An Open Letter to Houston Chronicle President/Publisher Jack Sweeney (upon the whacking of their book editor)

Wednesday night, I was up late, crafting a scathing post on how I’ve been alternately irked and bored hypnagogic by the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of books over the last fifteen years. A send-up of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” it suggested that half the working writers in Houston should be processed into packing peanuts so the remaining few could be shipped anywhere they wouldn’t be prophets in their own country. My rant was derailed when a friend emailed me a link to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Jack Sweeney, president and publisher of the Houston Chronicle, had announced the layoff of 12% of its staff. Among the fallen was book editor Fritz Lanham.

My heart sank. How would it impact Houston authors if the Chron’s book coverage got even worse? Oh, wait. That’s not possible, unless they’re planning to actually set local authors on fire.

In 2006, Mr. Lanham was interviewed on “Critical Mass,” the National Book Critics Circle board of directors’ blog.

And I quote:
Q: I don't think most people think Houston when they think literary life, but I get the impression there's a lot going on there. What makes it a lively book town?

A: The University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, one of the largest and best in the country...We also have two first-rate independent bookstores -- Brazos Bookstore, which brings literary writers to town, and Murder by the Book, one of the best mystery bookstores in the country (EVERY major crime novelist comes through here on a regular basis).

Without these two bookstores and the UH program, the books scene in Houston would be pretty grim.

When I saw that, I wanted to slap some yes ma'am right upside his pointy head. There are dozens of talented, hard-working, well-published authors of all genres living in the Houston metroplex. Two indies? There are many! Book clubs buzz in every subdivision, coffee shop, and country club. Houston is the birthplace and headquarters of the RWA, one of the leading professional organizations in the publishing industry worldwide. The Winter Gathering of Authors at the Barnes & Noble flagship store was routinely jammed to the rafters. Nuestra Palabra "gives Latino writers their say." The New Yorker was right; we live in a lively book town. I don’t know where Eeyore gets off calling it “grim” because no one was in a better position to appreciate, facilitate, and preach the gospel of Houston’s literary scene.

Our man Fritz’s nose for book news was chronically stuffed up. Week after week, the Chronicle farted forth dry-as-dog-biscuit fare typified by last Sunday’s ponderous condemnation of a John Cheever biography. (In light of recent events, it’s likely Lanham was already asking for whom the bell tolls, but it's still a fair example of his taste.) There's value in throwing a critic’s well-written two-cents into the cultural conversation on John Cheever, but that’s why God created literary journals.

And why did God create newspaper book pages?

“They inform readers about new books readers might want to pick up -- a consumer-guide function,” Lanham said in that “Critical Mass” interview. “And they tell readers interesting things they didn't know -- they enlighten, teach, unnerve.”

I’m completely on the bus with that, but with the economy suffering, the book industry suffering, the newspaper industry suffering, and dozens of worthy, widely appealing books daily lobbed over his transom, Lanham could have better implemented that philosophy by devoting precious column inches to positive, engaging reviews instead of hurling himself between We the Readers and our potentially disastrous purchase of an eighty-pound Cheever bio.

Asked if local bookstores followed Chron book coverage, Lanham said, “Local bookstores are aware of our coverage, but as a rule I don't hear that our reviews move a bunch of copies. But come to think of it I don't think I've put the question directly to them.”

If he had, he would have been told that in order to be of use as a “consumer guide” (not to mention an advertising space), book pages need to feature timely reviews of books during their excruciatingly brief shelf life. Preferably books that people without elbow patches might actually want to read. Market appeal and artistic merit are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare wrote his plays for the rabble. Dickens was directed at the mass audience. The book industry won't thrive – how can it even survive? -- if the most visible book coverage inculcates the widest market demographics with the belief that they are not smart enough to read. Somehow chortling academics have stretched this Grand Canyon of elitism and inefficacy between hungry readers and the intelligent, artsy, totally happening "let's do lunch" vibe of the book industry.

If the book business is dying of lung cancer, pasty little pedants like Fritz Lanham are the Marlboro Men. I'm sorry to be blunt. I don't want to kick the guy when he's down. (I wanted to kick him when he was up, but I missed my chance.) Mr. Lanham is an excellent writer. I hope he’ll carpe diem, grow a pair, and write a book of his own. I’d definitely buy it. Meanwhile, I hope the powers that be at the Chronicle will take this moment to reinvent the form and function of its book coverage, understanding that (hello!) encouraging reading is good for the newspaper business.

We get the culture we beget, Mr. Sweeney. The culture we carve, decision by decision. Books and newspapers are a vital, dynamic, and undeniably symbiotic aspect of American life. Well-crafted, hilarious, sexy, thought-provoking, educational, enormously entertaining books are being published every day, and there's an intelligent audience wanting to know about them. Ding dong the Fritz is dead, but where will the Chronicle go from here? Will future book coverage be a dynamic, relevant thread that appeals to an untapped audience, attracts advertisers, pumps people into bookstores, and lights a fire under the Houston literary scene? Or will we be yawning over wire service rip 'n' read reviews penned by circle-jerking academics and laid-off book editors?

Jack. Darling. I'm begging you. For the love of words on paper. Let's do lunch.


I'm sorry so many in journalism, including Mr. Lanham, have lost their jobs. I've bought any number of books after reading reviews in The Chronicle's Zest section. I've wished for a long time, however, that Houston's working writers had a better friend. Novelists working in popular fiction, including genre fiction, are the engines that keep the publishers and bookstores in business and millions of readers reading. In today's economy, mass market paperback originals remain in reach for the most voracious readers. Certainly, some books are better than others, but dismissing them all without reading any is not only elitist but guaranteed to make the book pages relevant to only that small minority looking to read the Emperor's New Prose.
Suzan Harden said…
Fritz getting laid off? It's karma, baby.

I do hope the Chron keeps the author appearances blurb in Zest.
Anonymous said…
I'm sure that elbow patch wearers by the tens will be lining up to see just where Fritz lands when he finally finds his feet...
TJ Bennett said…
Gosh, Joni, how do you REALLY feel about it? LOL!

Honestly, I was thinking it, but didn't want to say it out loud... :-)

This could be a wonderful opportunity for the book editorial section to become relevant to a larger group of the book-buying public. Let's see what happens next.

Del said…
Or the Chron could cut their costs even more by linking to your BLOG!
Surely this is Citizen Journalism or Citizen Reviewerism at it's very best. And look at the money they could save then.
Be Fantastic
Joni Rodgers said…
Hey, Dad, I learned it from you!

Growing up in the world of radio, I always understood that the attention span of an audience is the commodity sold by any kind of commercial media. Radio stations and newspapers mine that commodity by serving people in the community, not by eating their own tails.
Joni Rodgers said…
Astonishingly, I've not heard from Jack Sweeney about lunch...

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