Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New Yorker Editor sees Digital Days Ahead for Magazine (by Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle)

Note to the caption: New Yorker editor David Remnick, a fan of the blogosphere, says the magazine will upgrade its Web presence. Chronicle photo by Lance Iversen

Note to the caption: David Remnick: on the road to promote "Reporting," a 484-page collection of profiles he has written since joining the New Yorker in 1992. Chronicle photo by Lance Iversen

New Yorker editor sees digital days ahead for magazine

Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

Just because David Remnick edits the New Yorker, home to meticulously reported 15,000-word essays and profiles, doesn't mean he never traipses through the blogosphere, domain of the no-caps, 50-word rant. His online meanderings reflect the same curiosity the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has nurtured while steering the magazine into profitability and increased political relevance during his eight years as its editor.

[Podcast: Joe Garofoli interviews The New Yorker editor David Remnick.]

After perusing the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun, which land daily on the doorstep of the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife and three children, Remnick ventures online into what he calls the "infinite supermarket of voices and experimentation." He checks out the left-leaning, then peeks at the conservative National Review Online. Salon and Slate get stop-bys, as do the Web sites of papers like the New York Post, the Washington Post, and The Chronicle. He'll follow the day's top story through the blogosphere, looking for story leads.

And he has his guilty pleasures.

"I have a very bad Bob Dylan jones, so I look at Expecting Rain (a Dylan site) like a 14-year-old who reads a set list from last night's concert," Remnick says over an espresso in the Four Seasons bar in San Francisco. He is on tour to promote "Reporting," a 484-page collection of profiles he has written since joining the New Yorker in 1992.

Remnick promises that by year's end, the 81-year-old New Yorker, which didn't regularly run full-page photographs until 1992, will dramatically upgrade its Web presence. More video, more audio, more flash media, more reader interaction. The publication is about to hire its first Web editor this month, and Remnick understands new media well enough not to drop Web-only 15,000-word anvils on the site.

"Where the New Yorker is concerned, (the magazine) is a highly different animal," Remnick says. "So far, the best technology for reading magazines is magazines -- especially magazines that run pieces that are not tiny.

"On the other hand, I think we have to be there as the technology is
changing so rapidly. For the New Yorker to throw its Eustace Tilley nose in the air and smell the butterflies is foolish," he says,referring to the iconic, fictional dandy who graced the magazine's first cover in 1925 and regularly turns up in its pages.

Not that Remnick has time to blog. Several profiles in "Reporting" were written while putting together the weekly magazine. How is that humanly possible? Remnick developed his writing speed as a newspaper reporter, starting in the business on its lowest wrung, covering crime on a 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift for the Washington Post. He is "very selective" in the pieces he chooses to write now, completing much of the reporting for his profiles in advance from New York. Once he gains access to a profile subject, Remnick parachutes into their life and wrings every moment of face time with them into his notebook.

For his 2004 profile of Al Gore, he said he was on the ground reporting in Tennessee with Gore for only about 13 hours. He also accompanied Gore on a trip to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 and made another short trip with the former vice president to Washington, D.C. He also interviewed dozens of others, read books and devoured reams of Gore clips.Tall and refined with dark eyes and a forward-combed wiry brush of black hair and perfect, son-of-a-dentist teeth, Remnick is gracious, self-effacing and offers no sign of the pretension that would be easy for a man at the top of his profession.

At 47, he has found himself in a deserved and enviable place. The New Yorker has been consistently setting the investigative agenda for a somnambulant and shackled Washington press corps by breaking stories around the Iraq war.

While the magazine has always done hard-hitting political and social pieces -- it published John Hersey's "Hiroshima" shortly after World War II -- "It has become much more important in Washington," says Dante Chinni, a researcher at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, "at a time when the national magazines like Time and Newsweek are doing less and less national and international reporting."

