Critical Mass

Guest Post: Michael Dirda and Book World, Part 3

By Eric Banks

The Times LIterary Supplement has been publishing an excellent series of columns this summer by Michael Dirda about his career at Washington Post Book World, which we're pleased to post on Critical Mass. Our thanks to the TLS and to Michael Dirda for the kind opportunity to republish them. To read the previous installments, click here.

Over the years, Book World was always desperate to increase its advertising.

Rumor had it that the section cost the Washington Post a million dollars annually. Fortunately, the Post was then extremely profitable and its highly literate CEO Donald Graham – who once addressed the Trollope Society – believed that “a world-class newspaper” needed world-class literary pages. Yet the Post was at heart a regional paper, even if that region just happened to be the nation's capital. Inevitably, book publishers with limited budgets allocated the bulk of their ads to publications with a national distribution, such as the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books. Was there no way, then, that some of those ads might be lured to Book World's pages? Thus began a thirty-year effort to attract increased advertising and, as the years rolled by, more, and preferably younger, readers.

We tried everything. First off, all the editors were enjoined to seek out the “glamour” reviewer or contributor. Stephen King was inveigled into writing about the latest Robert Ludlum thriller (a hilarious evisceration), Mel Brooks and Joseph Heller were brought together to laugh about their childhood reading, we tracked down Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union and Salman Rushdie in hiding.

At some point in the 1980s we also decided that Book World should offer a local bestseller list, rather than reprint the national one in Publishers Weekly. It would reflect what Washingtonians were actually reading and underscore that our audience gravitated to serious books, and not just those about politics.

Compiling the list proved a lot of work, though, and the big chains still tended to skew the results toward the usual suspects. At least they did until one of our more enterprising copy aides was put in charge of crunching the numbers. Quietly at first, but then with greater frequency, the more specialized works of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida began to turn up as nonfiction bestsellers. A less passionate Francophile soon took over these duties.

Mysteries and Children's Books had long been regular monthly features when I arrived at Book World in the late 1970s. Sensing the zeitgeist, I suggested adding another devoted to Fantasy and Science Fiction. We treated the genre respectfully and were soon featuring pieces by Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula Le Guin, John Crowley, and virtually every major figure in the field. In 1984, Gardner Dozois, then editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, used the term “cyberpunk” in an essay for Book World, its first mention in a mass medium. When Philip K. Dick died, relatively unnoticed by the world at large, we ran a full-page appreciation by the critic John Clute and topped it off with a memorial poem by Tom Disch.

Our Book Bag contest lasted for more than twenty years. By answering a relatively simple literary question, one might win a red tote emblazoned with the Book World logo. But after one of the quizzes required distinguishing between Beatrix Potter and Beatrice Potter (later Beatrice Webb), the Post's deputy managing editor felt that the questions had grown altogether too arcane. An oldstyle newsman, Dick Harwood, was affectionately known as “Left-for-dead-on-Iwo-Jima” Harwood. Over lunch – three martinis and an untouched side salad – he told me that the Book Bag questions should run more along the lines of “Mary had a little —.”

Special features came and went, a few stayed: Literary Calendar announced local readings and talks; Book Report covered the publishing industry; Readings – my own monthly feature – proffered “literary entertainments,” such as an annotated list of a hundred great comic novels or an essay on the most erotic scenes in literature. Two or three times a year there would also be a grand Book and Author Luncheon, during which a trio of famous writers would flack their new books in a hotel ballroom crowded with greyhaired dowagers. Who else could get away for two hours in the middle of the working week? Once Jill Krementz came to promote an album of her photographs. The hall was crowded. Out in the hotel vestibule, I caught sight of a tall rather wild-haired man smoking a cigarette, completely unnoticed. It was Krementz's husband, and I was able to tell Kurt Vonnegut how much I admired his work.

After Oprah Winfrey became the most potent force in American publishing, everyone started having book clubs. We jumped on that bandwagon, too, with high-minded internet conversations about works like Philip Larkin's Collected Poems and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. To these online chats we later added actual public conversations with such notables as John Updike and Joan Didion. For the evening tête-à-tête about their book Good Omens, I invited both authors, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. We could have rented a stadium. Even when Gaiman dropped out, Pratchett signed books for four hours.

Alas, none of these undertakings seemed to do much to increase Book World advertising or readership. Still, I don't think we ever sank lower than our “Close-Ups” of the 1980s. Several times a year we would devote an entire issue to an area of publishing we normally didn't cover at all. For one – on “Home Improvement Manuals” – I contributed the never-to-be-forgotten “Plumbing and Its Discontents.” Don't even ask about the Close Up on Physical Fitness.

We also ran Christmas issues, Paperback issues, Education issues, Summer Reading issues, Children's Issues. My favourite remains one from around 2000 focused on old bestsellers, and for which I commissioned reconsiderations of, among others, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. I asked John Sutherland to come up with an annotated list of the twenty-five worst bestsellers of the century. I was particularly pleased to see that he included Judith Krantz's Dazzle. Years previously my colleagues had complained that I needed to review more books that people actually read – like the latest from the author of the bestselling Princess Daisy. I can recall the opening of my piece: “I read Judith Krantz's Dazzle in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn't face picking it up again”.

In fact, I like honest genre fiction. One year, for instance, Valentine's Day fell on a Sunday and I decided to review three Harlequin romances by Rebecca Yorke, the pen name of Ruth Glick. All three paperbacks were witty, craftsmanlike, enjoyable. And, as it happens, I was not alone in admiring her work. A few years later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon was asked about the authors who had most influenced him, and he named Glick, to the interviewer's bewilderment. Chabon had grown up near the romance writer's house, had seen her typing away and was inspired to become a novelist by her example. In 2005 Chabon and I found ourselves together on a panel in Paris solemnly discussing contemporary American fiction; the room was packed with cultural attachés from the new Europe. With a conspiratorial glance, we gradually began to talk about the novels of Rebecca Yorke. The audience took notes.