Sunday, December 28, 2008

The E-Book Vindication

The recent front page story in the New York Times confirming that the e-book concept has finally caught on and is surging, has prompted many of my friends, colleagues and readers to e-mail me expressing kudos and congratulations for my so-called perceptive insight, expressed a dozen years ago, that electronic books will one day dominate the publishing world.

Yes, I have been flacking that concept for a little more than half a generation, ever since I re-acquired my entire published library of 30 novels and short stories and digitized them in every known format. In that time, I have been excoriated by my foolhardiness, castigated for daring to predict the ultimate demise of the paper book, and being cast as a pain in the butt by the publishing establishment.

In that time I have watched the body count of like-minded advocates, as they lay strewn along the highway of commerce like insect infested logs. As the numerous essays in my long catalogue of blogs will attest, I have been hammering this drum relentlessly despite the cacophony of naysayers whose vision was inhibited by nostalgia and stubborn resistance to the notion that, in the end, content would trump its delivery system.

What was wanting in this scenario was a more reader comfortable device that would be competitive to the long dominance of the paper book. With the Kindle and the SONY Reader, and more gadget makers joining the fray, the sun has at last risen on the concept and it will remain in the sky forever.

Some publishers still cling to the notion that sales of e-books are still a fraction of total book volume and continue to resist the conversion to digital, which brings to mind the image of the fiddling Emperor Nero ignoring the destruction of Rome. They are, as they say, dead men walking.

As a long time lover of the paper book and a practitioner in the supply of fictional content, I had little doubt that the swift emergence of digital technology would, one day, supplant the paper book. In fact, I used to predict that by the middle of the 21st Century the paper book would be a relic, a collectible antique, as dead as the record and tape industries.

I am now revising my estimate by twenty five years. At its present speed of acceptance, I predict that the paper book’s demise will be at the tipping point by 2025. With other book lovers, I will mourn its passing in advance. Being right has its satisfactions. It has its downside as well. Yes, I will miss the tactical feel of the paper book and its unique effluvia of ink and cellulose. I will miss the views of my old friends who will no longer be stacked like retired soldiers on my bookshelves, which even now groan with the weight of years of collecting.

The ramifications of this revolution will be profound in many ways. The impact on brick and mortar stores will follow the well-trodden path of retailers in the Tower Records mode. The visual displays of book covers in these stores will be sorely missed, as will the joys of browsing the stacks and sampling at leisure the content of the displayed books.

Although the digital devices like the Kindle cleverly offer sample chapters before making a purchase and are an excellent form of browsing, they come up short against the physical act of browsing allowed by the bookstores. Nevertheless, this form of browsing electronically will prevail. While the initial investment of upwards of three hundred dollars to buy these devices seems pricey, the cost of the content is lower by more than half and on the Kindle, never exceeds ten dollars and, for classics, much less.

Major publishers will seriously have to revise their business plans and pricing. While they will garner extraordinary savings by severely reducing warehousing and productions costs, they will encounter marketing obstacles because of the severe reduction of newspaper space and the proliferation of the Internet and television channels. This means that there will be no giant all encompassing conduit for advertising their wares. This will not be merely an obstacle in the book business but a severe rethinking for all products seeking to attract ears and eyeballs.

On the other hand, there are many who believe that the marketing of books among battalions of readers is far more dependent on word of mouth than on advertising and publicity. They may be right. While there is no scientific measuring stick to prove the point, I am inclined to believe that there is a mysterious content recommending virus that passes from inspired reader to inspired reader that may be the reason some books get read more than others.

Publishers generally will, if they choose to stay in the business, become primarily the gateway to content and will have to concentrate on developing more innovative ways to market their wares through digital channels if they want to stay financially viable.

The entire system of textbooks will be totally revised to accommodate the electronic publishing revolution. The day of the backpack will disappear. Libraries, too, will revise their programs in ways that will result in a radical change of services. The breathtaking plan of Google to digitize every book ever published is certainly a broad clue to the future that is fast engulfing us. But while these changes are obvious, the rules of unintended consequences will kick in and further embellish the profound changes in store for us.

Indeed, even I have discovered an unintended consequence in the use of these devices. I have, for example, bought and read more books since acquiring the devices than I have ever read before. They seem easier to read and faster, but this could be my imagination.

From the point of view of economics, a dedicated reader like myself who can purchase as much as 50 books a year, both fiction and non-fiction, the cost of the device becomes a minor expense and the convenience and immediacy of the purchase cannot be matched. Indeed, the Kindle download takes less than ten seconds for most books, there is no hassle or lines at the cash register and one does not have to use a connection to a computer to search the Kindle store. The SONY reader still requires a computer connection to its store to make a selection, although a new model has been promised that will eliminate that inconvenience. Also, the SONY is not yet connected to the Apple platform, but I assume that, too, will one day be corrected. The exclusivity of these devices will change as well as more and more competitors join the fray.

Futurists will, of course, have additional ideas on how digitization will affect the publishing business, but these few prognostications are pretty obvious and absorbing its meaning will be the challenge of every one involved in the business evolution of publishing. Pervading these predictions is the prevailing opinion and hard research that young people are reading less and less, and this will have grave implications for the future of content, however it is delivered.

Despite the surveys, I do not share the gloom and doom that predicts the further diminishment of the reading public, especially among the young, who have sold their souls to computer games and the visual arts.

I have great faith in the ultimate future of literature and the value and importance of storytelling and acquiring knowledge through the artful use of words, now migrating from paper to electronic screens. So far, I have not seen a replacement for the human imagination, the so-called theater of the mind, which embellishes and enriches the word and spins its yarns in ways that cannot be replicated by any man-made visual contrivance.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What Was Madoff Thinking?

While the curious, the inquisitive, the lascivious and the various investigators and detectives of enforcement focus on what Bernard Madoff was doing as he bilked investors out of billions, I have been exercising my novelist’s prerogative by concentrating my speculations on why Bernard Madoff was doing it.

Just in case you were vacationing on planet Mars in the last few weeks, Madoff is the 70-year-old con man who is the mastermind behind the bizarre Ponzi scheme that cost friends, family, clients and charities 50 billion, give or take, in vanished funds. The scheme, named after a former practitioner of the racket pays out alleged dividends not from legitimate earnings but from fresh funds contributed by new “investors.”

By all accounts Madoff was a pleasant looking, low-key, soft-spoken fellow who oozed integrity and modest authority. He was apparently regarded as a financial whiz and a man of great wisdom and compassion by his peers, who inhabited his social realm of country clubs and philanthropies. He was worshiped by an army of sycophants who sought his counsel, market wisdom and especially access to his remarkable investments that returned fabulous steady earnings in good times and bad.

He had earned the trust of numerous fund operators who used his alleged expertise at getting high returns as their calling card to lure huge international players into the Madoff net. A kind of sucker virus took hold and spread across borders.

So what was he thinking as he doled out these lavish returns knowing that he was cheating family, friends, charitable institutions, banks and countries? Did he believe he was helping people by providing returns that actually dwarfed what similar investments were paying? Did he revel in the praise of his peers as he basked in their awe and respect? Did his ego require such constant iteration?

What was his justification? I am tempted to think that he might have actually convinced himself by simple arithmetic that he was doing good deeds. If, for example, one had “invested” a hundred million with Madoff say ten years ago, one would have garnered, at a minimum, a hundred and twenty million return. Who would not think that Madoff was a genius? A charity might be doing somersaults having such wonderful returns to dispense their good deeds.

An elderly couple, who had placed a large sum with Madoff and lived prosperously off the proceeds, might have felt that they had discovered nirvana by this association with the mild mannered super fellow that befriended and supported them. And Madoff might have told himself how wonderful he was to supply these people with such largesse, enjoying the applause and believing, really believing, that he had become a human Santa Claus.

Did he have trouble sleeping nights? Did any ripple of conscience disturb his tranquility as he enjoyed the proceeds of his own entitlement, the numerous lavish homes, the yachts, the jets, the joys of being a generous respected Dad and Grandad, the recipient of kudos and awards for his celebrated contributions to the downtrodden and diseased? Once a lifeguard, he might have easily believed that he was still in the business of guarding lives.

Did the joys of oversized respect and admiration trump any tiny pangs of guilt, as he knowingly screwed his new “investors” by using their money to provide a continual flow of cash to his older investors? Was it not one happy family, his own included?

