Bel Canto

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The Bathrobe Era: What the Death of Print Newspapers Means for Writers

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Today, April 30, marks the twentieth anniversary of my last day in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. In truth, my newspaper career was neither long nor particularly illustrious. For about four years in my early twenties I worked at two small newspapers: the Mill Valley Record, the decades-old weekly newspaper in my hometown that died a few years after I left; and the Aspen Daily News, which, miraculously, remains in business today. Still, I loved the newspaper business. I have never worked with better people than I did in that crazy little newsroom in Aspen, and I probably never will. I quit because it dawned on me that, while I was a good reporter, I had neither the skills nor the intestinal fortitude to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, investigative reporters like Bob Woodward and David Halberstam. What I couldn’t know the day I left the Daily News and began the long trek that led first to graduate school and then to college teaching was the sheer destructive power of the bullet I was dodging.

The Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2012” report offers a sobering portrait of what has happened to print journalism in the twenty years since I left. After a small bump during the Clinton Boom of the 1990s, advertising revenue for America’s newspapers has fallen off a cliff in the past decade, dropping by more than half from a peak of $48.7 billion in 2000 to $23.9 billion in 2011. Thus far at least, online advertising isn’t saving the business as some hoped it might. Online advertising for newspapers was up $207 million between 2010 and 2011, but in that same period, print advertising was down $2.1 billion, meaning print losses outnumbered online gains by a factor of 10-1.

But as troubling as the death of print journalism may be for our collective civic and political lives, it may have an even more lasting impact on our literary culture. For more than a century, newspaper jobs provided vital early paychecks, and even more vital training grounds, for generations of American writers as different as Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Maynard, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tony Earley. Just as importantly, reporting jobs taught nonfiction writers from Rachel Carson to Michael Pollan how to ferret out hidden information and present it to readers in a compelling narrative.

Now, though, the infrastructure that helped finance all those literary apprenticeships is fast slipping away. The vacuum left behind by dying print publications has been largely filled by blogs, a few of them, like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, connected to huge corporations, many others written by bathrobe-clad auteurs like yours truly. This is great for readers who need only fire up their laptop – or increasingly, their tablet or smartphone – and have instant access to nearly all the information produced in the known world, for free.

But the system’s very efficiency is also its Achilles’ heel. When I worked in newspapers, a good part of my paycheck came from sales of classified ads. That’s all gone now, thanks to Craigslist and eBay. We also were a delivery system for circulars from grocery stores and real estate firms advertising their best deals. Buh-bye. Display ads still exist online, but advertisers are increasingly directing their ad dollars to Google and Facebook, which do a much better job of matching ads to their users’ needs. Add to this the longer-term trend of locally owned grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing shops being replaced by national chains, which draw more business from nationwide TV ad campaigns, and the economic model that supported independent reporting for more than a hundred years has vanished.

Without a way to make a living from their work, most bloggers are hobbyists, and most hobbyists come at their hobby with an angle. So, you have realtor blogs that tout local real estate and inveigh against property taxes. Or you have historical preservation blogs that rail against any new construction. Or you have plain old cranks of the kind who used to hog the open discussion time at the beginning of local city council meetings, but now direct their rants, along with pictures, smart-phone videos, and links to other cranks in other cities, onto the Internet. What you don’t have is a lot of guys like I used to be, who couldn’t care less about the outcome of the events they’re covering, but are being paid a living wage to present them accurately to readers.

The debate over the downsides of the Internet tends to focus on the consumer end, arguing, as Nicholas Carr does in his bestseller, The Shallows, that the Internet is making us dumber. That may or may not be true – I have my doubts – but as we near the close of the second decade of the Internet Era, we may be facing a far greater problem on the producer end: the atrophying of a central skill set necessary to great literature, that of taking off the bathrobe and going out to meet the people you are writing about. I mean to cast no generational aspersions toward the web-savvy writers coming up behind me, but having done both, I can tell you that blogging is nothing like reporting. Just about any fact you can find, or argument you can make, is available online, and with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can sound like an expert on virtually any subject. And, because so far the blogosphere is, for the great majority of bloggers, quite nearly a pay-free zone, most bloggers are so busy earning a living at their real job, they have no time for old-fashioned shoe leather reporting even if they had the skill set.

