Critical Mass

Goodbye to Frank Wilson


ONE OF THE THINGS I have dreaded most about the recent cutbacks in newspapers around America is the fact that many of the people I work with – in some cases, the very best of them – have an option to leave. It’s remarkable how few opted not to opt out. Morale is in the cellar, papers are being attacked from all sides, and inside this storm editors are made to beg for fewer and fewer resources to create a quality ‘news product.’ (Yes, those are the words used these days).

A number of creative souls have done a lot with a little, but there is no magician quite so nimble with his fingers as Frank Wilson, the book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Earlier this week I learned that Frank finally decided to hang up his hat, and I cannot think of someone in the inky arts who deserves a long and restful golden retirement quite so much. In the past year, in the middle of several buyouts, cutbacks, and near constant talk about making less with more, he managed to squeeze reviews of over 400 books into the paper, giving the Inquirer – which is the eighth largest paper in the country – a first rate book page.

I’ve been writing for the paper for about eight years now, and Frank is my third editor in that time. He was the first to take the hot potato and run with it. Long before any newspaper outside the Guardian had twigged to the online world, Frank set up his own book blog and began running podcasts and guest posts, directing readers to reviews that were running that weekend, keeping tabs on literary debates and throwing up links to stories far outside the borders of Delaware County. That he did this on his own spare time tells you what kind of guy Frank is.

It wasn’t just Frank’s mindfulness of the future that made his section an inspiration, though. He began covering poetry in a serious way, started working creatively with local events (you can actually see him in an NBCC event later this month), and took for granted that the readers of his section cared about ideas. He brought in reviewers like Scott Esposito and M.A. Orthofer and Kate Haegele who have a point of view and unique and informed tastes. He covered genre literature seriously. He also put a hand out to young reviewers, something more and more of our sections need to do in order to stay fresh. It’s embarrassing to say that these things are out of the norm.

That the man at the helm of all this whirling, energetic D.I.Y section was a Jesuit-taught, Kerouac-schooled, nattily dressed fellow entering his silver years with a grumpy streak and distinct conservative leanings disproved all the dichotomies that are so breezily batted around when people talk about literary coverage. By example Frank showed that there was potential in this truly disastrous loss, if we were creative. And that you needn’t be coming from the ‘online world’ to be part of it. That with a little pizzazz and a sense of humor these cutbacks might be weathered and then maybe even reversed.

I will miss working with Frank quite a bit. Although we disagreed on many things, he was the type of editor who made that seem like a plaudit to you both – the sign of independent thinking. He is funny and warm, a great virtual host. For a man working in what is by all accounts extenuating circumstances, he did almost no complaining. I sensed he felt the real thing – the only thing – was out there, coming to his desk, in jiffy packs (surely by the hundreds). I gather in coming days he’ll follow Seamus Heaney – or Major Jackson, that son of Philadelphia – back to his garden, where he’ll be beating back weeds, not budget cuts. That chokecherry should watch out. I mean the most respect when I quote Heaney: By God, the old man could handle a spade.