Quarreling over the orange

My story for Richmond Law Magazine on civil discourse in today's society and whether or not the law profession can help promote civility is now live on Richmond Law's website. Check it out here.

An even more dismal record in Virginia's higher ed

 A 1945 editorial in  The Flat Hat , the College of William & Mary's student newspaper. The writer of the editorial, editor Marilyn Kaemmerle, was fired.

A 1945 editorial in The Flat Hat, the College of William & Mary's student newspaper. The writer of the editorial, editor Marilyn Kaemmerle, was fired.

In news that will be surprising to no one, a follow-up look to last week's examination of women's role in Virginia higher ed leadership reveals that when it comes to racial diversity in higher education leadership, Virginia's record has been dismal. 

There really isn't any other way to look at it. As in my last post, I looked at Virginia's 13 four-year public universities (Christopher Newport University, the College of William & Mary, George Mason University, James Madison University, Longwood University, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, Radford University, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University), but now I examined whether they have ever had a black president. 

What I found is that of those 13 institutions of higher education, only three have ever had an African American president—and two of those, Norfolk State and Virginia State, are historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs). The only non-HBCU university in Virginia that has had a president who is African American is Radford University, which appointed Brian O. Hemphill its president in 2016. Every other president, with the exception of VCU's Michael Rao, the child of Indian emigrants, has been white. 

(As a note, yes, racial diversity is more than a black–white issue—but I think it's also somewhat disingenuous to not use that as a starting point in Virginia. Blacks are the largest minority group in the commonwealth, comprising just shy of 20 percent of the population according to 2016 U.S. Census estimates. And without overlooking the struggles that other racial minorities have faced in Virginia, none have been more systematically or sweepingly targeted for exclusion by means legal, legislative, or social than blacks. But then again, even if I had looked at other races, I wouldn't have found much else: the presidencies outside the HBCUs are essentially a sea of white.)

Surely linked is the fact that Virginia's public universities—again with the exception of the HBCUs—refused to admit black undergraduates until the 1950s and 1960s. Virginia Tech admitted its first black undergrad, Irving L. Peddrew III, in 1953; UVA its first three black undergrads, Robert Bland, George Harris, and Theodore Thomas, in 1955; the University of Mary Washington (then the women's branch of UVA) its first black undergrad, Jacquelyn Pulliam, in 1962; and the College of William and Mary its first black undergrad, Oscar Blayton, in 1963. 

While some schools openly resisted the admission of African Americans, others were more passive. George Mason University, established in 1949 as a branch of UVA, offered an interesting defense of its lack of diversity (link to source here): 

For as long as it existed, George Mason had never considered itself “segregated”.  In fact, in 1963 George Mason College Director, John Norville Gibson Finley chided an official from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when he wrote Finley for confirmation as to whether or not George Mason was segregated.  Finley replied that Mason was not, and while it was true that it had “never had a Negro student . . . no Negro ha[d] ever applied for admission.”

According to the Lemon Project, when the editor of W&M's student newspaper, The Flat Hat, published a column entitled "Lincoln's Job Half-Done" advocating for the admission of African Americans to the College in 1945, she was fired and publication of the newspaper was temporarily halted.

Several schools did admit graduate students earlier, but the rarity of such events is revealed in the fact that William & Mary's admission of Hulon Willis into a graduate program in physical education in 1951 sparked the publication of a brief by the Associated Press under the heading "Negro Admitted."

Virginia's higher ed leadership gets a bit more diverse

I was very excited by the news that William & Mary, my alma mater, has selected as its 28th president Katherine Rowe. As part of its announcement, the College released an introductory video earlier this week that provides what I think is an exciting roadmap forward for W&M. 

I'm very encouraged by much of what Dr. Rowe says here, and her dual emphasis on not just the College's "long history" but also "innovation," and how key diversity and inclusion are to "accelerating innovation." In one of her most significant expressions of how she intends to direct the College's course, she states, "We need diversity, and we need full participation—which is what we mean by inclusion—in order to innovate. It's an essential aspect of transformation to preserve our core values." That idea fits in too to her conception of the liberal arts' role in the 21st century as a way of teaching individuals how to manage complexity, an increasingly critical task in a world struggling to sift through the vast amount of information to which we now have access and to make meaningful change in the face of that deluge. A focus on "management of complexity" also opens the door to more practical applications of a liberal arts education, a struggle that many universities have faced in the wake of the Great Recession and changing views of how institutions ought to prepare young people to become members of society.

