Thursday, March 31, 2005

Media Tidbits

Proof that blogging has hit the mainstream: Arianna Huffington will host a blog featuring celebrity writers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair, Talk, and the New Yorker and the future biographer of Princess Diana. (via Mediabistro)

Based in New York and staffed with a full complement of editors, the Huffington Report appears to be a culture and politics webzine in the classic mold of Salon or Slate. It will have breaking news, a media commentary section called "Eat the Press," and its most interesting innovation, a group blog manned by the cultural and media elite: Sen. Jon Corzine, Larry David, Barry Diller, Tom Freston, David Geffen, Vernon Jordan, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Harry Evans and his wife, Tina Brown. That's just to name a few, and Huffington is still recruiting. “

This is interesting, as a few weeks ago Brown criticized bloggers as “the new Stasi,” for lurking everywhere and writing about everyone foibles.

“We are in the Eggshell Era, in which everyone has to tiptoe around because there's a world of busybodies out there who are being paid to catch you out -- and a public that is slowly being trained to accept a culture of finks. We're always under surveillance; cameras watch us wherever we go; paparazzi make small fortunes snapping glamour goddesses picking their noses; everything is on tape, with transcripts available. No matter who you are, someone is ready and willing to rat you out. Even the rats themselves have to look over their shoulders, because some smaller rat is always waiting in the wings. Bloggers are the new Stasi. All the timidity this engenders, all this watching your mouth has started to feel positively un-American.”

Despite that unfortunate comparison, Brown does have interesting thoughts about the media, and its inexorable march into tabloid-ism.

“Mainstream media types spend a lot of time complaining to each other that you can't get real news anywhere anymore. Then we go to work and spend all day pounding to death the same story as everyone else. Counterprogramming? Forget it. No one wants to take their eye off the spinning ball lest they vanish off the face of the earth, including me. (When I started my own humble talk show on CNBC I had visions of long, earnest discussions of literature. Now I bark, "Twenty minutes on William Blake? How about five on Robert Blake.")”

The opposite of blogging must be book writing, if one takes a few minutes and the other takes a few years. But they share one thing in common, according to this article: they are the most at risk legally. They operate without protection from large media companies.

Is it worth it? A few thoughts on the slog of writing book proposals.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Let's Write Together

Anthologies are hot.

The “Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage,” was a 2002 HarperCollins bestseller, with 200,000 copies in print. It spawned a revolution of sorts in the New York literary world, pushing publishers to bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for anthologies that contained well-known female writers. The controversial essay by Ayelet Waldman in a recent New York Times Modern Loves column came from a new collection, Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race and Themselves," another collection from HarperCollins. It was put together by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, the two women who edited “Mothers Who Think,” an essay collection featuring pieces from Salon.

According to the New York Observer:

“The coming months will see a flood of essay collections—mostly nonfiction—subcategorizing every aspect of the feminine (and the odd masculine) experience. It could all be a sign that the confessional personal essay has reached the peak of its power, culminating in a breathless surge of self-help chick-lit—a combination of memoir, therapy and girl talk.

"[At first] it was, you know, ‘Ugh, this is too hard to sell. Anthologies—what a yawn,’" said Elizabeth Kaplan, the literary agent who represented Cathi Hanauer, the editor of The Bitch in The House. "The biggest thing was not that it sold so well, but that it was an anthology that sold that way. It changed everyone’s mind about anthologies—both the publishers for doing them and writers for being in them. Personally, it’ll be interesting to see how the others do."

Now Daniel Olivas, a lawyer and the author of four books, including The Courtship of María Rivera Peña, is putting together a new anthology, this one from Latinos and Latinas in Los Angles. He’s looking for pieces where Los Angeles plays a major role. You can find out about Daniel here. Or here.

It’s funny how publishing tastes change. In 2001, my writing group wrote a series of pieces on menstruation. We wanted to create an anthology and even invited an agent to talk to us about it. Her reaction? Anthologies are too hard to sell.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Making of a Journalist

I got a call from a writer friend the other day. She was researching a criminal, and wanted to know how to find transcripts of his trial. I told her to find out which county prosecuted him, go to the courthouse, look up his name, find the docket number for his case, and then ask the court clerk to retrieve the file from storage.

Learning how to find documents is one of the most basic skills of a journalist, but the knowledge can be slow in coming. A cub reporter is sent out into worlds that have their own codes, and must master unfamiliar languages to be successful. If you’re covering government, you learn to look through RFPs and DEIRs to scour contracts and learn about projects’ impacts on the environment. If you’re covering courts, you learn to distinguish between arraignments, preliminary hearings, attorney conferences and trials.

I once flunked this language test. I was an intern at the Argus, in Fremont, California, a suburban town southeast of San Francisco. I was working Saturday cops and went to the police station and asked to see the “log,” a listing of calls that had come in the previous 12 hours. I flipped though the sheath of papers, didn’t see anything special, and returned the clipboard to the female cop behind the Plexiglas.

She laughed and then turned to another cop behind the counter. “Should we tell her?” “I don’t know,” the second cop replied. “Well, I guess so, it is the Argus.”

It turns out I had missed a 187 – a murder --the most important, newsworthy crime there is, especially in a town where violence is rare. My face burning, I meekly asked to see the police report, and the helpful cop complied. There had been a husband-wife murder-suicide the night before. When I returned to the office, I called an editor who sent in a more experienced reporter to write the story.

A few years later, I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. On my second or third day there, they loaded us on buses to give a tour of the five boroughs of New York City. At the end of the day, they opened the bus doors and told us to get out and not to return to school until we had a story. I found myself adrift in Brighton Beach, wandering the streets, unsure of what to do. I finally went into a store and found a Russian-speaking man and his daughter, Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. I ended up writing a story on the clash between first and second-generation Russian- Jewish immigrants that evolved into my master’s thesis.

That’s how journalists are trained – by doing. Most start at small newspapers and work their way up. A few, like me, go to journalism school, but many regard that route as unnecessary. I found it helpful. It was a whirlwind of work, a 9-month boot camp of reporting, writing, editing, and running around. I developed walking pneumonia during the winter, lost 15 pounds, and turned that pasty white color so common in the East. But when I left the school, I felt I had a vision of what journalism could be. I knew how to add context to my stories, to dig and not say no for an answer, and to look for the little gems, the offbeat stories that shed light on under-appreciated aspects of the world.

So I was not happy two years ago when the new president of Columbia questioned the efficacy of the journalism school. Shortly after he took office, Lee Bollinger suspended the search for a new journalism dean, in part, he said, to examine the school’s purpose. Bollinger suggested that Columbia had become more of a trade school, a place that emphasized the nuts and bolts of reporting over the whys and hows. Unlike the two-year journalism program at UC Berkeley, the one at Columbia is just yearlong.

Bollinger’s remarks stirred outrage, and he appointed a star-studded committee of journalist to take a look at the school. One of them, Nicholas Lemann, a New Yorker writer and the author of two books, eventually was appointed dean.

Lemann is coming to the West Coast this week, to a glitzy get together at the Carnelian Room at the top of the Bank of America building, as part of his annual schmoozing-with-the-alumni-shaking-the-hands-of-new-students tour. While this trip was once a junket, it now is work for Lemann who has the honor of repairing relations with the school’s alumni.

