Archive for the ‘books’ Tag

On Mark Bowden’s NYT takedown

The so-called crisis in the news industry sure has generated some sensational stories of late. “American journalism is in a period of terror,” announces Mark Bowden in a tome of an article appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Mostly a deft hatchet job on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, Bowden’s piece sent the media cognoscenti into a tizzy, although nobody seems to have noticed its one truly illuminating segment.

Photo illustration by Vanity Fair.

Photo illustration from Vanity Fair.

Even the mighty Times is facing financial peril these days, and Bowden’s premise is that the newspaper scion “has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” He abuses tools of the trade to help suggest his case. As one unnamed “industry analyst” tells us, “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.” Earth shattering. Perhaps Bowden should pick up a copy of the Times and read Clark Hoyt on the suitable use of anonymous sources. For a substantive take on contemporary debacles across the business, check out this recent piece by Daniel Gross.

In fact, I’m a big fan of Bowden’s. Right now I happen to be reading his 2006 book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” a riveting account of the Iran hostage crisis. Particularly in the realm of national security, few reporters are as exhaustive, persuasive — and downright exciting to read — as him.

On the media, not so much. There he has tended toward the self-involved, maybe a particular pitfall for great reporters covering their own vocation. (See the opening line of the Sulzberger article, which zooms in directly on… Bowden himself, as he receives a phone call from Sulzberger: “I was in a taxi on a wet winter day in Manhattan three years ago…” Especially telling, I think, given that in another recent piece orbiting the news business, a profile of David Simon, Bowden also wrote himself prominently into the narrative.) The Vanity Fair article is exquisitely timed with the accelerating upheaval in the newspaper industry, and reads mostly like, well, a salacious, insider-y Vanity Fair article.

And yet, buried deep in the 11,500 words is one of the best analogies I’ve encountered anywhere conveying the potential for digital journalism:

When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling.

Bowden uses the comparison in the service of whacking Sulzberger — but it also points directly to a broader stagnation in media companies’ use of the digital platform. There is experimentation going on, but often without much imagination: Digital video clips are all the rage? OK, we’ll put reporters on camera describing the stories they’ve just published! Online communities and reader interactivity are the latest buzz? OK, we’ll feature the shouting matches in our comments threads as actual news!

The rising multimedia and publishing capabilities of the digital realm are charged with promise, and demand deeper thinking about their optimal use. With any given subject, which digital tools are most effective for gathering information and telling the story? How can the information-rich ecosystem of the Web enhance the knowledge gained? What new ways are there to produce reliable, authoritative and compelling content, taking maximum advantage of a decentralized and participatory technology like no other we’ve ever known?

Soon enough we may all be getting our news on a kind of flexible digital paper. The possibilities for what it could contain are big, and they’re just beginning.

UPDATE: Mark Bowden responds.

Light in the darkness of David Foster Wallace

A prodigious amount has been written about David Foster Wallace since the heart-rending news of his suicide last September. The outpouring continues. This week, a humorous essay that keyed off Wallace’s hyper-baroque writing has seen a viral revival on the Web. Earlier this month, the New Yorker published a lengthy epilogue along with an excerpt from Wallace’s unfinished novel, “The Pale King.” His much-admired speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College in Ohio will come out in book form in April.

I finally had time to read the long New Yorker piece, and it made me realize that the world also deserves a published collection of Wallace’s correspondence, with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others. The varied bits of it appearing in the New Yorker cast additional light on his humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

There is much insight and lyricism to be found in Wallace’s fiction, but it can be hard to track down and enjoy amid all the dense, cerebral text. He played language not as an instrument but as a postmodern orchestra, and it could get too cacophonous. (I remember when Bob Watts gave me his hardcover copy of “Oblivion,” barely cracked into. “Couldn’t really do it,” he said.) Although I much admired some of Wallace’s earlier short stories, I’ve always thought that he was at his best with essays and literary journalism. It seems the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too, however painful. While in a deep rut in May 1990 he wrote to Franzen:

Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.

There was also a vivid kind of humor: In another correspondence with Franzen about 15 years later, this time regarding his struggles with “The Pale King,” Wallace wrote, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t … I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore.”