Of course, in the spirit of diversity, one of the reasons I'm so happy to see Dr. Rowe taking the reins of W&M is because she will be the first woman to serve as the College's president. W&M has been very late in bringing a woman into this kind of leadership role within Virginia—which is somewhat ironic, since it was one of the commonwealth's first universities to admit women. 

So who has been leading the charge in bringing women to the leadership table in higher ed in Virginia? Of the state's 13 public four-year universities, Longwood University seems to have been the first to elevate a woman, Janet Greenwood, to its presidency, in 1981, following that up with Patricia Cormier in 1996. (Longwood, founded as a female seminary in 1839, actually did not admit men until 1973, when the school—then a college—was ordered to do so by the Virginia Department of Education.) And in 1997, the historically black Norfolk State University elevated Marie McDemmond to the role of president and then followed her tenure with that of another woman, Carolyn Meyers, in 2006. It is still the only Virginia university to have had more than one female president.

Unfortunately, William & Mary is not the last of Virginia's public higher ed flock to appoint a woman to its presidency. Five—Christopher Newport UniversityGeorge Mason UniversityJames Madison UniversityVirginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech—have had exclusively male presidents. Virginia State University has only appointed a woman, Pamela Hammond, as an interim president. And even though the University of Virginia appointed its first female president, Teresa Sullivan, in 2012, it was also the last of the commonwealth's universities to go fully coeducational, which it did in 1970. The public four-year Virginia Military Institute (a college, not a university, and so not included in the 13), of course, held out until the Supreme Court ordered it to accept women in 1997.

Of course, diversity is about far more than gender, and when it comes to race, the records are equally rocky . . . but that's another story for another day. 

  • UPDATE! Some additional fact checking reveals that Christopher Newport has in fact NOT ever had a female president. Despite Wikipedia listing "Amy Anderson" as the institution's president starting in 1979, the president appointed then was in fact John Anderson. (Yes, Wikipedia isn't always the best source, but I did cross-check a sampling of its listings with university sites while I was writing this original post, and all of its results appeared accurate. But that's a good lesson—check, check, check.) I've revised the post to reflect this fact.

On agriculture in the mass media

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Since one of the topics I write about a lot is agriculture, I've run into the problem repeatedly of exactly where these stories should—or can—be published. Agriculture doesn't naturally fall into most of the news categories publications use: Is it science? Environment? Economy? Something ... else? 

The more that I've encountered this dilemma, the more I've become convinced that it's indicative of a broader problem in the domestic print media. The reality is that virtually all major publications in the United States are headquartered in large cities, and even those with the means to open up bureaus elsewhere invariably locate them in other large cities. The decision is certainly rational: cities are hubs of news, places where people and businesses congregate and where ideas, innovation and social patterns are often most immediately evident. But what this tendency has produced is a cycle in which it is virtually impossible for someone to succeed in the industry if he or she is not working in a major city. 

One of the most crucial factors in this equation is how painfully little local-market print journalists are paid (this is often true for TV journalists as well, but I am less familiar with their circumstances, so I won't apply my observations to that segment of the industry). Many of the discussions of this issue that I have encountered in the mass media are (1) written by people in very urban environments for publications produced in and targeted to urban markets and (2) badly skewed by major-market wages. It is the norm almost everywhere outside of major U.S. cities (the New Yorks, Chicagos, Los Angeleses, Bostons, DCs) for entry-level journalists to make in the low $20K range and for mid-career journalists to make in the low $30K range. Very rarely are benefits substantial, and inevitably the hours are bad.

Consequently, what we see is a wave of burnout and turnover in local markets that isn't likely to disappear until the industry can come up with some way to counterbalance the negative aspects of the job. Under such circumstances, "success" in terms of attaining a sustainable living wage is reserved largely for those young, single and not burdened with financial debt, while "success" in terms of making an impact on a broader scale is often hobbled by limited resources (as the simplest example, two-journalist newsrooms rarely have the time to commit to in-depth investigations). 