But in the main, today’s younger bloggers don’t have those skills, because shoe-leather reporting isn’t all that useful in the Internet age. Reporting is slow. It’s analog. You call people up and talk to them for half an hour. Or you arrange a time to meet and talk for an hour and a half. It can take all day to report a simple human-interest story. To win eyeballs online, you have to be quick and you have to be linked. Read Gawker some time. Or Jezebel. Or even a site like Talking Points Memo. There’s some original reporting there, but more common are riffs on news stories or memes created by somebody else, often as not from television or the so-called “dead-tree media.” When there is an original piece online, often it comes from an author flacking for another, paying gig – a book, a business venture, a weight-loss program, a political career.

Clay Shirky, the NYU media studies professor and author of Here Comes Everybody, has suggested the crumbling of economic support for traditional print media and the original reporting it engendered is a temporary stage in the healthy process of creative destruction that goes along with the advent of any new game-changing technology. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place,” Shirky is quoted as saying in The Pew Center’s “State of the News Media 2010” report.

Maybe Shirky is right and online news sites will discover an economic model to replace the classified pages and grocery-store ads, but as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier points out in You Are Not A Gadget, we’ve been waiting a long time for the destruction to start getting creative. Lanier, who is more interested in music than writing, argues that for all the digi-vangelism about the waves of creativity that would follow the advent of musical file-sharing, what has happened so far is that music has gotten stuck in a self-reinforcing loop of sampling and imitation that has led to cultural stasis. “Where is the new music?” he asks. “Everything is retro, retro, retro.”

Lanier writes:
I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines:  Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the track for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance.
I am certainly not the go-to guy on contemporary music, but, like Lanier, I fear we are creating a generation of riff artists, who see their job not as creating wholly new original projects but as commenting upon cultural artifacts that already exist. Whether you’re talking about rappers endlessly “sampling” the musical hooks of their forebears, or bloggers snarking about the YouTube video of Miami Heat star Shaquille O’Neal holding his nose on the bench after one of his teammates farted during the first quarter of a game against the Chicago Bulls, you are seeing a culture, as Lanier puts it, “effectively eating its own seed stock.”

Thus far this cultural Möbius strip hasn’t affected books to the same degree that it has the news media and music because, well, authors of printed books still get paid for having original ideas. (If you wonder why cyber evangelists like Clay Shirky keep writing books and magazine articles printed on dead trees, there’s your answer. Writing a book is a paid gig. Blogging is effectively a charitable donation to the cultural conversation, made in the hope that one’s donation will pay off in some other sphere, like, say, getting a book contract.) The recent U.S. government suit against Apple and book publishers over alleged price-fixing in the e-book market, which would allow Amazon to keep deeply discounting books to drive Kindle sales, suggests that authors can’t necessarily count on making a living from writing books forever. But even if by some miracle, books continue to hold their economic value as they move into the digital realm, the people who write them will still need a way to make a living – and just as importantly, learn how to observe and describe the world beyond their laptop screen – in the decade or so it takes a writer to arrive at a mature and original vision.

Try to imagine what would have become of Hemingway, that shell-shocked World War I vet, if he hadn’t found work on the Kansas City Star, and later, the job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star that allowed him to move to Paris and raise a family. The same goes for a writer as radically different as Hunter S. Thompson, who was saved from a life of dissipation by an early job as a sportswriter for a local paper, which led to newspaper gigs in New York and Puerto Rico. All of his best books began as paid reporting assignments, and his genius, short-lived as it was, was to be able to report objectively on the madness going on inside his drug-addled head.

In 2012, we live in a bit of a false economy in that novelists and nonfiction writers in their thirties and forties are still just old enough to have begun their careers before content began to migrate online. Thus, we can thank magazines for training and paying John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose book of essays, Pulphead, consists largely of pieces written on assignment for GQ and Harper’s. We should also be thankful for Gourmet magazine, which, until it went under in 2009, sent novelist Ann Patchett on lavish, all-expenses-paid trips around the world, including one to Italy, where she did the research on opera singers that fueled her bestselling novel, Bel Canto. In a quirkier, but no less important way, we can thank glossy magazines for The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who supported himself by writing for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Details during his long, dark night of the literary soul in the late 1990s before his breakout novel was published.

