Initially I found yesterday’s announcement of Philip Gourevitch’s hiring as editor of the Paris Review to be odd. I know him best for his journalism in the New Yorker and his much praised works of non-fiction, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families and A Cold Case, but he didn’t seem to have the proper pedigree to head a magazine that is so prominent in its championing of short fiction. However, a look at the press release accompanying the announcement reveals that “Gourevitch holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University, and has published a number of short stories in literary quarterlies. He worked as cultural editor of the Forward in the early nineties, before turning to writing full time,” which would indicate that he does indeed have experience both as a writer of fiction and an editor. Beyond that, perhaps from his experience with the New Yorker, Gourevitch may have inkling of what it takes to make an unabashedly highbrow publication both a critical and financial success. Many were dismayed, or at least apprehensive, when former editor Brigid Hughes was forced out, but I think that Gourevitch’s appointment should leave Paris Review devotees cautiously optimistic. For more details and background on Gourevitch, visit Galley Cat.
Ed Champion has a nemesis, Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman, as we discover in Grossman's latest column. Though somewhat tongue in cheek, Grossman is basically asking bloggers to use their power for good. All in all, it's far more civilized than Steve Almond's pathetic attempted takedown of Mark Sarvas in Salon from a year ago, which read like a laundry list of Almond's insecurities. Grossman's essay and Ed's response make it clear that Grossman is an altogether more pleasant person than Almond and that the relationship between book bloggers and the literati has matured. As Ed notes in his brief response to Grossman, he (and other book bloggers) are regularly paid to pen book reviews in major newspapers. The lines are blurring. Oh, and I've met Ed. He's not that scary.
The current issue of New York Magazine offers a typically glib handicapping of this summer's debut novels and hot young fabulists, as well as surveys of overlooked books and of writers likely to stand the test of time. I'm least sympathetic to this American Idol style of journalism when it covers well-trod territory; New York's a speculative "future canon" offers few surprises (Gary Lutz and Helena Maria Viramontes among them). But the lengthy "underrated" list does offer readers an introduction to new writers... as do the excerpts from works in progress by "tomorrow's literary stars" (including my friend Maaza Mengiste.)It's refreshing to read fiction in New York; perhaps they should do this more often. Anyway, if the endless brouhaha surrounding the Times' attention-grabbing "Best Books of the Last 25 Years" failed to tire you out, click on over to New York and check out the offerings.
Though posthumously published work is often disappointing, it's hard not to be curious about the just announced publication of The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien, which has been compiled from excerpts and notes by Tolkien's son, Christopher. According to the Guardian, Tolkien enthusiasts will be familiar with the work since fragments of it have been previously published elsewhere:Extracts from the original tale, said to be a detailed but staccato account of the family of Hurin, the man who dared defy Melkor in the first age, have already been published - illuminating, Tolkien enthusiasts say, some of the oldest tales of the legendary land of Middle Earth.The new book is slated to arrive in Spring 2007.
My neighbor and friend Jacob Lambert wrote a powerful piece for Philadelphia Weekly recently about his brother David, who has been diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder:I was at home in Bella Vista when he called. Last I'd heard he'd "eloped" from the hospital and was wandering his old East Village haunts. This was nothing new; many times over the years, his ward status had been upgraded, giving him a bit of freedom - and he'd simply walk off, winding up in Manhattan, then Bellevue, then back at the hospital he'd started from.Today, though, he wasn't calling from a pay phone on Bleecker Street. He was on a cell phone at Seventh and Pine, saying he was browsing apartments, was owed $100,000 and would be buying me a new Mercedes. He sounded as bad as ever, and the call ended when he set down the phone to talk to a stranger.Incidentally, Jacob also runs the hilarious Philly Turkey, a must read for Philly natives.