He was, of course, a man who knew the markets intimately. Perhaps he had reasoned that at some point in time, he would find a way to refund the coffers that he had rifled with his own bloated assets and what must have been optimism gone amuck. Perhaps he had tucked away huge bags of gold coins and artwork, waiting for the moment that he might cash in his horde and repay his funds. Perhaps he had stashed billions in overseas accounts or secret vaults hidden from investigators that he planned one day to retrieve and pour back into his empty money pit?

Touted as a family man, can one believe that he was really outed by his two devoted sons or, as many have speculated, a plot was contrived by the three of them to have good old Dad take the rap for the kids? Every avenue remains open in trying to assess how this man’s devious mind operated. Is it possible that behind the façade lurked other gossipy scandals, mistresses with outsized appetites, mafia dons who found ways to launder money through Madoff and other strange encounters with a shadowy underworld? Who knows?

Think, too, of the so-called “respected” money managers who begged him to take them on, throwing due diligence to the winds in the race for greater and greater returns. And what of the money managers who put all their clients’ funds with Madoff and took their usual commissions while doing not a lick of work to earn them? Never mind the obvious losses, think of the massive amounts of legal fees that will be enjoyed by that profession as everyone sues everyone else. The dominoes will fall for years as the big ego guys who made piles of money try to reclaim their tattered reputations in the law courts, a dubious proposition at best.

Most of all, people are speculating how Madoff was able to concoct such a massive fraud right under the noses of what could only be characterized as the brain dead SEC. If your own ox wasn’t gored, watching this crime unfold can be a form of entertainment. It would not surprise me if Madoff is currently fielding massive publishing and movie deals to satisfy the public curiosity about how he did it. And why? Look at me. Here I am spending time and mental treasure trying to figure out his motives?

Does Madoff feel any remorse? Perhaps this requires more expertise about the criminal mind than I possess? Interpreting the pictures of him being accosted by reporters and cameras as he walks along Madison Avenue, I see a cryptic little smile as if he is laughing at these hordes of busy bodies trying to probe his innermost secrets. From seeing that picture and my own reading of events surrounding Madoff, I’m willing to bet that in his heart of hearts, he feels no remorse or pity for the broken promises and wounded lives his scam has caused. I doubt if he feels anyone’s pain.

On the contrary, he may feel elation at having carried out this cleverly orchestrated scheme that escaped detection for decades and drew in people who considered themselves brilliant winners in the game of life, especially in the amassing of giant fortunes. Was he laughing at their greed and stupidity, celebrating his guile and cunning with his own internal laughter?

As for the ruined lives floating aimlessly in his wake, one cannot help but feel sorry for those who depended on these so-called returns to maintain their lifestyle. If they had any doubts about the origins of their good fortune, the avalanche of fat checks surely tranquilized their doubts. Indeed, if they had the temerity to question the source of their good fortune, Madoff was quick to cut them out of the roster.

To further prove his “integrity” he eagerly refunded principal, the origins of which came from entry-level investors. Wasn’t that a brilliant ploy to advertise his sterling reputation as a man of honor? This man was beyond shame.

As for the super rich who got their various appendages caught in the ringer, I feel no empathy for their bruised parts and crumbled egos. In fact, one has to cheer for their comeuppance and the explosion of their self-righteous worship of the Gods of Greed.

There is, however, a subliminal casualty of this strange affair and that is the earthquake of distrust that Madoff has inspired in these hard times. Without trust, we are all doomed to suffer the arrows of misfortune that people like Madoff take from their quiver to arm their bows. Without trust, the foundation that underpins our lives becomes a vulnerable house of cards.

Unfortunately, the punishment of Madoff will never fit his crime. His cunning lawyers paid for with the fruits of his ill gotten gains will game the system, and Madoff will become a star and advisor to fellow cons in the country club prison circuit devised for white collar criminals during what is sure to be a short penal vacation.

Perhaps it might be worth quoting the parting wisdom of that old rascal Carlo Ponzi, whose dying words characterized how he viewed the experience of his victims and sundry observers.

“Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over."

Was it worth fifty billion? You tell me.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Fallout

With the elections over and interest in news faltering, the media has suddenly gotten lucky and like sharks converging on blood, they have found a new killing field that will keep them chomping on raw meat for months if not years.

I refer to the appalling shocker of Illinois Governor Blagojevich offering, among other abominations, to sell the Senate seat made vacant by President Elect Obama. It is manna from heaven for the beleaguered journalists and their vast army of wannabes who seek the fame and fortune of Woodward and Bernstein.

No amount of media bias of whatever flavor is going to keep this story under wraps. Journalist ambition always trumps ideology. Think of all those ambitious journalists suffering from job anxiety and election withdrawal in a declining industry, who are suddenly confronted with an opportunity to make their bones and secure lucrative publishing contracts and movie deals to tide them over the present bloodbath in the news business.

The aftermath of this once in a decade story has all the temptations and insinuations of a potential Watergate, Lewinsky or OJ tsunami. I pray I am wrong, but my gut instinct is that there is no way to contain it. Even if it rises to the level of Whitewater which nearly crushed the early days of the Clinton administration, it will register high on the journalism Richter scale.

While every effort will be made to keep the new President from the quicksand and stench of the Chicago politics that nurtured him and, indeed, everyone involved has gone out of their way to keep him free from the predicted fallout, proximity alone will seduce every investigative journalist assigned to the story to look for a connection. We hope none is ever found, but the very fact of the probing could open wounds where none existed before. Yes, life is unfair. But politics in America, especially at this point in time, is a cruel and ruthless blood sport.

Just look at the initial cast of characters. A neanderthal Governor from a state and city where political corruption is a way of life and the main exit strategy of that office is to keep from exchanging the State House for the Big House. Names like Rostenkowski and Rezko, familiar with the interior furnishing of a jail cell, have already surfaced. Perhaps people of long memory will invoke the name of another Chicago celebrity, Al Capone.

Chicago is home base of the President elect, his new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and the mastermind of his political fortunes David Axelrod and others in their circle, including Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. President Obama’s campaign co-chairman and others yet to be revealed.

The sad fact is that all of these people have political and social ties to the actors in this tragic drama, and, however much they attempt to dig a moat between themselves and the governor, the ambitious media battalions will throw anyone under the bus if it inhibits their search for the story that could assure one’s future fame and fortune. As if that were not enough, slings and arrows to point in the direction of our new President, think of all those on the rightist side of the media continuum sharpening their knives and probing for the soft underbelly of the new folks about to operate the levers of national power.

It is, indeed, sad that the promise of this new administration and this young man, who offers so much hope for change and decency in government, has to be distracted by such a sordid story. He doesn’t deserve it. Worse, the once admiring media, in my opinion, will show him no mercy. The mere fact of his association by geography and occupation will draw him into the bonfire. Our hope, of course, is that the smart people who surround him will shield him from the heat, a tough chore in today’s laissez-faire information roundelay.

Perhaps I am overreacting to my own personal experience and memories. I lived in Washington during the Watergate fiasco. Every day a front-page story bylined by two young reporters appeared in the Washington Post, revealing some new aspect of the situation. It started out as a minor irritant to the people in power, at first speculative and only vaguely accusatory. It was doled out by the Post editors like a suspense thriller, which it was. The exposure was a weapon in itself. More people stepped forward with more information. Other news organizations joined in the fray. The law of unintended consequences kicked in. An ex-boxer judge got suspicious and the elaborate protective hull of the ship of state sprung leaks.

Richard Nixon, who knew he was being recorded since he was instrumental in setting up the system himself, was a willing participant in his own political assassination. He began to panic, confessing to his tape recorder. His people panicked. Some jumped ship. Like Blagojevich who suspected also that he was being recorded, he was not constrained from engaging in his own political self-annihilation.

Such stories are mother’s milk to journalists who are a driven lot. They will spare no energy or expense to crawl into every dark corner to satisfy the insatiable public maw for this sinister type of public entertainment. The fact that there is a connection, however dubious and unfair, to the highest political officer in America, whets the appetite of the media fame seekers who seek to expand such stories into Shakespearean epics.

These scandals have a tendency to become an industry. Watergate spawned hundreds of millions of dollars in publishing and movie deals and made Woodward and Bernstein and others rich men. Having observed the Watergate story first hand from its inception, having known most of the actors including the principals of that great political drama, some intimately, some peripherally, and having written my own fictionalized spin off of the event, “The Henderson Equation”, I can say without reservations that this story, unless contained at its root, a Herculean task, has an ugly potential to distract the new administration at a time when all their energy and concentration must be focused on righting our faltering ship of State.

