Archive for January, 2009

sara_nelsonIn the January 26 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, editor Sara Nelson opens her regular editorial, under the headline “Change I Believe In,” with the following lines:

“Call me gullible or impressionable, but I’m actually feeling kind of hopeful this week. It’s not just the new year or the inauguration (which I loved most for its goofs and gaffes) or even that — please, please — publishing business firings are coming to an end, at least for a while.”

Which would amount to just another unremarkable bit of trade boosterism in almost any circumstance other than the specific circumstance that applies, which is that January 26, the cover date of the issue at hand, is also the day that editor Sara Nelson was laid off by Publisher’s Weekly.

And her bosses let her take that editorial to press, knowing what was coming.

Dude, that’s cold.

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I was just thinking about John Updike.

Well, the titular part is over.

I don’t recall ever reading anything by John Updike that made me just stop and admire, as pretty a writer as he was, but I have to qualify that statement by acknowledging that what I’ve read is a pretty drastic minority of everything he wrote, which is, in fairness, as much his fault as mine. Maybe I missed something.

The memoirs — love the classical plural — were his 37th book, published about 20 years ago. I read today somewhere that he wrote three pages a day. That’s what three pages a day will get you. Math.

David Foster Wallace claimed to be one of Updike’s last fans in an otherwise eviscerating review of Updike’s 1997 novel Toward the End of Time — a review snottily (but rockingly) titled “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” in Wallace’s Consider the Lobster collection.

img017And no US novelist has mapped the inner terrain of the solipsist better than John Updike, whose rise in the 1960s and ’70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.”

  • (Solipcism: 1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. 2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality. Compare objectivism. —American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969″)

They were different kinds of florid, Wallace and Updike, and different kinds of unlikely to be replaced on their particular pedestals.

And it seems incredibly unlikely that henceforth any American writer’s career will look anything like the cradle-to-grave sinecure Updike was born into. It’s like his job was America’s Writer, and he got the job right out of college.

I’d say it looks like he used his luck awfully well.

Our sympathies to Nicholson Baker.

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library-5180Okay, so technically this isn’t much of a traditional read at all, consisting as it does mostly of color-coded maps, but that didn’t stop me from reviewing it, along with Andrew Sansom’s field-guidey Water In Texas: An Introduction, in the current issue of the Texas Observer (go ahead and SUBSCRIBE — you know you want to).

My review is HERE.

The atlas addresses itself to everything from historical flash-flooding (central Texas being the most flood-prone part of the entire country) to artesian springs (the one in San Marcos, where the geography department spawned the atlas’ authors, marks one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America).

Daunting factoid: Rights to surface water — i.e. river and lake water — in Texas are so over-appropriated that if all the water rights already granted were actually engaged, there would be no water left in most Texas lakes and rivers.

Oh, and the state’s population is supposed to double by 2035.

Meanwhile, Texas law still imposes a false legal distinction between surface water and (under)ground water (even though it’s all the same water), meaning that while you could sooner expect to land a 200-lb. channel cat on a fly rod than acquire a new river water right in this state, any industrial yahoo with a drill 66047122_10442a8f1fbit can take as much as their pumps will suck out of the ground without paying a penny for it.

No, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. And it’s one reason that Jacob’s Well — another bit of artesian magic down the road from San Marcos in Wimberley, at right — has been recently reduced to a trickle.

Talk about sucking…

And, uh, no, that’s not me.

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library-5176“The world craves book reviews far more heartily than it craves books: therein lies the beguilement and the nagging unease of the trade. Unlike the poet and the teller of tales, the reviewer writes by editorial invitation, in near-certainty of his product’s being paid for and printed. He is safe, too, in his tone, which merely has to preserve the grammatical forms and a semblance of segacity to win his audience to him, in satisfying collusion against the clumsiness, deludedness, and conceit of the book writer.” —John Updike, Hugging the Shore, 1982

Just look at little Johnny Updike. Isn’t he the cutest thing?

Not very prescient with that “craving” bit, but kind of pretty, and not untrue elsewise.

theresmoreThis, of course, on the occasion of the recent publication of the Texas Observer‘s annual WINTER BOOKS issue, of which this is the first assembled and edited and introduced by me, which was a kick. We pulled off a pretty good cover, too, I think.

Wait. What? Not everyone reads on the toilet?

That’s weird.

Aw crap.

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library-5177I’m no media critic — though I’m a media worker, and I’m insanely critical — but I’m going to play one on the web for a minute.