What these factors have produced over time is a kind of industry-wide myopia about rural issues. People are people, but urban societies and rural societies are in many ways profoundly different—different in the kinds of work they do, in how they socialize, in their level of religiosity, in their political affiliations, in their manners, and in dozens of other ways. As a result, major publications often (although certainly not always) cover rural issues in one of two ways: either they portray rural populations as a conglomeration of tropes (the wise bumpkin, the ignorant redneck, the patiently suffering black man or woman), or else they assume that the priorities and history of rural populations will—or should—match those of urban populations. Both of these approaches generally stem from the way that reportage in the current system is actually carried out: because major-market journalists are located in urban areas, they "drop in" to urban areas for stories. Sometimes they only show up for a single event; sometimes they stick around for a day or two. These strategies can unquestionably produce vivid stories, and I certainly won't dispute that an outside perspective can glimpse things that someone familiar with an area might overlook. But they prevent reporters from producing nuanced, deep examinations of what is happening in rural areas, and this sets in motion a chain reaction of "silo-ing." If the print media isn't writing about rural issues, urban residents aren't being exposed to them, considering them and taking them seriously—so they don't demand such coverage, and newsrooms conclude that (1) readers aren't interested or (2) the issues really aren't that important.

That's why—to circle back here—we have a strange lacuna in the print landscape where agricultural coverage should be. Agriculture is a critically important component of the U.S. economy. Agriculture and its related industries accounted for 11 percent of all employment in 2015, with U.S. farms alone (not taking into account fishing, forestry, tobacco, and other ag-dependent industries) constituting 1 percent of GDP. Many industries, such as the massive food/drink slice of the service sector, rely on agriculture for their very existence. And yet most major-market coverage of agriculture is scattershot and reactive, focusing on unusual events or trends. That in turn reinforces the idea that the industry and the populations who work in it and whose lives are shaped by it isn't that interesting or worth sustained attention. 

So what's the answer? That, as one of my colleagues used to say, is a question above my pay grade. But I'm inclined to say that what is needed is a different kind of rural "beat," one that offers more geographic flexibility and allows more reporters to become embedded in rural regions. What is needed, too, is for editors and newsroom decision-makers to take seriously the fact that rural populations are not a thinned-out carbon copy of urban ones, and that coverage of them is as essential to our democracy as coverage of big-city streets. 



A few thoughts on pencils and the decline of manufacturing

"In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct."

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran this excellent photo essay on the still-operating General Pencil Company in Jersey City that offers a glimpse of a world that increasingly seems a relic of the past: manufacturing-era America.

The basement, where workers process charcoal, is a universe of absolute gray: gray shirts, gray hands, gray machines swallowing gray ingredients. A surprising amount of the work is done manually; it can take employees multiple days off to get their hands fully clean. Pencil cores emerge from the machines like fresh pasta, smooth and wet, ready to be cut into different lengths and dried before going into their wooden shells.

To me, there is little doubt that the great era of American manufacturing is over (whether another one will take its place is a separate question entirely). Industrial America was more than just tons produced and dollars generated, although those are themselves powerful indicators of the force and extent of the phenomenon. It was also a social system, one shaped profoundly by the unions and the concept of fidelity to a single company, and by a set of beliefs that turned on not only faith in the power of machines and technology but also faith in the American worker. That isn't to say that all was rosy in "those days"; it wasn't. Businesses weren't inherently more virtuous than they are now, nor were workers more honorable or hardworking or what have you. But there was a different set of commitments that society adhered to, and a different sense of "fair play." Today, the fundamental unit of the U.S. economy seems to be the company rather than the worker. This may be a legacy of Reaganomics or the breaking of the unions or Citizens United, or all three, but its repercussions have been both deep and broad.


"It's Toasted"

Remember that scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men where Don Draper at the eleventh hour of a meeting comes up with the perfect Lucky Strike slogan that will distract consumers from the pernicious linkage between smoking and cancer? (The key part of the scene starts at about 3:20 in the video below.)

Don: This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes?
Lee Garner, Jr.: I don’t know.
Lee Garner, Sr.: Shame on you. We breed insect-repellent tobacco seeds, plant 'em in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it—
Don: There you go. There you go. [He writes: "Lucky Strike. It's Toasted."]
Lee Garner, Jr.: But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted.
Don: No, everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.

