Let’s Bring Back Novels! (Updated)*

love-and-consequences.jpgMemoirs are great, if they’re well-written, tell a compelling story and…are true! 

If you’re Margaret B. Jones Seltzer, here’s the situation with which you were faced:  You’ve been “working to reduce gang violence in Los Angeles,” and spent a brief time in a school gangster types attended, despite your generally affluent existence.  So you’ve had a glimpse of that kind of life.  And you’re a writer. You’ve got an imagination.  

Imagination is nothing to be ashamed of.  

Until about 10 years ago, when the memoir trend hit the publishing industry, you’d write a novel that combined what you know with what you imagined.  You might be like Tom Wolfe, and imbue it with the fruits of journalistic research.  Or you might pin your observations to a genre — crime fiction, say.  As a novelist, you’ve got license to tell your story however you want, as long as it’s labeled “fiction.”

But now, publishers want truth.  Or what they can sell as the truth. As a serious novel,  Seltzer’s Love and Consequences wouldn’t have had much of a commercial prospect.  But as a memoir, it looked like a big seller.

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, another false memoir, says he initially tried to peddle his writing about life as a drug addict as a novel, but no one bit.  Since this was a novel based on his life experiences at least in part, it didn’t seem like a stretch to change the book into a memoir.  But he left in the parts he made up.

“I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,” Mr. Frey said in an author’s note released yesterday that will be included in future editions of the book. “I altered events all the way through the book,” he added.

Because that’s what we do when we tell stories.  We don’t sit and recite facts and expect the audience to stay interested.   Even if all the materials we’re working with are in fact true, we shape them.  It occured to many writers to go beyond mere “shaping,” but that’s okay, they could call it fiction. 

At its inception as a communications medium, the novel was a fundamentally journalistic exercise; truth, but not literally true.  Daniel Defoe, by most accounts the father of the English novel, was originally a journalist and pamphleteer whose most famous fictions, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders were extensions of his journalistic activism — Crusoe, an adventure-filled parable, and Flanders, a tour of different tiers of London society in the mid-1700s.   Flanders’ saga reflected what Defoe knew of the streets he worked as a political tribune.  Crusoe’s tale a reflection of his thinking on colonialism, economics, morality and faith.  The things he described didn’t happen, but they reflected a lifetime observing things that did.

Margaret Seltzer’s observations of the 21st century equivalent of London’s demi-monde could have been valuable.  She comes off as a sincere social critic:

“For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

Seltzer bowed to publishing realities and turned herself into someone who will have a hard time ever being believed again.  She’s a fool and a liar and all that.  But her story strikes me as tragic, too.  A different publishing ethic might have prevented Seltzer from travelling a dark path.  I haven’t read the book — and won’t, since it’s been withdrawn by the publisher — but I suspect it had the makings of a decent novel.  But nobody wants novels like that anymore, or so publishers think.

*UPDATE, 3/4:  If you want a good laugh at Seltzer’s expense, read this cringeworthy interview from her publicity materials.  It was posted on Gawker.  A sample:

Q: How did this book originate?

A: During my senior year of college one of my professors told me a friend of hers was working on a book and wanted to interview me. I declined. I wasn’t interested in the whole “South-Central-as-petting-zoo” thing. Then my home girl said the teacher might mess around and fail me for rejecting her friend, so I ended up calling the author and doing the interview. She was real nice and asked me if I had ever written anything. I ended up giving her one of a number of short stories I had written for my brothers’ kids and for the kids of my homies serving life sentences.

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Herr Russert, der Fuhrer?

One thing that’s new about this presidential election:  Candidates being urged by their potential followers to refuse to participate on certain mass media outlets, even though the exposure will help them.   Democratic candidates’ collective withdrawal from a Fox News-sponsored debate struck me as “vanity politics” earlier this year.  Now, the blogosphere is hunting down NBC’s Tim Russert for being … well, read this from The New Republic’s blogger Linda Hirshman:  

Last summer the Nevada Democrats pulled out of a debate sponsored by Fox News.  Loaded, racist and all the rest, the Dems

(Not to be a stickler for grammar, but the phrase “loaded, racist and all the rest,” which she intended to apply to Fox News, she mistakenly applies to “the Dems.”)  

decided it was incoherent for them to pretend Fox was a media outlet like any other.

Tim Russert is worse,

What??  Worse than “racist?” (I’m not sure what she means by “loaded.”  Stoned?) Even if you accept the rather extreme premise that Fox News is “racist,” what can it possibly mean for a news anchor and debate moderator to be worse than a racist?  Well, stay tuned:

because he has the mantle of the venerable NBC, network of Nipper, the radio dog. Bulletin to Democrats: Just Say No to Russert. 

See my piece at the Guardian.

I’d like to but the link doesn’t work.

Then she lists a number of other blogospheric attacks on Russert from sources like The American Prospect, Firedoglake and Ezra Klein.  One might think these posts would support the “worse than racist” charge.  But no, actually they don’t. 