Earlier this month, Columbia announced a new master’s program, the result of Bollinger’s criticisms about the school. It’s a nine-month program where journalists can specialize in politics, foreign affairs, or other disciplines, and presumably come out better reporters.

In an increasingly complex world, journalists who can master subjects and communicate effectively to the general public are an invaluable resource to the public and crucial to the best functioning of a democratic society. We strongly believe that as journalists develop real expertise in the subjects they cover, the profession will be strengthened. We believe there is a market for such journalists, not only because news organizations need business reporters and science reporters and so on, but also because the process of learning about a subject in depth will stand a journalist in good stead over the long haul of a career doing many different things, including management of news organizations. "

In the age of blogging and podcasting, when the dissemination of information is going through a transformation, it will be interesting to see if the new degree program succeeds. As readership of newspapers decline, the role of journalists is changing. Community journalists (with little training) are becoming more influential. Will these people bother to get a second degree?

Who is a journalist anyway? The guy at the paper? The woman in Iraq who blogs about food shortages, daily violence and fear? The bloggers whose research undermined Dan Rather? The lines are getting awfully blurry.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Art of the Confessional Memoir

Editor’s note: I posted this Sunday. Then deleted it after Ayelet saw it. (She commented: I’ll see you at the gym, Fran) I decided I shouldn’t join the ranks of people criticizing her. Then I read this hilarious spoof and thought: who am I deluding? Ayelet is a major public figure and leading essayist.

The phone was buzzing this morning. “Did you see it? Did you see it? What do you think?’

The “it” in question was Ayelet Waldman’s latest confessional, this one in the New York Times provocative new column Modern Love.

Two weeks ago, Ayelet launched a new column on Salon in which she confessed she had threatened to commit suicide on her blog, but fortunately her distress was recognized by her husband Michael Chabon, who at the time was 2,000 miles away at a book event. Ayelet’s friends rallied to her side and made her see her profound despair was a result of skewed levels f medication for her bipolar disorder. They got her help. The residual damage? Her 7 year old son said, “Mommy, I’m afraid you are going to hurt yourself.”

The column has sparked deep reactions, from those with bipolar disorder who recognized themselves in Ayelet’s words and those who felt she was unnecessarily exposing her children.

In Sunday’s New York Times, we get to read about Ayelet and Michael’s great sex life, one that is so exciting that she fantasizes about stopping by the local sex store to see the new sex toys. She talks about how Michael – not her four children – are the center of the universe and that is why she is a Bad Mother. She goes on to say that none of her other mother friends are getting any, and while that is OK with them, it would not be OK for Ayelet.

“It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.”

I must confess that I know Ayelet. Sort of. We go to the same health club in Berkeley and have had a half dozen conversations. While we’ve worked out side by side on the stairmaster, she has told me (and lots of other people) about intimate details of her life – how high levels of lead and mercury in her body caused a miscarriage; how changing medications helped her lose weight; and how her daughter had to switch schools twice before finding a third that works.

By reading her pieces I have learned this: she aborted a fetus with genetic mutations; she thinks her youngest son has an odd chin, and she is a bookworm.

In short, Ayelet is a compulsive confessor – in private and in public.

I am not sure what I think about this. I have read three of Ayelet’s Mommy Track mysteries and have enjoyed them. I only made it through 25 pages of Daughter's Keeper. I loved her blog Bad Mother because I love confessional memoir. I think she is a brilliant essayist. But I am getting tired hearing these very private thoughts, not because they don’t fascinate me – they do – but because I suspect she writes them in part for their shock value. I worry for her children.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The People of the Book

There’s a scene in Joshua Braff’s book, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, that made me cry one moment and laugh the next. The main character, Jacob, has just had his bar mitzvah and has been sent to his room to write thank you notes for his gifts. But Jacob suffers from a learning disorder, so while he can read Hebrew easily and fluently, he spells and write badly. On this one card, he spells generous as “generis.”

His father does not sympathize or understand his son’s disability. He interprets it as laziness, a sloth that can be bullied away.

“So … when the Mendelsons read your card and see that my son spells like a retard, what should I tell them? Isn’t my boy super?” the father retorts.

It’s painful to read about a narcissistic father who bullies his son. But I chuckled a few pages later when I started to read Jacob’s imagined thank you notes:

“Dear Morris and Dora Bitterman,
Sorry this card is late. … (My father) is not sitting here right now as I write this and I am so very happy about it. I might be a retard, but when he’s standing over me, watching every stroke of my pen, I become a much more substantial retard. I love that I can write anything I want right now and he’s not here to see it. For example: Ass. F—ck. Fist. Shit.”

In this book, Judaism is a character, a righteous way of living that young Jacob struggles with. It’s the place where he can show off his greatest skill – his amazing ability with Hebrew – but the leaders and rituals ring hollow for him. The Judaism Braff writes about is distorted, almost ugly. It’s a mechanism for the father to dominate his family.

So is this a Jewish book? Of interest mostly to Jews? Braff, a New Jersey native who now lives in Oakland, has been making the rounds of Jewish book fairs. (He will speak at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Monday, March 28.) His book appeals to Jews, but it also transcends the religion that is its central theme.

I have been thinking about what makes a book Jewish ever since I learned that the Koret Jewish Book Awards would be held this year in San Francisco. For the past nine years, the awards have been hosted in New York, but on April 11 they come to the Bay Area, home of the Koret Foundation. The organizers feel that the awards are sufficiently established, sufficiently prestigious – they pay $10,000 -- that they no longer need the New York imprimatur.

To draw in the Bay Area, the new Jewish Community Center on California Street will host two days of pre-award ceremonies. Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, will come and speak as …. Daniel Handler, adult novelist. He will speak with Shalom Auslander, a 2004 finalist for the Koret Young Writer on Jewish Themes award, about the literary trade. They will appear at 8 pm on April 9.

Tony Eprile, the 2005 fiction award winner for his novel, The Persistence of Memory, will speak at 4 p.m. on April 10.

Eprile is from South Africa and his book beat out one of the most acclaimed novels of the year, Philip Roth’s Plot Against America.

The question of what makes a book Jewish rose to the forefront when writer – and recent convert to Orthodoxy – Wendy Shalit wrote an essay in the New York Times Book Review. She complained that most Jewish writers misconstrued Orthodoxy, treating it as something to be laughed at and poked fun of. She said most contemporary authors create stereotypical characters that don’t hint at the complexity of most modern Orthodox Jews. She clarified her thoughts in the Jewish World Review a few weeks later:

"Let's turn the tables. Suppose there is a new genre in American Jewish literature, in which Reform Jews are vilified regularly. There is the temple's secretary who kills one of her Hadassah sisters in order to get the latest Judith Lieber bag, and a gay Reform rabbi who seduces younger male congregants. There are idealistic college coeds who want to escape Reform life, but are daunted by the prospect of learning Hebrew, so they are trapped and pose for Playboy instead. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is such a genre. And suppose further that these novels are a bit short on character development, that they are primarily driven by page after page of weirdo Reform characters, and mouth agape, one must turn the pages in order to satisfy one's curiosity: what will this bad Reform bunch do next? The authors, who are not Reform themselves, are celebrated in the non-Jewish world and their Reform-bashing literature is translated into multiple languages.