Business is also good. Circulation increased 4 percent in 2005 to 1.05 million, and revenue is "up significantly" over this time last quarter, says publisher Louis Cona. New Yorker readers are a demographic gold mine: They're more loyal than a beagle (its 86 percent renewal rate is roughly twice of most mags), highly educated and boast an average income of $80,957, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism -- about $13,000 more than what Newsweek readers earn. And New Yorker readers are plentiful in the Bay Area; 7.8 percent of the magazine's subscribers live here, more than any other area outside of New York.

According to Cona, the reason for this rare example of financial and journalistic success in print journalism is simple: The New Yorker has an A-list staff and "David is f -- brilliant.

"Really, under David's helm, the magazine has experienced its golden age," Cona says.

In the course of an hour, Remnick references ex-Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, the 1956 World Series perfect game thrown by Yankees pitcher Don Larsen, Jimi Hendrix and HBO's "The Sopranos." On his nightstand is "The Israelis: Founders and Sons," a 1971 book by Amos Elon, yet he confesses to "watching too much baseball." He cops to reading People magazine, and describes New Yorker staffer and "Blink" author Malcolm Gladwell as "totally sui generis."

Remnick wriggles out of compliments as if from an itchy wool sweater, several times redirecting the conversation to list the contributions of at least 10 New Yorker staff writers and editors, reciting their names like a lineup of high-priced baseball free agents, print journalism's New York Yankees.

In 2004, the New Yorker endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president, the first presidential endorsement in the magazine's history. Remnick has only one regret.

"In retrospect, I wish we had convinced more people," he says, adding he expects political endorsements to continue. "I have no regrets about that whatsoever. Not only do I think we were right (to make an endorsement), I also thought it was overly decorous of the New Yorker in the comments section to engage every issue on the face of the earth but not have anything to say on the presidential election."

Some wish that the New Yorker had taken a bolder stance in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. A June 2003 essay published in the Nation said, "Just as (the New Yorker) helped middle class opinion to coalesce against U.S. intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East."

Remnick shakes his head and furrows his brows at mention of the Nation essay. True, he believed the same faulty intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that most other journalists did, though he was ambivalent about the invasion. But he defended the New Yorker's coverage of the war.

"I thought (the Nation essay) was a foolish piece and a dishonest piece," Remnick says. "The idea that the New Yorker as a magazine was pro-war is preposterous."

For the past several years, much of the magazine's most critical political coverage has come from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, whose reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison story led to several criminal investigations. Last month, Hersh wrote that the United States is intensifying plans for an attack on Iran. President Bush responded by calling the story "wild speculation."

While other editors stay awake nights worrying about running the type of no-named-sources stories that Hersh specializes in, Remnick says he knows "every source in the piece." By name?

"Absolutely. So does the checker, and we call them. Sometimes, we say, 'Sy, does this have to be as vague as it is?' And he'll answer yes or no."

"Look, we don't want unnamed sources," Remnick adds. "But as anybody knows who is in this area, you will get zero stories for the most part if you refuse to do any unnamed sources."

It's hard to find critics of the New Yorker among other journalists. Columbia Journalism Review executive editor Mike Hoyt is typically praiseworthy, but when pressed offers one suggestion: "I wish they would do more stories about the red states. Get out in the heartland more."

Remnick nods slowly, considering the point. "He's probably right."

That's why Remnick forces himself to get out of his "own tortoise shell," as he puts it, and see the world. "William Shawn never went anywhere, but his mind went everywhere," says Remnick, referring to the longtime New Yorker editor. "That's the way he worked. I'm a different animal. I'm just stupider. I need to actually be shown things."

-- To hear a podcast of David Remnick talking about
the New Yorker, go to

E-mail Joe Garofoli at

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

China Reads 'Da Vinci' Too (by Anthony Kuhn, NPR)

Click on the title and here, you will hear the piece.

China Reads 'Da Vinci' Too
by Anthony Kuhn

Morning Edition, May 18, 2006 · More than 500,000 copies of The Da Vinci Code have been sold in China. In particular, the book has been a hot item in Beijing.

Found in Translation: King's 'Dream' Plays in Beijing (by Howard W. French, the New York Times)

Note to the caption: Caitrin McKiernan, far right, prepped Wang Hui, who played Martin Luther King in a play at the National Theater in Beijing, before a rehearsal. Credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

By Howard W. French
Published: May 30, 2006

BEIJING — For months now, Caitrin McKiernan has gone from place to place in this city to ask Chinese people an unlikely question: What does the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?