It is highly doubtful that Blagojevich will go quietly into the night. It seems obvious that he will be just as reckless in his defense as he has been in perpetrating his own criminal intent. He will not be above attempting to involve Obama and many of his Chicago people. He will make wild allegations and they are bound to spill their poison over the new administration.

It will take great skill and candor on the part of our new President to protect himself from the fallout. I’m sure most Americans, as I am, are rooting for him and hoping that this ugly incident will leave him unscathed. I know, too, that such thoughts offered at this sensitive time in our national history will be considered feckless and inflammatory by many. Perhaps I am exercising too much blogger’s license, but I am certain that as this story unfolds this aspect of the drama will be injected copiously into our national conversation.

Obama and his Chicago friends can expect no mercy. Journalists are bloodhounds. Right, left or center, they will follow the story where it goes or where they want it to go, taking no prisoners as they burrow in to get out what they believe is the so called truth or their version of it. Expect every scandal mongering detail to emerge. Where there are allegations of corruption, sex is sure to follow. The media will spare no expense of their dwindling purse to search for ears and eyeballs.

Unfortunately in the rush for exposure and revelation, everybody will try to get into the act. Hearsay and lies will appear within quotes. Everybody and their brother who had even the most trivial and dubious tie to this story will seek his or her fifteen minutes of fame. Some people will believe them. Conspiracies will be hatched. Reputations made and lost.

Perhaps there might even be a silver lining to all this. Obama could seize the opportunity to mount a massive, gargantuan, monumental campaign against all political corruption, not merely as an empty gesture but with the kind of sharp teeth commitment to an ethical standard and punishment that can truly eliminate the power of money from the political equation. Fat chance you think? Here again the laws of unintended consequences might work in the new President’s favor.

But then, given the present national climate, it is very difficult to be optimistic. At best the fallout from this mess will be, for lack of a better word, challenging.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Some Ivy is Poison

As the Obama transition team announces their appointments of people to run the government in the next four years, I note with dismay and a shiver of jealousy, that the preponderance of his picks are mostly graduates of the Ivy League colleges. Indeed, an Ivy League education is undoubtedly an automatic leg up and a badge of entitlement signifying to those in this elite cadre that they are superior in intellect and achievement and truly fit to enter the exclusive domain of the group that runs things for the rest of us.

After all, these are the golden boys and girls who probably got double 800’s on their SAT’s and were surely valedictorians or close to that vaunted status when they graduated high school. Unquestionably they are the celebrated best and brightest, vetted by their peers and the parents of their peers, polished and preened to be the chosen ones. Admittedly some of them are heritage kids, automatic enrollers into the high precincts of Ivyhood by blood lines, and the sons and daughters of super wealthy contributors to their bloated endowments.

Throw all those egalitarian pre-election promises into the rubbish heap Barack. These are your guys and gals right out of the elite and super-achiever playbook, your ex-classmates and the ex-classmates of ex-classmates who attend their self-congratulatory reunions and toast themselves on their achievements in the real world. Many of them quite marvelous. Indeed, note how they dub each other “brilliant.” To be a graduate of these schools is the highest honor to be bestowed, a charter membership in America’s most exclusive club. It's hard to argue the contrary.

I guess that most of the rest of us are considered the dumb kids, especially those of us underachievers who never could get into the Ivy League schools, who had to take second, third or fourth best, who labored in two year community colleges or State Universities because of some perceived shortage of brainpower, aptitude, funding or background.

Just look at the lineup of Ivy League graduates that have held high office and you’ll see a preponderance of Ivy Leaguers bunched at the top. Obama, Bush, Clinton, are just the last three. Take a tiny peek at the roster of their wannabe opponents of recent vintage, Senators Kerry and Clinton for starters. At times in some past elections, Kerry versus Bush for example, resembled a fraternity food fight between Yalies. And Obama’s drumbeat against Bush could be likened to a lethal spitball attack at a Yale -Harvard football clash.

And if you want to really nitpick, take a peek into the educational backgrounds of the people in the media, another aspect of our society where the Ivy League network and the old school tie is alive and well. How is that for diversity?

If some disgruntled reverse snob wanted to prove his point, he could take the time to research all government appointees and business movers and shakers in American history, and come up with a vast majority of Ivy Leaguers that would make one’s head swim. No wonder their endowments are bursting with billions.

The Obama team is stacking up to be no exception in its appointment strategy. Is this what is called ready on day one, to pack the team with Ivy Leaguers, a safe credential bet since some of those hayseeds in Congress, many from State schools, are roundly intimidated by this elite cadre of super-achievers? Hell, if they graduated from one of those big shot schools, don’t they have to be smarter than the rest of us? Not that our dismal recent history and screw-ups led by battalions of Ivy Leaguers is any guide to future success.

Strange isn’t it that many of the architects who helped create or at the least passively approved those wacky financial derivatives and other risky instruments, are now the principal economic advisors to the new President. You guessed it. Most are Ivy Leaguers. When they screw up big time, their brothers and sisters in the media hasten to forgive them, and a recent New York Times editorial proclaims a fervent hope that “they learn by their past mistakes.” If they had graduated from Squeedunk U, you can bet your booty that the Times would have called for their permanent exile to purgatory.

As every parent knows an Ivy League diploma puts you immediately at the head of the line, and they will try, short of murder, to get their kids into the Ivy League feeder private schools. Who can blame them?

Put me down as a disgruntled reject from the Ivy League culture, riddled with jealousy and green-eyed envy, resentful that I am not eligible for their charmed circle, or considered the best and the brightest by the Ivy elite. Can you feel the moisture of my crocodile tears?

To tell you the truth, my marks in high school were lousy and I was too busy working odd jobs after school to find the time for extra-curricular brownie points. My chances for admission to an Ivy League school were somewhere short of nil. With the exception of English, my college transcript is an embarrassment. How can I make my point without revealing my credentials?

The fact is, I was an underprivileged, unfunded and odd job working depression kid who lived at home and traveled to college by subway at a time when the only school that deigned to enroll me was NYU, now a hot number in the University pantheon.

Nevertheless, I loved my teachers at NYU, particularly in the English department, the subject of my major, and I am eternally grateful that I was inspired by my freshman English Professor Don Wolfe to be a lifetime novelist. Bless him through all eternity.

I’ll bet that most of the Wall Street geniuses who screwed up the economy were mostly graduates of the much touted Ivy League business schools. Now there was a badge of entitlement. What the hell did they teach in those schools? Was there a course in greed? What hot B school Professor taught how to con the suckers or some polite version of same? It sure as hell worked, at least for them, but not too well for us dumb guys who couldn’t survive the admission process and entry into the network.

In all fairness, while I cannot ignore the outstanding achievements of the vast pool of Ivy Leaguers who have contributed to our country’s greatness in every field of endeavor, I am not prepared to worship at the Ivy League shrine on all matters, especially government service. I’m sure the defenders of the Ivy League culture can topple me easily with their eloquent debating skills, their airs of elitism and entitlement, and put me down as a resentful ingrate. But then, not all Ivy is verdant and pretty. There is such a thing as poison ivy.

I am here to cheerlead for the rest of us, we unwashed and unpolished lessers who never graced their pristine lawns, and for whatever reason were forced to be educated down a rung or two from the great spires of their campus culture. Nevertheless, I’d like to leave this field of contention, surely pursued by the invective and insult of the vast battalions of aristocratic and haughty Ivy Leaguers with the following parting thoughts.

Our two greatest Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, never went to Ivy League colleges. Indeed, they never went to college at all and were both self-educated. And the two Presidents who made the most important decisions in recent history: Harry Truman, who authorized the use of the atomic bomb that ended World War II and saved Europe from soviet domination with the Marshall Plan, never went to college, and Ronald Reagan, who graduated from tiny Eureka College, an institution that most Ivy Leaguers would dub as far below their lofty standards, was instrumental in helping to crush the Soviet Union. To borrow a show business phrase; “that’s achievement!”