How would we feel about such novels? My guess is that they would not be so popular, and the fact that we have toasted such literature about Orthodox Jews for so long might — just might — tell us something about our prejudices. '

Now Braff didn’t write about an Orthodox family, just a father who forced his sons into the religion. The picture he drew wasn’t pretty, but I, as a reader, saw he wasn’t making a comment on the entire Jewish race, but just one character. I think readers are smart enough to figure out when a book is just something to enjoy, not something that is making a statement.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Thanks For The Memories

I started reading Sean Wilsey’s new memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, yesterday. He grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up there a decade earlier. Yet we have these things in common:

1) His father frequently sang the song: “Toura Loura Loura” My mother did the honors.

2) His father had an affair with his mother’s best friend. So did my father.

3) His father later married that best friend. Ditto.

4) That best friend's former husband had once been married to the romance novelist Danielle Steele. My cousin had once been married to Danielle Steele.

5) He went to Trader Vic’s on Cosmos Place regularly and ate in the Captain’s Cabin. He got the spareribs. I remember the lamb with peanut-dipping sauce.

6) San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote frequently about his society parents, Al Wilsey and Pat Montandon. I lived next door to Herb Caen on Pacific Avenue.

7) His mother was drop-dead beautiful. So was mine.

8) He took cooking classes at the Jewish Community Center on California Street. So did I.

And I am only on page 56. I have 422 pages to go.

Reading a memoir is a lesson in self-identification. “Oh, that rings true for me,” the reader ponders. “Nope, that’s not my life, thank God.”

William Grimes has a long story in Friday’s New York Times about the continuing flood of memoirs. He has a huge stack waiting to be read, a stack he at first calls a mountain, but then revises his metaphor:

Actually, it's more a plain than a mountain, a level playing field crowded with absolutely equal voices, each asserting its democratic claim on the reader's attention. Everyone has a life, and therefore a story that should be told and, if possible, published.

The memoir has been on the march for more than a decade now. Readers have long since gotten used to the idea that you do not have to be a statesman or a military commander - or, like Saint-Simon or Chateaubriand, a witness to great events - to commit your life to print. But the genre has become so inclusive that it's almost impossible to imagine which life experiences do not qualify as memoir material.

I say bring ‘em on.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page has been embroiled in controversy the past few weeks. Susan Estrich, the USC law professor who once coordinated Michael Dukakis’ campaign for president, lambasted the editorial page editor, Michael Kinsey, for not running more pieces by women. At one point, the debate got ugly with Estrich suggesting that Kinsley’s Parkinson’s disease had started to affect his judgment. The fight’s reverberations spread across the country. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about it, as did Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.

Here’s Estrich:

Depending on the day or the paper, three or four of the columns you read on the typical opinion page are likely to be written by a man, and if you're lucky, one by a woman. If you add the cartoon, which is almost always by a man, you can get to five or six opinions by men and one by a woman.

Now certainly women aren't a monolith, but to exclude half of the population from a page intended to represent diverse voices in the community seems plainly wrong. This is not a liberal-conservative issue: Ann Coulter told me not long ago that she couldn't get into an American paper large enough to be included in Lexis-Nexis.

This is a longstanding problem, which my students at USC Law School and I have been collecting data about for some years. Alicia Mundy wrote about the underrepresentation of women at The New York Times in Editor & Publisher a decade ago; in February of this year, there were no women at all on the op-ed page of The New York Times on 12 of 28 days, or nearly half the month. Former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, one of the most respected women in journalism, pointedly wrote about the issue, as well. For the first nine weeks of 2005, according to The Washington Post's own Howard Kurtz, 90 percent of the articles on the op-ed page of that paper were by men.

Clearly, female representation in the upper reaches of almost anything is still an issue in the United States. And now that I have young daughters, it baffles me even more. Little girls, from the time they are born, are clearly more focused than little boys. In Kindergarten, boys bounce off the walls, disrupt the class, and yearn to run on the playground. They worship guns, battles, and bodily functions. Girls care about reading, their handwriting, and the opinion of the teacher, and this makes them good students.

But at some mysterious point, men start to rule. Motherhood is not to blame, for the transition comes earlier than that. And once on top, men do not let go.

I found myself involved in another controversy concerning the LA Times Op-Ed page. Ralph Shaffer, a Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona, has been writing op-ed pages to the Times for years about the way the paper characterizes the region as a desert. Shaffer has pointed out that a place that gets 15 inches of rain on average has more of a Mediterranean climate than an arid one. Seems like a good point to me, but the Times has rejected Shaffer’s op-ed article numerous times.

The heavens opened up this year and cast almost 40 inches of rain on Los Angeles. But the Times got its statistics wrong again. It said that the wettest winter was the one of 1883-1884, when 38.18 inches of rain fell. Shaffer knew that the winter of 1861 had actually been wetter, and wrote a piece for the op-ed page pointing out that fact. It was rejected in less than five hours.

I knew how he feels. While researching the history of my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, I came across reference to the winter of 1861. I found out that Hellman had been caught in a flash flood and that he had to flee for his life. I wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times about it, and it got rejected in ……. 22 hours.

Kevin Roderick, of the blog, LA Observed, wrote about “the LA Times rejectees.”

Turns out a second writer had her op-ed piece on the great rains of 1861-62 rejected by the Times. Frances Dinkelspiel, a Berkeley journalist and books blogger at Ghost Word [and daily L.A. Observed reader], learned of the forgotten deluge while researching a biography of her great-great grandfather, Isaias W. Hellman. If you ever sit at the outside tables at Pete's Bar downtown at 4th Street and Main, look across at the stately and solid relic facing you. It's the Farmers and Merchants Bank (photo from 1923, larger at LAPL), which Hellman founded. Its presence gave Tom Gilmore the idea to call his loft conversions the Old Bank District. Hellman, incidentally, also ran Wells Fargo, donated part of the land for USC, was Henry Huntington's partner in the Pacific Electric Red Cars and president of downtown's Congregation B'nai B'rith, which moved west to build the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Well, that notice brought a flurry of new visitors to Ghost Word, which was great.

And now the Jewish Journal, a weekly magazine in the Los Angeles area, is going to print my piece on Hellman and the 1861 rains.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Making of Buzz

There was a definite buzz in the air at the offices of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association’s Presidio headquarters Tuesday evening.

A group of women gathered around a slim, affable man, listening intently to his every word. They were local booksellers who had come to meet Sean Wilsey, a San Francisco native and author of the soon-to-be released memoir, Oh the Glory of It All.

Wilsey, 34, is the son of prominent San Franciscans, people whose antics regularly made the San Francisco Chronicle columns of Herb Caen and Pat Steger. When his father, Al Wilsey, left his mother, the beautiful blonde Pat Montandon, for her good friend Dede Traina, the city was scandalized. (Dede’s former husband, John Traina, went on to marry uber-novelist Danielle Steele) Wilsey went to live with his mother, who reinvented herself as a peace missionary by creating an organization that used children as emissaries to the world. In between being thrown out of various schools, Wilsey traveled around the world with his mother, talking peace.