Those venues – most of them, anyway – still exist, but they are the top of the publishing heap, and the smaller, entry-level publications of the kind I worked for twenty years ago, are either dying or going online. Increasingly, my decision to leave journalism to enter an MFA program twenty years ago seems less a personal life choice than an act guided by very subtle, yet very powerful economic incentives. As paying gigs for apprentice writers continue to dwindle, apprentice writers are making the obvious economic choice and entering grad school, which, whatever its merits as a writing training program, at least has the benefit of possibly leading to a real, paying job – as a teacher of creative writing, which, as you may have noticed, is what most working literary writers do for a living these days.

Perhaps that is what people are really saying when they talk about the “MFA aesthetic,” that insular, navel-gazing style that has more to do with a response to previous works of fiction than to the world most non-writers live in. Perhaps the problem isn’t with MFA programs at all, but with the fact that, for most graduates of MFA programs, it’s the only training in writing they have. They haven’t done what any rookie reporter at any local newspaper has done, which is observed a scene – a city council meeting, a high school football game, a small-plane crash – and then written about it on the front page of a paper that everybody involved in that scene will read the next day. They haven’t had to sift through a complex, shifting set of facts – was that plane crash a result of equipment malfunction or pilot error? – and not only get the story right, but make it compelling to readers, all under deadline as the editor and a row of surly press guys are standing around waiting to fill that last hole on page one. They haven’t, in short, had to write, quickly, under pressure, for an audience, with their livelihood on the line.

It is, of course, pointless to rage against the Internet Era. For one thing, it is already here, and for another, the Web is, on balance, a pretty darn good thing. I love email and online news. I use Wikipedia every day. But we need to listen to what the Jaron Laniers of the world are saying, which is that we can choose what the Web of the future will look like. The Internet is not like the weather. It isn’t something that just happens to us. The Internet is merely a very powerful tool, one we can shape to our collective will, and the first step along that path is deciding what we value and being willing to pay for it.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

If It’s Free, Take It: 2012 World Book Night

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Last weekend I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as both a reader and an author. This means I bought too many books and longed for about a zillion others; made eyes at Susan Straight and Cheryl Strayed; ate free food in the green room; and moderated a panel about fiction writing. After two days of rubbing elbows with my fellow bookworms (and eating so many tiny sandwiches I began to smell like one), I was ready, come Monday, for my role as solitary book giver on World Book Night. It was going to be just me, a box of books, and Pico Boulevard. I was kind of scared.

As its website explains, “World Book Night is a celebration of reading and books which will see tens of thousands of people share books with others in their communities across America to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23.” The program began last year in the U.K. to great success, and the literary holiday will hopefully reach even more countries by 2013. To become a giver, I had to apply. I recall promising to offer books to my local mechanics and barbers, and to anyone who might be wandering diverse PicFair Village, the mid-city neighborhood I call home. I requested to pass out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which was just one of 30 titles to choose from.

Last Thursday, I took my 10-month-old son, Dixon Bean, to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park to pick up my copies. Before handing them over, proprietor James Fugate had me sign a form promising to do right by the World Book Night folks. I solemnly swore to pass the novel out on the 23rd, and I was not to sell or dispose of any leftover copies. Outside the store, a playwright named Reginald helped me load the books and the stroller into my car, and when I told him what I was up to, he said, “I should read more.” Why is it that everyone always talks of reading like it’s vitamin-taking?

To be honest, after the nerd-love-in that is the Festival of Books, I was prepared for Monday to be a real letdown. I kept imagining people shaking their heads at my offer, or worse, yelling, “Get out of my face, bee-otch!” (Why do so many of my imagined scenarios star this line of dialogue?). As a way to protect myself, and to disarm strangers, I decided to bring Bean along for the giving. (We changed the name to World Book Day. I think this is allowed.) First, he and I practiced giving out books in the living room. I thought it would be cute if he walked the books in his push-cart, but he’s not the most productive traveler, so after a few rehearsals, we settled on the stroller.

