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  • Writer Login


    Southern Books

    How newspaper book editors lost touch

    by | 10 | Aug 5, 2011

    In 1991, when my first novel, Striking Out, was published, I had been gone from The Atlanta Constitution newsroom for nearly a decade. Nevertheless, the book editor then, a man whose name I do not know, recruited author Terry Kay to review my novel. Kay wrote a very perceptive review and the Sunday paper gave it prominent play. In those days, any self-respecting newspaper would have done the same for one of their own. It was sound journalism: Local boy makes good.

    Move ahead to 2004, when Atlanta Blues was published. Boy, had times changed! The book editor at that time, a woman, told me she wasn’t going to review my novel. “We get 200 books a week and we simply can’t review them all,” she told me on the phone.

    I asked, “How many of that 200 are set in Atlanta, are about Atlanta, have Atlanta’s name in the title, and were written by a former Atlanta resident who used to work for the Atlanta papers?”

    Atlanta BluesI never got an answer. Eventually, the paper did run a short, tepid review by somebody, but, although favorable, it struck me as the kind of review you’d expect from someone whose editor had already signaled her opinion of the book and the kind of play the review was likely to get. This treatment of a novel about Atlanta by a former employee of the newspaper was to me both shabby and dismaying in its lack of editorial judgment. Not only did the novel have Atlanta written all over it, Atlanta Blues was nominated for a coveted Edgar Award and it was cited in one year-end newspaper story in South Carolina as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer – and maybe the best.”

    I’ll probably never know what was behind that Atlanta book editor’s treatment, but I believe it reflected both a Chamber of Commerce sensitivity to the novel’s unflattering portrayal of the city – and, even more, an unhealthy dose of Political Correctness.

    Though fiction, the novel was based on my experiences as a reporter and feature writer for The Atlanta Constitution during a particularly turbulent few years in the city’s history, the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In that time, both crime and prostitution were rampant. One year saw Atlanta become the murder capital of the nation with what now seems an anemic number: some 360 homicides. Prostitution flourished there for the same reason it flourishes anywhere: lax or indulgent law enforcement. Atlanta also was then and is now a popular home for gays, who figure prominently in this novel, some as innocuous characters, some as depraved – in other words, the way people in general are throughout the real world. Anybody who lived in or knew Midtown during that era would know that my depiction of it in Atlanta Blues is both realistic and accurate. Good stories tell it like it is; PC prefers a Pollyannish version of life – and has no place in news judgment

    Anyhow, not long after 2004, newspapers began eliminating or cutting back sharply on their book pages, and many book editors, including Atlanta’s, lost their jobs. I didn’t shed any tears over this development, but I didn’t rejoice either. As both a writer and a reader, I lamented the loss of coverage of books and authors.

    But I have to say – and this at last is my point in bringing this up – I was not in the least surprised at the loss of book pages and book-editor jobs. I was a newspaperman for 20 years, and I knew – knew – that book editors were cutting their own throats by ignoring the local literary scene. Atlanta’s newspapers weren’t alone in this; it happened all over the country. No matter. Local news is a newspaper’s bread and butter, and any newspaper or newsperson who forgets that does it at their peril.

    I have no idea why, but at some point in the past quarter century, many book editors began trying to emulate the inimitable: The New York Times Book Review. Local literary efforts suddenly were beneath their notice, not worthy of their recognition. They were the activities of a bunch of wannabe writers. But book editors who thought like that couldn’t have jeopardized their jobs and careers more surely if they had bombed the printing presses.

    It’s hard to feel sorry for people who are that benighted (and who have such a vaunted opinion of themselves). Everywhere else in the average American city’s daily newspaper, the editors and writers focus mainly on local news. Sure, readers want national news, too, but never at the expense of local news. Moreover, readers know they can get national news from other, more esteemed sources. You won’t, for instance, find your local newspaper trying to rival The Wall Street Journal in covering business news, just as you won’t catch your local TV news teams trying to outdo the network news shows.

    So why did book editors in mid-America set out to imitate The New York Times’ book coverage when there was no way they could do it better, when nobody had asked them to do it anyhow, and when it meant neglecting to cover the news in one’s own backyard? Go figure. But my guess is that they weren’t genuine news people. Not only did they largely ignore writers in their own circulation areas, they missed the revolution that was taking place in the world of books itself. All writers know that in the past 20 years book publishing has changed dramatically, and along with it the world of book agenting, book editing, book production, and book selling. But it was a rare book editor who wrote stories about the impact of the computer on publishing, or the changes wrought by print-on-demand technology, or the influence on publishing of the demise of major independent publishers and, as a direct result, the rise of small-press publishing.

    Nowadays, of course, daily newspapers are hurting in all of their departments. What’s being sorted out, it seems to me, is not whether news will be delivered, but how it will be delivered. I have no idea how this will play out. But of this much I am certain: The news won’t be delivered by ex-book editors who probably still haven’t figured out why they lost their old jobs.

    All of this came to mind last week when I took the plunge into the future of books: the Ebook. Atlanta Blues was already available on Amazon.com in both the hardback and paperback editions, as well as the Kindle edition. Now Atlanta Blues is available for downloading to E-readers of all kinds.