Before the Ivy leaguers screw it up yet again, I would suggest to the President elect that it might be a good idea to expand his vision and put some folks on the payroll who went to school in the boonies and maybe even a few from that most famous college where three out of four of our greatest Presidents aforementioned got their degrees, The College of Hard Knocks.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Obama Miracle

Whatever your political leanings, there can be no question that the election of Barack Obama is a miracle of self-realization, an inspiration to all that self-discipline, singleness of purpose and creative imagination can achieve astonishing results.

The arc of Barack Obama’s narrative is dazzling in its implications. We all know the story and marvel at its denouement. One can find parallels in history, both ancient and recent, in which the will and determination of a single individual finds a way to achieve what is truly an impossible dream.

“Yes, we can,” was exactly the right slogan for the Obama campaign. He certainly proved that he can indeed and his victory against extraordinary odds is a historic event that will be cited and celebrated for years to come. If all of the self-help and inspirational books ever written were piled to the moon, they could not convey how this man achieved the most powerful and most coveted political prize in history.

While we marvel at his achievement, many of we questers who seek through art or science to find the key to human behavior, puzzle over this miracle of aspiration. How the hell did he do it? To me, discovering that link to his inner world is the most interesting aspect of his victory.

Like most of us inspired by his journey, I yearn to know the crucial secrets of the inner man. Who on earth wouldn’t want to emulate him? To all of us, he is the ultimate role model.

I look for clues, unique symbols, characteristics, actions, words, body language and relationships. After all, I am an outsider to his world. I never met him and all I know about him is what his campaign let us know, what was reported to us through various information outlets, the television images of him in action as a campaigner and through his interviews and speeches.

Admittedly, my analysis of the inner man is purely subjective, reflecting my own life experiences and the projection and insight that is fundamental to the novelist’s art. Taking a crack at what goes on in the mind and heart of another human being is a risky endeavor indeed and I do it with some trepidation, although there might be an attempt to put a political spin on my analysis. No way. I assure everyone reading this essay that it is politically neutral.

For some odd reason I find Obama’s choice of clothes, particularly the white shirt, the ubiquitous white shirt he wears, one of the most important clues to his character. A white shirt is a unique symbol of self-discipline. Making color choices detracts from focus. It tells me that anything that interferes with his single-mindedness is simply unworthy of his time.

I’m sure a psychoanalyst might find another explanation, but I cannot get away from the notion that this is a man whose determination is so acute that anything that does not serve his focus is rejected. I do not say this in a pejorative way. Nothing great is achieved without total focus and I frankly and enthusiastically admire him for such discipline.

Then there is the matter of his exercise routine. He knows the true meaning of keeping his body tuned and alert and what we have learned is that nothing, absolutely nothing interferes with his exercise routine. How many of us yearn for such physical discipline?

I am also fascinated by his walk, the cool graceful manner of his walk. There is something totally unique in the way he moves. In some ways, he reminds me of the late John Wayne, an actor with a manner of moving that stands as a marker of his heroic character.

Observe his cool demeanor as he slowly moves to the stage to confront countless thousands. Imagine your own reaction when faced with such a normally intimidating and formidable situation. Think of the self-confidence required to perform this feat. What does he feel inside of himself? I truly believe that his self-confidence knows few bounds. Here is a man who truly believes in himself and is completely comfortable in his own skin.

His facial presentation is also unique. His smile is broad, attractive and exudes charm and ingratiation. It captures his magnetism and allows him to be self-deprecating about his big ears and other features of his face. I found it perfectly acceptable and interesting to characterize himself as a “mutt”, citing a biological diversity that we know from our DNA, is ubiquitous in all of us.

His speech is deep and soothing and the delivery of his words and phrases is impeccable. His oratorical ability has surely been carefully self-trained and his eloquence is formidable. With his resonant voice and phrasing, his speeches have been honed to hit the right notes at the perfect moments and they truly move people, an absolute attribute for a great leader.

It is also worth noting that his choice of mate offers yet another lesson in discipline. He is matched with a formidable, brilliant and strong woman who has quite obviously been extremely helpful in his rise, someone who is a true believer in his uniqueness. You can easily see that the discipline and work ethic that they have lived by is being transferred to their two daughters, both of whom they are trying to make as super achievers as themselves.

As a role model to all of us and especially to people of color, he can be inspirational by showing us what self-discipline can achieve, how a focused outsider who believes in himself and his mission can, with luck, astonishing luck, make it to great heights of success. He shows us by example that the two parent family offers the best alternative to rearing the next generation, a severe dysfunction in the African American community where most child rearing is done by a single parent. If his example makes even a small dent in this area, he will have gone a long way to improve the lot of his brothers and sisters of color.

Whatever he achieves in his governing, his message to all of us is profound. Indeed, he has already carved his legacy into the public consciousness.

It is no wonder that people are clamoring to witness his inauguration. If I were a person of color, considering their horrendous history, I would be camping out in front of the White House even now to get a glimpse of this man in his moment of glory.

When I think of the daunting problems that face him as President, I begin to despair for him and the rest of us. At this moment in our national history, the act of governing seems untenable. The issues debated during the campaign did not even begin to address our problems, some of which may be impossible to solve.

For example, the population of this country doubled in the last 50 years and is likely to double sometime in the next four decades. How can a country that is now 300 million cope with a population that will be 600 million in the lifetime of many of those now living. When you contemplate that situation, you realize that our country’s future is in peril and we will have to be enormously creative when we consider immigration, health care, our economy , our infrastructure, energy and the big elephant in the room, terrorism.

Worse, there are so many people needlessly slurping in the public trough, locked into entitlements that are not sustainable and others who are dependent on the public purse, that extracting them from this habitual form of largesse will be close to impossible. A largely incompetent and unpopular Congress is facing an avalanche of states, corporations and seekers of all stripes with tin cups looking for handouts.

Obama will need to call up all his reserves of self-discipline and persuasion skills to tame the appetite for giveaways by a dysfunctional Congress and the greed and endemic selfishness that is corrupting every aspect of our system. Shifting the balance to protect the truly needy will be a challenge, requiring steel nerves and restoking the talent of persuasiveness Obama brought to bear during his campaign.

For the record, I did not vote for Obama. As someone even older than John McCain I am, admittedly, locked into the ideas that have sustained us through the great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. I understand that mindset and the echoes and slogans of those historical moments. In that arena I was in sync with McCain. Unfortunately, my idea of change is to look backward and contemplate the changes that have occurred in my lifetime. Future change is not a happy concept for a senior citizen whose stake in the future is in the worrisome fate of his offspring, rather than the prospects of his own life on which the curtain is descending.

Nevertheless, the old fashioned verities still persist in my zeitgeist. One of these is respect for our President and the patriotic notions of flag and country. As a soldier I marched under that flag and followed the orders of my Commander in Chief and I will continue to do so under our new President.

With all sincerity, I wish him Godspeed and good luck on the treacherous journey ahead of him. …and us.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The E-Book Revolution

Twelve years ago, I took the astonishing step of gaining the reversion of all my books from my English language publishers and converting them into digital formats. Most people thought I had lost my mind, since there was no user friendly portable reading device even remotely on the horizon and the books had to be read on either laptops or immovable computers.

My motives were twofold. I did not want to suffer the fate of so many of my fellow authors whose books were declared out of print by publishers while existing copies were moldering on shelves in private homes and in libraries where they would be eventually discarded. Another obvious motive was an attempt to keep my authorial name in the public eye for the foreseeable future.

There is, of course, a great deal of ego involved in such an investment of time and money, but as every author knows, the writing of a book whether it be a work of the imagination, opinion or scholarship, is essentially a product of an inner voice that is determined to be heard.

Before the age of digitization there were few options for authors to preserve their work for future generations. Now that digitization makes such preservation possible, there is no reason for any author to accept the extinction of his or her work through unavailability.

Of course, keeping these works alive and available does not mean that anyone will ever read them in the future. Even the most popular writers of yesterday disappear from public view at astonishing speeds, a fate that is sure to be shared by most contemporary best sellers. Digitization will not guarantee readership and many digital books may simply float aimlessly through cyberspace until the end of time, a lonely exile into infinity.

While that long time bet remains in force, digitizing my books involved a shorter term bet as well. I felt certain that, despite all the numerous failures and the dashing of high hopes which ravaged the e-book dream, that reader friendly devices, would one day emerge from the brains and skills of our electronic engineers and eventually reward both readers and entrepreneurs.