And off we went!

To my delight, the books went fast. As promised, I passed out copies to the mechanics at the auto body shop on the corner, but since it was before 10 a.m. (World Book Morning?), all the barber shops were still closed. I got rid of three copies at the bus stop, one of which went to a woman with a butterfly tattoo — on her face. (So weird and feminine/masculine, you guys!). I handed a few to some dog walkers, and one to my neighbor. I was amazed by how many people said “yes” immediately, without even hearing what the book was. It reminded me of my father’s favorite saying, “If it’s free, take it.” Others eyed me and the baby skeptically, as if trying to discern if we were members of a religious cult. One guy thought I was offering him a book I had written — and it was clear he did not want that. I found myself exclaiming, “This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago!” — and I was heartened to see that the phrase made a difference. The best thing to say about the book, though, was, “It’s about a fat nerd and there’s lots of Spanish slang.” People loved that.

The goal of World Book Night is to give books to non-readers. The rules specifically state that the books “are not for those who already read books regularly.” This is why, I assume, the selection of 30 books are real crowd-pleasers, from Bel Canto to The Hunger Games. These are beloved books that have already been passed fervently from one reader to the next; they aren’t hard to enjoy. The hope is that someone might fall in love with a book they received from a stranger — and voila, a life-long reader is born. This makes a lot of sense to me, and yet, it’s tricky for a giver. I found it awkward, even condescending, to ask, “Are you a big reader?” before I told a person what I had to offer. And I was uncomfortable with the realization that I was asking this question in the high-end coffee shop — and not to the people at the bus stop. One time, I offered the book to a guy without asking about his literary proclivities, and when he saw what it was, he got so excited. “Oh! I love his stories in The New Yorker!” I couldn’t very well refuse to give him the book after that, could I?

By the end of our giving, I was exhausted, but also uplifted. It’s hard to approach strangers, but it feels good to give something you love to the world, especially when the world is so thrilled to receive it. I keep imagining one of the people I met opening up her copy of Oscar Wao — perhaps as she sips a Cappuccino, or settles in for a long bus ride — and reading the first sentence:

They say it first came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.

And like that, she’s sucked into Junot Diaz’s strange, funny, naughty, beautiful world. All it takes is one book. And one reader.

Image courtesy of the author.