Chicago is called “The Windy City” not because of our winds (which are present, but not markedly above average), but because of our citizens’ historical propensity to go on about themselves. The nickname took root during a late 19th-century rivalry with Cincinnati. Both cities had a meatpacking industry and baseball, and this was enough to stir up a war of words. We fought, bafflingly, over rights to the nickname “Porkopolis,” and our dueling baseball teams, the Red Stockings and the White Stockings. The Cincinnati sports writers, tired of our braggadocio, made “windy city” stick. And “The Second City” was not coined by A.J. Liebling in his outwardly snotty book about Chicago’s inferiority to New York. We earned that one in the 19th century as well, when the city burned to the ground and we built an entirely new city — the second city — in its place. When even our monikers are misunderstood, Chicago, demonstrably, has reputation issues. We’re outspoken and resourceful, and everyone thinks we’re just losers getting blown about! Being a proud Chicagoan, then, can feel like a defensive position. Or, more optimistically, that all of our cultural treasures are a secret. Enter The Chicagoan, a new outfit whose mission is to “document the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the greater Midwest through long-form storytelling.” The original Chicagoan was a weekly magazine, modeled on The New Yorker, published from 1926 to 1935. It was hit or miss, quality-wise, and went unremembered until University of Chicago professor Neil Harris discovered its archive in the library, and then edited the collection (The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age) that brought it all to our attention. Now JC Gabel, editor of the much more recently defunct Stop Smiling magazine, has relaunched the brand with The Chicagoan Issue 1, a 200 page limited-edition glossy number that’s heavy on design. The Chicagoan as an organization also has digital editions, podcasts, and public events on its agenda, and Issue 1 acts as drum major for this cultural parade. Its greatest success would be to spotlight Chicago’s creatives in a way that excites the hometown crowd, intrigues the visitors, and leaves both eager to see more. Seen as a whole, I believe The Chicagoan has succeeded. In an effort to provide a balanced view of our city, the ten Chicago-focused features include seven about cultural innovators and three about crime. One feels a little jolt going back and forth between the two but, in a disheartening way, this may be quite an accurate reflection. The profiles are all proud and glowing (Chicago! We’ve got this great chef, and an amazing architect, and these cool music guys, and really good coffee!). The crime pieces, if it needs to be said, are more nuanced and gritty. Alex Kotlowitz, whose compassionate, participatory brand of journalism has focused on violence in Chicago for over a decade, is reliably worth looking in on. Here he is interviewed, along with filmmaker Steve James, about the “violence interrupters” they recently documented in The Interrupters. Chicago’s beat cop laureate Martin Preib, author of The Wagon, contributes a piece on the crime and confession that stay with him. I don’t want to sound flippant, but it’s nice to have these complicated, antireductive pieces in among the laudations. They stay with you much longer. The literary supplement includes the reliably great Joe Meno and a thinker on David Foster Wallace (the inclusion of which feels predictable but also might be the law? At least it’s out of their system). The last section, comprised of “dispatches from the Midwest,” is small but thoughtful. The real gem of the issue, justifying high hopes for The Chicagoan’s future, is the marquee piece on the history of Siskel & Ebert. The 47-page oral history combines interviews with their coworkers, bosses, friends, and rivals to tell the story of two talented men who sat at the heart of American film criticism for decades. Hubris, competition, ambition, luck, friendship, cruelty, and tragedy make the history of a syndicated talk show read like Greek drama. If Gabel et al. continue to coax such compelling stories out of our city’s history, then they have nothing to fear save the demise of publishing. Happily there is great camaraderie in being underrated, and Chicago has responded well to its glossy new champion. Sold only at independent stores throughout the city, and restocked in small numbers, getting your hands on the issue became the coup du jour for hipsters and literati alike. Remember early This American Life, before it started to always be about the economy? That’s what this could be — appreciative of the sincere efforts of interesting people, and generous in presenting them. Take that, Cincinnati.
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No the Times isn't getting comics, but they are taking a cue from the New Yorker by adding a graphic novel-type comics section to the Sunday magazine. Everybody's been saying for years that "graphic novels" are on the cusp of taking the book world by storm. Is this a step in that direction? The first artist to appear will be, you guessed it, Chris Ware. Get the gory details here.
