Monday, April 20, 2009

We Must Save The Old Bitch

There is nothing sadder than watching something beloved and essential to one’s comfort level and well being decline. No, I’m not talking about the human aging process with its relentless surge of decrepitude and eventual oblivion. I’m talking about something that has always been there in my life for decades, stalwart, steady, exciting, frequently aggravating, but the most enduring stimulant to starting one’s day, more potent than its accompanying coffee eye-opener.

I am talking about The New York Times, once the immortal grey lady, now slowly morphing into a stripped down version of a retrograde teenager showing off in a desperate attempt to be noticed or, in this case, stay noticed.

Nevertheless my love affair with the old grey lady continues since I can still see vestiges of her classic beauty that keeps me interested, perhaps more out of nostalgia and habit than necessity and utility. The fact is that if the New York Times did not arrive at my front door in the morning, I would be bereft. A huge gap would open in my life that could never be filled with whatever the vast cloud of the internet could provide.

Strangely, the Times has morphed into a bizarre version of ideological schizophrenia. It has become the impassioned champion of its non-readers whose eyeballs would hardly matter to those advertisers who seek to sell goods and services to its ever declining readership. On the other hand, it does satisfy the ideological demands of many of its readers, whose “save the world” mentality protects them from the guilt of plenty and extreme comfort that punctuate their lives.

One would think that such breast beating would actually increase the readership of its paper. Then again, perhaps this ideological pose is the least important reason why people read the Times. It has, far and away, the best arts coverage of any mass media paper, probably in the world. Its feature stories, always well written, imaginative and often surprising in content, offer a marvelous potpourri for curiosity hounds like yours truly. I am often astonished by the imagination of its editors in ferreting out wonderful sidebars to international, national and city life that have often been neglected elsewhere. And, their sports coverage is darned good.

There is enough non-ideological material to make up for the obvious bias. Some star op-ed columnists are almost universally nasty. For example, Frank Rich, a pleasant fellow in person, seems to be running a close race with Maureen Dowd as to who will win the nasty prize. Frank, who single-handedly nearly ruined the live theater business when he was the drama critic for the Times, maintains a sniggling self-righteous nose-in- the-air superiority that makes one shudder with inferiority anxiety.

As for Maureen Dowd, her column must attract a large readership of psychiatrists to observe her love hate relationship with her own gender. I read them both avidly, proving the theory that nastiness has great entertainment value for people of my ilk.

Then there are the self-righteous op-ed lecturers on the subject of the way the world should be run, meaning Tom Friedman, Nicholas D. Kristof, David Brooks and Paul Krugman whose economic views offer even more fodder for the Times’ non-readers. Let’s throw in Bob Herbert for racial sensitivity. No racial slight, real or imagined, goes unwritten.

Their “how-to’s” have spawned for these writers an entire ancillary personal profit industry with ever burgeoning contracts for book writing, speaking tours and talking head babbling on the boob tube. More power to them. Talking to non-readers puts them in an income category that makes them wealthy enough to buy the goods advertised in their flagship distributor.

Kristof, who sheds tears for third world atrocities is quite eloquent on the depressing treatment of females in many of these abominable countries. One wonders why his exposes don’t send ardent feminists into violent protest mode along with the rest of us allegedly caring humans. Or does it indicate that Times readers are mostly armchair activists who prefer to bleed privately and leaving the dirty work to its non-readers.

As for the editorial pages, here is classic umbrage taking to satisfy the most hardcore “progressive.” The page screams with “down with the rich” and “republicans are neanderthal” indignation, offering a perfect magic bullet right into the heart of its readership which is mostly “upper middle class and comfortable to very rich” and, without a doubt “democratic or faux independent.” I suspect the target audience is themselves, the privileged guys and gals who run the editorial end of the business.

I keep wondering how many readers of the Times live in subsidized housing or how big a circulation the Times has in the borough of Queens, statistically the most multi-culturally geographical designation in New York City and probably the world. As the Bible for political correctness, the Times has a world-wide franchise on this transforming vocabulary in which evil doings are deliberately scrubbed clean of vituperation. Indeed, it won’t be long before the Times will describe terrorists as “wayward youths.”

I’m sure the right of center crowd, if any remain, are left with heartburn and rising blood pressure if they read the Times editorials, undoubtedly with masochistic fervor.

As for the Jewish readership, which is probably a healthy statistic, the paper’s anti-Israel stance may have little to do with a decline in circulation, since the paper acts as a bellwether of bias and a record of Israel baiting, both obvious and subtle, that offers a proper standard for the many Jewish organizations to attack. How could they keep score if they didn’t read every word of this outrageously anti-Israel biased coverage?

On the other hand, the United Nations personnel must revel in such coverage and surely provide a heavy statistical bump to its circulation figures.

Whoever selects the Letters to the Editor also takes its marching orders from the same folks who put together the editorials and approve the stunningly subliminal and brilliantly biased headlines embedded in the news coverage. And their so-called ombudsman tries desperately to prove that he is not a toady to those who write his paycheck.

