Nine Ways to Fix

A few days back I received a direct message on Twitter from somebody in the book marketing business. She was inspired to connect because she’d seen some of my complaints here about the San Francisco-based literary Web portal Red Room. (See “ Redoubles Effort to Become Worst Lit-Themed Social Networking Site on Earth”, “Red Room—What Is This Thing, Again?” and “The Red Room Factor.”) This person wanted to know “what would make such a site workable in your opinion.”

I don’t know if this person is in any way affiliated with the site, but it’s a fair question regardless. I have no special knowledge about what makes Web sites workable, let alone profitable—my current employer is in the midst of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and I couldn’t tell you what the fix is there. What I can say is that as a person who cares about books—and who would like to see a site dedicated to writers and readers become something useful—I see plenty of low-hanging fruit at Red Room. Some of what follows restates my earlier complaints. But I hope what follows comes off as more constructive and less snarky. So, for what it’s worth:

Ditch the Celebrity Angle. A recent press release announcing Red Room’s partnership with National Novel Writing Month describes the site this way: “Red Room is the online home of many of the world’s greatest writers and the only social network to feature celebrity authors including Khaled Hosseini, Dr. Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Candace Bushnell, Tobias Wolff, Alice Hoffman, and James Patterson.” True enough, the site pushes those big names on the homepage: The first thing I see when I go there is a slick, magazine-style tease for Rushdie. But once I click, all I get is junk. There’s the beginning of a quote from Rushdie dated December 3, 2007—and when I click to read the whole thing, I learn that it was from something he told in 1996. Red Room’s sclerotic obsession with pushing the handful of big names that did them a solid on their launch date has got to stop. If none of those authors mentioned in the press release have contributed anything of substance that’s unique to site in the past month, bury their pages.

Give Me a Reason to Sign Up. After the celeb-author nonsense, Red Room pushes me to “Join Our Community.” When I click through, though, I get no information about the benefits of joining the site—I’m just told to pick a username and password, give my e-mail address and real name, and agree to the terms of service. Not exactly inviting. If I click on “Become a Red Room Author,” the site becomes only slightly less chilly. “Red Room authors are selected through a brief application process. To begin this process you must log in.” If I’m a writer, I have to go through a signup procedure and a mysterious vetting process, with no information about what I’ll get out of it.

Do Better By the Writers You Have.
I am not a Red Room Author, so I’m not not clear on what controls one has over their page on the site. But if the page for Kim Addonizio is any indication (picked pretty much at random from the “A” page, though I’d heard of her 2007 novel, My Dreams Out in the Street), writers may not have a whole lot of say in the ugly things done to their pages. Pushed up top isn’t her bio, or information from her most recent book—it’s a video ad for Stephen Colbert’s now year-old book. Pushed to the bottom? Addonizio’s much more informative Web site.

Make Clear Why You’re Promoting What You’re Promoting. Through some mysterious process, certain books published by Red Room authors are anointed “Red Room Editors’ Picks.” Not a bad idea, as far as it goes. But if I click on the page for Mitch Cullen‘s Tokyo Is Dreaming, there’s nothing telling me who selected this book and why. For better or for worse, I don’t have to wonder why Huntress: Year One got picked—it’s written by the site’s founder, Ivory Madison.

Collapse the Authors/Members Divide. Some people on Red Room are authors. Some are members. What’s the difference? Hard to say. Nell Minow, better known as the Movie Mom, has written a couple of books, but she’s a mere member. When the author-member split isn’t confusing, it’s condescending. Jennifer Gibbons, for instance, is plugged on the members page as an “aspiring writer.” Which would merely be stating the facts on the ground, except that social media works best when it levels instead of stratifies; instead, Red Room has stubbornly chosen to allow members to network with other members but not with other writers. (And the networking options are limited; see below.)

Lose the Wacky Video Skit. It’s two and a half minutes long and feels like The Decalogue:

Make a Noise When Your Members Make a Noise. In August G. Willow Wilson wrote a blog post on Red Room about the controversy over The Jewel of Medina. That post got responses up through ten days ago—impressive legs for a blog post of any stripe. Smartly, Red Room has made this a “Featured Blog Post” on its blogs page. Less smartly, I’m not clued into how much commenting action is going on with the community. When was that most recent blog item posted? How many comments has a hot post received? Red Room does a lousy job of broadcasting how busy its members are.

Let Your Members Make Friends With Each Other. Six months ago I would’ve laughed at the idea of a Facebook-style social network dedicated exclusively to aspiring writers, which most Red Room members appear to be. But Facebook, at least for me, is now chaos—my Live Feed is clotted with announcements from people I kinda-sorta know befriending entities, movies, games, groups, and (no small thing, this) other social networks. If Red Room can argue that it’s an oasis for a writer looking for a way to connect with other writers about practicing their craft, it may be on to something; members might be able to form online or in-person writing groups, talk shop, or generally befriend each other. The genius of social networking is in how it allows you to announce your affinities—in writing or in anything else. But as it stands, contacting others is relegated to filling out a form and commenting on posts.

