Given my extensive self-imposed required reading
list and my voracious appetite for the printed page (and its cyber
iterations), I am constantly worrying myself about the relevance,
the meaning, and the import of all the typography that passes before
my eyes. I recently recalled a hilarious op-ed piece that speechwriter
Mark Katz wrote for the NYT called “Inside
the Media Media”:
But Jed Stinger also had a new project in mind:
a big think piece about the media’s fascination with the media.
As an investigative media journalist, he had long been fascinated
by the subject. Why are the media fascinated with the media? When
did the media’s fascination with the media begin? Is the media’s
coverage of the media’s fascination with the media affected
by the fascination itself? Each question was more fascinating than
the next…His angle was innovative as well: tracing the origins
of Jed Singer’s fascination with the media’s fascination
with the media. Stinger knew this was the piece that only he could
write…Stinger’s rise had been well documented. In November
he had operated the deep fryer at the NBC commissary but he had
found quick notoriety with a posting on www.msnbc/messengerboard/media
exposing the rank hypocrisy of Tom Brokaw. Brokaw, Stinger revealed,
still enjoyed a daily dose of onion rings despite bragging about
his devotion to the Atkins diet on Conan O'Brien. This story was
the big headline on mediabigcheese.com for nine hours straight,
establishing Stinger as the media darling he is today.
I must have some deficit in taste or values that,
for instance, brings me back to Tina Brown's clever chatterings,
natterings or whatever you call her offerings on the new economically
modeled Salon (the clever woman also has the same piece published
in the Times of London, though in Britain, Jack Welch was identified
I peeked in, with great self-loathing, on Feb. 5
to peruse Tina’s (I guess I can call her Tina) verbal soupcon
on Liz Smith’s birthday party. Here’s her lead graf:
Jack Welch said to me the other night that he
loved living at the top of the Trump Building because every time
he looked out the window at night and saw the lights of Manhattan,
"I felt I had the world by the ass."
Though it may be too early to tell, reading this
self-aggrandizing prattle might have put me on the road to recovery.
At least, in this instance, I didn’t care to read further.
To anyone suggesting that it was unfair to judge a thousand words
by the first forty-four, I offer Will Self’s rejoinder in
another context. “Did Tina Brown’s words suddenly turn
into Tolstoi at the fiftieth word?” And yet something akin
to what Katz was parodying above has a hold on me. On the face of
it, some of the stories and snippets I dwell on, away from the tomes
I prefer to haunt, do have some magnetic component. The Sonny Mehta-Gary
Fisketjon smoking imbroglio at the new Bertelsmann bunker on Broadway,
the issue of how many times Michiko Kakatuni employed the word ‘limn’,
what Jonathan Franzen does or doesn’t do with his money, which
young authors are using television coaches—these have some
I had never heard of Debra Triesman, the former
deputy to now-former New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford,
who is now the fiction editor, until I spoke with young
Hudson, whose genuflections credited Triesman with his publication
in that year’s Debut Fiction issue. When I heard of Buford’s
planned departure, I offered myself up for the vacated position
to editor David Remnick. I received neither response nor acknowledgment.
My next encounter with the Triesman name was her profile in the
NYT and then John Warner’s nifty piece in The
Morning News regarding her (at least) impolitic remarks about
the New Yorker fiction slush pile in her Book
I thought Warner’s
piece was dead on.
As it seems, did a lot of people, judging from responses
at Readerville and MobyLives.com.
I also wrote to Warner, preferring the calm luxury of one-on-one
Dear Sen. John Warner:
It would seem necessary that every once in
a while the New Yorker's editors be reminded of their responsibilities
to various cultural communities. I guess it's to young Ms.Treisman's
credit that you got her attention and that she responded.
Care to venture a guess as to why she didn't
respond directly to you at The Morning News?
And then this (I am not reproducing Warner’s
part because we were communicating within the ease and comfort of
privacy. The unadulterated correspondence will appear in my memoir,
Since full disclosure became a fetish (though
I cannot remember when) I should say that I sent editor Remnick
a letter declaring my availability for the position (knowing full
well the odds were that they were not going to go outside the clan
for this one). No response, no acknowledgment. That's bad form but
pretty much standard operating procedure in the nasty business of
My feelings about the New Yorker are
that the magazine has an existence beyond whomever its current starting
lineup is. And to us outsiders—which is a curious way to designate
readers—we are free of the various distractions that are involved
in the thing we end up holding in our hands every week. As a (former)
publisher I recall coming across the quote about two things you
wouldn't want to see being made: sausages and legislation. I added
magazine publishing to that.