I’d give the live theater and movie critics so-so reviews. The theater guys try hard to impress us with their broad range of knowledge and often forget to review what is on the stage, so caught up are they with their own intellectual narcissism. But hey, at least they cover the whole turf. The movie reviewers are less snobby and, in my experience, more on the money. But then, the job has to be very dreary these days with most popular movies mimicking big screen video games.

I hope I’ve left out no area or target of insult. Nasty can be fun. Bottom line is I love the old bitch and despite all my huffing and puffing I could not imagine not having her greet me in the morning. In fact, I find myself rising at least an hour earlier to cadge the paper before my wife gets the front section. Indeed, this is the only serial disagreement in our otherwise tranquil married life.

And I pity poor “Punch” Sulzberger, the heir to the Sulzberger-Adler family alliance that built the Times into what was once the most powerful and influential newspaper in the world. I sincerely hope he doesn’t fall into that shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves cliché that signifies the beginning and end of good fortune. That rumble you hear is those venerable newspaper builders rolling over in their graves as their golden boy heir fights to take the lady off life support.

I, for one, will stand by the paper and defend it to my very last breath.

And no, in the interest of fair revelation, I am not a descendant of those Adlers. I wish I were.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The E-Book Revolution- Part II

When I was advising Sony executives when they began the groundwork for creating the Sony Reader, I implored them to keep the device pure, meaning to create a comfortable user friendly alternative for paper books. I argued against tarting up the device with calendars, telephonic communications, e-mail, video or any multi-tasking that would inhibit the reader’s concentration on content.

My argument was based on the presumption that a truly dedicated reader approached the book as an entry into an intense parallel world that required deep, trance-like concentration to fully appreciate and absorb the author’s intention which, on his or her part, required a similar singular focus.

As a pioneer and evangelist for the e-book alternative to the paper book, I was simply reacting to what seemed obvious, that digital technology was moving at lightning speed into the mainstream, that reading on screens was a generational certainty as new generations began their screen “reading” long before they could actually read, that the use of computers, while not quite replacing oxygen to sustain life, was on the verge of becoming ubiquitous and as common as underwear.

I was, of course, reacting to my own bias as a reader and a writer. When I opened a paper book I did so with the expectation of the privacy and isolation required to absorb the full scope of the author’s intent. I wanted no distractions, nothing to inhibit my concentration. I knew that the author was crying out for rapt attention so that the reader would buy into the one-on-one communication system that is inherent in the process.

Admittedly, because I am an author of works of the imagination, I have a certain reverence toward books and the hard work of creating a coherent narrative. I am certain that writers of informational material, like text books, self-help, spiritual, instructional, and other categories feel the same way. Why spend countless hours creating such material if there was not an audience of even marginal interest out there waiting to read it? Which brings us to the most salient point of all, why would a publisher acquire a book if not to monetize its potential?

I am well aware that no business is going to invest the huge sums of money required for disseminating such a device without the possibility of maximum returns. The dilemma, of course, is whether multi-tasking is a necessity for the dedicated reader or that the add-ons will compete for attention and downgrade reading as its primary intent. On the other hand, purchasers of these devices might like the possibility of switching conveniently to other tasks while pausing in their reading.

There are lots of ways to argue the point, but in the end the bottom line will probably determine the outcome of how these digital readers will be configured. Then there is the dire statistical news about the decline of reading which, if true, might further inhibit dedicated reader devices.

My own views are not stubbornly biased in favor of the dedicated reader, the human version, nor do I look pessimistically at the future of reading, despite the gloomy statistics. The power of reading and its pleasures, for example, in the realm of story telling in providing insight entertainment and wisdom needs no defense. In fact, the worldwide expansion of literacy makes the point moot.

With all these new readers coming into the market, some percentage will certainly drift toward book reading as a prime content provider and will opt for the convenience of digital readers. The pool of potential readers is expanding not declining and many are sure to discover the joys and advantages of reading.

The advent of the Kindle offers a step-up in the competition since it cuts the umbilical chord of the computer and, at least at first, has managed to get some publisher’s consent to lower its offering price. This may not continue as publishers see it as a growing challenge to its paper book pricing. It is unlikely that they will be able to succeed in such tactics as more and more people opt for digital readers.

While it might seem jingoistic in favor of the English language, I inject this interesting statistic. America is only the third largest national market for English language material. China with its vast population is number one in English literacy, followed by India. Thus, for a writer in America, the chances are pretty good that the authorship of digital material in English has a good shot at expanding his or her audience without the inconvenience and expense of translation and paper book distribution.

I know these arguments will be stubbornly resisted by those who believe that the dedicated reader will lose the monetary competition to movies and videos in the marketplace.

In my opinion, as an avid consumer of movies, I believe books trump movies in this realm. Movies are a passive story telling device requiring not much brainpower or even concentration and a suspension of belief that the characters acting out the story are merely mimicking real people in their actions.