In fact, as I learned while doing a bunch of tobacco research last week for some stories, the "real" story of this scene unfolded about 40 years before Mad Men opens in 1960. According to reporter Susan Wagner in her 1971 book Cigarette Country, "It's Toasted" was originally formulated as a way for the American Tobacco Company to compete against R. J. Reynolds & Co.'s newly developed—and wildly popular—Camel cigarettes in the wake of World War I. Among other factors, Camels had benefited from their use of burley tobacco, which had a stronger, nuttier taste than the domestic bright, or "Virginia," tobacco widely used in these years. At this time, many cigarette smokers still preferred the taste of Turkish tobacco, but during the war, all imports from Turkey to the United States were cut off, leaving those smokers high and dry. Burley helped fill the taste void.


With R. J. Reynolds moving toward dominance of the U.S. cigarette market—Wagner says that by the end of hostilities in 1918, the company controlled 40 percent of domestic cigarette sales—American Tobacco started looking for a way to hit back. They chose Lucky Strike, an old Richmond cigarette that had been around since 1871, when its name was formulated as an allusion to the Gold Rush then under way in California. As Wagner writes:

“A new package was designed, with its famous bull’s-eye in the center, and a sales campaign devised around the slogan ‘Lucky Strike, It’s Toasted.’ That idea came to [American Tobacco president Percival] Hill when a vice president in charge of manufacturing remarked that the amount of heat used in making cigarettes was equivalent to cooking. Lucky’s first advertising campaign shows a piece of toast with a fork stuck through it. This was the start of one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, sales campaigns in merchandising history.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Matt Weiner decided to exclude the toast association from his version of the "It's Toasted" campaign in Mad Men. Toast, while delicious, has little sex appeal. But the real campaign proved far more prosaic than the TV version, not just in its evocation of the comforting breakfast food, but also in how explicitly it capitalized on an agricultural commodity. It's hard to imagine a 21st-century advertising campaign touting a specific variety of, say, corn or cotton ("Tostitos: the real bolita corn chip!"). Most people today simply aren't familiar enough with agriculture to differentiate between varietals. But in the 1910s, they were, and so American Tobacco's claim that Lucky Strike was "The real Burley Cigarette" meant something. The gamble paid off: Lucky Strikes would eventually become the best-selling cigarettes in the nation, one that is still sold in the United States today.

The coldest city on Earth

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, my family subscribed to the Washington Post, and my father read it religiously every morning, section by section (and still does). He was also always the first person up, and when I came to the kitchen table for my own breakfast, he would share certain sections with me: the Style section, which had the comics, the horoscopes, the advice columns, and what I generally considered as a teenager to be the most interesting stories; and the Metro section, which always carried on its back page the weather (and again, still does).

Every day, beneath the graphics of weather patterns across the United States and Virginia, a list appeared, in tiny letters, of the highs and lows predicted for the day all across the globe, as well as an item noting where the hottest place on Earth had been the day prior, and where the coldest. Thus I came to hear of Yakutsk, which so often bore the dubious laurels of "coldest," and it fascinated me to think of it. For whatever reason, because I had little interest in the hottest places, that place stuck in my mind over the years. I never looked it up, but I thought of it occasionally, in the way you think of fairy tales or certain stories you heard as a child. What was it like to live in such a place? Why would a person stay there, or a family, generation after generation?

Then, this morning, I came across this photo essay in National Geographic, and all that strange fascination flooded back to me. A couple of anecdotes that jumped out:

  • "Since the soil is permanently frozen, most buildings are raised on stilts. Those that aren’t are slowly sinking because the heat generated inside the buildings is melting the permafrost."
  • "Photographer Steeve Iuncker was able to photograph for for only 15 minutes at a time in the subzero temperatures before his camera froze and the film risked cracking."
  • "Locals tended to visit one another a lot, but for only a few minutes: 'They would come in, take off their first layer, drink hot tea, and have a toast with jam before bundling up again and stepping outside. It was as if their neighbors’ abodes served as relay points along their journey.'”
  • And finally, so unchangeably cold is the temperature outdoors that fish can be permanently displayed outside shops during these months, arranged like bouquets of flowers.

You can find the photo essay here.

A new year

Snow 2017.jpg

After beginning 2018 with a throat infection, a sinus infection and a fall down our stairs, this poem by Julie Hill Alger is giving me some very welcome perspective for this next trip around the sun:

Lesson 1

At least I've learned this much:
Life doesn't have to be
all poetry and roses. Life
can be bus rides, gritty sidewalks,
electric bills, dishwashing,
chapped lips, dull stubby pencils
with the erasers chewed off,
cheap radios played too loud,
the rank smell of stale coffee
yet still glow
with the inner fire of an opal,
still taste like honey.