Louis Menand’s Jan. 8 New Yorker story about the Village Voice is ostensibly about a newspaper and a now-dated idea about what journalism wasn’t yet but could be and in fact became and to some degree isn’t anymore, but to another degree certainly is.

Unless it’s been badly misframed, it’s not a story about the drawer of the dancer, though it does linger suspiciously overlong on artist Jules Feiffer, who maybe was the original hook last summer, when he released a collection of years of his Voice cartoons. Maybe the Feiffer story got sideswiped by current events and Louis Menand just couldn’t be bothered to keep up with the news. Of the last 20 years.

I don’t have any kind if content beef with what Menand wrote. I never worked at the Voice, never lived in New York, don’t have a dog in that hunt. But I’m interested because I’ve spent a good chunk of days writing for weekly newspapers of the sort that the Village Voice inspired and presaged and, in the end, turned out to be just like. Which I’d think is precisely the interesting story, but which is exactly, exhaustively, what Menand left out. 


Here’s Menand’s very last word on “the alternative press”: that “after 1970,” it “died out.”

If you define “alternative press” the way Menand seems to want to — as one of thousands of mimeographed, weed-reeking 3-issue handouts that ceased “distribution” prior to 1970, then sure, okay, for what it’s worth. Dead and gone.

(Unless you count the web. Which you have to. I get the strong sense that Louis Menand wouldn’t know Gawker if it bit him in the ass, which it probably will or, shit, ALREADY DID.)

But if you define the alternative press, as makes about a thousand times more sense, as the hundreds of more or less going commercial newspaper concerns that followed the Voice model, journalistically and economically, those hardly died out in 1970 (as Russ Smith, who well knows, POINTED OUT YESTERDAY). Most big American cities have one, sometimes two alt-weeklies, and a lot of culturally engaged little towns have them too.

You could argue that those papers’ ideals have died or burned out, or that they’ve become stylistic/journalistic/political parodies of their once-proud selves, or that they’ve become over-commercialized shells, or, alternately but not mutually exclusively, that the recession is even as we speak slapping them into obsolescence, like the rest of print media, hard. You could make the easy and true-enough and over-generalized but not-necessarily-for-the-worse case that they just aren’t what they used to be.

(Menand, by the way, doesn’t make any of these arguments. He correctifies the Voice mythology here and there and draws some mean context, but his only real point seems to be that the Voice changed journalism (per the subhed: “How the Voice changed journalism.”). It’s a point significantly undermined by the author’s failure to betray any awareness whatsoever of the most obvious ongoing results of that change.)

You can make whatever sort of argument about the “alternative” press you want to, and you’re welcome to it, but you cannot, with any semblance of accuracy, say that the alternative press inspired by the Village Voice died out after 1970.

Not when there’s an entirely active trade organization of well over 100 similarly niched newspapers called the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (Menand could have had an assistant look em up on the Google; the Voice, natch, is a member). 

Not with upendings in the alt-business model and alt-corporate consolidation and alt-bankruptcy regularly making the mainstream business press. 

Susan Orlean's first book. I got this at a San Marcos Texas library sale. There's a great chapter called "Socializing" about Saturday Night Zydeco in Houston. I remember the Continental Zydeco Ballroom. That place was never, ever, not fun.

Because this is (or was) a used-books blog: Susan Orlean's first book. I got this at a San Marcos Texas library sale. There's a great if lamely titled chapter called "Socializing" about Saturday Night Zydeco in Houston. I remember going to the Continental Zydeco Ballroom with friends on Saturday nights in Houston. That place was never, ever, not once not fun.

Not when the current media critics of the New York Times and Slate are former alt-weekly editors.

Not when The New Yorker‘s own hothouse flower Susan Orlean worked her way up through Portland’s Willamette Week and the Boston Phoenix

And for fucksake not when the largest chain of papers in the alternative newsweekly world, a chain built up from an alternative weekly launched in Phoenix in the early 1970s, recently bought the very friggin Village Voice (founded 1955) to which Louis Menand is writing his fond if inexplicable farewells. Bought it and made some changes. Bought it and, by appearances, is struggling. Not a WORD of it in Menand’s piece. Like it isn’t even happening.

