Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We're All Geniuses Here

Jerome Weeks left his position as book critic for the Dallas Morning News rather than watch as the paper cut 111 jobs. He wrote a farewell column – which the paper declined to publish – which is a moving tribute to the written word. It also discusses the declining cultural importance of the novel.

The MacArthur Genius Awards were handed out yesterday. Somehow they missed me. But I was happy to hear that Adrian Nicole Blanc, a New York-based journalist who writes mostly about the poor and disenfranchised, won one of the $500,000 grants. She spent more than a decade following around a young woman her 2003 book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. The award is very encouraging. It’s a recognition that narrative non-fiction journalism is an art form, one that can illuminate social injustices.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and New Yorker writer, George Saunders a short story writer and a Syracuse University professor, and David Macaulay, who wrote that wonderful illustrated book, The Way Things Work, also won awards.

Monday, September 18, 2006

New Cat Fight ... but this Time Between Men

This is probably the happiest day in Ed Champion’s life. Lev Grossman, the book critic for Time Magazine and a frequent target of Ed’s, wrote about their twisted, Internet-only relationship. The article’s title is “My Mortal Enemy.

“I do, however, have an archenemy,” Lev writes in the current issue of Time.

His name is Edward Champion, or at least I assume it is. That's the name he blogs under. I've never met him. I don't know what he looks like, how old he is, or pretty much anything about him (or her?). Except that every few months he calls me an idiot on his website.

Lev, take heart. It’s actually a compliment that Ed has noticed you. And it’s not really all that unusual to be called names by Ed. He does that to nearly everyone. It’s his schtick. He can be quite mean and catty. But he’s also very funny, and that’s why he gets away with it.

And it looks like this infusion of national recognition has made Ed so happy, he’s promising to tone down his invective.

Contrary to my criticisms, I don’t think Lev Grossman is a complete tool nor a total chickenhead…….In any event, as an olive branch to Lev, he’ll be getting something nice from me soon. And I will try in the future to paint less of a Manichean picture of the man.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

How to Write for The New Yorker

Cracking the top national magazine market is tough.

Editors at the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and The New Yorker are like soldiers under siege. Everyone wants access to them – their old college acquaintances, friends of friends, neighbors down the hall, even family members. Writers know that any personal connection to an editor at a top magazine, however tenuous, increases their chances of publishing an article in the magazine.

Some writers spend years trying to get published. John McPhee, for example, famously queried the New Yorker for more than 10 years before one of his stories was accepted. Now he contributes regularly.

“It’s a bunker,” according to Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s. “Getting inside the bunker is the hardest park. Once you’re in ….” His thought trailed off, but he clearly was suggesting that once you’ve written for one of these magazines, entrĂ©e anywhere else is much easier.

Penetrating the walls of the nation’s premier magazines was the topic of an unusual conference this weekend at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Titled “East Meets West,” the conference brought editors of elite publications together with 55 accomplished writers. The event was co-sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors – itself difficult to join – so the writers in attendance all held impressive publishing credentials.

Still, the news was hard to hear.

“You don’t find the New Yorker; the New Yorker finds you,” said Dana Goodyear, a poet and writer who became an editor after working as David Remnick’s assistant for three years.

While some writers can find their way into the magazine by writing “Talk of the Town” pieces, those short articles focus mainly on New York so it is difficult for freelancers to find suitable topics, she said. But writing a number of them is one of the few ways to get assigned a larger piece

Many writers get their first New Yorker bylines when the magazine publishes an excerpt of their book. (What? I heard some members of the audience grumble. You have to write a book first and then hope a short section can appear in the magazine?)

Or you can write for smaller publications and hope you are noticed. That’s what happened to Elif Batuman, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She wrote a few esoteric pieces for the new literary magazine N+1. Remnick read them, called her up, and invited her to New York to discuss ideas. She’s had two articles published so far in the New Yorker. Goodyear edited “Cool Heart,” a January 16, 2006 piece on the Thai kick-boxing trainer, Bunkerd Faphimal. Batuman’s voice and take on the subject was fresh and original – and that’s what the New Yorker is looking for, said Goodyear.