—Julie Hill Alger

Thursday detritus

This has been a week of long hours—tough, but a relief to start having work come in again after the holidays. That Thanksgiving to New Year's lull can be brutal for freelancers, especially since it falls at a time when more funds tend to be going out than coming in. Every year I convince myself in December that no one will hire me again—only to end up in February with an uncomfortably long task list. But in this case, being overworked is better than underemployed, and I try to stay grateful to be in that position.

Having said that, I'm only human, and sometimes that reminder doesn't succeed in lifting my lagging spirits (usually around 5 p.m.)...so here's a couple things that have been this week.

1. This great news that more than 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee is finally releasing a second novel. It's called Go Set a Watchman, and Lee has said that she's "happy as hell" to have it coming out. (Relatedly, I've been sloooowly working my way through this New York Magazine story from last summer called "The Decline of Harper Lee." Haven't dug through to the end yet, but like most NYMag stories, it's chock-full of great details and quotes and moments that seem to capture that elusive sense of how something—even if you aren't sure quite what—feels. A snippet: "[Lee had] once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, 'I’m really Boo.'" Undoubtedly more on this later.)

2. "Lorraine," by Jesse Thomas. I was introduced to Jesse Thomas this winter, just before Thanksgiving, at Paul Willson's Singer-Songwriter night at the Camel, and she absolutely blew me away. I also love that she's guzzling Bulleit bourbon in the music video—that stuff ain't cheap.

3. First Fridays is tomorrow night! I'm particularly excited about this series of screenprints depicting animals wearing Regency-period clothes, by Triple Stamp Press, at Ghostprint.

4. Sugar Shack doughnuts. Still not at the level of Country Style (who is?), but doughnuts + a 20-minute drive out towards the airport seems a little overindulgent for a weekday. Only 12 days until Fastnacht Day!

Process, not product

It's surprising how often I forget this, but when it comes to work, almost everything is a draft.

This shouldn't be a epiphany to someone who works as an editor. The entire job of editing is an acknowledgment that no human product is ever perfect: that there are always corrections that can be made, points of view that can be included, typos or incorrect cross-references or images accidentally overlaid on text. This is why in book and journal publishing, at least, there are several different layers of people who put their hands (and eyes) on the manuscript: because no one pair (hands or eyes) can pick up everything.

In a sense, your physiology works against you: your eye is designed to make sense of the myriad competing signals it picks up every millisecond. One way it does that is to gloss over the disjuncts in those messages, smoothing them out before they become a part of your conscious thought. That's the principal behind the puzzles that write a statement by substituting a jumble of numbers and symbols for the letters that would ordinarily be used. As it turns out, your mind CAN decipher, fairly easily and quickly, what is being conveyed, because its whole purpose is to make sense of a massive amount of frequently incoherent data. Your eye will do the same thing when editing, skipping over the tiny pieces that disturb the flow of sense.

So mistakes are inevitable. We build bulwarks against them by slowing down, instituting checkpoints, and bringing in other people. We create a process.

I'm not going to diminish the feeling of utter euphoria that you get when you produce a piece of writing that "comes together." There's no better sensation. The only thing that comes close is the consuming absorption of putting together that story—and the fact is, over the course of your life, you'll have that experience of absorption far more than the experience of euphoria. Nor will the euphoria last: sweet as it is (and it is sweet), in a few hours or days you will notice that there are typos. Or you will realize that you made an assumption you weren't aware of but is incorrect. Or you will hear some information that inexplicably never came up during interviews or research that changes the picture you have sketched.

That's because, no matter how many bulwarks we build, they are never enough. You do what you can, and you learn to love the process.

In some idle trolling of the Interwebs the other day, I stumbled across one of the best illustrations of this principal I've ever encountered: this Medium article called "10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered." We can spend so much time focusing on the product that we lose sight of the process—and without the process, very little of value can be produced.

Most of what you write is going to get thrown out, and the best thing you can do is get comfortable with that. When I'm writing an article, I usually have a few documents going at once—some with quotes or excerpts of transcripts, one with a couple versions of a lede, and sometimes scraps of paper or post-it notes with reminders or points to work in. The final version is dwarfed by the material that has been thrown out, whether that's information or subpar sentences...and that's even given that I generally write stories in a linear fashion instead of piecemeal.