I’m not here to defend New Times, the chain that bought the Voice and then changed its own name to Village Voice Media. I’ve worked for them, and they can defend themselves. And I can well imagine Menand replying that the New Times takeover was not the story he wanted to tell. I can even sympathize with what I imagine may have been his desire to avoid an appearance of blaming New Times for the Voice‘s decline, which a lot of people find sad, but which would have hardly been fair under the industry-wide circumstances anyhow. That story is a little too inside-baseball for The New Yorker, I agree.

But it boggles the mind that a man as smart as Menand and a magazine as thorough as The New Yorker could choose to address these essentially narrative issues by simply erasing all memory of almost four decades of a distinctive (if frequently just as shitty) form of journalism that thrived for much of that time, that in a very direct way IS the embodied influence of the Voice, recent convulsions in which are arguably the only reason to write a piece about the Voice right now in the first place.

Seriously: The rise and fall of the Village Voice, including neither news nor mention of the paper’s almost literal offspring, which just happened to recently slouch wombward after 40 years in the desert to fire all the columnists and piss in the potted plants. Or so one hears.

Here’s Menand’s either chickenshit or ignorant last sentence:

Until its own success made it irresistable to buyers who imagined that they could do better with a business plan than its founders had done from desperation and instinct, it [the Voice] had the courage to live by its wits.

What owners is he talking about? Who the hell knows. All of them, I guess. Menand’s list, which immediately precedes his conclusion, stops at Rupert Murdoch — heard of him? — who bought the Voice in ninetheenseventygoddamnseven. You know, seven years after the alternative press died out in this country? Maybe the unnamed Mike Lacy knows which owners Menand is talking about. Talk about yer inside baseball.

If Louis Menand has a reason to eulogize the Voice at this particular juncture in the history of journalism, I wish he’d clue me in. If he’s got a problem with new management — and what writer, anywhere, ever, doesn’t? — maybe he could tell us what he really thinks. That might be fun.

Seems like that’s what the Voice — or at least someone there — would have done.

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mining-law1This is the last book I read in 2008. I read only 18 books in 2008. I’ve kept a list since August of 1999 — not sure what happened in 1999 — so I know. Eighteen hardly seems like enough — for what I’m not sure — but it is what it is.

I read this one for review. I use those postie notes these days. I’d asked to review it because I thought it might have some bearing on some “research” I’m forever absorbing on an idea I’ve got for a book. It did, a bit. I reviewed it for the Missoula Independent.

This time last year I was looking at not working for the Missoula Independent for the first time in five years. In two weeks’ time last year I was back in Texas. Nothing actually bad happened, but it was not necessarily the smoothest of transitions. Last night I toasted “Fuck 2008.” I didn’t really mean it, but I sort of did.

didion1That is the first book I finished in 2009. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but since I gave it to my sister for Christmas, and she might someday ask why, I figured I should get on it. I’ve loved Joan Didion since I read The White Album and then Play It As It Lays in college. Her and Susan Sontag — the girls I’d never be smart enough to get.

I gave it to my sister because my sister had a substantial heart scare last year and I figured mortality might be on her mind, as it was on Didion’s after her longtime husband, John Gregory Dunne, died at her dinner table a few years back, even as their daughter suffered a debilitating illness. I wouldn’t call it grim, but it’s certainly not cheery.

Didion’s book is mostly tonic and wise, as has been well noted everywhere by now. A part that struck me was Didion’s recounting of Dunne’s anguish, in a particularly low state, over having wasted a portion his limited time on earth on a review of a biography of dead actress Natalie Wood.

Keep in mind that the venue for this hackwork was the New York Review of Goddamn Books

No offense whatsoever to Gordon Morris Bakken or the Missoula Independent, but I’ve had moments of professional sympathy — on a dramatically diminished scale — with the same sort of question, and  found myself somewhat comforted to know that such angst apparently transcends both class and talent.

reading-planI don’t make resolutions, but I am aspirational, so I’m a sucker for self-improvement plans, even though I never follow any of them — I just like the Gatsbyesquididity of it — and this one on the left hits me in my sweet spot. 

It starts with Homer, which I last read in 1990, and which I don’t have anymore. I could have gotten the relevant volumes for a buck ninety-nine each at Goodwill, where I found this a few weeks ago, in some translation or another, like I know or care. But fuck that. ‘Tis the season. So I ordered the boxed-set paperback Iliad/Odyssey combo in the latest Fagles translation. I used  an Amazon gift card that I got for Christmas from my sister’s husband’s parents.

The package is waiting for me at the post office now, and as I think is appropriate to the irresoluteness of the occasion, I intend to go pick it up tomorrow.

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