A Moment of Jen
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Tuesday, February 03, 2009
posted by Jen at 2/03/2009 12:37:00 PM

Dear Brian Tierney,

I never thought I’d be writing you this kind of letter. But last night, I was reading the Wall Street Journal (online – sorry!), and I was shocked to learn that, under your leadership, the region's two newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, are seeking a $10 million bailout from the state government.

As anyone who’s ever worked for, subscribed to, or glanced at a newspaper can affirm, this is not how journalism is supposed to work.

Newspapers are not publicly-funded institutions, nor are they charities. They are watchdogs, not lapdogs; afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. They should not take money from the people and institutions they are supposed to be reporting on, lest those people and institutions expect favorable coverage in return for their cash.

Then I thought, hmm: favorable coverage in return for cash…

Favorable coverage in return for cash…

Then I got distracted by my wedding ring. Shiny.

Then it hit me!

What if a consortium of Philadelphia writers and ex-Philadelphia Inquirer staffers turned novelists and non-fiction writers banded together to sponsor the paper’s book coverage?

I can’t speak for John Grogan, Steve Lopez, Buzz Bissinger et al. But personally, I’m always looking for a pretty quote to decorate my paperbacks. Maybe they, are, too! (“GROGAN’S DEAD DAD: JUST AS MOVING AS GROGAN’S DEAD DOG.” Or “FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: THE BEST TV SHOW YOU AREN’T WATCHING IS BASED ON THE BEST BOOK YOU MAY NOT HAVE READ.” Or “CERTAIN GIRLS: PINKEST BOOK IMAGINABLE – AND WE MEAN THAT IN A GOOD WAY!”)

Authors need coverage.

The Inquirer needs money.

As you management types like to say, I see an opportunity for some synergy.

And so, Mr. Tierney, I would like to make you an offer of cash in exchange for my mostly-silent sponsorship the Inquirer’s book coverage.

Obviously, I will want some changes made.

First, give Frank Wilson his job back. He’s smarter than you are. He’s smarter than everyone!

Let him hire who he wants to hire... and if Frank doesn’t want to run roundups, Frank doesn’t have to run roundups. That’s what we’ve got Entertainment Weekly for.

As matron of the arts, here are some things I don’t want to read about: new books by Philip Roth (I prefer the old ones, which were funny). New books by Cormac McCarthy. New books by any male writer prone to complaining about the indignities of old age, either general or prostate-specific, or or having his male protagonists do the same.

New short-story collection by Alice Munro. Instead of wasting eight hundred words, just say it’s every bit as wrenching and finely wrought as the last short-story collection by Alice Munro, and be done with it. Chances are, I’ve already read most of the stories in The New Yorker, and I know that they are wrenching and finely-wrought (unless, of course, the new collection gets a ridiculously tarty cover, in which case, you can make fun of that for eight hundred words).

In fact, no more reviews of books by any of the dour, humorless, literary lady-writers. Let them peddle their arid tales of marital angst, suburban anomie, dead or drug-addicted children and their husbands’ enlarged prostates to Oprah magazine.

No more considerations of gross-out memoirs by middle-aged male journalists detailing their debauchery, drug buys, masturbatory predilections or intestinal outrages. This is not because I’m not interested, but because these books are guaranteed lots of attention elsewhere, and I probably know about them already.

If a book has been reviewed twice by the Times, I’ve probably already decided whether I want to read it or not, so we can feel free to ignore.

Likewise, if a book has been reviewed twice and its young male author was the subject of a flattering profile in the Times Sunday magazine or the Style section, not only do I not want that book reviewed, I don’t even want its author mentioned in the unlikely event the book makes the best-seller list. Just leave a blank. I’ll figure it out.

Oh, and no more hiring some prize-winning big-name author to write a review for the publicity it’ll generate. Readers can smell a stunt a mile away, and they’ll know the review was intended to generate publicty, not to help them make up their minds. And no, I don’t care if the big-name author needs the money. We’re running a newspaper, not the WPA.

Here are some things I do want to read about: new books by Stephen King and Susan Isaacs, Nicholas Christopher and Peter Straub, Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercey. Pretty much anything in the horror/fantasy genre, like Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand and Margo Lanagan. Thrillers and mysteries and romance.

Contemporary women’s fiction (duh!) reviewed by people who do not think that contemporary women’s fiction and/or contemporary women themselves represent a pox upon the land. Reviews of books people are actually reading, instead of the ones the critics think we should be reading.

Women’s memoirs, especially funny ones about birthing and raising babies. Anything by Jennifer Belle, Jennifer Crusie and Jen Lancaster; Carrie Fisher, Nora Ephron and Fran Lebowitz (how about a regular feature on Authors Who Haven’t Written Anything Lately, and Should: Katherine Dunn, anyone?)

Graphic novels (did you read “The Alcoholic” or “Fun Home?” So good!) Books in translation. Poetry. Young adult fiction (“The Hunger Games” was one of the best things I read last year). Literary trend pieces – for instance, now that the Kindle is changing the way we read, how long until it changes the way we write? Are any of those much-discussed Japanese cell-phone novels any good? Anyone in publishing willing to defend the Sarah Silverman/Tina Fey book deals as fiscally sound?

Also, I have this great idea for a column called Authors: They’re Just Like Us, where the Inquirer can challenge the myth that writers are superhuman glamazons who live on top of some literary Mount Olympus (aka, New York City/Brooklyn/Iowa), emerging only for well-attended, star-studded readings and long boozy lunches with our agents.

So I think we should run pictures of local authors doing ordinary things, like feeding parking meters, or singing karaoke, or screaming at some hapless blogger on HBO. I want Duane Swierczynski scooping poop, and Christine Weiser picking up her dry cleaning, and Elizabeth Gilbert, eating, praying and loving over in Frenchtown.

I know that the notion of taking cash from the people you’re covering objectively is abhorrent and strange and goes against every journalistic principle you can name…but, Mr. Tierney, if you’ve already abandoned your principles, gotten over your abhorrence and decided to pass the hat, why not pass it my way?

Drop me a line at jen -at- jenniferweiner.com. Better yet, friend me on Facebook, and we’ll talk.
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