we can save ourselves. The anemic discussion of books is vital to an elitist society. ‘James Wood defected to the New Yorker! What the fuck are we going to do?’ wrote an editor of The New Republic last year. And it is safe to say that since we do not know what the fuck we are going to do, then you will likely be in a better position to do something about it. We checked in our spines with our coats at last night’s book party.

“We call on you to preserve the Washington Post‘s books coverage, and to give it all to the dullest critics now working in America. We also call on you to ensure that not a single idiosyncratic voice or blogger will ever write for its pages again.”

(Photo: Eek! Online. For more petitions of the “Eek!” variety, go here.)

NBCC Rumormongers About Washington Post

Late Friday, the National Book Critics Circle demonstrated its commitment to accuracy by reporting a rumor that The Washington Post Book World was closing up shop. Instead of picking up the phone or talking directly with the appropriate people at the Washington Post or committing any elementary act of journalism, Eric Banks saw fit to create a wave of panic through the online world by suggesting that “a reliable source” was reporting that Marcus Brauchli was recommending to the board that Book World be eliminated. The unconfirmed rumor was likewise disseminated by Scott McLemee, who claimed that “a prominent young American historian” had told him the same thing.

By the way, a dancing leprechaun has been tapping me on my shoulder all afternoon about this. I know he doesn’t work at the Post, but trust me, he’s right about all this, even if he still can’t find his Lucky Charms.

All this, of course, was erroneous. Because nothing has been announced and nothing has been confirmed directly with the appropriate people. And Brauchli was then forced to email Jane Ciabattari to set the record straight. He informed Ciabattari, “We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas.”

And instead of Ciabattari, McLemee, and Banks offering an apology for reporting a false rumor, or even putting up a retraction so that readers would know that the news was phony, Ciabattari merely annotated her post with a doubting “Fingers crossed.” When, in fact, it has not been established by anyone that The Washington Post Book World will be closing up shop.

For what it’s worth, I have contacted individuals at the Washington Post in an effort to obtain correct information about what is going on. Rather than dealing with third-hand information or playing a game of telephone, I think it’s important for all “journalists” to stick with established facts. Should I learn anything hard and specific, I will certainly report it here. It’s worth pointing out that what Brauchli may have in mind is similar to what happened with the Los Angeles Times: folding the current material into the daily sections. But since I haven’t heard anything from anyone, all we have right now is speculation. I invite Mr. Brauchli to contact me directly, in an effort to confirm any short-term or long-term plans for what he has in store for his newspaper.

[UPDATE: Politico’s Michael Calderone is claiming that “[h]igh-level discussions about ending Book World have indeed taken place, according to a Post source with knowledge of the talks.”]

[UPDATE 2: Sources within The Washington Post indicate that some reorganization is now in effect and that all inquiries on this subject need to be directed to Marcus Brauchli.]