“Absolutely Terrible”

The Literary Saloon joins the chorus of bloggers bemoaning the news that Bookforum is losing editor Eric Banks and will introduce current-affairs coverage under the stewardship of new editor Chris Lehmann. TLS thinks this is “absolutely terrible,” but while I know it’s easy to be frustrated with the way book reviewing is treated like a sad-eyed, flea-bitten dog, I don’t get the logic here:

This ridiculous notion of thinking they’ll be more successful if they try to appeal to a larger audience by offering current events coverage seems seriously misguided. How many current Bookforum readers/subscribers leaf through their copies and sigh, ‘If only they had more current events coverage’ (or sports coverage, or whatever) ? Surely almost none.

The better question might be: How many readers see Bookforum on the shelves, sigh, and say “I don’t want to read a bunch of book reviews, I want something more newsy,” and move on to something else? Something, perhaps, like the New York Review of Books. Surely not a whole lot, but Bookforum is a direct competitor of NYRB, and as much as this competition is between a pair of intellectual journals, it’s also a Coke vs. Pepsi-style battle for market share between two players. If adding current affairs coverage seems foolish, so is not paying attention to what the market leader is up to. NYRB‘s circulation is 130,000, while Bookforum‘s is 40,000; I wish the PW story had given NYRB a jingle and asked what adding current-affairs coverage has done for its readership, but I doubt that Bookforum‘s keepers would pursue this route if they didn’t think it boosted it.

Dept. of Self-Promotion

“What Happened to Our Show?,” my essay on the fifth season of The Wire, is the cover story in this week’s Washington City Paper. If you’re not keeping up with the show, or simply don’t feel compelled to read (yet another) journalist expounding on journalist David Simon‘s take on journalism, you may wish to skip to my interview with Richard Price. The conversation is mainly about Clockers–our chat was conducted as part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series and should run in full…someday–but he also discusses The Wire, TV journalism, why he didn’t cover basketball for the New Yorker, and more.

The Chesnutt Files

The Atlantic, which recently freed up its archives, is pointing readers toward a handful of stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, “the first African-American novelist to be published on a national scale.” One of the featured stories, “The Wife of His Youth,” has a very formulaic turn at the end, but it’s an interesting study of passing. The story’s hero, Mr. Ryder, is a member of the Blue Veins, a society of light-skinned black gentry. He’s hosting a ball in advance of his marriage:

“I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”

His ball would serve by its exclusiveness to counteract leveling tendencies, and his marriage with Mrs. Dixon would help to further the upward process of absorption he had been wishing and waiting for.

Mystery Men

I’ve been meaning to get to Judith Freeman‘s new biography of Raymond Chandler, The Long Embrace, which dispenses with the usual biographical look-at-everything altitude and barnstorms the writer’s relationship with his wife, Cissy. Pico Iyer‘s excellent review in the New York Review of Books is behind a paywall, but my friend Liz at Cahiers du Moment gets at a similar argument, pinpointing what makes Freeman’s approach at once fascinating and frustrating:

Freeman fully inhabits what she’s got. Some of the incidents she rounds out really do help us get a sense of what this woman might have been like, how Chandler was so attached to her, such as a meeting with George Cukor (somehow that just fits, given Cukor’s talent with women). But in the end it still all feels vaporous, because it is. It’s hard to get a sense of the power in the Chandlers’ relationship, whether she was serving him, or he was serving her with their somewhat reclusive life. Cissy still….flits. The questions are still louder than the answers.

A review of Philip Davis’s Bernard Malamud: A Life in Haaretz (HT: Critical Compendium) uncovers a similar problem with the subject. Chandler was cryptic because his relationship with his wife was opaque; Malamud is cryptic simply because he was a worker, sacrificing an action-packed life for the sake of his work:

After Malamud died [in 1986], [his wife] Ann described him as “someone who towards the end of his life must have felt in some way that he hadn’t lived.” The same might be said of Malamud’s characters, who are best understood as the critic Robert Alter has understood them: “large and resonant in their smallness.” Their smallness resounds because it urges us to contemplate our own, and because it awakens a sense of empathy and enigma.

Many of Malamud’s men are imprisoned, like Yakov Bok, in a czarist jail in “The Fixer,” Lesser in his tenement in “The Tenants,” or Bober in his grocery store in “The Assistant.” Malamud’s creatures seem most of all locked in themselves, however, entrapped by guilt, captives to sex, to middle age, or to the contaminations of the past. As Levin discovers in “A New Life”: “The prison was really himself, flawed edifice of failures, each locking up tight the one before.”

We’ve All Missed the Boat on Theodora Keogh

An item in GalleyCat today about the recent death of novelist Theodora Keogh led me to hit ProQuest to see if there was much in newspaper archives on her aside from the London Telegraph obituary and the obit in the Charlotte Observer. Nothing doing, really, except for a mention in a 2004 Utne piece by Michael Bronski on pre-Stonewall gay pulp fiction:

From Knock on Any Door, I naturally went to [Willard] Motley’s other books. The flyleaf advertisement on Let No Man Write My Epitaph for “other books you will enjoy” led me to Theodora Keogh’s 1950 The Double Door, about a married gay man who leads a double life. After some hunting, I finally found a copy on eBay. I read her 1952 novel Street Music, which also has overt gay male themes, and her 1949 Meg, a story with lesbian overtones, about a rich New York girl who joins a street gang. I knew even less about Keogh than I did about Motley, so I did a quick Internet search and learned that Keogh, the granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt, had been a highly respected novelist who became famous for her “daring” themes.

Tuesday Miscellany

Toni Morrison endorses Barack Obama.

Where NYC Writers Like to Drink

Libby Fischer Hellmann on the intersection of real-estate investment and  writing novels about white-collar crime:

When it’s done right, real estate development is every bit as creative as writing a novel…you’re creating something worthwhile where nothing existed before. At the same time the possibilities to cut corners are legion. Maybe it’s slipping in sub-standard materials to save time and money. Maybe it’s greasing a palm for an official approval or environmental “clean bill of health.” Maybe it’s making sure the construction crews are available when you need them, or maybe it’s just out and out soaking investors without any return.

Remembering Stegner

Carlin Romano reviews Philip A. Fradkin‘s biography Wallace Stegner and the American West:

[D]oes Stegner merit a third full-scale biography? He does. First, his 13 novels, eight nonfiction books, and 242 articles, including “The Wilderness Letter” (1961), a modern manifesto for conservationists, carry weight. While Stegner didn’t, like Saul Bellow, consistently turn out masterpieces, novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose (1971) and The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) endure as quality work, as do a number of his nonfiction books.

The review notes a recent controversy over the release of Stegner’s written-for-the-money history of a Saudi oil firm. The Washington Post story on that book is here.