There is sharp criticism of Russert’s style of questioning from The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman, but his post is hardly even partisan.  Taylor Marsh accuses Russert of being unfair and possibly sexist, and to prove her point she counts up the number of questions Hillary got in the recent debate; but Marsh is easy to refute.  The fact is, Hillary Clinton has a 31-point lead in the polls.  She is far and away the front-runner.  Given that, if a moderator distributed the questions evenly among all the candidates, they would be giving the front-runner an enormous advantage. 

If Joe Biden is asked to respond to the campaign positions taken by Dennis Kucinich, who cares? The fact is, it’s Sen. Clinton’s race to lose now, and there is a great public interest in finding out more about her.  She has earned the added scrutiny by the likelihood of her success.

Which makes Tim Russert, according to Ms. Hirshman, writing under the imprimatur of the venerable New Republic, a…wait for it…Nazi!!!!  Here, read for yourself: Continue reading

Hollywood Gets a Stern Lecture

Owen Wilson’s apparent suicide attempt prompts this burst of old-fashioned, snooty condescension from the U.K. Independent.  I find it quaintly reassuring.  Essentially, the anonymous writer’s position is, Owen Wilson is a minor talent who appears in films barely worth discussing.  But he makes other people a lot of money, and as a result, everyone in Hollywood is acting in a beastly fashion, focusing only on the business implications of his private tragedy.

The whole thing makes for a bracing read.  Here’s how it starts:

Anyone wanting to understand the sheer blood-sucking ghoulishness of today’s Hollywood star factory could do worse than look at what happened to Owen Wilson – the dishevelled, broken-nosed, 38-year-old luminary of such lowbrow comedies as Wedding Crashers and Zoolander – after he was taken to hospital at the weekend.

And here’s a little more of it, to whet your appetite for the high dudgeon on offer:

It wasn’t just the media whose behaviour veered towards the ghoulish, though. Hollywood itself quickly showed its true colours as it worried not about the well-being and recovery of Owen Wilson as a human being, but rather the future of various investments that production companies and studios had placed in him as the star of a flurry of completed and upcoming movies.

DreamWorks Pictures rapidly put out a statement assuring investors that filming on Tropic Thunder, a comedy co-starring Wilson and Jack Black and directed by Wilson’s longtime friend and partner Ben Stiller, would continue regardless. DreamWorks did not say whether Wilson’s part would be recast, although that is presumably an option if he cannot return to work relatively quickly.

Daily Variety, Hollywood’s paper of record, left little doubt about the industry’s bottom-line thinking on Wilson as it catalogued the various projects now left hanging. His incapacitation was “creating a conundrum” for Fox Searchlight pictures, which is putting together a marketing strategy for The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wilson’s former college room-mate Wes Anderson and due out on American screens at the end of next month.

Paramount Pictures, Variety further reported, faces an even bigger problem with its Wilson-headlined film, Drillbit Taylor, due out next March, “because of the … film’s young male demographic”.

In short, nobody – or almost nobody – in this town appeared to give a crap about Wilson himself, only about his marketability and his capacity to make money for other people, be they reporters, photographers or film producers.

Indeed.

The one thing this writer misses is how difficult it’s going to be to cast Wilson in the roles for which he has almost become a stereotypical choice:  The hang-loose dude with a sleepy sense of humor and the facial expression that says, “It’s all good.”  Clearly, it isn’t, and now that we know of his torments, it’ll be a lot harder for him to fake it.   

Pre-Mortem Autopsy for The New Republic

From reading Richard Miniter’s lengthy analysis of how The New Republic allowed falsified dispatches from a soldier in Iraq to be published, and why it continues to defend them, you get a picture of an insular organization with varying standards based on insider relationships, and with an alarmingly low threshold for fact-checking.

The scandal does not seem driven by ideology so much as maniacal ambition on the part of the writer, and a cozy credulity on the part of the magazine’s editorial leadership.

The writer/soldier, Scott Thomas Beauchamp, still has his defenders, but as this piece from the Huffington Post demonstrates, they are becoming increasingly desperate.

I’m probably the last blogger to address this story — I tend not to avoid well-trodden paths — but the Miniter piece has great human interest, elevating the story to some kind of tragicomedy.  Here’s a sample: Continue reading

Hal Fishman, R.I.P.

hal-fishman.jpgHal Fishman, the anchor for KTLA’s News at 10 for decades, died today, just a few days after a collapse sent him to the hospital, and to a diagnosis of colon and liver cancer.

With his passing, another news voice with whom Los Angeles grew up vanishes. If you’re my age, you might remember he was the “sidekick” to George Putnam–the bombastic right-wing model for Ted Baxter–during Putnam’s two stints at KTLA. Next to Putnam’s theatrics, Fishman was the sober junior professor who seemed to share Putnam’s black-and-white view of the world, but was willing to let the facts speak, dryly, for themselves.