1. That yowl of pain you heard coming from the nation’s capital on Monday afternoon was the death cry of the print newspaper business as it was cut to the heart by the buyout of the Washington Post by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Just forty years ago, during the Watergate scandal, the Post was an economic and cultural force potent enough to help take down a sitting president, and now it has itself been taken down by a guy who less than twenty years ago was working out of his garage selling books on the Internet. The surprise $250 million deal has coup de grâce written all over it, and in newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors – those who still have jobs – will be grousing over the rich symbolism of one of the crown jewels of American journalism being snapped up by a mogul made rich by the very technology that killed the print business model. But once the grumbling dies down, those of us who care about journalism and culture may have to concede two obvious points. First, we damn well better hope Bezos succeeds where others have failed in figuring out how to produce professional-quality content in the digital age, not just for the sake of the Washington Post or even of the news business, but for the sake of cultural and artistic production in general. Second, of all the billionaires with the means to buy a major cultural institution like the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos might just be the one who can reinvent it for the 21st century. The details of the Post deal are curious – and telling. For one thing, the newspaper’s parent company, which owns a diverse group of media and educational businesses including the Kaplan test prep company, is selling only its newspapers and holding onto its other businesses. For another, Bezos is buying the Post on his own, and won’t merge it into Amazon, the online retailing behemoth he still runs. Finally, Bezos has said he doesn’t intend to lay off employees and will keep Katherine Weymouth, granddaughter of legendary Post publisher and Washington powerbroker Katherine Graham, on as the newspaper’s publisher. In other words, the Washington Post Company sees its signature property as a money-loser, and Bezos appears to be stepping in as a white knight to save a cultural institution from falling into disrepair. The history of these sorts of deals is mixed at best. After all, just three years ago the Post Company sold once-mighty Newsweek for a dollar to yet another billionaire, 92-year-old Sidney Harman, who brought in former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, with a plan to merge the aging print weekly with the website The Daily Beast. Harman, however, promptly died, and with the magazine hemorrhaging readers, Brown just last week severed ties between the website and the print magazine, selling Newsweek to start-up International Business Times. As its purchase price suggests, the Washington Post is in far better shape than Newsweek was, but the paper’s core business of covering inside the Beltway news is under threat from websites like Politico. More importantly, the paper faces the same problem all legacy news organizations face, which is how to scale back its news operation to a level that is economically sustainable in a post-print era without doing fatal damage to the news gathering itself. To do that, though, requires a nuanced understanding of why the old business model failed in the first place. 2. There are two versions of the story of why print newspapers bit the dust, one a tech-geek fantasy, the other a more prosaic business tale. In the tech-geek fantasy version, spread by the likes of digivangelist Clay Shirky in his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, newspapers were beaten at their own game by bloggers and regular citizens armed with iPhones and laptops who were able to deliver news faster and more cheaply than the old print warhorses. Ironically, Shirky and others who advance this theory are laboring under the same misconception that has plagued news executives for the last twenty years – namely, the assumption that the principal business of a newspaper is gathering news. Newspapers don’t sell news. Rather, they give news away for free in order to maintain a distribution system for business information, most of which takes the form of paid ads. Newspapers remained as lucrative as they were for as long as they did because until the introduction of the web browser in 1994, nothing else offered cheap access to the millions of ordinary consumers who picked up the paper that landed on their front curb every morning. Understanding this distinction helps explain why television hurt but did not kill newspapers. Television long ago entered more homes than newspapers ever did, and in many ways TV, which includes moving pictures and sound, is a better delivery device for news. But again, news isn’t the product for sale; advertising is, and by its nature, television can only effectively sell broad conceptual ideas that can be communicated visually in thirty seconds. You can use television to convince millions of Americans to shop at Safeway, but you can’t very well use TV to tell Americans about everything that's on sale that week at their neighborhood Safeway. And if you are trying to find a roommate or selling some old furniture, you can’t afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to run even a fifteen-second spot on a local station. For those kinds of tasks, you called up your local paper and bought a classified ad – until, that is, Craigslist and eBay came along and let people post those ads essentially for free. To repeat: newspapers aren't dying because they're getting beat on news reporting. Newspapers are dying because the Internet separated the news content from the advertising revenue stream. For generations news executives thought they were selling news, while in fact they were selling a pipeline to consumers that companies and individuals paid to use. Now, the Internet itself is that pipeline, and we’re watching a wild scramble to see who will control it and the rafts of dollars flowing down its many tributaries. So far, tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and, yes, Amazon, are winning that battle hands down. This same battle, meanwhile, has been playing out across all forms of cultural and artistic expression. Twenty years ago, if a rock band wanted to find a wide audience for its music, it signed with a record label, which then recorded the band’s music and distributed it to stores across the country. Now, thanks to the ease of digital distribution, young musicians can bypass record labels and post their songs online for free. But if they want to make any real money from their work, they will almost certainly have to turn to Apple’s iTunes site and its direct pipeline to America’s ears. A similar story has played out in the movie business, which only a few years ago could depend on DVDs rentals to make up revenue lost at the box office. Now, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, DVD rental fees have dried up and movie studios are madly turning out special-effects-laden comic-book serials in the hopes of winning