In Defense of the Mom Book: Picks for Olive Kitteridge Fans

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In the comment section of our most recent The Millions Top Ten post, I wrote that Olive Kitteridge, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout, was beautiful and moving, and that it caught me by surprise. What surprised me, I guess, was that I liked it at all. I’d only read it because because of a book club – this is a group that pays me to attend and facilitate the discussion (not a bad gig!) – and I assumed Olive Kitteridge wasn’t for me. After all, it’s a collection of quiet stories either directly about, or tangentially related to, its eponymous character: a gruff, retired math teacher in Maine. In other words, it sounded like a “mom” book – a book meant for women older than me, women different from me. I’ve written about this phenomenon before:I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I’ve given in and read, say, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I’m met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.I have a complicated relationship to this question of the Mom Book. It’s sexist, for one, as it assumes that mothers have uniform reading tastes, and that books that are popular among women are suddenly embarrassing, or not worthy of serious discourse. All untrue, obviously. I understand that these are my own weird beliefs and assumptions, and that I must be careful, as someday, I might be a mom, wearing my Mom Jeans, reading (and writing!) my Mom Books. I should be so lucky. For the record, my own mother reads everything from John Irving to Lisa See to Phillippa Gregory. She read Mason and Dixon. In hardcover. (From now on, I’m going to refer to Thomas Pynchon’s books as women’s fiction, and see what happens to his reputation.)I understand, after having read Olive Kitteridge, that it is a Mom Book, if a Mom Book is one that’s interested in the lives of women, and if it’s emotionally affecting. There’s also little irony in Olive Kitteridge, which is probably absent from a lot of Mom Books. If Strout’s book errs on the side of sentimentality once or twice, well, I can forgive that, because nowadays it’s easy to be ironic, detached, cynical, and merely intellectual. It’s harder to be lyrical without slipping into overly purple prose. It’s harder to write about feelings. And I guess, in the end, Mom Books want you to feel something.But I’m getting away from the original purpose of this post, which is to recommend other books to those Millions readers who enjoyed Olive Kitteridge (all you mothers out there!). Since writing reviews takes the fun out of reading for me – I can only handle the bookstore clerk’s “hand sell” recommendation model – I’ll say only this to those of you who haven’t yet read it: Strout has created a thoroughly flawed, compassionate, vulnerable, frustrating character. In the world of this book, people commit suicide (or don’t), they grow old and die on you, and your children grow up and leave you. The moments of connection between characters, or those connections that are recalled after-the-fact (which “day after day are unconsciously squandered”), are at once fleeting and immense. It’s a lovely book.Stories like “Pharmacy,” about Olive’s husband’s infatuation with his much younger employee, were reminiscent of Joan Silber’s work, for it covers time in the same efficient, fluid way. I recommend Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, which, like Olive Kitteridge, is a collection of stories linked by character (though not always the same one, and the eras and locations change.) Still, you’ll get that same zing! when a character from a previous story appears in the next one.Olive Kitteridge also reminded me of Alice Munro’s work. Like Munro, Strout values backstory; for her characters, the past resonates in the present, and shapes it. And like Munro’s work, Strout’s stories aren’t predictably structured. I often wasn’t sure where her tales were taking me; I’m not referring to plot – I mean that I was uncertain of a story’s purpose, of what it wanted to tell me about its characters and their lives, and maybe my own, until I’d reached its end. Alice Munro is the master of this kind of storytelling; it echoes what Flannery O’Connor once said, (and I’m paraphrasing), about good fiction having not abstract meaning, but experienced meaning. You’ve got to move through the stories in Olive Kitteridge if you want to be changed by them.And… let’s see…I’m trying to think of other writers whose work is similar to Elizabeth Strout’s, and I’m drawing a blank. This is a good thing, certainly. I will try to think of more… but first, I have to read Loving Frank for the aforementioned book club. Oy vey.

Palace Scenes: Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin


Sitting down to reflect on Blood Kin, Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, I realized that there are many ways to approach a book, and a review, and that in this particular case, circumstances have handed me one. Dovey was a classmate of mine in college and when I saw that she’d published a book, I went out to get it with a combination of curiosity and jealousy, excited that a peer had written a novel and interested to see what provocations, over something of a shared span of time, had moved her to write.The book is set in an anonymous country, in the immediate aftermath of a military coup, through which the President and his closest associates have been taken captive in the presidential summer retreat by a man known only as the Commander, a strutting cryptic figure who has usurped their power. In design, Blood Kin recalls Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the two sharing a cloistered, claustrophobic setting which frees the characters temporarily from the violence that prompted their situation, and yet which threatens, inevitably, to destroy it. There is also a common attention to the ancillary trades which attend power. Bel Canto spun around the sublime talent of soprano Roxanne Coss. Blood Kin directs its attention to more mundane, but no less potent roles, the President’s barber, his portraitist, and his chef, the three of whom trade off first-person control of the narrative.It’s a promising set-up, which makes it all the more disappointing that over the course of 180 pages, it does not really go anywhere. The premise, and the small points of action which occur in turn, are used mainly as jumping off points from which the characters recall moments from the past, their own idiosyncrasies, former lovers, and remaindered sensations of childhood. Early in the book the barber escapes for a late night tryst with the Commander’s wife, an episode that might be filled with tension and sensuality, but which deflates under the weight of the barber’s long recollection of how he came into the trade and came to serve the president. A scant portion of the chapter is devoted to the actual present-tense unrolling of events, which makes what action there is feel almost beside the point.The problem is not that the digressions are poorly written or awkwardly conceived. In fact, they are often quite imaginative and authentic, standing solidly on their own as the peculiar ways in which a life might have been lived. When the portraitist recalls a scene from his youth, of a child building sand animals on the beach using an empty dishwashing detergent bottle, it rings true as one of those unexplainable things which stick in memory after so much else has been forgotten. And Dovey’s digressions about each tradesman at work are knowing and confident. She describes the thick patina of paint which has accrued on the portraitist’s palette, the glancing touch by which the barber infuses physical pleasure into his haircuts, and the experienced way the chef stalks prone abalones, sneaking up on them with a rolling pin so as to kill them by surprise, before they can stiffen in fright.One challenge of the first novel, I imagine, is getting free from all the thoughts, images, and experiences you as a writer have collected prior to beginning to write. Blood Kin never begins to feel autobiographical, but it does at times feel like a repository of the many little set-pieces and conceits that must have occurred to Dovey throughout her life, prior to the specific conception of this story. While the component parts are good, they don’t build together, so that by the end of the book, our understanding of the characters compares with the advancement of the plot; they both lie more or less in the same place we began.