On the other hand, the characters in books and their pursuit of narrative goals somehow seems more true when filtered through the human imagination. We can spend lifetimes debating this point, and I cite the Bible as one example where words have created an enduring narrative that has been sustained for more than three thousand years with far more impact than any movie ever made. I am well aware I am pushing the point to extremes and risk everlasting calumny for what might seem like heresy. Remember I am talking story, not religion, if that is possible in any discussion of the Bible.

As you can see, I vote strongly in favor of the dedicated reader without any of the bells and whistles of distraction. I’m not balking at an audio add-on, since that process satisfies the requirement of privacy and isolation required for the absorption of content, although I wonder whether it can compete totally with the eye-to-word experience. We are talking here of the delivery of reading content and the future of this process.

In this age of massive revolutionary change on all fronts technological, financial, international and ideological it’s probably not wise to make long term bets. I made the author’s digital bet because I believed that this new technology would prevent books from ever going out of print. It was prudent for a living author to have publication rights reverted and to create a website as a way to promote his or her titles and continue to keep his or her authorial name alive as long as possible, on and on into the unknowable future.

With Google’s promise to digitize all books out of print I may have to refine my strategy, although just having the books available as digital fodder may have no effect at all like paper books moldering on shelves in libraries.

Things are changing so radically in shorter and shorter time frames and a subject like delivering reading material might not engage many interested parties. But in this age of fractionalism, I like to think that there are enough people to care about books and reading to make this take on the problem relevant. At least I hope so.

All of Warren's books are available for the Sony Reader and Kindle

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How I Got the Idea For Fiona FitzGerald

It was the early eighties and the mass media consensus on gender was undergoing a massive change. Women were on the march and the emphasis was on both upward mobility and equality on all fronts, especially in the workplace.

In the culture of imaginative fiction, the concept of the heroic figure was being “genderized” and the notion of the female cop, soldier, firefighter, construction worker and other jobs once considered male turf was swiftly disappearing.

Although I had never tackled the mystery genre which was growing in popularity, my agent persuaded me to take the plunge and since I lived in the metropolitan Washington area, I decided to use the police department that covered the nation’s capitol as my venue. In casting around for a knowledgeable female who could give me some insight into the inner workings of the department and her own psyche I was lucky to find an experienced female homicide detective, Judy Roberts, who led me deep into the entrails of the mindset and procedure of police work as seen through the female perspective.

Thus was born Fiona FitzGerald, a brilliant young white woman, working with a largely black dominated police force. Because I was familiar with the political and social circles of the power elite in Washington, I conceived the idea of Fiona working only on those cases that involved that segment of the Washington upper crust.

The first book in the series, “American Quartet,” dealt with a failed politician whose twisted mind conceived of the idea of staging a replication of the assassinations of our four American Presidents. It was cited that year by the New York Times as being one of the most outstanding mystery books of that year. The series was born, although the background of Fiona was to undergo a profound change after the second book “American Sextet” was published.

In the first two books, Fiona’s father was a New York cop and she had grown up in that city.

As with all of my books, the movie people beckoned and I found myself discussing film projects with a number of producers. One of them suggested to me that instead of making Fiona, the daughter of New York cops, it might be more interesting to make her the daughter of a prominent Senator who had grown up in Washington.

The idea appealed to me for many reasons and I made the change, immersing her in a culture that I knew a great deal about. She was now ensconced in the heady precincts of elite Washington with many contacts in that world, social, political and media which allowed me the opportunity to expand on all the possibilities inherent in that milieu.

In the five books that followed, she was assigned to investigate murders that related to the power elite. It was a world I knew well. Readers addicted to the series would unfortunately be confused by the sudden change of background from daughter of New York cops to daughter of a prominent late New York Senator. I took the plunge and got few complaints.

A new publisher, founded by an experienced former executive of a major publishing company, decided to take on the series and I consented to move Fiona to his new company. This gave me the opportunity to fix Fiona’s background in the first two books and make her uniformly the daughter of a Senator. I rewrote parts of the first two books to fix this situation and saw in this new publisher a chance for Fiona to go on indefinitely solving murders among the players in the power structure.

Alas, it was not to be. The new publisher went bankrupt before he could launch the full series and I was forced to continue with the original publisher. Thus, in the first two books, Fiona remains the daughter of a New York cop, although in the subsequent books she had been transformed into her new incarnation.

Nevertheless, the movie and TV people continue to pursue the idea of starring Fiona. Two film companies have optioned the Fiona books. NBC has optioned the material twice, once for movie of the week and once for a series. Scripts have been commissioned, including one by yours truly and another prominent television writer, but so far, she hasn’t found her television or movie legs. Nevertheless the books continue to be in play and there is some optimism that Fiona will once again be on her way to movie or television stardom.

In the meantime there are always the seven books and she has a growing fan club.