over American teenagers and Chinese moviegoers, the last groups still consistently willing to pay to watch a movie in a theater (as long as it’s loud, violent, and not overly dependent on the subtleties of spoken English). Books have been somewhat insulated from these disruptions because, so far, most readers still prefer physical books over e-books, but the terms of the battle are the same. Publishing firms, which have for generations paid writers to produce and editors to curate books are fighting tech giants Apple and Amazon, which view books primarily as loss leaders they can use to attract customers to their e-readers. So long as most readers continue to prefer printed books, publishing will limp along in its wounded state, rather like the news business after television but before the Internet. But there is a tipping point at which e-readers, and the recommendation engines controlled by the tech giants, could take over the curating role now played by publishing houses, thereby killing the publishing industry as we know it. 3. All of which brings us back to Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post. Over the last twenty years, much of the money and power once held by content producers – newspapers, record labels, movie studios, publishing houses, etc. – has transferred to the tech giants that now control the digital pipelines to consumers. This means that it’s much easier for any individual artist or journalist to reach an audience, which is a great and good thing, but it also means that the tech giants controlling the pipelines are taking ever increasing shares of profits. For the past decade or so, we have been enjoying a strange hangover period of the pre-digital age. A generation of journalists and artists trained in the dead-tree era, who have few other marketable skills, have continued producing art and journalism even though they are getting paid far less for their work than they used to. But every year more of these content producers are retiring or moving on, and we are entering a new period dominated by the first truly digital generation of bloggers and artists who are faced with the task of rebuilding the culture industries out of the ashes of the tech explosion. I and many others have argued that, so far at least, this generation has relied too heavily on memes and information derived from the legacy content producers. In journalism, this has meant hordes of bloggers feasting on an ever-shrinking supply of reported news from print-based news organizations. In film, this has meant kajillions of kids with camera phones riffing on existing story worlds, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and uploading the results onto YouTube. As Jaron Lanier, a digital pioneer recently turned Internet skeptic, puts it in his 2011 book You Are Not a Gadget, we are a culture in danger of “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Obviously, this cannot go on forever, but thus far the most powerful technological disrupters have shown little interest in investing in the content carried along their digital pipelines. Apple, with its market-making iPhone and iPad devices, sparked a creative revolution in the world of apps, but when it comes to cultural content like books, movies, and news, all the tech companies have done is made it cheaper and easier to get what you want, cutting deeply into the profit margins for the content producers in the process. Amazon, which now controls a quarter of the book business, has of course played a huge role in this devaluing of cultural content, but in recent years Amazon has also quietly begun investing in content of its own. Since 2009, Amazon has launched imprints focusing on romance (Montlake Romance), thrillers (Thomas & Mercer), and sci-fi (47North), and now even general adult titles (New Harvest) and literary fiction (Little A). Compared with Amazon itself, these ventures are tiny, and they have run into trouble with rival booksellers like Barnes & Noble, which have refused to stock their titles. But whether these imprints succeed or fail, they demonstrate that Bezos has begun to wrap his mind around what it would mean if his company squeezed so much value out of the book business that publishing became in effect one long amateur hour. So, is the Washington Post purchase a step in the same direction, an effort on Bezos's part to invest directly in the content that fuels his billion-dollar pipelines? The short answer is nobody knows. By all accounts the deal came together quickly, and it may well be that Bezos himself is unsure just what he wants to do with the Post. For a man worth $25.2 billion, as Bezos is, a $250 million newspaper truly can qualify as an impulse buy. Perhaps this is simply the billionaire’s answer to collecting old-fashioned typewriters. Let’s hope that’s not the case because whatever you may think of Bezos and others who broke the pre-Internet business model, the fact is it's broken – and who better to fix it than the man who helped break it in the first place? Bezos, who has never worked in the news business, may be less attached to the dying print model than most print-news lifers and thus more willing to embrace digital-only innovations. As a man who has made his living tapping the powers of the interwebs, he may be better able to see that strict paywalls, which limit linking and bring in few dollars, are a dead end for most news organizations. As a CEO who recently bought out the reader hub GoodReads, he may be more open to recasting the newspaper as a community gathering spot, a sort of localized wiki combining conversation, community news, and event listings with ad revenues supporting a small, professional news staff. Most important, as a manager who has excelled at the long game, spending years investing in infrastructure for Amazon rather than diverting profits to shareholders, Bezos might be more willing to lose some money while figuring out how to marry news quality with profitability. Or maybe not. Maybe the guy just wants a $250 million toy. But let’s hope not, because if that’s the case we stand to lose a lot more than a grand old newspaper that once helped take down a president.
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I wasn't a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates' story "Landfill" in last week's New Yorker. It felt to me a little too obvious, this story about an insecure college student's drunken and accidental death thanks to the carelessness of the brothers at the fraternity where he was a pledge. It seemed too "ripped from the headlines," too after school special, and on top of all that it was emotionally cheap - designed to provoke outrage with little complexity. So, it was interesting to discover that Oates' story was indeed ripped from the headlines. The death of Hector Jr. very closely resembles that of a young man who had attended The College of New Jersey, so much so that Oates was compelled to apologize "for any offense she caused."Obviously, quite a lot of fiction is drawn from real life events, but I think in this case, because Oates' story was so one-note and so geared toward generating disgust, the connection was simply to stark to ignore. (via Jeff)