I knew in my gut that this would happen and it has. The issue has always been convenience, portability and reading clarity. That issue has been resolved and will now be improved upon exponentially. The first generation Kindle, the Sony Reader and variations of smart phone technology will in a few short years surpass the paper book as a method to distribute content.

I have been making that statement for more than a dozen years. I have been excoriated, pummeled, insulted and cajoled for making such a statement in various public forums. Time and again, people have extolled the technology of the paper book as the only acceptable format for conveying content.

People would declaim:“I love my paper book, the tactile feel of the it, the smell of it, the look of it. I will never abandon my love for the paper book. For me it will be the only way to enjoy stories and absorb information.”

It was difficult to deflect such a view since I, too, love the paper book. My passion is books. Reading them, writing them, savoring them not only for their content but for the beauty of their appearance, the feel of them. For me they represent one of the joyful wonders of life. Admittedly, there were moments of doubt, not doubt about the ultimate clarity and portability of content, but whether or not the human mind would accept the transference and absorption of digital content in a way that would provide people with a satisfactory experience that could rival what one achieved through the paper book.

Even with those devices currently on the market, particularly the Kindle, all of my doubts have been put aside. In fact, I can say with absolute conviction that reading books on this new device has increased the pleasure and absorption of content that not only rivals but in some cases surpasses the experience of reading a paper book. It has even made the act of purchasing the book more convenient and user friendly. I can make my choice, sample it first with excerpts, then buy it at a huge discount from what I would normally pay for a paper book and download it to my device in a matter of seconds.

There are still some obstacles to book selection which may never be overcome, although there are attempts to inform and review the various books that are offered by the companies that dispense them. Unfortunately wading through the hype and the lack of credibility and bias among the reviewers is an enormous problem and my instinct is to ignore them and make my selection based on the downloaded samples and excerpts.

Frankly, although she is widely respected, I do not take my reading cues from Oprah and I have long eschewed reviews from the media and the roar of the publishing company flacks and their profusion of buddy blurbs.

I have no doubt that the day is coming when these portable devices will dominate the educational system. Backpacks will disappear. Libraries will morph into other uses connected with books. Brick and mortar stores will change their focus. Newspapers as we know them today will fade into other forms. Digitization will take over as the method of conveying all forms of information in every profession. It is easy to be carried away by such prognostications.

Unfortunately not all of this orgy of digitization will be good. A new addiction will begin to inflict us, if it hasn’t already, information glut. Too many incoming information missiles assaulting us. But that is a matter for another discussion.

There is nothing, nothing, more wondrous, more powerful in their capacity to teach, persuade, inform and amplify the imagination than words. Stories form the very basis of our civilization. The imagery they insert into the human imagination is the power that fuels the engine of humanity. How these words are delivered may not be as important as the information they impart, but I am happy to report that the e-book method of delivery has surpassed my wildest dreams.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How I got the idea for my novel NATURAL ENEMIES

Of all the questions asked of fiction writers, the one most common is: Where do you get your ideas? It is a crucial question that goes to the heart of the storyteller's art. One might generalize and assert that it comes from an amalgam of one's life's experiences, stories told by others, books read, movies seen, dreams and fantasies, and the molten mix in the cauldron of one's imagination. This is one writer's attempt to pinpoint the spark that ignited the idea that became the story and its aftermath.

Peter Mayer, when he was the editor of Pocket Books, suggested that I write a book about a heroic woman who takes the lead in a situation of extreme danger and saves her male companion through superior ingenuity and pluck.

It was a time when the publishing industry was making a conscious effort to attract women readers through inspirational scenarios where they are portrayed as winners. I had no quarrel with the concept since I always believed in many aspects of the equality of men and women in dangerous situations. In fact, I had portrayed many women characters in defiance of those who believed that men could not create viable and accurate female characters.

I conceived of an exciting scenario in which a married couple, through various circumstances, find themselves lost in the wilderness and must find a way to survive and find their way to safety. They confront many natural dangers and circumstances that push them to the edge of death, only to find a way out at the very last moment.

Unfortunately, I needed to do some heavy research since, aside from my Boy Scout camping experiences and my Army basic training, I had little knowledge of the remote wilderness and even less knowledge about survival skills.

To do this research properly, I hired two female outfitters in the Denver area to take me into the remote wilderness for a week. Following their instructions, I arrived in the area properly attired and mentally ready for the adventure. The two young women were tough, knowledgeable and ready to take on this city slicker whose experience of the wilderness was many decades behind me.

We entered the wilderness in a remote area in Colorado identified on a map, if I remember correctly, as Little King Ranch. We carried heavy packs filled with dehydrated foods and other essentials for survival in the wilderness. It was tough going, climbing up and down steep hills, and in some places having to hack our way through uncharted paths. These ladies were real ecology fanatics and in superb condition.

They cut me no slack and were unmerciful and relentless in their determination to show me the very worst of wilderness travel. I was totally unprepared physically and dragged myself forward with sheer grit and willpower. Somewhere along the trail, my macho genes kicked in and I was soon in mano mode unwilling to be bested by women. It was no contest. I was a blundering weak tenderfoot. As they trudged ahead, their contempt for me became apparent. Although they knew I was researching a book, they quite obviously considered me a dilettante, effete and corrupted by city life.

Indeed, although I tried to make myself as pleasant and charming as I could be under the circumstances, they had obviously bonded together to humiliate me and were deeply critical of my performance. They had me set my pup tent up at a good distance from theirs and were adamant in lecturing me on the proposition that anything brought into the wilderness must be brought out, especially trash. Toilet paper had to be burned in the campfire after use, the ashes buried when we broke camp.
Although I was paying them, I was far from in charge since I needed them to get me the hell out of there. After four days and nights of hard hiking and tough sleeping, I insisted that they take me back. By then, we were barely talking. It has always been a mystery to me why they held me in such contempt and, at the time, my mind conjured up fearful scenarios of being left alone to fare for myself fated to be a dinner time snack for the wildlife that abounded in the area.

On the return trail, they deliberately moved swiftly and it was quite impossible for me to keep up. They seemed to delight in my struggle and would often disappear while I huffed and puffed my way up steep inclines only to find them chatting amiably at the peak of the climb.

I did manage to get back to civilization in one piece and paid my bill without further confrontation. To my eternal regret I neglected to ask them why they had taken such an obvious dislike to me. I have mulled this over for many years concluding only that they must have seen me as an intruder into what they might have believed was their guardianship of the wilderness. Perhaps my attitude was what put them off. I’ll never know, but I did accomplish my research goals.

The book was published to fairly good reviews and was optioned for the movies but never made. Nevertheless, like all experiences, good or bad, the strange adventure offered me insights and knowledge into a world in which I was a total stranger.

Ironically a few years later, my wife and I moved to Jackson Hole and loved to hike the many mountain trails in the Tetons.

To purchase a copy of Natural Enemies, click here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Fall 2008 Warren Adler Short Story Contest

Fall 2008 Warren Adler Short Story Contest from Warren Adler on Vimeo.

Enter your short story by clicking here. Good luck!

Friday, October 24, 2008

How I got the idea for The Henderson Equation

Of all the questions asked of fiction writers, the one most common is: Where do you get your ideas? It is a crucial question that goes to the heart of the storyteller's art. One might generalize and assert that it comes from an amalgam of one's life's experiences, stories told by others, books read, movies seen, dreams and fantasies, and the molten mix in the cauldron of one's imagination. This is one writer's attempt to pinpoint the spark that ignited the idea that became the story and its aftermath.

Living in Washington in the seventies, we were treated to an endless drumbeat of stories in The Washington Post by the young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about a brewing scandal involving the Republicans and the White House. Eventually the stories created an explosion that rocked the country and caused President Richard Nixon to resign after winning a resounding victory for a second term. The event has gone down in history as “Watergate.”

I had been a consultant to the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House and knew many of the players that were involved in the scandal. It was fascinating to be an observer to this bizarre situation in which a couple of young newspaper reporters, backed by their intrepid editor Ben Bradlee and the approval of the paper’s publisher Katherine Graham, were able to bring down a sitting President.

From my vantage point as a mere observer who knew many in the cast of characters in this ordeal, I was able to enjoy a smorgasbord of ready-made research into the dynamics of this struggle between the media and the political elite. Also, I had been a newspaperman, starting my career as a copy boy for the New York Daily News and going on to be the editor of the largest weekly on Long Island.

