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A Sensible Career Path in the Penny Press!

By (February 28, 2016) No Comment

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Impossible for me to pass over Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” column from last week’s TLS, and likewise TLSimpossible for me not to respond. Dirda uses the little space this time to reflect on his long stint as an editor at the legendary Washington Post Book World, and in his typical fashion, he manages to build enormous amounts of depth and complexity into a very small space. This “Freelance” piece not only reads like an autobiography but very much makes this reader want to read such a book.

Dirda briefly looks at the omnivorous nature of his tenure’s outlook on the Republic of Letters:

I believed, too, that that literature included much of what was then dismissed as “genre” trash … Did anyone write better dialogue than George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard? Weren’t Charles Portis’s True Grit, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, and John Crowley’s Little Big among the best American novels of our time? J. G. Ballard and Angela Carter were arguably Britain’s most remarkable short-story writers; Ursula Le Guin was surely at least as important as Susan Sontag.

And he gives a look into the parameters of his actual job:

Still, I was mainly an editor, responsible for assigning half-a-dozen new titles each week, as well as monthly columns devoted to science fiction, mysteries and children’s books. Here, I wanted what all editors want – lively copy. Bernard Shaw once said that he could make even the most tired businessman read his music reviews. Over time, Book World published many really terrific pieces, often by superstars away from their usual playing field.

This is characteristically but inaccurately humble, and you can see it in the invisible bridge from the dirdapenultimate line to the last line. Shaw was indeed fond of making that quip about tired businessmen, but we go straight from that to what Book World, as some sort of Borg-like collective, published – the missing thing is Dirda himself. Shaw might have bragged about entertaining tired businessmen by main force, but the original drafts of many of his music reviews – the pages he submitted to The Star in the first place – were often unbearably tail-chasing and almost invariably too long. They wouldn’t have reached those tired businessmen if they hadn’t been helped into better shape by Shaw’s tough-minded Irish editor, a better critic than Shaw could ever dream of being but without his gift for self-promotion. The point being: those really terrific pieces Book World ran during Dirda’s tenure didn’t simply appear out of thin air. He set the tone, and, as hifalutin’ as it might sound, he provided the vision. And that’s no easy thing to do issue after issue for years on end. As a smart historian wrote almost a century ago, “It is astonishing how easily an otherwise respectable editor or biographer can get himself into a state of complete intellectual dishonesty.” The way is inviting, and Dirda never took it.

book worldHis short “Freelance” piece shades into somewhat melancholy tones, which surprised me even for this mostly-melancholy writer. And of course I pricked up my ears when he got to the nub of it:

Not that I’d recommend freelance writing about books as a sensible career path. In many ways, it’s a boring life. You read, scribble, turn away in disgust from what you’ve written, scribble again, send in your review or essay, wait, revise the edited copy, wait some more. When the piece finally appears, no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake. You really have to love books to keep on with this, week after week.

This puzzled me, and I have to think Dirda wrote it on a glum day. He alludes to the entire print Book World run under his tenure being trundled to storage facility somewhere, to molder in the darkness unconsulted, and he reflects that at least he has his memories to console him. But he can lay claim to a good deal more than happy memories and an old archive mothballed somewhere. I know for a fact that his Book World brought readers like me a great deal of pleasure throughout its entire run, and that’s no small accomplishment. It’s not true at all that “no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake” – readers noticed the great lineup of reviews Dirda orchestrated so often and so well. Those review-reading pleasures might be evanescent, but they were no less real for being so.

And that’s the rightful motivation for doing it, as Dirda must know (I, for one, don’t believe for a second his implication that his main motivation for writing his book reviews these days is a steady paycheck). A well-done book review can challenge complacency, fill in gaps of learning, broaden associations, and most of all, entertain. Who cares if those reviews aren’t carved in marble? Who cares if they end up moldering in a dark, forgotten archive somewhere in Plattsburgh? The sheer fun of the conversation, of both entertaining and being entertained, is plenty justification for taking up the practice of book reviewing, surely? Boring? Not a minute of it!