Start Emphasizing the One Thing That Is Your Genuine Point of Differentiation From Your Competition. Before it was a Web site, Red Room was a successful writing group. To the extent it has any value online that could distinguish it from other sites, it ought to focus stubbornly on ways to make writing groups work online. There’s actually a hint of what’s possible on Red Room, something the site foolishly buries. Click on the “Tips” tab and you’re sent to a page that (after some gassing from Ms. Madison), includes a wealth of nuts-and-bolts essays about writing, marketing, landing an agent, whether or not to pursue an MFA and more. Some of the pieces are cursory; some state the obvious. (“DON’T GET DRUNK AT THE CONFERENCES.” OK, got it!) But none of it, at a glance, seems to point an aspiring writer in the wrong direction. With some effort to cultivate stronger pieces, the Tips section could actually be the centerpiece of Red Room. That’s because the most trusted published resources for young writers—magazines like The Writer or Writer’s Digest—put much of their work behind a paywall. At the moment, nothing on the front page of Red Room says, “Here’s a place where you, the aspiring writer, can improve your work by communicating with your peers and learning from others in the business, including some of the most successful authors on the planet.”

How to make a buck off any of this is a matter best addressed by bright financial minds, and I’m not one of them. But just about anything would be an improvement over flogging Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on the homepage.


The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Jon Meacham‘s Nov. 19 reading from his biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, has been canceled; in Meacham’s place, interestingly, is Margaret Atwood, reading from Payback, her cultural study of debt. Also worth looking into: William Ayers makes his controversial appearance at Busboys & Poets on Monday; the National Press Club Book Fair brings a few dozen authors, mainly journalists, to town on Tuesday; Howard Norman moderates a discussion of The Journal of Helene Berr at Temple Sinai on Thursday; and Friday brings Russell Banks and Richard Russo together at the Folger Shakespeare Library, for what will presumably be a chat about fictionalizing the American working class.

Lewisohn Versus Nativism

Nextbook has a fine essay on Ludwig Lewisohn, author of a handful of important novels addressing Jewish-American identity in the early 20th century, the best-known of which is 1928’s The Island Within. Josh Lambert’s piece is also a reminder of just how deep anti-Semitism ran in nativist United States between the wars. Lewisohn was all but shut out of academia; following a speech in which he defended German high culture, the New York Times led an opinion piece with the quote, ““Ludwig Lewisohn has insulted every American who died in France, every disabled soldier who lies in a hospital today and every man who fought in the American army.”

If nothing else, such antagonism inspired Lewisohn to be ambitious in his work. Using a quote from The Island Within, Lambert makes clear how provocative the author could be:

“What, in fact, is a story?” Lewisohn asks, in the first of the metafictional essays interspersed throughout the novel. “Is it a meticulous account of the stream of consciousness as it flows through some carefully isolated mind? . . . Or the symbolical doings of a day? . . . An elegant bed and in it, in silken pajamas, a gentleman who cannot sleep”? Are you, in other words, looking for the au courant stylings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or Marcel Proust? If so, Lewisohn says, look elsewhere: “Let us tell wiser, broader, deeper stories,” he proposes, “stories with morals more significant and rich. . . . Let us recover, if possible, something of an epic note.” Lewisohn is effectively claiming that he’s written a smarter and more resonant fiction than anything by the reputed masters of modernism, and, moreover, that he has created this instant classic by grounding his work in the history and psychology of the Jews.

Links: International Anthem

Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666 may be the Great American Novel.” Well, can’t blame a critic for trying.

In related news, on Sunday National Book Award chief Harold Augenbraum will appear on WordSmitten, where, if the rhetoric of the accompanying press release is to be trusted, he will all but strap on the brass knuckles and set to pummeling Horace Engdahl live on air. Actually, looks like he will arrive brandishing…a reading list.

Speaking of which: A recommended reading list for Barack Obama includes a pair of novels—David Lozell Martin‘s Our American King and Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?—as well as Tobias Wolff‘s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War.

Toni Morrison responds to John Updike‘s review of A Mercy: “‘He says I like starting stories smack in the middle of things and you don’t know what’s going on,’ she says softly, a smile on her lips and a spark in her eye. ‘I was laughing at that because I thought, all stories start in the middle of things!'”

One of the more entertaining sections of William Least Heat-Moon‘s new book, Roads to Quoz, is a defense of the Beats framed around his visit with Jim Canary, the caretaker of the scroll version of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. “Sometimes I wish he would have written on sheets, but then I wouldn’t have had this job,” Canary tells the Loyola University Phoenix.