The questions don't end there, either. In most of these gatherings, she gets far more specific, burrowing into the history and tactics of the American civil rights movement.

"Who knows what the Birmingham bus boycott was?" she asked a group of university students in May. "What is a sit-in?" "What's the meaning of separate but equal?" At the level of language, every one of those terms presents a formidable challenge, even to a woman who has spent years in this country and speaks fluent Chinese.

But language is not the half of it. How can one translate Dr. King's actions into the realm of ideas for an audience in a city notably hostile to protests? How does one convey to Chinese people the meaning of the life of a man who died fighting for civil rights nearly 40 years ago?

The answers may have begun to emerge since the production at the National Theater on Sunday of the play "Passages of Martin Luther King Jr." by the noted King scholar Clayborne Carson and based on the life and words of the American civil rights leader. Ms. McKiernan, who studied under Mr. Carson at Stanford and is the play's producer, was prepared for any kind of audience response, from deeply moved to completely stumped and anything in between.

But the responses of Ms. McKiernan's discussion groups and the reactions of her cast suggested that Dr. King's message would hit home here, that Chinese viewers would see parallels to divisions in their own society. That prospect poses a thorny problem for the government, which, on one hand, has endorsed Dr. King's work as a blow for the class struggle and against American imperialism, but on the other insists that racism and discrimination are purely problems of decadent Western societies.

The government, however, gave the production its imprimatur, and permission to play at the prestigious theater.

A distinct possibility was that the universality of Dr. King's message and the causes he fought for would completely escape Chinese viewers.

Note of the caption: Ms. McKiernan, too, has a dream. Credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

But the reactions Ms. McKiernan has heard so far suggest otherwise, and give her reason to hope that her dream of building a bridge between the societies by talking about peaceful struggle and universal rights has some hold on reality.

During one recent discussion at a Beijing university, after viewing excerpts from the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize," students explored their feelings on the discrimination they discern between migrant workers and more affluent residents of the country's eastern cities. Others spoke about the inferior position of women in their society or of being treated badly during visits overseas or the predominance of American power in the world.

"The significance of Martin Luther King for me is that we have to have the courage to stand up for our legitimate benefits," said a Chinese student who identified himself as Paul.

Ms. McKiernan has avoided lecturing her audiences, or even steering the discussions. "I don't want this to be about what happened in the U.S. in some past year," she said. "I want this to be about what discrimination is, and how it relates to your life."

The talks have usually begun with an explanation of how Dr. King's life came to mean so much to her, a Californian who first came to this city at 16 as an exchange student and had to struggle to overcome cultural differences with her host family. Then she studied Dr. King in college, and she has had him on her mind ever since.

"I realized that King was this great bridge between the United States and China," Ms. McKiernan said. "China is an emerging superpower, and the U.S. is the superpower, and King is someone that both sides believe in, and can be the starting point for a dialogue about how we wish the world to be."

Then she sighed, and said, "But it's the hardest thing I've ever done."

The challenges have come from every direction: persuading the National Theater to accept the production, recruiting professional actors and production people, enlisting gospel singers from the United States to join the performance, doing endless and mostly fruitless fund-raising.

The American Embassy provided a modest grant, as did Stanford. But the multinational corporations that abound in Beijing proved skittish, even more than the government.

Beijing's unexpected stake in Dr. King's legacy is twofold, involving both past and present. The country's slogan for the 2008 summer Olympics is "One World, One Dream," which officials say brings to mind Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That address has been famous here since Mao Zedong hailed it in August 1963, and it is still taught in schools.

In such matters context is everything, and for Mao, Dr. King was first and foremost a symbol of "the sharpening of class struggle and national struggle within the United States." In a speech some people here still recall today, Mao called on "enlightened persons of all colors in the world, white, black, yellow and brown, to unite to oppose the racial discrimination practiced by U.S. imperialism."

