“Given my extensive self-imposed required reading list and my voracious appetite for the printed page…” –February 8, 2003

Given my extensive self-imposed required readinglist and my voracious appetite for the printed page (and its cyberiterations), I am constantly worrying myself about the relevance,the meaning, and the import of all the typography that passes beforemy eyes. I recently recalled a hilarious op-ed piece that speechwriterMark Katz wrote for the NYT called “Insidethe 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 fascinatedby the subject. Why are the media fascinated with the media? Whendid the media’s fascination with the media begin? Is the media’scoverage of the media’s fascination with the media affectedby the fascination itself? Each question was more fascinating thanthe next…His angle was innovative as well: tracing the originsof Jed Singer’s fascination with the media’s fascinationwith the media. Stinger knew this was the piece that only he couldwrite…Stinger’s rise had been well documented. In Novemberhe had operated the deep fryer at the NBC commissary but he hadfound quick notoriety with a posting on www.msnbc/messengerboard/mediaexposing the rank hypocrisy of Tom Brokaw. Brokaw, Stinger revealed,still enjoyed a daily dose of onion rings despite bragging abouthis devotion to the Atkins diet on Conan O'Brien. This story wasthe 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 economicallymodeled Salon (the clever woman also has the same piece publishedin the Times of London, though in Britain, Jack Welch was identifiedas “thecelebrated CEO”)

I peeked in, with great self-loathing, on Feb. 5to peruse Tina’s (I guess I can call her Tina) verbal soupconon Liz Smith’s birthday party. Here’s her lead graf:

Jack Welch said to me the other night that heloved living at the top of the Trump Building because every timehe 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 thisself-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 wordsby the first forty-four, I offer Will Self’s rejoinder inanother context. “Did Tina Brown’s words suddenly turninto Tolstoi at the fiftieth word?” And yet something akinto what Katz was parodying above has a hold on me. On the face ofit, some of the stories and snippets I dwell on, away from the tomesI prefer to haunt, do have some magnetic component. The Sonny Mehta-GaryFisketjon 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, whichyoung authors are using television coaches—these have somemoths-to-a-flame appeal.

I had never heard of Debra Triesman, the formerdeputy to now-former New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford,who is now the fiction editor, until I spoke with youngGabeHudson, whose genuflections credited Triesman with his publicationin that year’s Debut Fiction issue. When I heard of Buford’splanned departure, I offered myself up for the vacated positionto editor David Remnick. I received neither response nor acknowledgment.My next encounter with the Triesman name was her profile in theNYT and then John Warner’s nifty piece in TheMorning News regarding her (at least) impolitic remarks aboutthe New Yorker fiction slush pile in her Bookmagazine interview.

I thought Warner’spiece was dead on.

As it seems, did a lot of people, judging from responsesat Readerville and MobyLives.com.I also wrote to Warner, preferring the calm luxury of one-on-onecorrespondence:

Dear Sen. John Warner:

It would seem necessary that every once ina while the New Yorker's editors be reminded of their responsibilitiesto various cultural communities. I guess it's to young Ms.Treisman'scredit that you got her attention and that she responded.

Care to venture a guess as to why she didn'trespond directly to you at The Morning News?


Robert Birnbaum

And then this (I am not reproducing Warner’spart because we were communicating within the ease and comfort ofprivacy. The unadulterated correspondence will appear in my memoir,That’s Life):


Since full disclosure became a fetish (thoughI cannot remember when) I should say that I sent editor Remnicka letter declaring my availability for the position (knowing fullwell the odds were that they were not going to go outside the clanfor this one). No response, no acknowledgment. That's bad form butpretty much standard operating procedure in the nasty business ofmagazine publishing.

My feelings about the New Yorker arethat the magazine has an existence beyond whomever its current startinglineup is. And to us outsiders—which is a curious way to designatereaders—we are free of the various distractions that are involvedin the thing we end up holding in our hands every week. As a (former)publisher I recall coming across the quote about two things youwouldn't want to see being made: sausages and legislation. I addedmagazine publishing to that.

That's a way of saying that since the magazineholds such a big space in the English language literary culturethat 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 statisticallyordinary grouping of louts, reptiles (so much for qualifying asmammals) and rodents, saints and whatever else. I would not be expectingextraordinary exemplary behavior or any greater degree of moralenlightenment. Or taste.

And who cares, after all, about what the NewYorker's slush pile (by the way, was the figure 50,000 submissionsa year? I don't believe it.) policy is? You know, of course. Writers.Those damn pesky writers. Hardly a powerful constituency—whichis the greatest of ironies—in the publishing and filmmakingindustries. And why do they (we) care? Beyond the obvious, I amnot sure why. Every time I see a John Updike story in the magazine(would that be about 6 times a year?), I really, honestly wonderwhat they could be thinking. I would find it difficult to imaginean editor saying, "This is the best story available at thismoment." And anyway, would that be an acceptable type of answer?Hey, there may not be an acceptable answer. Actually, I think alot of dissonance and arbitrariness is built in the business ofpublishing fiction. Which is why writers live lives of ordeal bycruelty—but maybe no more so than the rest of humanity.

Ultimately, one would hope that editorial positionsare filled by decent human beings and not a plague of short-fingeredvulgarians...


Robert Birnbaum

Much thought was directed toward the slush-pileissue as the correspondence continued to pile up at various sites.Some of it self-serving (from slush-pile contributors) and someembittered (I’m not going to ferret out those motives) butit did reinforce the sense that the New Yorker means somethingspecial and important. What other magazine would garner such heatedresponses? I think that must be a good thing.

Now the Ann Godoff decapitation saga at Random Houseseems to me not to be much of a story although there was copioushand wringing and ululating from all quarters of the book tribe.There appears to be a happy ending here (dare, I venture that, "Thereare no happy endings in the book business") as the highly regardedMiss Ann ended up at Penguin Putnam though New York magazine’sMichaelWolff will take your wager that she will not last there. Inmy world, there was nothing unusual here, another corporate courtintrigue (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 lowmargins before she got out the door!") and an understandablegrand operatic response from whomever includes themselves in thebook nation’s constituency. And also, of course, an occasionfor “writerly type persons” like Wolff to make hay:

But Why, for God’s sake, would anyonewant to work in the book business, anyway? What’s wrong withthem?…I mean, books suck. Most books are dopier than televisionor movies or even advertising (many books tend to be just collateralpromotions or the lesser offspring of dopey television, movies,and advertising). … Books may be the true lowest-common-denominatormedium…What’s more, in the book business, you have towork in really deadening conditions. A modern publishing house providesas congenial an atmosphere as an insurance company. Right now, asBertelsmann 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 kindof retrograde inversion, the economic model requires that women,mostly, do the job because they have husbands to support them (youngwomen, and the odd few young men, who end up in book publishingtend to have their parents supporting them)...

Thumbing through the inestimable John D’Agata’s TheNext American Essay from the insufficiently esteemed GraywolfPress, I chanced to encounter JoanDidion’s The White Album, which famously begins,“We tell stories to live.” I’d like to think thatmy lurching and clumsy contact with the products rolling out ofthe relentless assembly line of the Narrative factory has some greatmeaning, some aspect of a grab for sustenance implicit in Didion’sclaim. That is why I read and that is what I care about. Too manytimes, I have to sample before I can discard stories like some ofthe above mentioned.

What could that mean?

Suburban Nicaragua (1989)
by Red Diaz

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