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Letter from Laura
March 2004

Old News

"People will think what I tell them to think," newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane informed his first wife in Citizen Kane. Actually, Kane finished his wife's thought, which was heading in a different direction, but you get the drift. More then a century later, this kind of arrogance is alive and well in mainstream media. If something appears on the front page of a national newspaper, or on a national newscast, it is assumed to be news, even if it's anything but. (Those big silver crosswalk buttons don't work!)

Take the New York Times' big scoop. In mid-February, the Times reported that a technical glitch briefly reunited Amazon's anonymous reviewers and their true identities for all the world to see. Turns out that the policy of allowing anonymous reviews had made Amazon home to such time-honored literary hobbies as logrolling and backbiting.

Yet this complaint has been made about Amazon many times, in many forums. And the same glitch had happened at least once before, more than five years ago. I know, because I used to check my Amazon reviews pretty regularly, a habit I finally broke, thank God. But not before one weekend in 1998, when I discovered that two particularly rude reviews of my second novel had been written by people I knew via the Internet -- people with whom I thought I enjoyed a civilized rapport. That incident wasn't reported, perhaps for lack of a Dave Eggers angle, and if a tree falls, etc. etc. So I guess one could argue the Times was justified in playing its story on Page One.

But I am disappointed that no traditional media outlet pursued the more pressing question: Why does Amazon allow anonymous reviews at all, especially when there have been numerous reports of vendettas bordering on actionable libel? Legal issues aside, it's just darn strange as a business practice -- and saying the reviews are "popular" is a weak defense. The Paris Hilton video was popular, and Amazon didn't make that available for downloads. Can you envision any independent bookstore, or Barnes & Noble, handing out Post-its to customers and encouraging them to affix their scrawled thoughts to volumes? Imagine going into a bookstore and seeing little yellow squares stuck to Huckleberry Finn ("An erotic masterpiece," LF in Montana), Portnoy's Complaint ("Don't shake hands with this author" -- A reader from Central Park South) and the latest Atkins diet. ("He's dead, but it might work for you." Hizzoner, Gracie Mansion) Look, I sign my reviews and I think other people should, too.

Amazon does provide an invaluable service to the series writer: It makes in-print backlist much more accessible than it used to be. When I was profiled by CBS News Sunday Morning in 1999, all of my titles jumped into Amazon's top 100 within 12 hours and my first book was one of its bestsellers that week. (And I still think using Amazon rankings as a barometer of a book's success, or lack thereof, is lazy journalism. Why don't book writers use the secret Ingram number to chart demand?) In the mystery world, it's nice to know that someone can always find your third novel. However, in my experience, most independent bookstores do special orders just as well as Amazon -- almost as quickly and at a comparable price, given that there are no shipping fees if you pick up the books at the store. Last week, I wandered into the Ivy looking for a book with no more information than a partial title ("Max Tivoli") and the fact that it had been reviewed by the Washington Post's Chris Lehmann. Ivy staff ordered The Confessions of Max Tivoli and had it in the store within 48 hours. Frankly, it was easier than most online transactions I've attempted, but maybe that's because of my 9.1 Mac. Meanwhile, Amazon is one of the few places right now you can see my new look.

The Naomi Wolfe-Harold Bloom saga is also old news -- almost two weeks old as news, twenty-one years old as an incident, and older than time itself as a bulletin on male-female relations. I don't have a dog in this fight -- hmmm, that's probably a poor choice of words -- but I couldn't bring myself to scoff at Wolfe's self-described "tailspin" after the incident, or her tears when she revealed she stopped writing poetry. Here's the thing: If you're a young female poet -- or short story writer, or journalist -- and an established teacher/editor/journalist offers to read your poems/stories/clippings, it is hard to know exactly what is motivating your would-be mentor even when he behaves. Maybe your poems -- or stories, or clips -- are very, very good. Then again, maybe he wants to drop his hand, boneless or no, on your creamy white thigh. ("Creamy white thigh" was a phrase that Joel McCord is said to have tried to slip into the Baltimore Sun without success. Ah, creamy white thighs and the Cushwa cup. Newspaper journalism used to be fun.)

Finally, maybe the poems are good AND he wants to touch your thigh. The last scenario is the most confusing of all. Does the desire for the latter invalidate the admiration for the former? That's not necessarily a rhetorical question.

What is news? Don't worry, I'm not going to fall on the old journalist's trick of hauling out the dictionary. Instead, I'm going to rely on another hoary but less public tradition -- stealing from someone better. My father once wrote a column about the Associated Press's list of the top 10 stories of 1984. He wondered at their choices because so many things on the list were expected -- usually considered the opposite of news. Looking over that list, my father wrote that he had a different pick for top story of 1984 -- the death of his father, Theodore Lippman. Everything else paled in comparison.

In the same vein, the only news that truly mattered to me last month was the death of Robert F. Colesberry. I don't want to pretend to a greater or more profound relationship than I had with Bob, best described as a friend-in-law. But it was always a treat to sit down to a meal with him. For one thing, Bob believed in eating well, so if one was having dinner with Bob, it was almost always at a great restaurant. (Thank you, Bob, for making sure I ate here on my birthday.) He also had many, many stories to tell, although he usually needed a little encouragement to share them. I thought I had done a good job of piecing together his amazing resume, which included working with Martin Scorsese, Alan Parker, Ang Lee and Robert Benton. But it was only at Bob's funeral that I learned he had written this song's lyrics. And that he was Nicole Kidman's body double in Billy Bathgate. Bob worked and lived as if channeling Andrew Marvell, which makes his death all the harder to bear. Those interested in making donations to a scholarship in his name can click here.

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