I knew the turf, knew the inside story of the political scene and the way in which stories are assigned, written and placed. Viewing this story unfolding before my eyes provided the raw material for the idea of my novel.

If a newspaper had the power to bring down a sitting President, did it not have the power to create one?

That was my central theme. Since I lived in Washington, I had some cursory knowledge of the history of The Post and the personalities that ran it, including some very private behind-the-scenes material that I had picked up through the gossip mills of Washington. We were very much a part of the media/political social scene, circulated freely, listened and observed, picking up material like a giant sponge.

My publisher at Putnam, then a family business before movie moguls and the mega corporations overran it, liked the idea and gave me a small advance. I wrote the novel. Because of my inside knowledge of the backstage story, it contained elements that could be considered a roman a clef, although I was careful not to come too close to the bone of what could be considered reality. Nevertheless the people at The Post considered it such and totally ignored it in their pages. In fact, the media fraternity considered it an attack on the system and it was hardly reviewed and mostly dismissed. But I had it right, and it is as fresh today as it was when written nearly thirty years ago.

The story doesn’t end there. A few months after publication my wife and I spent the Christmas to New Year’s holiday at a spa in Mexico where, of all people, I got very friendly with one of the guests, Katherine Graham, owner/publisher of The Washington Post. We played tennis together and generally bonded as people do when thrown together in a relaxed atmosphere. All she knew about me was that I wrote novels, lived in Washington and was very familiar with her newspaper and the circles in which she moved. I found her one of the most interesting people I had ever met in my life. In fact, I adored her.

But sometime during the holiday, she discovered from people back in Washington that I had written this novel. The perception was that it did not treat the people at The Post kindly and was a vicious attack on their integrity. She had also perceived personal references in the character of my fictional publisher and assumed that they were unfavorable references to her and her family.
Journalists have thin skin and think of themselves as perpetually under attack by people who doubt their motives. They truly believe they are worthy of canonization as truth seekers and see the world in stark terms of black and white. In this self-characterization, they are the good guys and they consider all critics of their work the bad guys.

Apparently, Kay Graham bought their characterization and treated me to a three-hour emotional confrontation insisting that The Post didn’t bring Nixon down, but that his own foolish act destroyed his presidency and any personal references suggested by my fictional character were insulting to her. I was quite shaken, but listened carefully to her accusations. She had not read the book, but from the information she was given from the home office, she determined that I had been vicious and inaccurate. My only defense, of course, was that this was a work of fiction and, while admittedly it did contain characters and events with some peripheral similarities, it was a work of the imagination.

She had a point of course. There is a thin boundary between fact and fiction and while she hadn’t read the book, those around her had, and were quick to characterize it as a roman a clef with nasty intent. The fact was that the idea was loose and no amount of explanation on my part could expiate my supposed sin. I will admit to being somewhat ingenuous, both then and now. In her place, I might have reacted with the same anger and emotion. Nevertheless the deed was done, and I felt awful that I had hurt my new friend, who I admired enormously.

After her outburst, she settled down and while hardly forgiving me, we did enjoy the rest of our holiday and saw each other on occasion in Washington. My admiration for her has grown with the years. In my mind she remains a heroic figure, a paragon of womanhood. Her autobiography, published a few years before her death, was one of the best I have ever read, beautifully written and honestly told, revealing the same vulnerable, charming and forgiving human being that had crossed my path briefly but memorably at that spa in Mexico.

That said, I nevertheless defend my novel as a truthful, insightful and accurate snapshot of that moment in time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Blame Game

While the smoke continues to pollute the environment in the worst economic conflagration most of us have seen in our lifetime, it is time to confront the issue of who to blame. Here is my blame list.

I blame all the sad dreamers who believed you could buy a house for little or no money down and the rest on borrowed money, absurdly convinced that the market for this house would continue to rise. Like any commodity real estate goes up and down. Nothing goes up forever. Worse, the purchase of a house is the first step in an avalanche of expenses, furniture, appliances, carpets, TV sets, things, lots of things. If people who bought a house they couldn’t really afford and all the things that went into it, how did they think they were going to pay for it? How did they buy into the notion that they were entitled to such largesse?

I blame all the pandering and plundering politicians of both parties for passing the laws that made it so easy to purchase these houses for little or no money down. They just threw the faux red meat to the gullible crowd on the premise that the more you give away, the more people will vote to keep you in office. Beware of a politician’s promises. They have one goal that motivates them: to get elected and re-elected. A politician’s office becomes an election campaign headquarters the moment he or she gets elected.

I blame all the lobbyists for bankers, mortgage brokers, stock brokers, housing advocates, the real estate industry, the credit card industry and all those who would profit from the never ending tsunami of profiteers who were paid to persuade (make that bribe) the clueless politicians to pass the laws that made it possible for people to buy a house for little or no money down that they could not afford to sustain.

I blame the army of greed-driven brokers, bankers and lawyers who cut themselves fees from the people who bought the houses for little or no money down, then sliced the mortgages which paid for them, then mixed them up with allegedly safer mortgages and sold them as “risk free” certificates to suckers all over the world.

I blame the politicians for taking the money from the lobbyists in exchange to do their bidding. Never believe a politician who takes this money and says it won’t influence his or her vote. I blame the voters who don’t do their due diligence on the politicians who seek their vote. If they elect clever manipulators who have invented themselves out of whole cloth, who are modern day snake oil salesman interested only in their own personal ambition and ego satisfaction, then they have only themselves to blame. Don’t look for solutions from people like these. Invariably they will make things worse.

I highly recommend an obligatory course in legislating and governing for every politician in the country presently in office or any future aspirant, and declare ineligible any potential candidate that doesn’t get a get a high passing grade and has submitted to a lie detector test. My estimate is that more than ninety percent of the present crop of politicians will flunk the course.

I blame all the fools who paid for things by credit card and extended the debt on these cards, paying ridiculously inflated interest rates resulting in a process from which they will never ever catch up. Indeed, they are going up the down escalator and they will almost never reach the top. Anybody that lets debt mount on a credit card needs a refresher course in simple arithmetic.

I blame the credit card companies for promoting these plastic time bombs to people of all ages who are persuaded and manipulated to take these cards and can’t afford to pay the debt they incur within thirty days. Credit card issuers make their money on the debt from the poor saps who allow themselves to continue to pay these pony interest rates that will eventually destroy their ability to ever get credit again.

I blame the parents of kids ignorant of the realities of debt who allow them to get credit cards to instantly gratify their adolescent desires. And I blame these stupidly indulgent parents for not teaching their children the value of thrift and savings.

I blame the educators and the bureaucrats who run the sadly dysfunctional educational establishment for not creating programs to teach young people about economics, the dangers of overextended debt and the value of thrift. It is an essential ingredient of a good education to prepare a child for real life. While we are at it, how about similar programs for adults?

I blame the pompous and self-inflated idiots on the boards of companies who receive high payments to serve on these boards and reward the CEO’s of these companies with astronomical high pay. The people who they screw are the stockholders they purport to represent and, of course, the rest of us. As for the stockholders, why are they not storming the ramparts?

I blame the advertising industry and all the manipulators in the media for persuading people to buy things whether they can afford it or not. Beware of the words free, bargain, discount, special sales, once in a lifetime and all those soothingly false pictures of people allegedly living the good life. Check it out. Be wary. Be alert. Never buy anything endorsed by a celebrity. Their praise is pure baloney. They are trying to get you to part with your money. If you buy into it and you can’t really afford the product they tout, the consequences are your own damned fault.

As for the current election, maybe the best course for all of us is to vote present. It seems to have worked for at least one candidate.

Most of all, I blame the DNA of the human animal that has made us slaves to our desires, dreams, hopes, aspirations, yearnings, fantasies, pleasures and cravings. Somewhere in that double helix construction there must be a yet undiscovered fault line that is responsible for an errant stupid gene floating aimlessly somewhere in the brain.

All that said, if you really want to find the true culprit, look in the mirror.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The End of Influence

It used to be that the main sources of credible and allegedly reliable political information came from the major big city newspapers, the three major TV networks, the two major news magazines and, more recently, the two competing cable channels CNN and Fox. I do not wish to denigrate newspapers and television in other markets throughout the country, but most people will acknowledge that the lion's share of influence came from the sources I have cited.

By far the movers and shakers of the political world pored over the New York Times and the Washington Post as the bibles of the wise world view, the quintessential oxygen of the zeitgeist.