“Write for places where your voice can roam free,” suggested Goodyear.

Gerald Mazorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, suggested writers “know something really well and then know someone really well.” Find a topic that can become your specialty and give it a spin so unique that the top magazines can’t ignore your queries, he said.

The New York Times Magazine has about 30 writers under contract and only occasionally publishes work from writers outside its circle, said Mazorati. But it can be done. He suggested starting an e-mail correspondence with one of the magazine’s 8 assigning editors. Cultivate a relationship. Show them your work. Pitch them your ideas. With time, something might work out, he said.

The articles in Harpers, Atlantic, and Mother Jones are almost all written by free-lance writers. While each magazine has its own personality, the editors all crave well-written, unusual pitches. Bill Wasik at Harper’s said he likes “pitches with facts. Clunky, (meaning loaded with facts, not poorly written) detailed pitches.” Most new writers do shorter pieces to start. The editors have to known and trust a writer before they will assign them one of the longer articles that form the backbones of each magazine.

All the editors talked about the power of narrative. They want stories with a beginning, middle and an end, with well-developed characters. The New York Times Magazine needs article that are timely and linked to news events. The Atlantic specializes in big policy pieces. Harpers really prizes stories where reporters go undercover to expose a little-understood subculture.

While most magazine readers are women – and the women in the audience at the conference far outnumbered the men – most magazine articles are written by men. All of the editors said their magazines are not actively discriminating against female writers. They want more female writers. It’s just that most women write about issues central to their lives – marriage, parenthood, memoir -- and don’t do the big think pieces New York Times columnist Frank Rich calls the “bloviators.”

“We are a white male culture that may be intimidating to women,” said Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

“It’s easier for women to sell an article on the sexy twist of work/life drama,” said Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery. “It’s easier to sell. There are more magazines that would buy that rather than a big policy piece. There is a subtle way of steering women.”

If the editors were frank in suggesting that it is tough – although not impossible – to crack the top magazine markets, their appearances at Berkeley were encouraging in a less direct way. Without exception they were friendly and approachable and very human. Just hearing them talk about their magazines and the stories they are proud of stripped away some of the mystique of the New York publishing world. After all, somebody has to write those stories. And since when did saying “no” discourage any self-respecting reporter?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Profiles of the Rich and Famous

Call this the post of the profile. Here are three interesting stories about some of the most powerful (white) men in the news and publishing business.

The Guardian of London takes a look at David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker.

New York Magazine looks at another powerful NewYork editor: Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times.

A man with a different kind of power: Charles Frazier, who is about to release his second novel Thirteen Moons. He is so powerful that Random House paid him $8.5 million for the book, based on a one-page description. Scott Rudin chipped in another $3 million for film rights.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Saturday Musings

The Contra Costa Times writes that the Chronicle may one day own a chunk of Dean Singleton’s Media News. This means one interlocking conglomerate could control all the newspapers in the Bay Area.

Scott Esposito on Conversational Reading has a nice essay about how his reading habits have changed now that he is a lit blogger.

Ilana DeBare of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at Cody's new owner.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Is There Really Just One Big Corporation Running All the Papers?

The Bay Guardian has always positioned itself as the scrappy underdog, the only San Francisco weekly to speak truth to power. For years it railed against monopolies that controlled the city's utilities.

The Bay Guardian is now looking at the recent consolidation of Bay Area newspapers and is once again yelling "monopoly." It is not only concerned that Dean Singleton owns the vast majority of the papers in the Bay Area, but is worried about the relationship between Hearst Corporation, the owner of the Chronicle, and Media News.

When McClatchy bought up Knight-Ridder it turned around and sold the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times and a batch of smaller papers to Media News. McClatchy then sold the Montery Herald and the St Paul Pioneer Dispatch to Hearst Corp, which turned over those papers to Media News in exchange for a large block of non-voting stock in Media News properties outside the Bay Area.

The Justice Department didn't find anything wrong with this. The only one who has stepped in to try and block the consolidation is Clint Reilly, a former political consultant. He is suing to prevent Hearst's takeover of Media News stock, arguing it would create a monopoly. A judge will hear the case in February.