After Putnam left KTLA for good, Fishman stayed on and honed his straightforward, no-nonsense style. Putnam had a feature called “One Reporter’s Opinion,” and Fishman continued the tradition of commentaries that were, as I recall, right-leaning but lacking in the demagoguery of his former boss.

The Channel 5 broadcast reflected Fishman’s stodgy insistence on delivering news in a plain, brown wrapper. Fishman was a record-breaking pilot, and he treated the news like a pilot treats reports to air-traffic controllers: Matter-of-fact, but life-or-death. His co-anchors — Larry McCormick, Jann Carl, Marta Waller, Ed Arnold, Stu Nahan, to name but a few — adopted the same style: Eyes riveted to the camera, no detectable facial expression or vocal inflection, no glamour, no humor, just straight news reading. It was as if KTLA and Fishman had internalized former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s criticism of media bias, and were determined, at least on this one broadcast, to eradicate any trace of it, not even a raised eyebrow. Amid all the happy-talk sangria of its rivals, Fishman and his colleagues poured it straight and knocked it back.

KTLA got good ratings but eventually Fishman’s style must have struck someone as dated. KTLA’s Morning Show was meta-happy-talk, the news with a comic beat, with the anchors’ and reporters’ charm as the point of the show. A little bit of that feeling crept into the nightly broadcast over which Fishman continued to preside. And he did fine! He loosened up, smiling frequently, enjoying the teasing from his younger co-anchors. The underlying ethic was not changed significantly; his show was still the most serious and straightforward of all LA’s local news shows. He added just enough spice.

Fishman never seemed to age. Obviously, he was very sick at the end, but apparently didn’t know it and certainly didn’t show it. So I’m shocked at losing him, even though he was 75 and has been broadcasting continually since 1960. You could say he was the last of his breed, but it’s hard to think of anyone else who was so good at being unexciting.

R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman, Bill Walsh and Tom Snyder

3angels.jpgA more unlikely threesome to make that celestial voyage together, one could not imagine. Except I can imagine Bergman and Walsh doing interviews on Snyder’s old “Tomorrow” show.

Snyder was an underrated journalist. He was an easily-parodied personality, but he hit the most important mark: He asked questions that elicited interesting answers. Compare that with Charlie Rose, who has an enviable spot on PBS, can book the most interesting and informed guests — and will not shut up about himself. Rose gets more respect from TV critics, but Snyder’s show was more informative.

Of course, like everyone in LA for a certain duration, we remember that at one time, KNBC, Channel 4, featured Snyder, Tom Brokaw, Pat Sajak and Bryant Gumble, all on the same local broadcast.

Of Walsh and Bergman I have less to say because so many others will say it better. They were confirmed in their respective genius by prodigious achievements over their entire careers. Walsh remade football. Bergman remade the movies. Both were cerebral in a business where thinkers were suspect. But despite their highly abstract thinking prowess, both provided fans with moments that made you gasp and gave you chills. Few movies hit me as hard as “Cries and Whispers.” Few moments made me happier than Montana-to-Clark in the closing moments of the NFC championship game in 1981.

It’s a big day in the history of the 20th Century, which the 21st Century relentlessly digests.

Breezin’ Along with the Breeze

south-bay-scene-for-blog.jpgI have been trying to keep in mind Tony Soprano’s sixth-season admonition, “‘Remember When’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

I’m in my fifties now, I’ve seen a lot of things here in my little world, and I find history both pleasurable and important. But I also think change is good, new things excite me and as a father of an incoming high-school senior, the future is far more important to me now than the past. For me, too. It has to be. What I once thought of as my life has ended abruptly, twice, with no turning back. This is a condition of everyone’s existence. Sometimes this truth is hidden, but it’s there.

I remember floating on a water taxi in Venice early one foggy morning, seeing these ornate palaces emerge from the opaque dampness, one-by-one like a procession of ghosts. Whoever built these gilded homes never imagined that mighty Venice would ever lose its grip on the world of commerce. But it did. When the end came — in the form of Napoleon’s armies — Venice didn’t even put up a fight. They wanted to save the palaces to remind them and future generations of how rich and powerful and glorious they were, once. So, in exchange for no bombardment, Venetians handed over the keys to the invader. And now the whole place is sinking.

Someday they’ll say of Venice: “Remember when?”

Curiously, I thought of all that when I came across LA Observed‘s link to a post on Life on the Edge, a San Pedro blog. The post is about the Daily Breeze, the supposed newspaper of record for my part of Los Angeles, the South Bay and Harbor areas. When longtime owner Copley News sold it to Dean Singleton’s Los Angeles Newspaper Group a year or two ago, it was inevitable that we would read about the Breeze’s descent into the lower depths of journalism. LANG’s a cheapo-cheopo organization, proudly so. They buy up newspapers in a region, they consolidate as much of the operation as they can, and then they cut cut cut.

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