Then, as now, Chinese people were ill prepared to discuss their country's internal problems, a subject about which they were not educated, nor did Mao link Dr. King's struggles to the problems of China's ethnic minorities or, for that matter, human rights or inequality.

But to listen to the participants in Ms. McKiernan's discussion groups, or the actors in her production, that is what many people confronted with Dr. King's words today readily do.

"In today's China it would seem that discriminatory actions are not so common," said Yan Shikui, the narrator for the production. "But in fact, it is very serious. We talk about the difference between urban and rural citizens, the gap between the strong and the weak. All of these are very deep notions buried in people's minds, which cannot be solved by using violence. They have to be addressed through ideas."

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Fine Print (by Jessica Winter, the Village Voice)

Note to the caption: Johnny Temple, founder of Akashic Books

The Fine Print
Brooklyn's indie publishers turn the page
by Jessica Winter
May 26th, 2006 4:14 PM

To reach Archipelago Books, just off the DUMBO waterfront, a guest must squeeze past the team of construction workers in hard hats, goggles, and surgical masks who are drilling the Jay Street entryway one rainy May morning, blanketing the stairwell with a thick layer of dust. Publisher Jill Schoolman warmly welcomes the coughing visitor into a small second-floor office that shares a thin wall with a dance company, which today provides a boisterous repeat-play soundtrack of what sounds like Bollywood-inflected Japanese speed-disco.

Amid these friendly, no-frills environs, Archipelago is enjoying a breakout success with the rapturously reviewed American release of Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury's Palestinian spin on the Arabian Nights. Devoted to literature in translation, Schoolman's company is also an important part of Brooklyn's current literary bloom, which includes the for-profit presses Akashic Books, Soft Skull Press, and Spuyten Duyvil, as well as Archipelago's fellow nonprofit Ugly Duckling Presse. America's publishing capital may be identified with the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan, but a century and a half since Walt Whitman anonymously self-published Leaves of Grass in Brooklyn, the borough's independent presses are fostering a viable alternative for authors too offbeat or "midlist" to find a stable home at one of the main houses.

"In big publishing, the line is that people don't read, and we're all competing for the same dwindling pool of readers," says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic. "That's not true. We're going out and finding new readers, and showing people that reading can be provocative and exciting." Temple is chair of the two-year-old Brooklyn Literary Council, the motor behind the inaugural Brooklyn Book Festival, planned for September.

Against a backdrop of corporate consolidation, indie presses offer the homegrown, highly economical products of a unique vision. Temple started Akashic in 1997 with the money he received after his band, Girls Against Boys, won a major-label deal. Soft Skull originated in 1992 as a self-publishing enterprise, and Spuyten Duyvil is a model of home economics, operated out of Tod Thilleman's apartment in Park Slope. Dedicated to experimental fiction and poetry, Spuyten Duyvil scored a critical favorite with Tsipi Keller's Jackpot (2004), a novel of sex and gambling on a Bahamas vacation gone awry, and will publish the second entry in Keller's planned trilogy, Retelling, in July.

While Spuyten Duyvil is a virtual one-man operation, Ugly Duckling defines itself as a collective, and operates a workshop and letterpress studio in Red Hook. "We emphasize the visual and tactile aspects of books," says collective member Greg Ford. Ugly Duckling routinely sells out its lovely limited-edition printings of saddle-stitched and hand-bound books; Jen Bervin's Nets (2004), which strips down and reinterprets Shakespeare's sonnets, is now in its third printing. "People have contradictory perceptions of poetry as either something that anyone can do or something too abstruse to even bother with," Ford says. "And that's OK, because it means we don't have to live up to anybody's expectations."

In terms of commercial expectations, of course, the for-profit ventures have a bit more to worry about. Soft Skull's diverse palette covers fiction, current events, graphic novels, erotica, and more. Johnny Temple has likewise carved out multiple niches under the Akashic umbrella, including the "Noir" franchise of crime fiction anthologies (including two editions of the flagship Brooklyn Noir), the "Little House on the Bowery" series curated by Dennis Cooper, and a strong line in Caribbean literature. "I know many writers in Jamaica," Temple says, "but for some reason there aren't any big publishing companies going down to meet all these great English-speaking authors. It's not a trend yet—it will be soon."