Bruce Brugmann, the owner of the Bay Guardian, points out a delicious irony in his blog. The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine ran a lengthy narrative a few weeks ago about a newspaper war in Humboldt County between Singleton and an independent newspaper. But there has been very little written in the pages of the Chronicle about the impact of Dean Singleton on the Bay Area media scene.

"As you will remember from my last blog, I unveiled the term Eurekaism to replace the term Afghanistanism for the bad habit of many daily papers to cover stories in Eureka, but not the local big scandal or embarrassing stories in their hometowns," Brugmann wrote in his blog.

Japanese Firm Buys Cody's Books

Fred Ross, the owner of the two remaining Cody’s Bookstores, has sold his two-store chain to a Japanese buyer, Hiroshi Kagawa, the owner of Yohan, Inc.

"We are very excited about our partnership with Yohan as we begin our next half century," Ross said in a press release. "Yohan shares our commitment to independent bookselling. Working together we can extend our reach both locally and globally. Yohan's financial resources and international relationships will strengthen our existing operations, and will allow us to properly restock our shelves and offer the broad in-depth selection that customers expect from Cody's."

Cody's will essentially remain the same: a two-store operation that showcases numerous authors. Ross will remain as president and his wife Leslie Berkler will be vice-president in charge of store operations.

Yohan, Inc is the largest distributor of English-language books in Japan. It was founded in 1953 and currently operates 18 bookstores and a few publishers. Yohan bought Berkeley-based Stone Bridge Press last year. Kagawa is either 49 or 50 and "loves books," the press release quotes Peter Goodman, his long time friend as saying. ‘Yohan and Cody’s share a sensibility that venerates the written word.’”

The sale does not surprise to me. A few weeks ago I wrote about Cody’s financial problems. I had no details or statistics: I just noticed that the shelves in its Fourth Street Store in Berkeley didn’t have very many books on them. This was just weeks after Ross closed his wonderful Telegraph Avenue Store.

Ed Champion berates Ross for taking the easy way out. He suggests that Ross made a major miscalculation when he took over the old Planet Hollywood store on Stockton Street in San Francisco.

“But I know how you’ll justify all this, Mr. Ross. You didn’t sell out. You bought in. It was the “market,” after all, that killed off Cody’s. Not the fact that you took over Planet Hollywood’s old space on Stockton Street, which probably had a rent that was a shitload more expensive than the original Telegraph Avenue store that you so gracelessly killed. Fred Cody is spinning in his grave right around now. He never would have let this happen.”

I am sorry that the buyer is from another country. But ownership change can be good. Look, the Codys sold to Ross many years ago and he gave the community one of the best bookstores in the region. Maybe the new owner, Hiroshi Kagawa, will invest more money and refill all those shelves.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

R.I.P Jim Holliday

Jim Holliday, one of the best historians of California, died Aug. 31 in his home in Carmel at the age of 82.

I still remember reading The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, Holliday’s opus on the California Gold Rush. It was history like no other history I had ever read.

The book is centered on the diaries of William Swain, a 28-year old man from Youngstown, New York, who traveled overland to California in 1849. Holliday uses Swain’s experiences to exemplify what happened when hundreds of thousands of people rushed into virgin territory and ripped out its insides. Holliday’s use of a personal narrative to describe a major social movement created a readable and accessible book of history. It’s a common technique now, but wasn’t as a popular in the 1980s.

J. S. Holliday stumbled on Swain’s journals shortly after he graduate from Yale in 1948. He met Edward Eberstadt, a New York rare book and manuscript dealer, who had Swain’s letters and journals from his daughter, Sara Sabrina Swain. Eberstadt had intended to publish the journals, but was prevented from doing so because of poor health and pressing business concerns. Holliday agreed to take over the project, little realizing it would take him 30 years to write The World Rushed In. But when the book was published in 1981 it became a best-seller and went through 13 printings.

I have just been using one of Holliday’s other books, Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, as source material for my own book. It’s an illustrated sort of coffee-table format book on California. It won the Los Angeles Times prize for best book on non-fiction in 2000.

Some of Holliday’s lectures are archived on the Bancroft Library site.