The Last (?) Word on the Shadow Country Controversy

The happily resurrected MobyLives points to a story in today’s New York Times about the debate over whether Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country qualifies as a “new” novel, seeing as it compresses and reworks three of his previous works. (I’ve mentioned this last month, and back in April, when Michael Dirda defended the enterprise in the New York Review of Books.) National Book Award executive director Harold Augenbraum effectively douses the flames:

“We allow collections of previously published material,” he said. “Collected poems, collected essays, short-story collections — books like that. We don’t allow reprints, but we didn’t consider this a reprint. There’s a lot of new writing here.”

But the story is largely an appreciation of the 81-year-old Matthiessen, who speaks out on the matter toward the end of the piece:

“I brought forward some characters, and gave them a voice,” he explained. “Like Henry Short, a black man who probably fired the first shot. I dropped others. I also dropped a lot of historical stuff and cut 40 years out of the time span. But a lot of the changes were just deepening, or I use the rather pretentious word ‘distilling.’ ”

“His Usual Obscene and Bitter Style”

After Norman Mailer died last year, the Washington Post FOIA’d the FBI’s files on the author. And inside that file (165 of its 171 pages were released) was evidence of … not much—except, perhaps, J. Edgar Hoover‘s pettiness. The Mailer file started in 1962, when the author called Jacqueline Kennedy excessively soft-spoken; from then on, the file mainly became a stack of press clippings and Mailer book excerpts, though occasionally FBI agents were a little more nosy, impersonating friends to extract his current whereabouts. But one bit in the story suggests that at least one anonymous Fed had to play book reviewer. An angry, partisan book reviewer:

In 1969, at Hoover’s direction, an agent prepared a five-page, single-spaced review of Mailer’s book “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” about the 1968 political conventions. The review carefully itemized all six references made to the FBI.

“It is written in his usual obscene and bitter style,” the agent wrote. “Book contains reference to . . . uncomplimentary statements of the type that might be expected from Mailer regarding the FBI and the Director.”

One question: Why won’t the pioneering post documents from the FBI file alongside the article?

Shalom Auslander: Still Mad at God

The Portland Mercury has a lengthy Q & A with Shalom Auslander, author of Foreskin’s Lament. (Reviewed here; for the record, Auslander has publicly claimed that the book’s title was in no way inspired by Portnoy’s Complaint, but I call shenanigans.) He explains that he’s working on a novel this time, not a memoir or collection of short stories, but the theme is familiar:

I’m writing a novel now. It’s called Leopold Against the World, and it has to do with, if that was about how terrified of God I am, this is about how terrified of people I am. Even when you take God out of the equation it even makes it worse. You’ve got God to blame for people being assholes, but you take him out of the equation and we’re just these brutal people that murder millions of each other every few years. It’s a hard way to grow up and it’s a hard thing to know about. But it’s all about man’s inhumanity to man and God’s inhumanity to man. But it all comes down to the same thing, which is how do you get through your life with an awareness that it kind of blows, that we die, and brutally, often, and in large numbers by other people’s hand.

Sex Ed With John Updike

The promotional patter for Rod Liddle‘s Little’s essay in the London Times suggests he’ll argue that John Updike made a lot of good authors write badly about sex. But Liddle Little mainly wants to send a mash note to Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples, which he argues was among the first post-war novels that helped make writing about sex seem like a serious literary pursuit. (And perhaps, made contemporary literature seem like a worthwhile pursuit; I wasn’t exactly reading the Rabbit novels for the naughty bits when I was a freshman in high school, but I certainly came away from them feeling more clued in about the private lives of grown-ups.)

Liddle Little may have a point about Updike being among the first to legitimize highly sexualized fiction for American mass audiences, though 1968 was a complicated year in general, and was also the year that Gore Vidal‘s Myra Breckinridge was published; prior to Couples, other novels about sex that got mass audiences were either dismissed as trashy (Peyton Place) or reached shelves thanks only to a great heaving of legal machinery (Tropic of Cancer). It would be years before Fear of Flying or Portnoy’s Complaint or Behind the Green Door or whatever 70s touchstone of your choosing made talking about sex in public less shameful.

Liddle Little soberly makes his case for bad sex in literature—and for Updike’s recent failures—but also inserts a provocative statement that’ll force me to pick up Couples and give it a better read than I did at 14:

Couples, though, has it all. It is Updike’s most experimental — with long passages of stream of consciousness, replete with rich, maybe at times too rich, imagery — yet also his most disciplined. The story is of serial infidelity among 10 fairly young, fairly well-to-do couples living in the fictional Massachusetts town of Tarbox, and particularly the calamitous affair between the two protagonists, Piet Hanema and Foxy Whitman. Their milieu — affluent, comfortable, companionable, surreptitiously adulterous — is as beguiling and attractive as it is corrupt. I still cannot think of a better novel from the past 50 or 60 years, unfashionable though it might be to say as much.