The mighty Washington Post had the power to bring down Presidents, and the newspaper of record, the old grey lady, the New York Times was the major news source with the clout to seed every important major media in America and, arguably, the planet.

Staffed by a dominant cadre recruited from the elite feeder colleges, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and others that could be shoehorned into that category, the major "elite" media became a kind of branch of this closed shop of contemporary academic orthodoxy and entitlement. Like ethnic groups who felt more comfortable in their neighborhoods with similar neighbors, the so-called major media became more comfortable with their own kind, those educated in these colleges and universities underline once again the old birds of a feather cliché.

It became true of all power clusters in America, from Wall Street to law and other major wealth producing occupations that an Ivy League old school tie was and, arguably, still is the major gateway to fame and fortune. As an aside, one cannot fail to mention that those recruited from the business schools of these great institutions led the disastrous charge on Wall Street that heroically bugled us all over the cliff into the greatest American financial debacle of all time.

Ironically, it might be unseemly to point out that three of the most powerful of our founding fathers, Washington, Franklin and Hamilton, never graduated from college, although the latter dropped out of King's College, the precursor of Columbia.

While working in the media does not offer the heady awards of wealth, it does offer a far more seductive aphrodisiac, power and notoriety, the ability to amplify one's alleged wisdom through the bullhorn of the printed and spoken word. The psychic satisfactions of the power to influence cannot be exaggerated. It is the Holy Grail of ambition.

Alas, this power to influence via the traditional media is deteriorating rapidly under the onslaught of technology, which has spawned a Tower of Babel Internet culture where the number of voices has expanded exponentially and the pool of influence has become an angry ocean of riptides making the old methods of navigation impossible. We are being informed more and know less. Everyone seems to believe that everyone is entitled to everyone's opinion.

What was only a few years ago called the "major media" is quickly losing its monopoly of influence. The signs are everywhere. Newspapers are losing circulation at an ever-accelerating pace. The once vaunted three networks have become shadows of their former glory. The news magazines are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The bottom line, of course, is that advertisers, whose only measure of effectiveness is how many eyeballs they can attract and where they can pinpoint their message, are fractionalizing their ads and spreading them over a wider swath undermining the economic base that fuels this media.

On television, the three major networks have long peaked in influence and offer their news messages to an older and older demographic, slicing away people under sixty from their range of influence. In a few more years they will join their print brothers in the influence cemetery of the extinct. Even the cable networks with their self-hyped authenticity and increasingly inarticulate talking heads increasingly cater to an ever more aging demographic. Look where their ads are pointed, to the incontinent, the erection disabled, the sleep deprived, the diabetic, all markers of the ravages of aging.

The people who run these enterprises are not fools. They are discovering that playing to people with the same biases is their only business lifeline, especially in New York City and Washington where the educated elite huddle together in an easily targeted and self-important, although increasingly leftist, segment. I suspect that if, for example, the Times took too a big a step right, they would lose enough subscribers to push them that much closer to a Bear Stearns finish. It is probably true of the other former big guns of the mainstream media.

The Times, however, does have one saving ace in the hole. It provides the most extensive and comprehensive coverage of the Big Apple's vast array of cultural activities. Frankly, as an avid consumer of such information, I hope it will give them enough revenue to sustain them in some fashion for the long haul, although I am not optimistic. The Washington Post, on the other hand, serving a less culturally charged entertainment scene, may have a more difficult time getting traction and will attempt to vastly increase its local service coverage to keep afloat.

As for real influence, the kind they enjoyed for decades, the Times is already in free fall on that score despite its vaunted slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print" and their promise to be "a newspaper of record." The truth is that for decades they did fulfill those goals. In the last few years their focus has been too narrow and blatantly biased to make that case.

I can imagine how many focus groups they have enlisted to try to reverse their dreary business prospects. They probably were obliged, based on their research, to double their op ed cadre of conservatives, adding neocon William Kristol to join with David Brooks to give them a patina of fairness, especially since these writers are part of the intellectually acceptable conservatives in the mold of William Buckley. I doubt it will help improve their bottom line. Most of their centrist and moderate right subscribers have probably already gone.

Indeed, it seems at times that desperation rules the roost among the Times editors who support the strident outpourings of Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert and their roster of like-minded columnists who clang the pots for the disadvantaged and put-upon, few of whom are readers. One wonders if this clique is in the wrong pew, considering that the advertisements for upscale jewelry and super luxury products that can only be afforded by the folks they rail against continue to fill the adjacent space in the newspaper.

The most hopeful survival sign in the media influence department is the Wall Street Journal, which the canny Rupert Murdoch bought as his flagship newspaper outlet. The Times pretty well abdicated its money coverage giving Murdoch the perfect opening to buy the Journal, whose theme is "Money," a universal subject. The Journal is more conservative in outlook, largely because people who deal in money are less comfortable with vituperative lectures by unsettling voices of grievance.

Note how the Journal is moving into the mainstream of traditional journalism, rowing cautiously down the center and adapting some of the Times' mindset from its glory days when its approach to news gathering was more impartial. It will be interesting to see if it transforms itself under its "money" umbrella to become some hybrid that eats its way into the Times' once dominant turf. As an avid Journal paper and website reader, I am deeply impressed by their imaginative effort at transformation.

The fact is that I sorely miss the old influential culture of the once great media outlets. Perhaps I am simply being nostalgic, but I did respect what passed as the elite media of yesteryear which, I sensed, gave me a more factual and balanced picture of our world than they do today. I believed in their news coverage. I believed in the honesty of their columnists' offerings, even those with whom I disagreed. I now take everything they say with a giant grain of salt, and I ignore the pretentious faux sagacity of their editorials.

Worse, as a former newspaper editor, I can easily recognize the bias of their headline writers and the subtle ways they place their stories to cater to their committed readers. Thankfully, my experience has given me the ability to filter out all the hogwash.

That said, I will never give up my paper subscription to the New York Times, which I have been reading since I was twelve years old. I know how to interpret their politically tinged news stories and their columnists' offerings, which I read diligently but without conviction. They amuse and entertain me, and I do occasionally learn something of interest from their efforts.

But the non-political content of the Times is unbeatable and, for the most part, well written, wide-ranging and wonderfully diverse. It covers a vast panorama of the local, national and global community. It offers the best coverage of the arts anywhere on the planet, and I cannot conceive of not seeing the paper at my apartment door every morning.

Yes, their political influence has declined and they have certainly lost traction among those who do not follow their political line, but I can understand the business decisions that they must have made to continue their bias. They have been dealt a terrible technological blow that might one day bring them to their knees and are trying to cope with this onslaught as best they can by gathering together the prime adherents of their bias.

As they say in politics, they are being loyal to what has become their base. Indeed, I have the sense that any dissent to their policies from within their ranks is met with tolerant contempt and, worse, the threat of expulsion.

I wouldn't deign to predict how this decline of influence of the once powerful media will play out. Indeed, it is impossible to embrace the dizzying spiral of information being hurled at us through cyberspace. I just hope and pray the center holds, but I'm no longer as certain as I was.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Of the four candidates running for President and Vice President of the two major parties, Sarah Palin has been glorified by her supporters and vilified by her detractors more than any candidate for high office in recent memory. While her defenders are many, the pundit aristocracy and the so-called mainstream media have subjected her to a drumbeat of shockingly offensive, insulting and angry criticism.

Having lived in Washington for three decades up until the middle eighties and known many of the political players of the day, I have seen a sea change in the way politics is conducted. It has become a brutal and angry game of “gotcha,” a sinister and cynical conspiratorial process that makes a mockery of civilized political debate.

Perhaps we are going through an angry phase in our national life. I see it everywhere. On the Internet hate and anger of extreme virulence seems to be proliferating. Just browse through the comment sections of the various blogs on any subject, but particularly politics, and you will see venomous, hateful and scurrilous opinions that are nothing more than emotional, mean-minded and hateful rants that have little relations to factual and reasoned discourse.

In face to face conversations, political views have hardened to such an extent that one fears to incur blind wrath and nastiness by expressing anything that challenges the prevailing views on either end of the political spectrum. Which brings me back to Sarah Palin.

As a supporter and committed believer in equal rights for woman, especially in the workplace, I am confused and a bit appalled by the virulence of the attacks on Governor Palin by other women, particularly those who profess the same commitment she has to the upward mobility of women, of which she is a shining example.