Margarita Shalina, the small-press buyer at St. Mark's Books, concurs that major publishers often take their cues from the upstarts. "Large presses feed on small presses—they don't take the same kinds of creative chances," says Shalina. After David Rees's darkly hilarious series of clip-art strips Get Your War On found cult success in book form for Soft Skull in 2002, Riverhead signed up Rees for a sequel. T Cooper moved to a Penguin imprint after Akashic published her debut, the Lambda Literary Award finalist Some of the Parts (2002), and Akashic's breakthrough writer, Arthur Nersesian, got a deal with HarperCollins after cult recognition for The Fuck-Up (1997), about a hapless young cinema usher adrift in the '80s East Village. The Fuck-Up won an MTV Books reprint deal, and a film adaptation directed by Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk is now in the works. "Arthur put Akashic on the map and Akashic put Arthur on the map," says Temple.

On the map doesn't necessarily mean in the money. "We're thriving, we're doing great, but that's a creative thing, not a financial thing," Temple says. " 'Thriving' in the financial sense just means I'm breaking even. But the big companies aren't making money, either. The corporate model is a gambling method of doing business." Richard Eoin Nash, publisher at Soft Skull since 2001, agrees. "With a 10th of the advertising budget for one of the major publishers' blockbusters, I could run our entire operation across 40 books," Nash reckons.

"It's a terrible system for great literature that doesn't have a mass audience," Temple adds. "For those companies, you're either hitting it out of the park or you're failing." Happily for Akashic, their biggest hitter has decided to stick with the team: They're planning their largest first printing to date, 15,000 copies, for the September release The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno, author of the company's all-time bestseller, the 2004 coming-of-age tale Hairstyles of the Damned. Published on Punk Planet magazine's imprint on Akashic, Hairstyles has sold 60,000 copies and counting.

"We're much more likely to keep an author if he or she has seen the other side," says Nash, whose roster boasts a number of big-house alums. Matthew Sharpe had already published two books with Villard, a Random House imprint, before moving to Soft Skull for his second novel, The Sleeping Father (2003), which hit paydirt when it was selected for the Today Show Book Club. Soft Skull will release Sharpe's next book in a joint deal with Harvest, the paperback imprint of Harcourt.

"One major benefit of working with a small press is the human scale of it," Sharpe says. "As much as I liked the people at Villard, they would start sentences that went, 'It was decided that . . . ' There's this mystifying corporate decision-making process, and the novice literary author is often on the fuzzy end of the lollipop." With Soft Skull, Sharpe explains, "If I want to talk about the cover or marketing or distribution, I just pick up the phone and call Richard Nash. There's a personal and emotional investment, and a real material investment, in every title that they do."

And if the author is lucky, even the disadvantages can have their perks. "I got what I'd call an unhealthy four-figure advance for The Sleeping Father, and it's more of an uphill struggle in terms of distribution and marketing. At the same time, while no publisher can make their book get on the Today show, Richard did absolutely everything he could to put the book on that path. And once the book passed a relatively low sales threshold, I started getting royalty checks," Sharpe adds. "In corporate publishing, royalties are the equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting."

The Brooklyn Book Festival takes place Saturday, September 16, at Borough Hall Plaza. The Small Press Center hosts Archipelago Books as the closing event of its "Emerging Voices" series on June 6.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Authors Meet Fans Far From Bookstores, at Company Events (by Motoko Rich, the New York Times)

Note to the caption: The novelist Debra Dean doing a reading at Starbucks headquarters.

Note to the caption: Debra Dean signing her books for Starbucks employees in Seattle.

Published: May 16, 2006

SEATTLE, May 10 — On a sunny spring afternoon, Debra Dean, a first-time author, perched on a table before a lunchtime crowd of about 40 to read passages from her newly published historical novel, "The Madonnas of Leningrad." The group listened, seemingly riveted, then asked questions about her research into the Nazi siege of Leningrad and the collections of that city's Hermitage Museum. Afterward, nearly everybody lined up to buy books.