Wilsey’s memoir recounts his troubled childhood, and by all accounts it’s a great read. His good friend, Dave Eggers, wrote this blurb: “Holy moley this is a great read-probably the most compulsively readable book I've picked up in years.” Most of the booksellers at Tuesday’s reception loved the book.

Wilsey is not a household name, not an already well-known author, so it was interesting to see the marketing push behind his memoir. His publisher, Penguin Press, clearly thinks Oh The Glory of It All has bestseller potential, and is doing everything it can to smooth the way for high sales.

The book won’t be published until late May, but Penguin has sent Wilsey on a West Coast tour to meet local booksellers. (He was in Los Angeles on Monday) Penguin is hoping the booksellers will read the book before it comes out so they can recommend it to their customers, a practice known as hand selling.

Most first-time authors are lucky to get even a small tour, let alone a pre-pub tour. It helps, of course, that Wilsey helped start McSweeney’s, and is part of the hip group of writers who are Dave Eggers’ friends. He is also a non-fiction writer, a former editorial assistant at the New Yorker, and a former letters correspondent at Newsweek.

“There is a lot of buzz around this book,” Wendy Pearl, a local representative for Penguin, told the group. “This isn’t a book we were told to love. It wasn’t pushed on us. All the reps read it and loved it and e-mailed each other.”

The book will be excerpted in two weeks in The New Yorker.

With thousands of books published each month, local bookstore buyers rely on reps’ recommendations, so when reps buzz, bookstore owners buzz, which means the book will make it into the hands of readers.

“I feel really lucky,” said Wilsey. “There’s a lot of San Francisco in this book. If people are going to buy the book, they’re going to buy it here.”

The book had an arduous journey. Wilsey sold the book to Random House in 1999 and was supposed to turn in a manuscript in 2001. But writing it took five years since Wilsey decided to interview many of the people he had grown up with. By the time the manuscript was finished, the original Random House editors who had bought in had long since departed. One of those was Ann Godoff, who had been unceremoniously dumped by Random House, but who landed at Penguin. When she read Wilsey’s finished manuscript, she loved it so much she bought the contract from Random House.

Wilsey will be talking at a Clean Well Lighted Place For Books in May .

Monday, March 21, 2005

Judith Miller Redux

I had hoped to go see New York Times reporter Judith Miller last week at UC Berkeley, but child duties prevented me. I really wanted to hear what she had to say because she is both villainous and angelic. She is the journalist who reported that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, laying the moral framework for George W. Bush to invade Iraq. It turns out that she had relied heavily on pro-American sources, and disregarded others who might have cast doubt on her front-page stories.

But then you have to admire her for refusing to tell a Grand Jury the name of her sources in the Valerie Plane CIA-outing case. Confidential sources are the backbone of journalism, and even though many say Miller’s case is flawed, it takes guts to voluntarily face jail time.

Here’s an article on Miller’s talk with fellow New York Times journalist Lowell Bergman, both at UC and Michael Krasny’s radio show on KQED, Forum.

Miller argues that if she was duped by her unnamed sources, so was the Bush administration — and she's not apologizing for believing there were WMDs in Iraq until the president does. "I think I was given information by people who believed the information they were giving the president," she told Bergman. "When the president asked, you know, 'What about this WMD case? Are we sure about this?' [then-CIA director] George Tenet said to him, 'Mr. President, this is a slam dunk.' The people I talked to certainly thought that." Other WMD believers, she said, included the entire U.S. intelligence community as well as French, English, and Israeli agencies. The debate, she claimed, was not over whether Saddam had WMDs, but whether it was worth going to war over them.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Stilettos and Books

There may be a big weather map covering ¾ of the back page of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, limiting the number of critiques the paper publishes each week, but the editors seem to be finding other ways to talk about the local literati.

For the past two weeks, the Sunday Style section has had articles about writers. Last week, there was a featurette on the couple, Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty, former Wallace Stegner fellows who have well-received short story collections. This week, non-fiction gets its turn.

The front page of Style is splashed with a large picture – with pink background – of glam editor/writer Katrina Heron, who edited Wired Magazine. She and a group of women writers have put together book on terrorism, Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World. Heron was an editor at the New Yorker when she came West to do a Knight Fellowship at Stanford. She was so intrigued by the Internet revolution that she stayed, and played a large role in interpreting the Web for the rest of the world, which took awhile to understand the technology revolution.

Now Heron wants to interpret technology for average folks, to “examine the limitations, as well as the possibilities of technology in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center,” writes Paul Wilner in the Chronicle article. “It explores how innovators can help us protect ourselves in the increasingly dangerous world.”

“I’m always interested in bridge situations, where you can kind of be a translator between different cultural languages,” said Heron.

Style also has a half-page Q & A interview with Robin Wolaner, who is arguably one of the Bay Area’s most successful publishers – male or female. She cofoundedParenting, and worked at Sunset, Mother Jones, Martha Stewart Living, Penthouse, Runner’s World, and was vice-president of Time Ventures Publishing. Her new book is Naked in the Boardroom: A CEO Bares Her Secrets So You Can Transform Your Career and it offers tips on how to succeed in a male-dominated business world.

Check this one out:

Naked Truth #3 Don’t meet with a male colleague in a hotel room or private residence. Intentions may be innocent but shit happens.

Now both these women are interesting in their own right, but I can’t help wondering if the Chronicle is applying some smart marketing techniques here. I’ve read that women buy most of the books in the United States. My guess is the newspaper is trying to appeal to the Bay Area’s large book-loving population with this feminization of book news.

I’m not complaining.

Friday, March 18, 2005

San Francisco Magazine

My brother’s magazine, San Francisco, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award for Public Interest for Nina Martin’s outstanding article, Innocence Lost, about the death penalty. It’s the second nomination under the editorship of Bruce Kelley. Steven Dinkelspiel is the publisher.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker articles on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal are nominated in the same category.

I know I’m biased, but I think San Francisco does a wonderful job blending service articles with hard-hitting investigative pieces. It’s a tightrope all city magazines have to navigate, and San Francisco does it well.

Writing Friends

The phone rang at 6:45 a.m. this morning. It was a friend of mine from New Mexico who was about to send a book proposal off to an agent. She had some technical questions about formatting.

Last night, I ran into another friend, Joel Ben Izzy, a storyteller whose book, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, was published by Algonquin Books. He had just received the cover for the Russian edition of his book, and was excited by the picture drawn by a famous Russian artist.

Earlier in the day, I met with my writing group, North 24th, in San Francisco. We discussed a draft of a prologue written by one member, whose book will be published by the University of California Press. We heard comments from an agent about another member’s work-in-progress, a memoir about the end of a marriage. Another member had just had a great lunch in Palo Alto with her agent, and was jazzed about the stories she planned to write. I described what my agent was doing to find a publisher for my book. And yet another woman discussed a possible book idea.

