Susan Orlean and Lydia Davis, masters of the unexpected

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Two masters of the unexpected gave writing fans a treat at Harvard talks Wednesday.

Susan Orlean’s takes on everything from Queens supermarkets to show dogs recall the protean talents of fellow New Yorker stars Joseph Mitchell, Calvin Trillin, and A.J. Liebling. Her technique: stay in the background and sop up knowledge.

Mordant minimalist Lydia Davis’s essay/story/poetic mélanges hit with maximum impact. She lets her work take it where it will.


In Bulgaria, some tennis balls are like dumplings.

All languages are welcome on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, including Drunkard.

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.

As one fan put it Wednesday, those Susan Orlean leads dare you not to keep reading. Aware that her stories about chickens, orchids, or homing pigeons aren’t exactly breaking news, she says she always fights the question “Why would anyone care about this?”

“I have to make the reader share some sense of curiosity,” she said. “It’s like a strip tease, a come-hither look,” making the reader keep reading because they don’t quite understand it. I try to be engaging, not bewildering.”

Orlean honed her talent and productivity (including nine books, from which two hit films – Blue Crush and Adaptation emerged) in the 1980s at the Boston Phoenix, which she’s credited for teaching her to be enterprising and to search for unusual story ideas.

Orlean has since written nine books, from which two hit films emerged—Blue Crush and Adaptation. She’s now finishing a book about libraries, which tries to solve the 30-year-old mystery of who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library.

She’ll often sit around quietly—at a trailer park or gospel tour—soaking up information.

Unlike most reporters, she profiles people who haven’t been interviewed and have nothing to gain by talking to her. She said that her profiles aren’t “neat,” like the “trend” stories she dislikes because they start with an editor’s conclusion of what’s “true” and plug in examples to support that.

“Often stories change, and it’s not good if the story doesn’t change while you’re reporting it,” she says.

And being there alters the situation, Orlean freely notes. She tries to replicate the oral tradition, acknowledging that all reporting is just her take on events. “It’s not possible to be objective, comprehensive. It’s more important to be honest.”

She’ll pull herself in for comic relief, as in her Esquire profile of a 10-year-old who deftly shot kibbles at her. “I don’t overprepare,” she says. “I immerse myself in the world and let events unfold.”


Davis uses a similar technique, explaining, “If I plan too much I lose momentum.”

Long or short? Letter of complaint or personal essay? First, second, or third person? These only emerge as she keeps writing, says Davis. “I let the material be in control. If I plan too much I lose momentum. One question will occur to me, and I’ll let it go from there.”

She started by writing very traditional short stories but realized she didn’t have to do that—she could do something else.

Davis, who discusses her method in-depth in a long Q&A with the Paris Review, says she had a “great feeling of liberation” when she abandoned the traditional “well-made” stories.

She revises intensely, aware that her one and two sentence stories can fail if a single word is wrong—or even a punctuation mark. In the last line of what turned out to be a poem, she called the comma crucial:

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will
go, someday.
Heart feels better, then. But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Once called a “writer’s writer’s writer,” she’s won the renowned Man Booker International Prize but admits that some people don’t see the point of what she writes. They may be bewildered by stunts like turning a complaint about the packaging of frozen peas into an essay/short short story/whatever.

But she keeps on keeping on, deploring what she calls today’s “bottom line” literary atmosphere and relying on fellow writers, not agents or publishers, for support.

She worries that young authors have to deal with agents saying they have to produce “a novel that sells.” She advises them to continue to write what they want and make money somewhere else.

“I never expected to earn my living from writing,” she says.

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

Talking about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post

Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.

Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.

On Tuesday the Joan Shorenstein Fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School spoke about our research projects; the audio is now online and here’s what you’ll find. More specifically, I talked about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post and what (if any) lessons that holds for the newspaper business.

Your elected officials want to force you to take a cab

Under a proposed bill to help the taxi industry (already passed by the House), ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft would be banned from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and from Logan Airport.

You know, if the Legislature really wants to help cabs, it could ban walking, too.

Facebook has become the Internet—and that’s bad for news

Mark Zuckerberg in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Mark Zuckerberg in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Facebook is sucking the life out of the Internet because, for many of its users, it has become the Internet. That has serious implications for anyone seeking to publish online while keeping some distance from Mark Zuckerberg’s social-networking behemoth. Worse, Facebook’s utter dominance makes it increasingly difficult for independent journalism to thrive—or even to get noticed.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

A few thoughts on the 2016 Pulitzers

Congratulations to my former Beat the Press colleague Farah Stockman and to Jessica Rinaldi, both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes earlier today for their work for the Boston Globe.

Rinaldi won the Feature Photography award for her photo series of Strider Wolf, a boy in rural Maine trying to overcome a harrowingly dysfunctional upbringing. Amazingly, Rinaldi was also one of two runners-up in the same category for her photos of a Massachusetts drug addict caught up in the opioid epidemic.

Stockman, who is now a reporter with the New York Times, won in Commentary for a series on the legacy of Boston’s school-desegregation turmoil in the 1970s and ’80s. Stockman’s award is the third fourth Pulitzer recognition in a row for the Globe‘s editorial pages: last year Katie Kingsbury won for editorials that shed light on the harsh world of restaurant work; in 2014 Dante Ramos was a runner-up for writing about how to revive Boston’s less-than-vibrant nightlife; and in 2013 Juliette Kayyem was a finalist in Commentary.