The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Some events for the coming week worth your notice if you’re nearby: Mike Sager, reading from his new collection of Esquire pieces, Wounded Warriors; John Adams, whose memoir, Hallelujah Junction, I’m currently reading; and a screening of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about troubled bookstores, screening at Vertigo Books, a troubled bookstore.

Links: Brat Tacks

Spoiled daughter of world-famous musician starts magazine whose name is taken from a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Rampant horribleness ensues.

In other Brat Pack-related news: Jay McInerney, hugging strangers on the street for all the obvious reasons.

Lots of other writers are excited too, for all the obvious reasons.

The Rake‘s Max Ross proposes a few novels that could be converted into video games. “White Noise: The action is propelled by the protagonist’s nagging, ambiguous fear of death. He has to balance learning German with cowering from the strange toxic cloud that hovers above his city. Final task is to identify where the toxic leak came from, and plug it up.”

RIP John Leonard. There are plenty of tributes making the rounds (New York has a nice one addressing his television criticism). Me, I’m taken with his 2000 essay in the Nation about his experience at the New York Times. It was an era full of backbiting, compromises, officiousness, and embarrassments. But Leonard himself put it best: “Wherever, they always fuck with your copy.”

Ambrose Bierce Slept Here. And Philandered Here. And Grew Increasingly Alienated From His Wife and Children Here.

The Weekly Calistogan has a nicely researched story about an inn in St. Helena, Calif., called the Ambrose Bierce House. The author of “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” and The Devil’s Dictionary moved there in the 1880s in the hopes that the Northern California air would help cure his asthma. By all accounts Bierce wasn’t a fan of the place, and it was certainly a rough patch for him and his family:

Relations between Bierce and his wife became strained — he was famous for his relationships with women, and for his strongly unforgiving nature where others’ trespasses against him, real and imaginary, were concerned. When Mollie became the object of a Danish businessman’s overtures and Bierce discovered the Dane’s letters to Mollie, he severed their relationship. They separated informally in 1888.

In the meantime, Bierce’s eldest son, Day, ran off to Red Bluff, and later to Chico, while still in his teens, to become a newspaper reporter. At 17, he died after a duel with a friend. In 1901, Bierce’s son, Leigh, also a newspaper reporter, died in New York City of pneumonia, apparently brought on by alcoholism. His body was also returned to St. Helena. Bierce’s long-suffering wife, Mollie finally filed for divorce in 1905 and died a few months later.

Not that Bierce was apparently spending much time in the house per se.
“I’ve heard that he was pretty much up in Angwin, visiting his girlfriends,” says Lisa Runnels, co-owner of the inn.

Jonathan Yardley on the Newspaper Business

A little while back the American, a magazine of think pieces about business published by the American Enterprise Institute, ran a lengthy essay by longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley. It’s about the future of newspapers, and also about Yardley’s past in them—he recalls the now-strange-seeming moment in the 70s when dailies were expanding so rapidly that an ambitious book critic could practically write his or her ticket around the country. Back then, “a newspaper as fat and prominent as the [Miami] Herald could easily afford to take on someone to handle duties that most reporters and editors regarded as peripheral, at best, to a newspaper’s chief obligations.”

It’s interesting reading (if a little dispiriting for somebody in the trade now), but when Yardley starts talking about a business model that will work for newspapers, things get a little wobbly. His argument, in essence: Shrink circ, go to a tabloid format, play to elite audiences, put more analysis-driven pieces up front. Yardley writes:

To survive and regain some measure of profitability, the print end of the newspaper business has to start thinking small. It has to stop worrying about the size of its circulation and start worrying about the quality of that circulation. It has to identify people within its reach who still want to read the news—read it, that is, not pick it up in quick online hits or hear it in bits and pieces on television or radio—and who want to read it on paper. Instead of dumbing down—making stories shorter and snappier, assuming that readers have the intellectual curiosity of couch potatoes—it has to smarten up.

Sounds nice. But the Post‘s parent company already does this, and it’s not working. And though I understand the value of targeted readership, there’s something that feels inherently undemocratic in Yardley’s proposal—whether it’s in print or online, the value of a newspaper is in its ability to bring relevant information to as large a proportion of its community as possible. Catering to the segment of that community that’s more likely to go wine shopping regularly is very good business sense. It’s also tearing up your mission statement.

Yardley concedes this, a little, toward the end of his piece: “[I]t gives me no pleasure at all to contemplate the fragmentation or demise of the traditional newspaper. For one thing I’ve been a small-d democrat all my life; I want to bring good things to as many people as possible, and I consider the newspaper a very good thing.” I greatly admire Yardley, who was one of the first book critics I read, but the dying newspaper is a problem well beyond a book critic’s ability to solve. Perhaps even beyond a newspaper owner’s ability.