Writing can be a lonely business. I have an office on the top floor of my house with a view of trees and San Francisco Bay. Day after day I sit there, by myself, playing with words, pouring through books and documents, surfing the Web when I need to procrastinate.

I could never have survived without the support of my writing friends. They have buoyed me up when I’ve been rejected, rejoiced when I’ve been published, and critiqued my work over and over again until I felt it was polished. They’ve been my cheerleaders in my quest for an agent and publisher.

Writers around the world endure because of the support of their friends. I don’t know of any other industry that is so reliant on support groups to survive. I don’t hear of nurses meeting regularly to get insight into their work or lawyers sharing briefs to make sure they have covered all the essential points.

But writers? There is a group for almost any genre. When I left the San Jose Mercury News I joined a creative non-fiction writing group led by Jane Anne Staw, whose book, Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block, has just been released in paperback. Jane has supported and encouraged dozens of Bay Area writers, and her name is laced through acknowledgement sections in dozens of books.

I’ve attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers – a weeklong conference near Lake Tahoe – twice. Each time, it’s been like a shot of pure heroin. I’ve been able to talk shop 24/7 with hundreds of other writers, some famous, some never published. How do you combine historical research with character? How do you build tension? What makes a book interesting? The talk Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, gave last year on description (and you can buy it on CD) was worth the cost of the conference.

Po Bronson, one of the founders of The Grotto, put it elegantly last year at a Commonwealth Club talk on the Bay Area literary scene. He and Ethan Canin formed the Grotto, a collection of offices shared by writers and other artists, to cut down on isolation and increase camaraderie. The Grotto has now become an institution in itself, and its members have written great books.

Bronson encouraged other writers to form their own communities. He even said they could use the name Grotto. (And believe me, it’s a brand with cachet). Bronson said writing should not be regarded as a zero-sum game, where one person’s success meant another writer would achieve less. There is room for everyone, Bronson insisted, and the best way to ensure success is to support other writers.

Of course I want my name up in lights. Most writers do. But I also gain strength by the accomplishments of my friends. I rejoice when they rejoice. I exult at their success. I need them to navigate through these uncertain waters, to help understand my work and the publishing business. And I think they feel the same way about me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


The Columbia Journalism Review has a thoughtful critique of Robert Boynton’s book, The New New Journalism. I filed my blog entry on his Cody’s appearance before I started reading the book, and the author of the CJR article points out something I did not notice until later: Only 3 of the 19 reporters Boynton interviews are women.

Which brings us to one final, important matter: Why is it that just three of the nineteen writers in this book — LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, and Jane Kramer — are women? It can be argued that Boynton’s choices merely reflect the predominance of male voices in the prestigious U.S. magazines that publish both narrative and opinion journalism. The New Yorker has recently been criticized for this tendency. The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and The American Prospect have long been led and dominated by men. And the much-praised Atlantic is no exception. Excluding poetry, the January/February issue has thirty-two bylines by men, including the prolific Langewiesche, and just five by women, a ratio that is typical for the magazine.
But why? Is the culprit rank sexism? Male editors hiring their male buddies? Or else the magazine’s preference for subjects such as war and politics that draw more male writers? Do women writers, facing rejection, discourage more easily? (I’ve heard that thesis proposed.) Or, as devoted mothers and daughters and wives, are they simply unavailable to devote the months and years of zealous, almost superhuman effort required by immersion journalism? There is surely no single, and no easy, answer. But it would have been nice if Boynton, in this otherwise probing book, had thought to raise the question.

I definitely have my thoughts on this point. I had been a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News for two years when I had my first child. I cut back to four days a week, and then to three when baby #2 came along. Despite my short week, I hustled like crazy on my work days and produced more copy – and more Page One stories – than many full-time reporters. Regardless, I will never forget when the managing editor looked me in the eye and told me I was less valuable to the paper than other reporters who worked five days a week.

This world is not set up for professionals with families.

In other Mercury News-related news, the Los Angeles Times ran a story today on the suicide of Gary Webb, the Merc’s investigative reporter who wrote about a CIA link between drug dealers and the Contras in Nicaragua. When the story came out, the Mercury News was proud and convinced it had joined the big leagues, but the top editors quickly pulled their support when papers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times criticized Webb. In short, Webb left the paper, never regained his footing in journalism, and committed suicide. I always felt the Merc folded under pressure, but I never spoke out about it. I still regret my silence.

The Cult of Anne Lamott

I remember the first time I saw Anne Lamott. It was back in the early 80s at some writing/journalism seminar at San Francisco State. She was sitting on a wooden chair in front of a group of eager writers, talking to them about creating fictional worlds.

I was an earnest newspaper reporter then, and I breezily passed by since I was more interested in learning investigative techniques than the craft of writing. But I knew Lamott’s work: I had loved her novel “Rosie,” the story of a little girl but was less excited about “Hard Laughter: A Novel,” which seemed to be about her alcoholic father.

Once, when my friend Ethan Canin, who hadn’t yet risen to literary fame, heard how much I enjoyed “Rosie,” he begged me to call Annie. She was so uncertain about her work, he said, that getting a compliment from a reader would cheer her up.

I never called Lamott. I am often shy around accomplished, published writers. As a reporter, I am adept at talking to almost anyone – CEOs, migrant workers, politicians. But I get tongue-tied around people I emulate.

Over years, my appreciation of Lamott’s work has grown – at least when she writes non-fiction. I was a new mother when she published Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year, and I laughed and cried my way more than once through the slim blue tome.

That book made Lamott’s literary career – and spawned a cult-like devotion to her work that grew exponentially when she published Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. That book is like a Bible to aspiring writers, full of nuggets of wisdom, like Lamott’s admission that she always writes “shitty first drafts.” Bad writing can be made good, Lamott promises, as long as a writer is willing to keep working and reworking a piece. Her heart is open for others to succeed, and this attitude has won her many fans.

When she writes essays, like those in her new book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, you feel like she is your best friend. Her words are so simple, her fears and dreams so honest, that you feel you know her. She complains about her aging body, her dreadlocks, the funny little (or not so little) flap of skin on her stomach, her impatience with others. Here is an excerpt from the essay, Cruise Ship:

“We stood at the railing, our backs to the sea. Even from fifteen feet up, I could see the corrugated skin, the lumps and veins and chicken-skin knees of other passengers. I saw huge guts, bad moles. There were many fat, hairy middle-aged men in teeny bikinis, many matronly middle-aged women with big fallen breast and poor posture – that which used to be the offering was now the burden. But it’s our hearts that weigh us down. Who could even imagine what cargo these people carried?”

Women seem to particularly appreciate Lamott, probably because she writes so honestly about motherhood, the tyranny of beauty, and her insecurities. Technorati, a weblog search engine, lists 772 posts on Lamott the past few days. In contrast, Anna Quindlen got 458 listings, Ayelet Waldman, another confessional writer, got 152.

Lamott, who lives in Marin, is coming to Berkeley on Monday, March 21 to read from Plan B. The organizers at Cody’s know their Telegraph Avenue store can’t hold all her fans, so they have rented the First Congregational Church on Channing and are asking for a $10 donation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The New New Journalism

Interesting talk last night at Cody’s Book in Berkeley between journalist Eric Schlosser and Robert Boynton, who had come to promote his book, The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. The straight-to-paperback book features interviews with 19 reporters who have produced some of the best immersion journalism in the past few years.