The Golden O: Dispatches from Oprah’s Book Club

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My wife, Edan Lepucki, is a newly-minted member of the Oprah Book Club. She also has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a story forthcoming from CutBank. So basically, she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the books and the reading business. Plus, she’s totally hot. Here’s her writeup of the most recent Oprah literary extravaganza:I’d decided to read The Road after it emerged victorious from the Tournament of Books. The day I went to purchase it, the stack of paperbacks had already been blessed with a golden O, signifying that it had been inducted into Oprah’s Book Club. I’d never before read an Oprah pick along with millions of other book club members, but I decided to give it a try. What would it be like? I was both excited to see the episode with McCarthy, and ashamed to be excited – I’ll admit, I ripped the O sticker off my copy. I was superior to all those soccer moms, wasn’t I? I didn’t need Winfrey to tell me what to read.On this blog and others, I’ve been unsettled by the slight tinge of sexism that colors some comments about Oprah’s Book Club. So many people were surprised she’d chosen The Road, such a dark and literary novel. Some readers even threw around the phrase “chick lit” to describe her previous picks (except for Faulkner, of course!), and worried her viewers might not “get” McCarthy. But are the books of Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende and Edwidge Danticat, just three of the many former club picks, “chick lit” simply because they are written by women? Even though I’d never participated in Oprah’s club, I always thought it was a good thing – it sold books, lots and lots of them, and got people to read. So what if those people were mostly women? Does that make their enthusiasm and discussion of text less valid?Of course, I’m asking myself these questions. I mean, I sometimes don’t read a book my mom has recommended to me. The reason? It’s too much of “a mom book” – meaning what, I’m not sure. I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I’ve given in and read, say, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I’m met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.Okay, I’m getting off track, because everyone knows Cormac McCarthy is all man. What would he do in Oprah’s Chicago studio, with all those women clutching their copies of The Road, wanting to know: What has happened to the world? Why didn’t you name your characters?Turns out, the real book club discussion is happening online – if you sign up as a club member, you can post on a message board, and get discussion questions, and so on. The episode of Oprah had none of that, only an interview with McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute, couched between segments with Michael Moore and Bono’s Vanity Fair gig.I’m sure many of you have already heard about the interview, which was McCarthy’s first (and probably his last, Oprah told us). She asked him, “Did you always know you wanted to write?” to which he answered, “I think.” She asked, “Are you passionate about writing? Is it your passion?” to which he answered, “I don’t know… passion seems like a pretty fancy word.” She asked him about writing process; turns out, he types on a portable Olivetti typewriter, doesn’t plan the story out too much, and doesn’t tend to fraternize with other writers. They devoted much of the interview to McCarthy’s previous era as a pauper.To me, the most interesting question Oprah asked McCarthy was about the absence of women in his books. A good question, considering all the women who were now his biggest fans. He answered, “Women are tough,” meaning, I suppose, that he doesn’t know how to depict them on the page. Oprah didn’t push this, and I wish she would have – How is a female consciousness different from a man’s? Is McCarthy more interested in a world made and unmade by men? Is he simply afraid of getting it wrong with the ladies? Or is he just really into cowboys?Oprah looked pretty nervous throughout the interview, and not wanting to upset a man who never talks about his work, she played it safe. That’s fine, Oprah, that’s fine – but you better make Jeffrey Eugenides jump through some hoops, or I’m defecting from your army.Bonus Link: As you may have heard. Oprah’s next pick is Eugenides’ Middlesex.

Surprise Me!