Nowhere to Go but Up: L.A. Times Seeks a Book Editor

subtle_art

Quakebot, the annoying Twitter account that erupts in panic whenever there is a 2.1 quake in Hayfork, Calif., was silent last Sunday, so apparently there was no seismic upheaval in El Segundo when Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” fell off the Los Angeles Times bestseller list after 85 weeks.

The Subtle Art
Our learned colleagues to the East, the New York Times, have had the book on their bestseller list for 103 weeks, apparently establishing beyond all doubt that when it comes to not giving a “f*ck” New Yorkers have it all over Los Angeles.

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The question of book rankings occurred to me while preparing the Daily Mirror’s annual holiday gift list of recommended books. I generally recycle previous recommendations because they are classics on Los Angeles and Southern California, and because there are so few new entries. (I haven’t yet read Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” and I’m deferring judgment on it). And it came to mind because the Los Angeles Times is advertising for a book section editor and books reporter.

Wanted: Books Editor!
Wanted: Books editor!


In the Otis Chandler era, The Times fashioned itself as a literary presence in Southern California. Book reviews appeared almost daily, often by Robert R. Kirsch, who died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 57.  The late Art Seidenbaum (d. 1990) was another literary luminary of The Times. In 1987, Richard Eder’s book reviews won a Pulitzer. (And yes, The Times awards book prizes named for Kirsch and Seidenbaum).

Since then, The Times book editor’s job was filled by pleasant people with no experience in newspapers; unpleasant, tightly wound oddballs; and was a place to exile able editors who offended The Times tinpot dictators. The once-separate section (published upside-down in the tabloid-format Calendar) was folded into the arts coverage when Calendar became a broadsheet and grudgingly ceded a page or two.

Which brings us to The Times’ currently dismal book coverage, run by Carolyn Kellogg, who is departing under curious (at least to me) circumstances, leaving the job open.

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Correction: This post originally said Carolyn Kellogg departed The Times. Kellogg tweeted yesterday (Dec. 10, 2018) that this was her last Monday at The Times.
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It’s been a very long time since Richard Eder won a Pulitzer.

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Los Angeles is a city of readers.

You will quickly point out that The Times runs a thriving annual book festival, as shown by the crushing number of people flooding the USC campus, where the festival was moved from UCLA and I’m just not going to get into that. You will also note that The Times isn’t the only game in town, thanks to the Los Angeles Review of Books. I have written for LARB. They are nice people, at least via email. But I can’t say that anyone has ever told me about a piece they read on LARB, which has an Alexa ranking of 22,000 in the U.S. and 70,000 globally, contrasted with 11,000 (U.S.) and 43,000 (globally) for Kirkus reviews and 9,800 (U.S.) and 28,000 (globally) for the New York Review of Books.

But the Los Angeles Times, despite all its problems, remains the biggest game in town.

And book editor at The Times could be one of the best jobs in L.A.

Could. Be.

Anybody coming to The Times as book editor will have to contend with two serious challenges that involve the subject most dreaded by newspaper publishers: money.

— Is The Times committed to devoting printed space, which — unlike pixels — actually costs money, to books?

Book people are print people, and as far as I know, no author can inscribe a Kindle. But devoting print space to books means there is less room for other features. I would be willing to give up crappy Sunday fare like “Movie Stars Look at Their IMDB Pages and Opine” and Mark Swed’s endless shilling and swooning for the “LA Phil,” (really, is the man on the philharmonic’s staff?), but your mileage may vary. To me, all the overlarge and half-page photos in the Arts & Books section make it look like The Times is doing a lot of padding that could be used for text.

— Is The Times committed to a budget for freelance writers? As in paying them for book reviews?

Oh dear. This is the big one.

The Times’ long, gruesome editorial decline means there’s not much prestige in writing an unpaid or minimally compensated piece for the paper, which is why Op-Ed has become a dumping ground for think tanks and lobbyists seeking a bit of credibility, random book excerpts and the unreadable ramblings of Virginia Heffernan. Sue Horton, who recently rejoined The Times as Op-Ed editor, is a first-rate editor and journalist, and I look forward her rebuilding the section.

Many years ago, when I got into the newspaper business, writing a book review meant you got to keep the book and nothing more. You might be able to trade it to a bookstore for credit, but that was about it. In the later stages of The Times book review, one editor ordered that the paper would only accept advance review copies (or ARCs). Which meant that even getting a copy of the book was no big deal. (Today, review copies are distributed as digital files, though ARCs are still around).

So who’s providing the (presumably unpaid or minimally paid) reviews for The Times?  It’s a rum crew. On Sundays, there’s at least one review I can “hate read” and sometimes it’s the entire section. This week, we had David Ulin’s chin-stroking “book review as critic’s autobiography” on “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles.” (In my single dealing with Ulin, he struck me as a likeable fellow, though his facile but shallow writing for The Times can be infuriating to anybody with a serious interest in L.A. history.)

Before that, it was Tyler Malone’s impenetrable take on the “I Hate L.A. Book” (“Dear Los Angeles,” compiled by David Kipen).

Sample (I hope The Times didn’t actually pay for this unintelligible nonsense):

"Dear Los Angeles"
The Times book reviews offer ample opportunities for “hate reading.” I mean, really?


Perhaps the ultimate example was Scott Bradfield’s Nov. 18 review (supposedly) of “Astounding” by Alec Nevala-Lee that was devoted entirely to Bradfield’s long read on the early days of science fiction and exactly one paragraph on the book.

One. Paragraph.