As Madeleine L'Engle said, "Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it." You may never come to love this work, but until you respect it (by which I mean respecting the process), the journey will be so daunting that it may hardly seem worthwhile to begin.

"Belmont Park"

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"Richmond's inventory of building lots far exceeded demand, and the residents put vacant ground to good use."—T. Tyler Potterfield, Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape

An apt Devil's Triangle response to the parks of the Fan. A low whitish house—more like a shed—used to sit on this lot, set at a 90-degree angle to the surrounding apartments, so that it faced away from the street and looked instead into the windows of the neighboring buildings. A few months ago, bulldozers showed up and razed the structure to the ground over the course of a few days. No signs yet of what's planned for this parcel of Park, but for the time being, "Belmont Park" doesn't seem like such a bad alternative to Caliente.

Long overdue

JF autumn regent's parkSomehow the autumn has slipped away, and here we are once again on the threshold of the holiday season. Although I've been quiet here for a few months, I haven't been absent from my desk. More often than not, the problem hasn't been too little to say, but too much on my hands and mind: too many words in an article, too many notes on Post-Its and legal pads, too many lists. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is probably not the best time to try to cut down on excess, linguistic or otherwise, but it is supposed to be a time of hope. So, in a spirit of hopeful minimalism, here's just a few of the assignments that have been on my plate recently (most of which can also be found over on the Clips page):

  • "Sign Language": A story for Style Weekly about a documentary entitled Sign Painters that VCU screened this November. I was lucky enough to get to see this roughly 80-minute film when it came through town, and it was worth sitting uncomfortably in a university lecture hall once again for. Beautifully shot, the filmmakers mostly take a step back and let the sign painters tell their own story of a trade that is making an unlikely comeback in cities across America. If you get a chance to see it, go—you won't regret it. A list of screening dates and locations can be found on the documentary's website.
  • "Signs of the Times": A profile of local sign painter Ross Trimmer, who tipped me off to the Sign Painter documentary that was coming through town—always nice when one story leads to another! Ross has been going through something of a Richmond media blitz lately; between the time I pitched this story to Hometown Junket and the time it was published, he was also the subject of a great RVA News profile, somewhat to my dismay. But in a small city, it's inevitable that sometimes your work is going to overlap with someone else's—good ideas rarely come to one person alone.
  • "Future Bound": Another story for Style, this one about the Richmond used book market. Could have used a few thousand words for this one. Booksellers always have the best stories: about themselves, about other people, about the books they carry. My favorite interviewing moment, which I just couldn't cram into the article, came as a bookseller was describing to me a former store owner who was forced to close her doors. This bookseller wound up the tale ominously and decisively: "A few weeks after she sold the shop, she collapsed and died." I've been accused of ending too many stories with the phrase "And then he/she died," so I can appreciate that conclusion when I hear it from another person's mouth. After that, there isn't much else to say, usually.
  • "Q&A with Bill Loehfelm": An interview I did for the Washington Independent Review of Books with the author of The Devil in Her Way. This is a terrific thriller, and Loehfelm has very insightful answers here to questions about New Orleans post-Katrina, intuition vs. knowledge, and the nature of "the system." I'm particularly enamored with this observation of his: "Every system is built on high ideals and then becomes a battleground between our better and baser natures, just like we are." A good thing to remember in these days of contentious political warfare.

I also have an e-review for Rattle magazine slated for publication at the end of the month—more on that when it comes out. In the meantime, if you've never checked out their website, it's worth getting sucked into for a few hours. And if reading their mission statement doesn't make you tear up a little, you're too cynical and probably need to take advantage of the holiday respite later this week.

Hometown Junket

If you live in Richmond, here's the new site you should be reading: Hometown Junket. This project, conceived and edited by Phillip Gravely (who between the hours of nine and five is UR's Director of Web and Editorial Strategy) aims to "put the voice of the community back in the hands of its storytellers, calling them to arms and giving them a unified charge—tell the story of your hometown."

I'm currently in the middle of working on a piece for HJ, and I'm stoked to see how many amazing stories people have turned up right off the bat. Briget Ganske's short video on Mrs. Yoder's Doughnuts and Jason Hatcher's account of his life as a CSX train conductor are particularly great snapshots of life in and around the River City today.