Schlosser, who became nationally known with the release of Fast Food Nation, did the interviewing of Boynton, who directs the graduate magazine journalism program at New York University. Schlosser argued that narrative non-fiction, not fiction, is now the center of American literary life. He bemoaned the fact that few fiction writers grapple with the meaty topics of the day. Instead, most fiction books are small slices-of-life, offering narrow perspectives of the world. Some exceptions are the works of Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, and interestingly, John Grisham

“What happened to American fiction?” asked Schlosser. “Part of the success of this nonfiction is there is a hunger of readers to engage with larger issues and novelists by and large aren’t doing this right now. It’s one of the reasons I think journalism has moved to the center of American literature.”

In contrast, the stories told by reporters featured in the book, like Ted Conover, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Richard Preston, shed light on pressing social problems such as poverty, abuse of power, environmental degradation

Tom Wolfe coined the term “The New Journalism,” to describe the kind of reporting done in the 1970s by himself, Hunter Thompson and others. The new approach broke through old rigid forms of reporting the world by using novelistic techniques to create scene and craft dialogue, said Boynton. But Wolfe and Hunter wrote more about people of the moment or cultural slices of life, while today’s new new journalists focus more on social issues.

“One of the arguments I make in this book is this group is simultaneously borrowing and using the literary license Wolfe and others won for journalism writers – creating scene, expanding dialogue -- and reaching back to an earlier generation of early 20th century muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair. They blend the literary license of the 1970s with issues of social justice, poverty and discrimination”

I have to agree with this analysis. Some of my favorite books in recent years have been narrative nonfiction books such as Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen, among others.

Narrative non-fiction may be compelling, but not all of it sells well. Check out this depressing (again) article about a new book detailing the 2000 sinking of a Russian nuclear submarine. (via Bookslut)

Monday, March 14, 2005

Celebrity Authors

It’s tough living out of the New York-Los Angeles axis. There aren’t that many movie stars to spot, now that Sharon Stone has left the Bay Area.

Fortunately, we have our own kind of celebrity here, the author celebrity. There are famous couples, like Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. There’s Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, and the crowd at the Grotto, including Po Bronson and Mary Roach. The picture rounds out nicely with Isabelle Allende and Anne Lamott in Marin.

The San Francisco Chronicle anointed another “it” couple in the Sunday Style section by interviewing Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty about their favorite places to shop in the Bay Area. Orringer, the author of How to Breathe Underwater, and Harty, the author of Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, were Wallace Stegner fellows at Stanford and still occasionally teach fiction for the university’s extension classes. The pair like Porch Light Antiques on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, Sadie’s Flying Elephant Bar on Portrero in San Francisco and the Red Victorian Movie House on Haight Street. As for where they buy their books:

“Our favorite bookstores, in no particular order: the Booksmith on Haight, where Gary and Thomas can recommend the best Flaubert translations or the most incisive history of U.S. involvement in Argentina; Green Apple, on Clement, with its unparalleled selection of remainders and used books; Modern Times, on Valencia, with excellent staff recommendations and an active social conscience; A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, on Van Ness, which has one of the best reading series in the Bay Area; Book Passage, a Corte Madera institution that recently opened a gorgeous new shop in the Ferry Building; and Cody's on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where we've spent many hours happily browsing."

The Chronicle also gave also gave superstar treatment to Khaled Hosseini, author of the mega-best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner. The book, by a Fremont doctor who had never written before, has sold an amazing 1.3 million copies. The paperback just became the #1 New York Times bestseller and Hosseini attributes much of the success to word of mouth sales. (I know I have recommended the book to numerous people). The Chronicle’s book reviewer, David Kipen, didn’t love the book when it first came out in 2003, but Hosseini broke through to author-celebrity status anyway. Edward Guthmann points out how Hosseini’s good looks and charm has contributed to the book’s success.

"Indeed, the gracious, handsome Hosseini is a bit of a star on the book- promotion circuit -- especially with women, who are the primary audience for fiction. "We just think he's wonderful," enthuses Petrocelli. (owner of Book Passage) "When we opened our new store at the Ferry Building, Khaled and his wife brought flowers. He asked for no recognition or attention; just handed them to me."

Perhaps it matters whether you write fiction or non-fiction. The Bay Area is home to dozens of accomplished non-fiction authors, but somehow they don’t seem to make their way as often into the rarefied world of celebrity. Think of Adam and Arlie Hochschild, who have written enough books between them that they certainly qualify for celebrity-author status. Adam's new book, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in a Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, has been widely praised. But the Hochschilds are more admired than worshipped.

Another example is Judith Moore, whose new memoir, Fat Girl, is a Book Sense pick for March. She’s been completely absent from the local papers, so I was startled when I picked up the book recently and saw she lives in Berkeley. The Washington Post has reviewed Fat Girl, but not the Chronicle.

So there’s a new trifecta at play here: youth, beauty, and degree of hip. While writers are judged primarily on their words and thoughts, they need other qualities to propel them into the rarefied world of celebrity-author.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Cat Fight

Wow. Jennifer Weiner, the author of those kinds of books that go down Smooth As A Milkshake, takes it out on her literary sisters, the kind that write books that are Good For You.

Weiner criticizes Meg Wolitzer (see review of The Position below) for dismissing chick lit as a “guilty pleasure,” apolitical and unnecessary.

Writing funny, fast-moving fiction about young women finding their place in the world means your invitation to join the Beautiful Sentence Society will be permanently lost in the mail. The New York Times won't review you; the newsweeklies won't write profiles, and don't even get me started on what will happen when you query the New Yorker. Your books will sell in Target and Costco, but independent bookstore employees with advanced degrees and bad attitudes will be snotty when you drop in to sign stock.

Finally, your elders and betters will dismiss your work completely--or damn you with condescension disguised as compliments and praise so faint it's almost invisible. Exhibit A: Meg Wolitzer's "In Praise of Pink Ladies."

Chick lit, she blushingly confesses, is her guilty pleasure. She began, of course, with Bridget Jones, then "branched out, reading the Irish writer Marian Keyes and then Sophie Kinsella (whose Shopaholic novels are surprisingly funny) and a couple of the others whose names, to tell the truth, I never quite remember." This kind of writing, she concludes, "is not groundbreaking or powerful, but it speaks to many women, even, weirdly, a woman like me, a long-married feminist and novelist."

Weiner calls Wolitzer’s kind of book Gray Lady Lit, where all men are cads and at least one character has a terminal illness. She disagrees with Wolitzer’s assertion that chick lit isn’t political – doesn’t the underdog heroine usually end up on top by the end of the book?

I love chick-lit. I’ve read both Bridget Jones books, at least one Jennifer Weiner, scads of Jane Green and … then I hit a wall. I loved those books for their easy narrative, their heroine-in-distress tone, their I’ll-get-revenge plots. They’re great – but in small doses.