The Globe covers its Pulitzer wins here.

Among the other Pulitzer winners, I was especially pleased to see the Washington Post win the National Reporting award for its deep investigation of fatal shootings of civilians by police. Not only is it an important topic, but it was based on a meticulously detailed database that the Post built in-house.

Last October, FBI director James Comey lamented that the Post and the Guardian, which assembled a similar database, had better data on police-involved shootings than law-enforcement agencies. “It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians,” Comey said. “That is not good for anybody.”

The Post‘s coverage of its Pulitzer victory is here.

GateHouse officials: Quincy bid was not a conflict of interest

Two of GateHouse Media’s top executives have sent a memo to the company’s publishers and editors—marked “CONFIDENTIAL”—arguing that a bid to provide services to the city of Quincy through its Propel Marketing subsidiary would not have represented a conflict of interest for GateHouse’s Quincy-based daily newspaper, the Patriot Ledger. I obtained a copy of the memo last night.

“There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state,” says the memo from GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis and senior vice president David Arkin. “Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.”

The memo follows a report from Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine that the city rejected the bid in part because Mayor Thomas Koch “was concerned about ethical conflicts if the owner of the city’s major newspaper went to work promoting the image of the municipality.” The GateHouse bid proposal cited the company’s “expertise” at “delivering measurable results for our partners in traditional media, digital media, and digital services as well as having considerable content generation serving The City of Quincy tourism, news, and business.” (Note: I’m quoted in Sullivan’s article.)

If Davis and Arkin are sincere, then they should make sure bid language such as that used in the Quincy bid proposal is not repeated. It would also help if the Patriot Ledger would follow up on its earlier story about the bid by noting that it has since been rejected.

The full text of Davis and Arkin’s memo follows:

DATE: 04/15/16

FROM: Kirk Davis, CEO of GateHouse and David Arkin, Senior Vice President of Content & Product Development

TO: Publishers and Editors

RE: Propel Marketing Campaign

Coming off the heels of this week’s Editors Conference and the release of our News Transparency guidelines, we wanted to be very clear about an issue in New England this week. The city of Quincy, MA, issued a request for proposal to market the redevelopment of the Quincy Center, a retail area. The RFP specified three primary services in its scope:

  1. Amplify Quincy’s story: Develop and implement a marketing campaign that projects Quincy’s image in print, broadcast, digital and social media
  2. Cultivate Positive Media: Leverage and develop relationships that result in positive media about Quincy development opportunities and current hospitality opportunities
  3. Hospitality Business Development: Cultivate chefs and restauranteurs to locate and invest in Quincy’s downtown.

Propel Marketing (owned by GateHouse Media) and the GateHouse Media New England group responded to only the first of the three services in the RFP scope, amplifying Quincy’s story with a marketing campaign. Propel had no intent of cultivating positive media, nor did they intend to cultivate chefs and restauranteurs, as the former is inappropriate and the latter not their expertise.

Propel Marketing created and submitted a proposal for an advertising and marketing campaign. The proposal included digital marketing services, print ads in local GateHouse newspapers and online display ads on WickedLocal.com.  The proposal did not include any form of native advertising, sponsored content or branded content.  Nor did it include any mention of blogs, blog posts or articles.

The proposal was submitted from GateHouse Media, rather than from Propel Marketing, because it included both Propel services and GateHouse newspaper ads, in print and online.

Neither the Propel sales rep, nor the GateHouse sales rep, had conversations with editorial staff about Quincy Center coverage. There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state. Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.

We take the independence of our news coverage incredibly seriously and are committed to ensuring that our standards are upheld in every area of our business.

Mike Barnicle is up to his old tricks

In the annals of modern political commentary, few phrases have been associated with one writer the way the ironic “it’s not about race because it’s never about race” is associated with Worcester’s own Charles Pierce, who writes a political blog for Esquire. For an example, see Pierce’s post of August 27, 2014, headlined: “It Is Never About Race: A Continuing Series.”

And by all means, trying Googling it so you can see all the references to Pierce.

Then there is former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle. On February 22, 2015 (sorry, but I only found out about this a few days ago), Barnicle wrote a piece for the Daily Beast ripping Rudy Giuliani for making veiled racial remarks about President Obama. So far, so good. But then there was this:

Let’s pause right here in this off-the-cliff assault by the former mayor to remind everyone of something Obama’s loudest critics always insist is the case: This is not about race because it’s never about race when it comes to nut-boys attacking the President of the United States. Sure!

Fairly innocuous as these things go? Well, yes. But given that Barnicle has a history of helping himself to other people’s words and phrases, I thought it was worth pointing out.

I emailed the Beast‘s editorial and public-relations departments late last week asking for a comment from an editor, Barnicle, or both. Crickets are chirping (a phrase that did not originate with me, I hasten to add).

And a hat tip to Dave Weigel of the Washington Post, who not only nailed Barnicle back when it happened but worked in a sly reference to Mike Royko while he was at it. Royko memorably accused Barnicle of pilfering his work back in the day.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the date of Barnicle’s Daily Beast column.