One of his former editors recalls Wallace also comparing the writing of the novel with “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

For me, one of Wallace’s most memorable essays was published in August 2006 in the magazine Play, in which he profiled tennis titan Roger Federer.

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

It remains a memorable passage because it illumes not only Wallace’s profound talent, but also, in some sense, the linguistic-spiritual puzzle he died still trying to solve. He tells you it can’t be done and then he nearly does it, brilliantly. A deeper look at his personal correspondences — when presumably he was writing more free of the crushing performance pressures he put on himself — could only add to the picture.

Precisely the poet we needed

Kay Ryan was in town for a reading on Friday night at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was packed. It occurred to me it was absolutely right she’d become our U.S. Poet Laureate in a time of so much turmoil near and far. The universe has a way of balancing itself, even when it seems barely to be standing on one foot. Some comic concision to cut through all the gloomy cacophony—just the thing.

jamjarI’ve been an admirer for years of Ryan’s pithy assessments. They seem even more necessary right now, and not just for their luminous resuscitation of dead language and reanimation of cliché. As she put it on Friday, one of her interests has been considering extremity and trying to “cool things down” a bit. Claims found in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” became the source for her latest collection The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed. The poem “Murder at Midnight” departs from Ripley’s assertion that “If everyone who was told about it told two other people within 12 minutes, everybody on earth would know about it before morning.” Determines Ryan:

But people would begin getting it
a little bit wrong. Long before daylight,
the ‘murder at midnight’ would be
‘sugar stolen outright.’ The fate
of the dead man would not extend
beyond his gate. Only those
right now missing his little habits,
his footfall, his sleeping noises,
will know, and they can’t really tell;
news doesn’t really travel very well.

Whether Ripley’s math quite holds up under scrutiny I can’t say, but no matter. This morning a friend from a group of old high school buddies emailed to suggest that we all start using the trendy messaging service Twitter to banter and keep in touch on a more frequent basis. With three email accounts, IM, Facebook and a blog already running me apace on the digital information wheel, I’m thinking I’ll gently decline for now, and refer him to Sasha Cagen’s fine essay posted yesterday, This Is Your Brain on Twitter.

Hard truths about the Iraq war

1. With such enormous problems at home, it is hard to focus on enormous problems beyond U.S. borders, even when we perceive the dangers of turning too inward.

2. It is hard not to be exhausted of and desensitized to the whole awful mess. A week from this Thursday, it will have been six years since George W. Bush launched “shock and awe.” For the vast majority of Americans who have no direct connection to the war, if we are brutally honest with ourselves, it is hard in some respects to care at this point. (More on this below.)

3. It is but one of two daunting wars we are fighting. (And the new president is poised to make the other one larger.)

4. It is far, far from over.

thegamblecoverDespite items one and two above, distinguished military reporter Thomas Ricks had some tranfixing things to say about the war on Wednesday, during an interview on NPR about his new book. Ricks’ comments are likely to prove distinct from the White House talking points and news coverage that will mark the six-year anniversary of the conflict in the coming days. His reporting in Iraq, including interviews in 2008 with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat there, left Ricks to conclude, “The events for which this war will be remembered have not yet happened.” Here’s a bit more of what was most striking among his comments, from the forbidding magnitude of the problem to some startling attitudes about the war that Ricks encountered while promoting his book recently in the liberal-by-reputation Bay Area:

On the time frame we face:
“I think we may just be halfway through this war. I know President Obama thinks he’s going to get all troops out by the end of 2011. I don’t know anyone in Baghdad who thinks that’s going to happen. I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.”

On the scope of the disaster:
“The original U.S. war plan was to be down to 30,000 troops by September 2003…. I do think this war was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. I think it’s a tragedy. I think George Bush’s mistakes are something we’re going to be paying for for decades. We don’t yet understand how big a mistake this is.”

On the destructive prospects of the U.S. military pulling out:
“I think Americans are really sick of the Iraq war…. I was speaking in California last week, near liberal Mill Valley, and I said, Look, if you leave right now this could lead to genocide. And somebody in the audience said, ‘So what.’ And somebody else said, ‘Genocide happens all the time.’ And I thought, my god, Americans are willing to take genocide in Iraq, and just leave.”