HOT INK AUGUST 6, 1997 CRITIQUE

h = o = t   +   i = n = k             [   P.I.'s Lame List   ]

Get Out the Lit Vote!
(How Seattle Media Doesn't Cover Books)

i'm a little tired of it. Hot Ink is fortunate enough to find itself in a City of Writers (according to a Seattle Weekly cover story four years ago). Yet instead of any kind of insightful literary coverage in the local media, I'm continually treated to the kind of pablum we used to do in my high school rag.

Imagine, if you will, a committee meeting at which two ideas are proposed: the brilliant chance to contribute to public discourse about the arts, and possibly even shape that discourse. And in the other corner, John Marshall, P.I. Reporter without a distinguishing voice, who proposes a bland little survey of local writers, with a few snazzy cover shots of current books.

But while one fulfills both the letter and the spirit of what "engaging in public discourse" really means, the other doesn't. It fails at the spirit entirely. It fails abysmally. Guess which one the P.I. Editorial Committee picked?

For a moment, pretend with me that the other choice had been made. William Kittredge or David Guterson were asked to choose their books, and tell us why. What fascinating insight could have been had! Why does Guterson like a Christianized classic of Asian-American lit. like Nisei Daughter? Why didn't he include John Okada's No-No Boy, which seems to have more in common with Guterson's own work? Why is Mary Clearman Blew important to Kittredge? (Blew, although well-known for her Northwestern fascination, appears on no one else's personal list.) What if Whidbey recluse Pete Dexter had emerged to tell us what novels he read while writing last year's bestselling The Paperboy, and why?

On Monday morning, instead, the public received an excuse for literary coverage. The article came as a nicely sanitized list, with no tie-breakers. It seems books are subject to majority vote, which renders them equal to any other mass commodity. Appro priately enough, on the third page, the headline reads Many vote Kesey's work the champion; the surveyed voters could just as well have been surveying Chevrolets or sports gear.

The effect is further emphasized by commentary which is devoid of any intellectual enterprise. "The list does include its share of surprises," one expects will be followed by no one expected the Chevy truck to attract this much attention. The effect is to imply that literary preferences do not matter beyond the quirks of individual taste.

If the choice of what we read doesn't matter, why do some burn books? Why are writers in prison in China? Why is intellectual property something Microsoft is willing to fight holy war over? (I'm beating a dead horse, I fear, and will shortly began ranting Robert-Pirsig-like about "Quality" and "Meaning.")

Jonathan Raban, author of Bad Land, seemed to be the only writer surveyed who got the joke. His P.I. "list" contained, without any additional commentary, both The United States Coast Guard Pilot Survey, Volume 7 and Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (the most un-Northwestern book I can imagine). Perhaps Raban, who lives in Seattle, actually reads the P.I. and realizes what they might do with such a survey. Or rather, what they wouldn't do.

Unfortunately, the Post Intelligencer is not the only culprit. They are simply the latest example of the laziness of Seattle media in covering or thinking about books, writing, or literature.

A few examples may prove a point so obvious it needs no evidence: Microsoft's Seattle version of Sidewalk.com takes every controversial edge that might exist in an artist, a writer, or a reading, and rounds them off to a santized sphere, suitable for swallowing for minds without teeth.

The Seattle Weekly, in its Voice-inspired rush to be as hip as The Stranger is suddenly throwing profanity around, in ways that never would have been tolerated in David Brewster's day. This lends an air of urgency to reviews that continue to trot out the same old axioms about literature and contemporary books. The edgy or controversial parts of reviews and interviews aren't published (But appear here on Hot Ink instead.)

Public Radio "flagship" station KUOW (I use NPR's reference) includes the moribund Book Notes as part of its morning "Weekday" program. On KUOW, incredible authors -- William Stafford, for example -- is asked questions by Marcie Sillman like Why did you write this poem? There are no questions that imply some sort of difficult struggle on the interviewer's behalf, or the writer's. No sense that perhaps there might have been other ways to write Stafford's "The Southern Cross," and that perhaps we are an audience that demands to think.

The tendency detailed above also spreads its contagion to coverage of the arts in general.

A friend who used to review books for the Times told the story of an eminent theater critic (I will relate no names) who was recruited to Seattle. He began to review theatrical performances, in a critical way, as theater critics will. Some of these reviews weren't nice. There was a reaction to the criticism. Objections, even.

In other places, this natural dialogue is called the life of the mind. Emerald City Editors, however, felt compelled to suggest a slight diminuation of tone. Over the years this dumbing-down has continued, so that now it is impossible to tell thi s critic's pieces apart from any of the other blandishment-filled articles that regularly fill the Times's pages. There's very little in theater coverage anymore that presumes a thinking audience.

Instead, there is the very real assumption in Northwest mainstream media that we don't like to think. And you know what? This presumption of intellectual languor irritates me. It enrages me. I want to read something worth reading, worth thinking about . I'm mostly still reading publications from other cities for anything more than mind candy. But I want to eat where I live. Give me something to chew on.

Please. -- Robyn Taobene


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