A snippet from the latter:

Railroaders may see some bad things from time to time, but they also see a lot of beautiful things. My favorite is taking the trains from Clifton Forge into Richmond. We take ‘em down the mainline on the James River Subdivision, which becomes the Rivanna Subdivision at Gladstone and Melton’s Lock. It’s a long ride — usually about a 12-hour shift — but I see the countryside and the mountains, all the way from J.D. Cabin and Iron Gate, down the James, and on into Richmond. Although I’m focused on being in charge of that train, I realize how beautiful of an “office” it is.

I like it when we get down to about Nine Mile Lock, Westham, Korah, Pump House, and all that, because I know we’ll be in Richmond soon, and we’ll either tie it down past Hacksaw Bridge and Texas Beach at Brown’s Island, or we’ll talk to the Fulton Yardmaster and take it on in past D.X. Cabin and Rivanna Junction, into Fulton Yard.

I don't even know where half of these places are—yet. But Mr. Hatcher's story offers a window onto the city and Central Virginia that I've never looked through, and it's to Phillip and Hometown Junket's credit that so many people now have access to that view.

A glimpse at the "sitting glimpser"

One of the best things about freelance writing and editing is that the job so often dumps fascinating information into my lap that I would never have otherwise encountered. A prime example is this first-rate story about Willem de Kooning for Smithsonian Magazine (admittedly nearly two years old) that I stumbled upon while doing background research for some student profiles I'm working on for the University of Richmond. De Kooning's paintings have never gotten my pulses racing, but this article is so good that it makes me want to give him a second try. It wasn't a surprise to come to end of the story and discover that the author, Mark Stevens, is a recipient (with his wife and coauthor Annalyn Swan) of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of de Kooning.

There's a lot to love here, but for me, the clincher is how masterfully he deploys that opening anecdote. Not only did that push me through the next several thousand words, but it's pretty sure to stay stuck in my brain for the next decade:

In 1926, Willem de Kooning, a penniless, 22-year-old commercial artist from the Netherlands, stowed away on a freighter bound for America. He had no papers and spoke no English. After his ship docked in Newport News, Virginia, he made his way north with some Dutch friends toward New York City. At first he found his new world disappointing. “What I saw was a sort of Holland,” he recalled in the 1960s. “Lowlands. What the hell did I want to go to America for?” A few days later, however, as de Kooning passed through a ferry and train terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, he noticed a man at a counter pouring coffee for commuters by sloshing it into a line of cups. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s America.’”

Next to my desk, I have tacked up on my bulletin board an index card that reads: "The lede makes a specific promise to the reader. That promise is contained in the tension that will be released and resolved by the reading of the story." That's a hell of a hard task, but I think Stevens nailed it here, albeit in a paragraph rather than a single sentence. That one jarring question, "What the hell did I want to go to America for?"  and then that perfect image of the man sloshing coffee haphazardly into commuters' cups—the way I imagine the abstract expressionists sloshed paint onto their canvases, ignoring the borders and letting the color spill over the edges, churning out these almost (but never quite) monotonous series of pictures—well, boy, that's it, isn't it: de Kooning, the era, America.

Espresso (Book Machines) for all!

Working on multiple projects simultaneously sometimes means that I miss important news—in this case, the announcement that On Demand Books has made an agreement with Books-A-Million to install two Espresso Book Machines in its stores (press release here). The first location of Portland, Maine, has been revealed, but the second is still up in the air—Richmond, please? Given the typical stock of a Books-A-Million, I feel like the introduction of the EBM will automatically increase the number of actual books in the store by 100%.

Don't know what the Espresso Book Machine is? Hop on over to an article I wrote about a year ago for the Neworld Review, here.

Women in review

photo: Joyce Farman This week, VIDA—a nonprofit organization for women in the literary arts—released its 2012 Count, a report comparing the numbers of women and men (1) who reviewed books and (2) whose books were reviewed at thirteen of the most important literary/cultural publications over the past three years. Their data in chart form can be found here, and their brief analysis here.

This is the first I've heard of VIDA, and so far I'm impressed with it, especially its emphasis on data and its effort to stay focused on its original mission of examining women in writing without getting distracted by other (admittedly important) issues. Having said that, I wish they had provided some more background on the methodology of their 2012 Count, because I don't understand why they included some cover-to-cover/overall data or non-review-related data like Paris Review interviews. Because this seems to me to muddy the waters, I only talk about their book-review-related data here.