The Sales That Bind

Literary blogs are full of tales of publishing woe, where promising authors see their books go nowhere. In a world where more than 120,000 books are published each year, it’s hard to get noticed. No one knows which magic ingredients make a book stand out. Is it a good review in the New York Times? Publishing dollars spent on catchy ads? Word of mouth?

The Columbia Journalism Review ran one of the most interesting – and depressing -- articles on the art of getting noticed, The Education of Stacy Sullivan: A First-Time Non-Fiction Author Learns that Getting Published Is Not Necessarily The Hard Part. The piece generated a lot of comments when it came out a few months ago, but it is still an interesting read.

If I had to guess the secret to brisk sales, I would say it had something to do with local booksellers. Independent bookstores can do a great job pushing books – look at the success of Book Sense. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked in to A Good Great Place For Books in Oakland and left with a book recommended by Debi Echlin, one of the owners. I trust her opinion and when she tells me something is great, I buy it.

I think her store is directly responsible for some of the success of the regional bestsellers, Take Me With You: A Round the World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home by Brad Newsham, Tumbling After: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill by Susan Parker; and Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman by Zac Unger. Debi raved about all of them to her customers.

Now Robert Gray, a bookseller at Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont has started an interesting discussion in his blog about another book, one that he is trying to rescue from the remainder pile. It’s called Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, and it is the true story of a colorful hoodlum named Attila Amburs, the Robin Hood of Eastern Europe.

You would think this book had everything going for it. The author, Julian Rubenstein, has written for the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Salon and elsewhere. The book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and won a Borders award. It was sold to the movies for lots of money. But Gray reports that sales have been below expectations, in part because of a confluence of unlucky factors. It’s depressing to think that good books sink for no reason.

I picked up the book after I read about the hefty film deal. (I can dream, can’t I?) So far I’ve found it fanciful, but I’m not yet convinced. But I am only on page 20. But if a book that well-received is allowed to flounder, what hope is there for other aspiring authors?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Authors, Meet Your Audience

Every author dreams of her book tour. It’s a time when a writer can meet her audience, explain herself, hear accolades. Or is that just a fantasy? Isn’t the book tour an anachronism?

Cynthia Ozick, considered one of the finest writers in American today, kept a journal during her first-ever book tour for Heir To The Glimmering World. Her hilarious, yet heartbreaking, article appeared the New York Times Book Review.

Now the Hartford Courant has come up with another collection of bloopers from authors’ book tours. (via Publishers Lunch)

Electric Forgiveness

The skies were blue and the temperature was warm Sunday, so I treated myself to a couple of house of Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Position. When I finally finished it around 10 pm, I shut off the light and snuggled into bed, content and fulfilled, even though the hours of reading meant I would face piles of laundry on Monday.

Wolitzer has done it again, written a book that illuminates the pleasures and contradictions of the modern American family. Her last book, The Wife, an amazing story of a talented young woman who marries her writing teacher and subsumes her own ambitions for the next 30 years, ripped away the façade of a family to reveal its innermost workings. The Position is also the story of a family, but seen through the prism of a book and its lasting consequences.

The story opens in 1975 when the four Mellow children – Holly, Michael, Dashiell, and Claudia, ages 6 to 15, pull a new book off the shelf in their family room. They open it to see graphic illustrations of their parents making love, often in positions they have created, including one known as “Electric Forgiveness.”

No child likes to admit his or her parents have sex. But Roz and Paul Mellow are so in love with one another, so dedicated to exploring the ways sex brings them closer together that they put their journey in front of the needs of their children. They write a Joy of Sex-type book called “Pleasuring: One Couple’s Journey to Fulfillment.” The book becomes an international bestseller, prompts couples around the world to re-examine their attitudes towards sex -- and disrupts the Mellows’ lives in ways no one anticipated.

Thirty years later, Roz, now divorced from Paul, wants to reissue the book. She teaches human sexuality at Skidmore College, but misses the limelight, when she and Paul were profiled in major magazines and could lure hundreds of people to lectures. But her ex-husband is still bitter that his wife left him for another man two years after the book came out and opposes its reissue.

Like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, Wolitzer explores how a family fractures, how a group of people linked by blood and history finds itself barely relating to one another. The Mellows live in different cities and struggle with deeply flawed intimate relationships. The children have never recovered from the embarrassment they felt at seeing their mother and father displayed on a large white bed in a dizzying array of sexual positions. They also feel they can never live up to the standards set by their erotically-charged parents. Only one of the children, Dashiell, has anything approaching a loving supportive relationship, but he, too, is angry at his parents.

Not a lot actually happens in this book, but it’s sheer pleasure to see how Wolitzer moves her characters along anyway. There are family visits and dinners and flashbacks and one character falls in love. Like real life, the action comes from within.

Wolitzer will be at a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 19.

Friday, March 04, 2005

I'll Have To Stop Spilling The Secrets

Bloggers aren't journalists and don't have protections under California's Shield Law, a judge tentatively ruled today. This is not good news in this ever-changing world where more and more people look to blogs or online news sites for information. The judge ruled that three bloggers who released confidential information on new Apple products had no right to refuse to name their sources.

"What's at stake here is whether online and independent journalists will be granted the same rights as ones from traditional media," said Ms Annalee Newitz, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"Given that so many journalists correspond with their sources via e-mail, this would severely undermine those journalists' abilities to guarantee their sources any kind of confidentiality," she said.

The lines are blurring between traditional and new media. (via RawStory.)

Travels Into The Past

The reading room of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is a cavernous place, with rows and rows of wooden tables and large picture windows that look onto the towering Campanile, whose clarion bells ring out at the top of the hour.

Serious scholars from all over the United States come to look at the library’s impressive collection of western Americana. But anyone can walk in, register, and ask to look at a map that once graced the hands of a Gold Rush miner.

I have spent many hours at the Bancroft Library researching the history of 19th century California for a biography I am writing of my great great grandfather, Isaias Hellman. They are hours of joy, periods where I am transported through time and space into other lives. I have read through the 1872 city directory of Los Angeles and noted down the address and occupation of many of the people I am chronicling. I have carefully turned the fragile pages of the 1898 report of the Emanu-el Sisterhood’s first Kindergarten and read letters jotted down in the early hours after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Another place I love to visit is the Huntington Library in San Marino, near Pasadena. The library sits on the former home of Henry Huntington, who built the vast Pacific Electric trolley lines that crisscrossed Los Angeles and contributed to its urban sprawl. Huntington and my great great grandfather were partners in many ventures until Huntington’s spending got too reckless for Hellman, a conservative banker.

The estate is beautiful, with magnificent gardens that attract thousands of visitors each month. There are rose gardens, bamboo and Japanese gardens, Australian gardens, palm gardens, water gardens. It is as if Huntington was trying to recreate a piece of each continent in his backyard.

It’s not easy to gain access to the Huntington’s vast collection of European and American books. If you are a scholar with a PhD, you get in automatically. But if you are someone like me, with a mere master’s degree, you have to get two recommendations from approved scholars before gaining entrance.

But once there, the Huntington Library treats you like royalty. A scholar may be writing an obscure text that will only be read by hundreds, but he or she is pampered, honored, and valued. Researchers sit in another cavernous reading room – this one is freezing – and present book or document requests to the librarians. They then scuttle off to secret and mysterious temperature-controlled reading rooms that are completely off limits, and a half an hour later return with the documents.