    And here’s what the novel is about: A reporter and two cops search for a missing college coed. The search leads through the underbelly of urban Atlanta to murder and heartbreak. This is, one critic said,” a powerful novel about the vast difference between justice and jurisprudence.”

    I came slowly to the Ebook, but mainly because I am technology challenged, not because I am averse to change. God knows, anybody who’s been in journalism as long as I was has seen revolutionary change three or four times already. We all know, of course, that some people don’t adapt readily to change. I remember two friends at The Constitution who refused to give up their Selectric typewriters when the newsroom switched to computers. The future ran over them as if they were roadkill.

    And one of my lifelong friends swears that he’ll never adjust to reading a book on a screen. I tell him that when paper came along, there probably were people who swore they’d never give up their stone tablets.

    Still, there’s no gainsaying that the times they are a’changing. My third (published) novel, A Majority of One, which came off the presses last month and will be launched on Sept. 9, is already headed for Ebook adaptation – and toward a literary landscape in which newspaper book pages and reviews (and editors) are few and far between, thanks to many of the reasons cited above.

    For those who wonder about A Majority of One, here’s what it says on the back cover:

    “When preachers in a rural Georgia town move to ban some classic American novels from the high school curriculum — and post the Ten Commandments in every classroom — only one person stands up to them: English teacher Anne Brady, an “outsider” from Atlanta who champions great literature (and the separation of Church and State). Refusing to “go along to get along,” she soon finds herself in a fight to save her job and reputation. For help, she turns to another outsider, lawyer Eugene Shapiro, who as the county’s only Jewish attorney knows all too well what his client is up against. By the time Anne’s struggle spills into court from a heated school-board meeting, the mood of the county points toward a legal lynching – or worse, as some of the more zealous defenders of the faith have drifted beyond the reach of law or reason. This novel is a powerful reminder that not all religious fanatics live in the Middle East. America has its own home-grown variety.”

    And finally here’s the cover:

     

    ###
    Robert Lamb

    Robert Lamb

    I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys’ Catholic High. After a stint in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English (Class of ’61). I began my (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and went to work for The Constitution in, I think, 1976. I left in Sept. ’82 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and my second (Atlanta Blues, in 2004) contended for an Edgar Award.

    My latest novel won no honors but might well get me nominated for a hanging. Titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in a small Georgia town. I’ve also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another.

    Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.com and I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.

     

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    • David Evans

      What a terrific article. I’ve already shared it with some others who dabble in putting their thoughts on paper…or is that the screen? Look forward to reading your new book. cheers

    • Gail Kiracofe

      Having lived in a small Georgia town for a number of years, I can’t wait to read your new book — on my Kindle.

    • Tom Poland

      Bob, thank you for telling it like it is with the newspapers and book pages. Your column should be mandatory reading for writers, publishers, those who attempt to review books, and the executive leadership of any organization trying to dispense information to its perceived readership. I need to read Atlanta Blue and A Majority of One. Congratulations!

      • Nancy Justice Quarles

        Wow, my dear Sir….I think that you “hit the nail on the head” with that article. Of course, that is one of the things that I like best about your writing; the ability to “bring it home”,’ at the right moment.

        Did not hear that, ‘ A Majority of One’, had been completed and ready for release. I must have been sleeping or something. I am sure that you would have sent me an email about the event.

        I look forward to reading it. Keep on doing what you do best; writing interesting stories.

      • Nancy Justice Quarles

        Tom, shame of you for not reading ‘Atlanta Blue’! Bob is one of your good friends. Must read for his fan club made up of family and friends. Just poking fun at you! Bob ‘cuz!
        What are you working on of late?

    • Beckie Patterson

      Bob I very much enjoyed this article. I do not have the flare for words that you have therefore, I cannot tell others what I think of the newspapers of today or the TV news. Thank you for doing it and keep up the good work.

    • Kendall Bell

      Bravo! Bob, I am forwarding this link to some of my newspaper friends who are still hanging on. Beyond everything you have said, for a newspaper to refuse to promote literacy is in itself a travesty. The editors need to get their head out of the sand. Great commentary. Well said, my friend!

    • Joyce Dixon

      I will never understand how AJC did book reviews from in house authors. There was this supposed rule that they would NOT review books by authors who worked for AJC or did work for AJC. But surprise surprise. They pop up all the time. The most recent example is the review of RED SUMMER by an AJC reporter. Alas, the AJC as most newspapers no longer have book editors as such. The reviews are from the wire service or tossed to the features/sports dept.

    • Bob Lamb

      Hi, Joyce. Long time, no see. Hope you are well.
      The New York Times reviews its employees’ books. I read a NYT review just recently of NYT columnist David Brooks’s new book. The editors simply ask reputable and qualified outsiders to do such reviews. And, by the way, the review of Brooks’s book was unfavorable, so obviously there’s no quid pro quo involved in the agreement to do such a review.

    • Eileen Dight

      I enjoyed your inside story.

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