That's a way of saying that since the magazine
holds such a big space in the English language literary culture
that we have great expectations of its functionaries. To be sure,
they are good, but being born of woman and breathing in our atmosphere,
that still qualifies them as mammals. Thus they will exhibit a statistically
ordinary grouping of louts, reptiles (so much for qualifying as
mammals) and rodents, saints and whatever else. I would not be expecting
extraordinary exemplary behavior or any greater degree of moral
enlightenment. Or taste.
And who cares, after all, about what the New
Yorker's slush pile (by the way, was the figure 50,000 submissions
a year? I don't believe it.) policy is? You know, of course. Writers.
Those damn pesky writers. Hardly a powerful constituency—which
is the greatest of ironies—in the publishing and filmmaking
industries. And why do they (we) care? Beyond the obvious, I am
not sure why. Every time I see a John Updike story in the magazine
(would that be about 6 times a year?), I really, honestly wonder
what they could be thinking. I would find it difficult to imagine
an editor saying, "This is the best story available at this
moment." And anyway, would that be an acceptable type of answer?
Hey, there may not be an acceptable answer. Actually, I think a
lot of dissonance and arbitrariness is built in the business of
publishing fiction. Which is why writers live lives of ordeal by
cruelty—but maybe no more so than the rest of humanity.
Ultimately, one would hope that editorial positions
are filled by decent human beings and not a plague of short-fingered
Much thought was directed toward the slush-pile
issue as the correspondence continued to pile up at various sites.
Some of it self-serving (from slush-pile contributors) and some
embittered (I’m not going to ferret out those motives) but
it did reinforce the sense that the New Yorker means something
special and important. What other magazine would garner such heated
responses? I think that must be a good thing.
Now the Ann Godoff decapitation saga at Random House
seems to me not to be much of a story although there was copious
hand wringing and ululating from all quarters of the book tribe.
There appears to be a happy ending here (dare, I venture that, "There
are no happy endings in the book business") as the highly regarded
Miss Ann ended up at Penguin Putnam though New York magazine’s
Wolff will take your wager that she will not last there. In
my world, there was nothing unusual here, another corporate court
intrigue (Wolff again, "There was, too, the nasty way the Germans
[don’t they ever learn?] expunged the respected and serious
(if a bit of a cold fish) Godoff, denouncing her high-minded low
margins before she got out the door!") and an understandable
grand operatic response from whomever includes themselves in the
book nation’s constituency. And also, of course, an occasion
for “writerly type persons” like Wolff to make hay:
But Why, for God’s sake, would anyone
want to work in the book business, anyway? What’s wrong with
them?…I mean, books suck. Most books are dopier than television
or movies or even advertising (many books tend to be just collateral
promotions or the lesser offspring of dopey television, movies,
and advertising). … Books may be the true lowest-common-denominator
medium…What’s more, in the book business, you have to
work in really deadening conditions. A modern publishing house provides
as congenial an atmosphere as an insurance company. Right now, as
Bertelsmann gets ready to move Random House into a new building,
facilities functionaries are measuring off ticky-tacky offices...Then,
on top of doing embarrassing, often even humiliating work in enervating,
soul-destroying circumstances, you don’t get paid any money.
Book publishing is a liberalish, feminist redoubt, but in some kind
of retrograde inversion, the economic model requires that women,
mostly, do the job because they have husbands to support them (young
women, and the odd few young men, who end up in book publishing
tend to have their parents supporting them)...
Thumbing through the inestimable John D’Agata’s The
Next American Essay from the insufficiently esteemed Graywolf
Press, I chanced to encounter Joan
Didion’s The White Album, which famously begins,
“We tell stories to live.” I’d like to think that
my lurching and clumsy contact with the products rolling out of
the relentless assembly line of the Narrative factory has some great
meaning, some aspect of a grab for sustenance implicit in Didion’s
claim. That is why I read and that is what I care about. Too many
times, I have to sample before I can discard stories like some of
the above mentioned.
What could that mean?
Suburban Nicaragua (1989)
by Red Diaz