She has been attacked for her faith, for her parenting, for her hair-do, for her supposed lack of knowledge of foreign affairs, for allegedly censoring library books, for her having been badly educated in state schools, for being too aggressive as an athlete, for not aborting her challenged fetus, for being a hunter and for being a hockey mom to only one of her offspring and, to top it off, too cute. Underlying the contempt of her critics is an unspoken prejudice of self-appointed elitists against people brought up in a blue collar environment, the sons and daughters of plain folks who work with their hands and do the heavy lifting for the rest of us, who fight our wars, police our neighborhoods, put out our fires, drive our trains and buses, clean our streets and build our houses and our infrastructure.

She has been put down for being Mayor of a small town and the Governor of an “insignificant state.” She has been portrayed as a cornball hick, as trailer trash, as a dumbed down “good ole girl,” as an empty-headed wannabe, as a liar and a fraud and as unfit to govern at any level, especially as an eventual President. In short, she has been crucified by what passes today as the best and brightest in media land, the thought police who believe in the infallibility of their judgment.

She has been dissed by the spoiled and overpaid Hollywood crowd who dispense advice as if they really were those heroic images they mimic on the silver screen. Her detractors don’t just dislike her, they hate her with what can only be described as homicidal passion.

To have become the Governor of Alaska, the largest land mass state in the union and a key repository of hydrocarbon energy reserves, a state which is merely a shade below the population of Delaware, from which Senator Biden hails, and to be dismissed as inconsequential in the pecking order of politicians seems to me bizarre and insulting to all women.

Dismissing Alaska’s importance as a State and becoming its Governor as a minor achievement, Sarah Palin’s critics seem bent on making her seem somewhat lesser than other politicians. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader in the Senate, came from South Dakota, a less populated and arguably less important state than Alaska, and few have criticized him for attaining his once vaunted and powerful position. Indeed, like him or not, the present Vice President hails from Wyoming, a state even less populated than Alaska and South Dakota.

To me, such criticism is not only ugly but the height of hypocrisy. As for her faith, talk to me about that when they take “In God We Trust” off our currency and excise the words “we are endowed by our creator” from the Declaration of Independence.

In terms of parenting, talk to the pillars of the feminine movement about juggling priorities and “having it all,” which has been their mantra. And which parent has the magic know-how to successfully discipline their children on sexual matters when the hormones start to rage? Try discussing the challenges of parenting with Gloria Steinem.

Some of her more hateful critics have gone so far as to say she is not a real woman, that she is merely a womb, that she is a religious nut, a far right wacko and a lousy mother, that she doesn’t have the brains or the experience to occupy any political post. Tell that to the people of Alaska and eighty percent of them will want to lock you in an igloo. I well remember when Roosevelt picked Truman to be his Vice President and the critics raged that he was just a dumb failed haberdasher and a corrupt machine politician.

As for her experience in foreign affairs, I wonder what the chorus of female naysayers might have said if an acknowledged expert on foreign affairs, such as Condoleezza Rice, was chosen by McCain to be his Vice President pick. As for her education, it is true that Ivy Leaguers and their “old boy and old girl networks” get an automatic leg up in the race for fame and fortune, but that exclusivity loses steam when they confront the real world and have to compete with the so-called lessers who got their bones and street smarts in State colleges or in the school of hard knocks where Harry Truman got his mojo. And what college degree is displayed on the walls of Mount Vernon, the occupant of which laid the foundation stone of our Republic? In this context, how about all those MBA geniuses whose overconfident arrogance and greed screwed up Wall Street?

The fact is that Sarah Palin needs no defense from me. Having lived in the near West for more than a decade, I have met lots of women like Sarah: tough, smart, outspoken, authentic, independent women comfortable in their own skin who say what they mean and mean what they say. They are brimming with life, love their country, their parents and their extended families and revel in the energy of the world around them, and, although they might be loath to admit it, they are like the pioneering women of the early West who built this country with their tough optimism, their mothering, their sacrifice and their boundless energy and good humor.

I know. I know. There will be those who might take this essay as an exercise in political persuasion. No minds will be changed. No way. I glory in female achievement. Like many of us, I am the son of an adored mother with an abiding respect and a cheerleader for her gender. Yes, it was a cagey political move for Senator McCain to pick the Governor of Alaska as his running mate. Indeed, Barack, in my opinion, made a fatal error in not offering the Vice Presidency to Hillary Clinton. Now that would have been something, seeing those two tough ladies go head to head.

The fact is that I would rush to Sarah’s defense no matter which side picked her. Win or lose she deserves a fair shake and certainly not the ugly calumny heaped upon her, especially by her sisters. I don’t agree with her on every issue. Who does? And I’d fight like hell if she tried to tell me how to run my life or by legal coercion change my views about religion or a man or woman’s right to make choices that are important to them.

In fact, as a Governor of Alaska she has not tried to impose her personal views on Alaskans and, more importantly, she has not made these views part of her governance. Nor has she tried to hide them. Besides, Alaskans are independent, stubborn, free-wheeling and strong-minded, and many live in that rough climate by choice. For those very reasons, they would likely balk at any attempt by her to reign in their attitude by sending her packing by dog sled to the North Pole.

In Alaska she bucked the system and threw the rascals out. We could use some of that courage in today’s appalling political climate. What’s wrong with a lady who knows how to use a broom (and I don’t mean to fly on it)? And for those interested in irony, she was, as students of the Bible know, named after the right woman. My advice to the voters is to give the lady some space and, if you disagree with her, fight her fair and square.

It might be of interest, too, to assess the qualifications of other Vice Presidential picks in American history, both winners and losers. With a few exceptions, they were a dreary lot. Many were political hacks designed to balance the ticket geographically. Some, like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, were great. On the other hand, Aaron Burr was eminently qualified and a murderer.

If I were Joe Biden, I would armor myself well for his debate with Sarah. If he’s not careful, he might go home with a very clean clock.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Contest News

Voting is now open until September 15 for our Summer 2008 Short Story Contest. Our five finalists will now be submitted to the general public for voting, and the winners will receive cash prizes based upon the number of votes they attract by their work. Many of the stories were quite wonderful, and a great deal of effort and angst was applied in choosing the winners. We have strived to put originality as the gold standard of our choices. By its nature our judgment is purely subjective. Our advice to those who have submitted is to stay with it. Not being among our top five is by no means a rejection. Thank you so much for submitting your work. We look forward to hearing from you again when we launch our next contest. Our motivation in creating our contests is to enhance and promote the art of the short story form and to encourage other writers to embrace it.

State of the Short Story

There is no doubt that, as Stephen King once alleged, the short story has declined in popularity. Once a staple literary form, evolving from the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century and morphing into the multitude of more respectable magazine media led by the once dominant Saturday Evening Post, the short story was a highly paid and sought after creative endeavor.

Even the less commercial marketplace through a large network of small literary magazines was once a highly prestigious and well-read enterprise. The short story was the entry-level form for most literary wannabes. I attended creative writing classes at The New School in the forties and fifties with Mario Puzo, William Styron and others of equal talent who cut their eyeteeth on the short story form. It was considered the curtain raiser to the big first novel.

The good news is that it is coming back big time thanks to the Internet and the declining time allotment to reading that is fast becoming a national affliction. Call it another manifestation of unintended consequences, but the short story form is the writing example of choice in the more than 200 university writing courses in the United States and the thousands of ancillary writing courses that dot the instructional landscape.

Short story writing contests are exploding on the Internet, including my own Warren Adler Short Story Contest, which has just ended its third successful installment. It is an extraordinary explosion of creative effort. Writers are being taught by example the efficacy of compression in the artful creation of character, plot, narrative drive, description and mood that is at the heart of the short story process.

Writers with unquenchable dreams of becoming the new Poe, Chekhov, Maupassant, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and countless other masters of the short story are honing their skills at a fast clip and creating a marketplace that, in my opinion, will grow into an explosive avalanche of awareness and a path to greater recognition for themselves as well as offering special joys and insight for the reader. Indeed, for many novelists, including myself, the short story was our first ticket to a literary career and continues to remain so.

I am not alone in my affection for the short story form and my attempt to promote its value and expansion as a literary enterprise. Thanks to Mr. King, and other practitioners like him, the short story renaissance will, in my opinion, not only regain but exceed its place in the literary pantheon.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.