It was all fairly standard for a bookstore reading. Except it wasn't at a bookstore: Ms. Dean was appearing in a dull conference room at the corporate headquarters of Starbucks, the coffee-house giant.

With authors fiercely battling for attention in a media-saturated world, an increasing number of writers — from first-time novelists like Ms. Dean to celebrities like Madeleine K. Albright, the former Secretary of State — are visiting people where they spend much of their time: at work.

"It is easier to get people through the eye of a needle into the kingdom of heaven than it is to get people into a bookstore at 7 o'clock at night," said Suzanne Balaban, publicity director of Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster that recently started a program to bring authors into companies. "So we have to constantly reinvent what we do."

A growing roster of corporations, including Microsoft, Boeing, Google and Altria, the owner of brands like Philip Morris and Kraft Foods, have played host to writers in their offices. Even the United States Treasury Department has invited nearly 40 authors to speak over the last two years. Executives see the author readings as akin to other perks like in-house gyms, subsidized cafeterias and financial advice.

The idea is to reach people who rarely buy books and might otherwise never attend a reading. "I scarcely ever go to bookstores," said Carolyn Fletcher, an accountant in the Starbucks tax department, after she had her copy of "Madonnas" signed by Ms. Dean. Ms. Fletcher said she had been to at least 10 such events at Starbucks and bought books at most of them. "I don't think I had ever heard an author speak prior to coming to one of these."

The effort to reach new audiences comes at a time when book publishers are experiencing only modest growth and the population of readers is dwindling. According to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts survey, only 56.6 percent of adults had read any book at all in the 12 months through the end of 2002, down from 60.9 percent a decade earlier. And the amount of time devoted to books has declined, too: according to a report by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a private equity firm serving the media industry, Americans will spend an average of 106 hours reading books this year, down from 123 hours a person in 1996.

"Any kind of fresh way to attract people to books is exciting," said Jane Beirn, a director of publicity at HarperCollins.

Bookstore owners, however, are less thrilled about the idea. In-store author appearances are often crucial lures for book buyers, so booksellers worry that if their potential customers are seeing the writers at work, they won't make the trip to the stores.

The tension is particularly pronounced in Seattle, where several companies now welcome authors. "If we are doing an event at our Bellevue store, if there is also a Microsoft event, that can affect sales," said Stesha Brandon, events and programs coordinator at University Book Store, a 106-year-old independent bookseller with several locations in the area.

Company employees represent a totally new market, said Kim Ricketts, Ms. Brandon's predecessor at University Book Store, who now coordinates author readings at companies and nonprofit groups. "To expand the audience for books," she said, "we need to get them out into people's lives in a way that is easy for them."

In the three years since she set up shop coordinating corporate author events, Ms. Ricketts has expanded from organizing five readings a month to 20 or 30 now. In addition to getting a fee from the company holding the reading, Ms. Ricketts generally splits the revenue from book sales 50-50 with the publisher, just as a traditional bookseller does.

Ms. Ricketts said that most corporate events draw anywhere from 30 to well over 100 people. (Or, in the case of an author like Ms. Albright, many more.) On average, more than half of the people who come to a reading at work will buy the book, Ms. Ricketts said. By contrast, Ms. Brandon of the University Book Store said that about one-quarter to one-third of the people who attend author readings in bookstores buy the books.

But store owners say those figures do not take into account the multiplier effect of a reading. Long after an author has gone, the staff may continue to promote the book, and customers who come to readings often end up buying more than one book by that author, or books by other writers.

Criticizing corporate readings, Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books, an independent bookstore in Lake Forest Park, a Seattle suburb, said: "The publisher who decides to do that kind of event in lieu of a bookstore event is being very short-sighted in terms of their future in this business. You get the illusion of breaking out into a new market, but ultimately you are only selling one book."