::

 

In my 27 years at The Times, the most common complaint from my writer friends was some variation on “I have been reviewed in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Review of Books, but the Los Angeles Times won’t even take my call.” The best I could do was explain that I worked in another department and had no control over the reviews. Still other authors, primarily of books on Hollywood, preferred a feature on them and their book rather than a review as there was better exposure and fewer opportunities for the ridiculous blunders that The Times inevitably makes when writing about movie history. (Silent films were shot on “sound stages?” Only in the Los Angeles Times.)

Now that I have left the paper, the selection of books seems to me even more random. For example, Gary Krist’s “The Mirage Factory” wasn’t reviewed, but Krist contributed an essay to the Op-Ed section (see above).

“Mirage Factory” is a high-concept book and part of a franchise, with “City of Scoundrels” (Chicago) and “Empire of Sin” (New Orleans). The high concept is that three individuals were essential to inventing the city: William Mulholland (water), D.W. Griffith (the movies) and Aimee Semple McPherson (religion). The book turned out to be relatively tame. The introduction is a labored and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to claim that D.W. Griffith “invented” the movies, that Sister Aimee “invented” her own religion and, yes, it’s all pretty ridiculous. If you can make it through that part, the rest of the book is an average, unremarkable treatment of “the usual suspects” of Los Angeles history that does not deliver what it promises.

I would never recommend “Mirage Factory,” although if you know anything about Los Angeles history you can at least read it without your head exploding (unlike Howard Blum’s “American Lightning”). But I had to wait weeks and weeks on the Los Angeles Public Library’s waiting list to get it. Clearly, there was interest in this book – everywhere but in The Times book review department.

::

The Californians

“After New York, it’s all Connecticut.”

An author friend and I were discussing the weighty matters of book publishing (respected authors are spurned by their publishing houses and even getting the brush-off from university presses, where you have to do your own publicity) when I touched on the New York-centric world of books. “L.A. is the ass-end of the publishing universe,” I said. And it is. How else is it that reputable authors get the cold shoulder from publishers while hosts of wildly successful podcasts get deals for books on L.A. subjects that have been done to death – that would be Karina Longworth’s “Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood,” which can’t even pass a one-page fact-check.

Which is why, evidently, that something like the “I Hate Los Angeles Book” (“Dear Los Angeles”) gets published. And yes, it was reviewed in The Times. Or at least Words Were Written About It that could be quoted on Amazon. It’s a book that all New York can love about its annoying younger sibling.

Go into any coffee place in Los Angeles and you’ll find young (and not so young) men gazing intently at the screen of a laptop. Surely they aren’t all writing screenplays. Are they? There must be a book in there somewhere. You think?

Los Angeles, contrary to the refrain of the “flakes and nuts in California,” has a long tradition of writers. At one time, there was a marvelous cross-pollination of writers: Reporters were friends with authors and screenwriters and playwrights, and they all drank together. There was an avid circle of fine printing (Ward Ritchie, et al) that overlapped with libraries and librarians (Lawrence Clark Powell). All of them distinguished in their fields.

None of that exists today.  The ties between the various disciplines of writing have been broken and the communities of writers are fragmented. The reasons are way beyond the scope of this piece, but should be noted.

Yes, there are local publishing houses and not just Amok. There is Angel City, and bravo to them. Years ago, Judith Regan took a stab at opening an agency in Los Angeles – and gave us Donald Wolfe’s ghastly “Black Dahlia Files.” A valuable lesson on how hard it is for outsiders to find their bearings in L.A.

And yet. When I looked over this week’s New York Times coverage on the best books of the year, there was nothing on Los Angeles. Nothing. Publishing remains firmly anchored in New York.

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Books Editor Wanted!

The Los Angeles Times is looking for a book editor. I hope it finds one. Los Angeles deserves a paper that covers the literary world just as it deserves a paper that covers local news, national and foreign news, politics, sports, business, the entertainment industry and the movies. (And no, the Los Angeles Times will never “own” Hollywood coverage; for the record, it never has “owned” Hollywood coverage and it never will. The New York Times and the trades will see to that).

I know. The Times will never seriously challenge the New York book establishment, even if it spends Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s last dime. But there is still abundant room for improvement. The Times would do well to turn its sights on California and the West, while not ignoring the “Loud Literary Lamas of New York.” The Times needs a shot of self-confidence and should look for approval from its readers rather than obsess about the opinions of East Coast pundits, and not just when it comes to book coverage.

Does The Times “give a f*ck” about decent book coverage? Enough to put some serious money into it? I certainly hope so.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Books and Authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Nowhere to Go but Up: L.A. Times Seeks a Book Editor

  1. thestarlightstudiosbcglobal.net says:

    Depressing.

    Like

    • lmharnisch says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Someone has to say this, right?

      Like

      • thestarlightstudiosbcglobal.net says:

        Every year since the Book Review Purge of the early 2000s, it becomes more difficult to alert the world to your latest book. Consequently the book does not reach its intended audience. It doesn’t sell well. And the publishers inevitably blame you, the author. Not the newspaper or magazine publishers. No. Never. They blame the author, who is having food taken out of his mouth. Georges Simenon was right: “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”

        Like

      • lmharnisch says:

        Well said. Thank you.

        Like

  2. Eve says:

    It would not be prudent, professionally, for me to weigh in on this publicly–but, “yes.”

    Like

  3. Michael Lott says:

    Here you go, an article that I read on LARB – “The Unacknowledged: Black Crime Fiction, the Roaring ’20s to the 1930s.” by Gary Phillips. Prompted me to buy a book mentioned in the article – Defender of the Angels: A Black Policeman in Old Los Angeles by Jesse Kimbrough.

    Like

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