The last time I was at the Huntington, in November, I poured over Los Angeles court cases from the 1860s and 1870s. They came wrapped in acid-free paper, but as soon as I unrolled them I was transported back in time, to a period where court clerks used fountain pens and had elegant, elaborate handwriting. I read about partnerships gone sour, land swindlers, and unpaid debts.

Looking at old books is like trying to unravel a mystery. I feel that if I can gather enough facts, learn how people dressed, what they ate, where they lived and what they did, I will break through to a new understanding and that the revelation will somehow improve my own life. Holding those documents in my hands is almost like a religious experience. I am so grateful for the librarians and historians of this world who work to preserve the past.

All this said, I have to take issue by a recent article by Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the American Librarian Association. He wrote an LA Times editorial calling into question the wisdom or helfulness of Google's initiative to digitize books. I guess he got a lot of criticism for his attitude so he recently ranted against bloggers, accusing those with a preference for digital conversation of shallowness. Hey, can't we just live in peace? There's room for both long form and short form knowledge. (via Conversational Reading)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Privacy No More

These are ugly days to be a reporter. I’m not talking about the public’s general disdain for the press. I can live with complaints about the poor quality of news reporting, or a perceived bias. People have been grumbling about those issues for decades. I’m talking about the government’s concerted attacks against the way reporters gather news.

It’s not always easy to get someone to talk to the press. When the stakes are high – when there’s corruption or deceit involved –a reporter sometimes has to offer a source anonymity. Imagine the Watergate story without Deep Throat. His information was critical in exposing the dirty tricks of the Nixon administration. And for 30 years Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have never revealed his name, although guessing at his identity is one of the country’s favorite parlor games.

The press has never had the legal right to refuse to name sources when asked by a grand jury. The Supreme Court decided that in 1972. But now the government is coming down hard on two prominent reporters, Judith Miller of the New York Times, and Matt Cooper of Time, and threatening them with 18 months in jail unless they reveal who talked to them regarding the case of Valerie Plame. She’s the covert CIA agent who was named in a column by conservative Robert Novak, apparently in retaliation for her husband’s criticism of the Bush administration.

This case is complicated. The Columbia Journalism Review has an excellent explanation of why this matters and why it may change news gathering significantly. The article is by Douglas McCollum.

If you live in the Bay Area, you can hear Judith Miller discuss her situation on March 17. She will be interviewed by the tenacious investigative reporter Lowell Bergman, who is also a professor at the UC School of Journalism. Tickets for the event at Wheeler Auditorium at UC Berkeley go on sale March 3. This should be a lively and illuminating event.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Who Said What About a Messy Desk?

My desk is a jumble of papers, pens, magazine, catalogues and little notes to myself. It is never clean. How do other writers work?

From The Believer we get a list on what various writers keep on their desk. Here is what Glen David Gould, author of Carter Beats the Devil, has:

From left to right: stacks of 3x5 cards with cryptic comments about the next book, some of them taped to my printer and monitor (“All they can do now is amuse me with their sufferings”—Wilton Barnhardt); an empty tin of Marco Polo tea which was full before I started working on the next book; letterhead, postcards, bills, invitations, office supplies, computer equipment; an eighteen-inch-tall flamingo with feathered headdress, that’s actually a pen, given to me by my friend Leila of Operation Smile, because she felt I needed something of proper dignity to sign books; Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter and a stack of Glenn Gould CDs; some archival CD-ROM documentaries that relate obliquely to the next book; a shot glass from the Madonna Inn next to a stuffed “Death” doll from The Sandman (for ages eight and up); a peace symbol that I made when I was age eight; a 1920s 9.5 mm Pathe Baby film I won off of eBay that may or may not relate to the next book, depending on whether I can find a projector to make it work; more 3x5 cards listing all the things I haven’t done (repair our car’s back bumper, which I damaged when doing a three-point turn into a retaining wall, apologize to many people for many things); a framed manuscript page from Lynda Barry’s Cruddy, on which she has painted a fierce-looking mysterious farm animal; a box of Altoids on which rests ashes remaining from a cone of green tea incense; a huge and unkempt file of newspaper clippings, photocopies, auction catalogues, photographs, xeroxes of posters and images, all of which relate to some extent to the next book; a 50,000 dong note sent to me by an adventure racer in Vietnam as an informal royalty for the copy of Carter Beats the Devil that she sold at a bar in (I think) Denang; a hygrometer; a thirteen-year-old, sixteen-pound tortoiseshell cat named Batgirl who sleeps in a basket under a poem my wife wrote about Batgirl’s intense and very passionate cross-animate love affair with the garden hose.

Just Say No

I got two rejections today. One was mostly anonymous, thanking me for my piece but saying the publication couldn’t use it. The other praised my story idea but commented that the editor didn’t think my writing was up to the task.

This hurts. A lot. For the next few hours I am going to doubt myself – my writing ability, my worth in the world, my decision to be a writer. But then I am going to forget these rejections and move on. I am not even going to store them in the back of my head where I can revisit them occasionally. I have to do this. It is the only way I can continue.

Yesterday, after I had sent off one of the pieces, I felt exuberant. I was proud of myself for writing it, sacrificing part of my weekend to craft a short essay on the 1862 floods that devastated Los Angeles. Since southern California has been inundated with water this month, I though I could place an article about a time that few people knew about. It’s information I stumbled on as part of my research on a book about early California. But the newspaper didn’t want my essay and it could have been for a number of reasons – they had run enough articles on the rains and floods; it was personal rather than analytical; it was boring. I can’t know. I just got a no.

A writer named Jim Morrison recently commented on the need for writers to accept rejection. It is from the subscription-only site, Writer L, so I will excerpt it here:

“A couple of years ago, I was having a drink at a party with a good friend of mine, a writer with a decade-long track record at places like GQ, Rolling Stone and other major magazines. Someone sidled up, introduced herself and -- as people always do in New York -- asked us what we did. We told her we were magazine writers. Well, she wondered, what was the most important talent for someone in the business? Neither of us hesitated. Almost in unison, we answered: "Accepting rejection and moving on." The line must have seemed scripted. It wasn't. To me, the most important skill a magazine freelancer can hone is the ability to take being rejected -- or being ignored -- by an editor and move on, whether it's to offer that editor a new idea or that idea to another editor. There are those wonderful exceptions. My first New York Times assignment came during an initial phone call intended merely to check an editor's name. But I think freelancers underestimate the work necessary break into a good market and give up too easily. Remember, John McPhee suffered fifteen years of rejections before his byline appeared in The New Yorker. I've long been a contributor to American Way, American Airlines' inflight magazine. The good folks there have flown me all over the world -- Toronto, St. Lucia, Paris, London, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix -- on well more than 100 stories over the years, assignments earning a couple of hundred thousand dollars. An American Way editor assigned my first magazine story when I moved from newspapering to freelancing. He then rejected my next 11 ideas. I've often wondered what I'd be doing now if I hadn't sent that twelfth idea.”