There is no question, though, that employers like having the authors speak to their workers. "We have a lot of people who are very smart and interesting and creative, and in some ways are bored easily," said Craig Nevill-Manning, engineering director in the New York office of Google, which employs about 500 people in Manhattan. "We are trying to provide an environment that is not just technologically stimulating but stimulating in other ways."

So on a recent Wednesday, Simon Schama, the Columbia University historian, appeared before a roomful of about 60 Google employees in New York. In his loose-fitting suit, Mr. Schama looked overdressed among the crowd sporting khakis, T-shirts and, in one case, a head of bright green hair.

Sitting on a stool not far from a pool table, Mr. Schama fielded questions about his most recent book, "Rough Passages," an account of the black slaves who fought with the British during the American Revolution.

The employees were particularly intrigued by an 800-page diary Mr. Schama said was available online. ("I was about to say, 'You can Google it!' " he quipped.) Afterwards Mr. Schama signed books sold by a local bookseller.

Mr. Schama, a veteran of the book tour circuit, said this was his first appearance at a private company. "It is fun to talk among the profoundly unconverted," he said. For the rest of his "Rough Passages" tour, though, Mr. Schama will be speaking at bookstores.

For now, publishers say they are committed to sending authors on tours that include plenty of bookstores. "Our booksellers are always going to be a first priority for us and our authors on a book tour," said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House.

But the store owners may not be wrong about what corporate events could do to their customer base. At Ms. Dean's reading at Starbucks, Monica Minneman-Ioset, a senior buyer of store equipment, was one of the first in line to buy a book and get it signed.

"I try to go to as many of these events as I can," said Ms. Minneman-Ioset, who said she had heard authors like the thriller writers J. A. Jance and Ridley Pierson as well as the historian David McCullough at Starbucks. "I used to go to bookstore events, but I don't anymore. Mostly, I buy my books here now."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Colbert Effect

Stephen Colbert performs at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington Saturday. AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Colbert's smart bomb

- K.L.

Print Email
Permalink [14:41 EDT, April 30, 2006]

The real sign of Stephen Colbert's success at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner wasn't his jokes -- which, from beginning to end, were spot-on, from Bush's handling of the war ("I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq") and his low-30s approval rating ("I ask you this, does that not also logically mean that 68 percent approve of the job he's not doing?") to sidelong whacks at John McCain, Fox News and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. And no, it wasn't the grim-looking handshake he received from the president or the icy glare he received from Laura Bush that let us know that Colbert hit his targets. The proof of his accuracy lies in how badly the Tracy Flicks of the Washington press corps reacted. After all, this wasn't the baby-soft slapstick they usually get at the correspondents' dinner. (Anyone else remember when Darrell Hammond got all gushy from meeting Bush in person in 2001? Yeesh.) Sure, C-SPAN's cameras captured a few journalists tittering at each other like naughty schoolgirls, but for the most part journalists sat on their hands –- while just moments before, they were laughing uproariously at President Bush's incredibly lame skit with a Bush impressionist. That was Colbert's real feat: Showing us the real Washington media world, where everyone worries so much about offending someone, anyone, that the least bit of frank talk turns them into obedient little church mice. (Below is his opening monologue. To see his skit -- and icy exchange with the Bushes -- go to the post below.)

Making Colbert go away

The docile press corps was offended when Stephen Colbert dared to expose Bush's -- and their own -- feet of clay. But how to respond? Voilà: "He wasn't funny."
By Joan Walsh

May. 03, 2006 | The only thing worse than the mainstream media's ignoring Stephen Colbert's astonishing sendup of the Bush administration and its media courtiers Saturday night is what happened when they started to pay attention to it.

The resounding silence on Sunday and Monday was a little chilling. The video was burning up YouTube, and Salon hit overall traffic heights over the last few days surpassed only by our election coverage and Abu Ghraib blockbusters. But on Monday, Elisabeth Bumiller's New York Times piece on the White House Correspondents' Association dinner kvelled over the naughty Bush twin skit but didn't mention Colbert. Similarly, other papers either ignored the Comedy Central satirist or mentioned him briefly. Lloyd Grove in the New York Daily News pronounced that he had "bombed badly."