The results are a combination of sobering and not as bad as I expected—but that might say more about my own low expectations than anything else.

  • The Good: The New York Times Book Review and the Boston Review. The NYTBR topped the list, with women making up 45 percent of the reviewing pool. Close behind was the Boston Review, with 42 percent of reviewers being women.
  • The Bad: Harper's, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Women fell from an already-low 18 percent of Harper's book reviewers in 2010 to a jaw-dropping 9 percent in 2012. At the New Republic, they dropped from 21 percent in 2010 to a mere 10 percent in 2012. The New York Review of Books really breaks my heart, though: I love this publication, but only 16% of its reviewers in both 2010 and 2012 were women. Any way you look at it, these numbers are pretty dismal.

Best and worst aside, women's representation in most of the other publications has held pretty steady over the past three years, fluctuating by only a few percentage points. The most important takeaway of the report, though, is that at every single one of the publications on the list, women represent less—often far less—than 50 percent of reviewers and reviewed authors; in fact, a basic calculation reveals that on average, only 25 percent of book reviewers at these publications in 2012 were women.

So what's going on here? I hardly think that editors at these publications are sitting around and deliberately excluding women. In my mind, the underrepresentation of women at these thirteen magazines isn't so much the problem as it is the symptom of larger problems, one of which is neatly summed up by a commenter on the report:

Personally—and I fully realize I may have bias, being a male—most of the work of female writers just isn’t that . . . good, to me. It doesn’t appeal to me. Now I think that calling on publishers to ramp up their number of female writers published will not necessarily solve the issue. Quotas are never good for quality. What I think could be done are two things. One, have writers submit anonymously, only asking for their names once their work has been accepted. Two, call for more female editors, not for male editors to publish more females. If male editors are anything like me, then odds are they also aren’t drawn by female writing, which may be at the crux of the problem, rather than the very improbable scenario of editors actively discriminating against women . . . so hiring editors with more feminine sensibilities could see a rise in lady writers. . . .

I don't think this is all that uncommon of an opinion, although I don't think many men would put it out there quite as boldly as this guy does. I respect his honesty, but I don't think he realizes the many factors that likely feed into his "preference"—with the most important one being the belief that "women's writing" is a specific, fundamentally different thing than "men's writing" (which is never called "men's writing," just "writing"). That's a questionable assertion—what exactly do writers like Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Joan Didion have in common? Well, they're women, and they write. Beyond that, I'm not seeing a lot that joins all of them together, and to judge them primarily as women rather than as human beings seeking to illuminate the human experience seems narrow-minded.

Part of the problem here is expectations. Women are expected to read and value "men's writing," even when it portrays situations and scenarios we're unlikely to ever face. Take a novel like Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that shows up in English curricula nationwide and focuses almost entirely on men in a brutal, male-dominated environment. At least until we adopt an Israeli-style system of universal mandatory military service, I will never find myself in the position in which the narrator finds himself. I haven't been raised to respond to situations with aggression. The thought of having to flee to Canada if the U.S. became involved in a war I considered unjust and immoral has never seriously crossed my mind. I don't intuitively understand how male camaraderie grows and expresses itself.

But I'm expected to, in effect, look beyond the gender of the narrator and the bulk of the novel's characters to discern what the book has to say about not the male experience, but the human experience. And I'm glad that I've been expected to do this, because it forces me to look beyond myself, to move out of my own familiar patterns of thought and overturn my far-too-numerous assumptions. It makes me a better reader and also, I hope, a better person, because one of the purposes of literature, I think, is to help us see the great complexity of human beings, our terrible weaknesses and surprising strengths.

By perpetuating this notion of "women's writing" and not expecting men to approach female-authored literature with the same attitude of looking beyond gender to the human experience beneath, we're doing everyone—men and women alike—a disservice. We're saying, still, that men's experiences can be universal while women's are always particular. And yes, at the end of the day, that does come down to the bottom line that women are less—less able to plumb the depths and reach the heights, less deserving of time, less deserving of column inches. That, to me, is the real problem here. And solving it, while largely a task for the editors who wield the power of assignment, is also a task for male reviewers to approach female-authored literature with a more open mind. That's something we can all do.

Related, lighter, two months late: This author got fed up with the "girly" covers publishers were slapping on female-authored books and came up with an interesting project: "take a well-known book, then . . . imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like." Huffington Post has the results in a slideshow here, and they're fascinating.