The Real (Literary) America

[The Millions]

Over at The Millions, you’ll find my “dispatch from the Borders-land,” where, basically, I ask a bunch of shoppers about their relationship to books. Lit blogs tend to take an isolated view of the literary world, and I wanted to push back against this (and also to satisfy my own curiosity). The week I did the interviews—this was back in December, and the story’s delay stems mostly from my incompetence—the New Yorker debuted another excerpt from DFW’s The Pale King. I remember being extremely excited to read the short story, then noticing that the magazine’s newsstand appendage thingy didn’t even mention Wallace. Different worlds, different priorities—and yet, among the people I talked to, fiction seems alive and well.

One caveat: I wanted this dispatch to be short and I wanted to devote most of it to the interviews, so if it seems like I’m totalizing “real” or “average” readers (or relegating them to scare quotes), that’s why. With more space, I would have liked to talk about the geographic and socioeconomic aspects to reading audiences. For example, Connecticut Goodwills tend to offer some pretty interesting books (in the last year, I’ve picked up an early edition of JFK’s Profiles in Courage and a paperback of William Vollman’s Europe Central). I don’t recall Indiana Goodwills even selling books.



Earlier tonight, I appeared on WICC’s “Talk of the Town,” where Jim Buchanan interviewed me about my story on the Cheshire case and Brian McDonald’s book. Click here to listen to an mp3.

This was my first radio interview, and I have to say I’m pretty happy with the lack of ums, ers, and yeahs. Of course, I also managed to say obviously 328 times in 14 minutes.

[UPDATE:] Another day (February 2), another interview—this one with Larry Rifkin on WATR 1320 AM. You can listen to an mp3 here.

Cheshire’s Library Controversy

[New Haven Advocate]

In this week’s Advocate, I’ve got a story on Brian McDonald’s In the Middle of the Night, a true-crime take on the horrific Cheshire home-invasion case from a few years back. The story ended up focusing on the reaction to McDonald’s book as much as the book itself—especially when local residents started calling for the library to ban the book and launching ugly personal attacks at the head librarian. As I write in the story:

Let’s be clear: The only real villains in this mess are Komisarjevsky and Hayes, and, even three years later, it’s impossible to consider Petit’s tragedy without feeling fear, sympathy, and regret. But this tragedy occurred in and was assimilated by a culture that loves lurid details, easy-bake opinions, and petty personal concerns. And, in the reaction to McDonald’s book, you’ll find this culture’s usual suspects—duplicitous lawyers, lazy journalists, small-town politicos, quickie cash-in publishers, and a whole lot of people who’d rather react than read.

One thing I couldn’t work into the story was more on McDonald’s own career, which is fascinating. He described himself to me as “a reluctant true-crime writer” who took on In the Middle of the Night (and a previous entry in St. Martin’s True Crime Library series) “simply because I needed the work.” But McDonald’s far from a hack. He’s written three other books, including My Father’s Gun, a well-reviewed memoir about his family’s three-generation history with the NYPD. And I’d argue that, other than its poor pacing and organization, In the Middle of the Night also demonstrates his talents—as I say in the story, it’s a solid entry in the true-crime canon.

Of course, the only way you’d know that is if you actually read McDonald’s book.


[New Haven Advocate]

Good news about the media is rare, and, when it occurs, it’s tempting to just nod and slowly back away. That’s basically what happened when Michael Schroeder rescued several small-town Connecticut newspapers in 2008. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other national organs jumped on his last-second bid. Since then, though, no one’s checked in to see how he’s changed the papers—or if he’s got a realistic chance at turning them around.

My new cover story at the New Haven Advocate tries to remedy that. James Smith, Schroeder’s top editor, gave me free reign in his newsroom at the New Britain Herald (“I like cooperating with the free press,” he said), and I spent a couple of days talking to reporters and readers, in addition to Smith and Schroeder.

In the last few years, Connecticut newspapers have lost local readers at a much faster clip than the rest of the country, so the state of the Herald might offer some clues for other areas. Of course, everything’s shifting quickly—that link, to a Hartford Business Journal story from 2007, names the big papers as hot buys and the small ones as toxic assets. At the very least, though, Schroeder’s Herald offers a chance to study a smaller paper, instead of the NYT– and WSJ-level stuff that dominates so much of the metamedia discourse.

Here’s some context I couldn’t work into the story.

  • As I mention in the story, New Britain newspaper readers split between the Herald and the Hartford Courant. No one’s more excited that 2009 is coming to a close than the Courant. In the last year, America’s oldest continually published newspaper lost its top two editors, its Washington bureau, its top local political reporter, and, in the most public embarrassment, George Gombossy, the consumer columnist who says he lost his job for writing stories critical of Courant advertisers. Not surprisingly, the Courant‘s also lost more than 20,000 subscribers in that same period—including one New Britain man who told me about the time Gombossy helped him get his money back from a local Best Buy.
  • If you’re interested in the sordid history of the Journal-Register Company, which, from 1995 to 2008, owned and tortured the Herald, start with this great American Journalism Review story. This Philadelphia CityPaper story outlines the JRC’s nasty reaction to that story;  this Forbes feature is also worth reading. As I mention in my story, the JRC promised to make only “minimal changes” when they bought the Herald—then laid off a dozen people in their first week.

A Brief History of the Mall Kiosk

[Slate’s The Big Money / The Washington Post]

We all avoid mall kiosks, and we also ignore them. If they pop up in print, it’s generally in a cornball book of get-rich schemes, right next to collecting baseball cards and selling water purifiers. In my new story at Slate’s The Big Money, though, I try to show that kiosks and their employees face more obstacles—and deserve more respect—than you might think.

Too bad I can’t say the same for baseball cards. In the Connecticut mall where I reported this story, the only sports memorabilia store was in the process of closing down (“9 days left”).