Three days later, the MSM is catching on to Grove's tin-eared take on Colbert's performance. Belatedly, it's getting covered, but the dreary consensus is that Colbert just wasn't funny. On Tuesday night, Salon's Michael Scherer, whose tribute to Colbert is everywhere on the blogosphere (thank you, Thank you Stephen Colbert), got invited to chat with Joe Scarborough and Ana Marie Cox, who showed themselves to be pathetic prisoners of the Beltway by passing along the midweek conventional wisdom: The lefty blogosphere can argue all it wants that Colbert was ignored because he was shocking and politically radical, but the truth is, he wasn't funny, guys! And we know funny!

Regular Joe told us he normally races home to watch Colbert. So the problem isn't Joe's conservatism -- Joe's a congenial conservative, a fun-loving conservative, which is why he has Salon folks on all the time (thanks, Joe!). Cox showed why she's the MSM's official blogger by splitting the difference. She pronounced Colbert's performance "fine" but giggled at the left for its paranoia that he'd been ignored for political reasons. Cox and Scarborough mostly just congratulated themselves on being smart enough to get Colbert every night at 11:30, but savvy enough to know he wasn't completely on his game last Saturday. They barely let Scherer speak.

Similarly, the sometimes smart Jacques Steinberg must have drawn the short straw at the New York Times, where there had to be some internal conversation about the paper's utter failure to even mention Colbert on Monday. After all, his sharpest jokes involved the paper's laudable NSA spying scoop, and a funny bit where Colbert offered to bump columnist Frank Rich if Bush would appear on his show Tuesday night -- and not just bump him for the night, but bump him off. How could the Times not notice?

In Wednesday's paper, Steinberg wrote about Colbert's performance with the angle that it's become "one of the most hotly debated topics in the politically charged blogosphere" -- and only quotes Gawker as an example. He also wanders into the land of comedy criticism to explore the assertion that Colbert wasn't funny, but quotes not a comic, but New Republic writer Noam Scheiber. Scheiber (who has contributed to Salon) takes a liberal version of the Scarborough approach. "I'm a big Stephen Colbert fan, a huge Bush detractor, and I think the White House press corps has been out to lunch for much of the last five years," he wrote on the magazine's Web site. "I laughed out loud maybe twice during Colbert's entire 20-odd minute routine. Colbert's problem, blogosphere conspiracy theories notwithstanding, is that he just wasn't very entertaining." Chris Lehman makes the same point in the New York Observer, arguing it was a comic mistake for Colbert to fail to break character.

It's silly to debate whether Colbert was entertaining or not, since what's "funny" is so subjective. In fact, let's even give Colbert's critics that point. Clearly he didn't entertain most of the folks at the dinner Saturday night, so maybe Scheiber's right -- he wasn't "entertaining." The question is why. If Colbert came off as "shrill and airless," in Lehman's words, inside the cozy terrarium of media self-congratulation at the Washington Hilton, that tells us more about the audience than it does about Colbert.

Colbert's deadly performance did more than reveal, with devastating clarity, how Bush's well-oiled myth machine works. It exposed the mainstream press' pathetic collusion with an administration that has treated it -- and the truth -- with contempt from the moment it took office. Intimidated, coddled, fearful of violating propriety, the press corps that for years dutifully repeated Bush talking points was stunned and horrified when someone dared to reveal that the media emperor had no clothes. Colbert refused to play his dutiful, toothless part in the White House correspondents dinner -- an incestuous, backslapping ritual that should be retired. For that, he had to be marginalized. Voilà: "He wasn't funny."

This is a battle that can't really be won -- you either got it Saturday night (or Sunday morning, or whenever your life was made a little brighter by viewing Colbert's performance) or you didn't. Personally, I'm enjoying watching apologists for the status quo wear themselves out explaining why Colbert wasn't funny. It's extending the reach of his performance by days without either side breaking character -- the mighty Colbert or the clueless, self-important media elite he was satirizing. For those who think the media shamed itself by rolling over for this administration, especially in the run-up to the Iraq war, Colbert's skit is the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you, Stephen Colbert!