When Writing About Writers Is Really Bad Writing

I confess: I just read something in T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

I’m not fond of T. Ever since this semi-monthly add-on to the Sunday New York Times appeared a decade ago, it’s gone straight to my recycling bin. But the little blurb at the bottom of the new edition’s cover—“Five Novelists on the Rooms Where They Write”—hooked me. I’m a sucker for anything with “novelist” in the headline. The topic isn’t fresh, but it’s an evergreen one for anyone who struggles to find space to write.

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As it turns out, the topic of literary authors finding and claiming space is an ironic one. “The Writer’s Room” is at the back of the magazine, shoehorned in after 200-plus glossy pages. It includes photos of five well-known writers who, in the words of the T blurb, “explain how the right space can unlock the mind and let the words flow.”

I knew “The Writer’s Room” would be bad as soon as I unearthed it—but that took awhile. I had to paw through ad after upscale ad, no doubt the intention of this thinly veiled advertising supplement’s layout. The table of contents begins on page 78. The latest edition (“Women’s Fashion,” February 16, 2014) weighs in at over a pound.

T claims to be “curating the culture of style” among other things. But who reads this mishmash of old-fashioned Mad Ave and post-modern culture lite? If you want a book of fashion ads with pretty people—Tilda Swinton for Nudo Rings, Gaga for Versace—Vogue does this much better. A plethora of fashion blogs are edgier and more personal than T’s online version. If your thing is art or food or travel or interior design, it’s hard to see why you’d search for T‘s slivers of “Art Matters” or “Food Matters” when you could spend fifteen minutes with Real Simple, Condé Nast Traveler, or even Sunset Magazine.

And as for anything having to do with writing or literary culture, the NYT has its own Book Review. Not to mention Poets and Writers, the Paris Review, and a vast array of online literary magazines including my own Talking Writing. Perhaps T’s editors are clinging to the shaky notion that the NYT’s aging, upper middle-class audience of print readers requires a dose of bookishness to feel cultured—that this will complete the right glossy vibe for getting them to buy the luxury goods advertised in its pages.

Why show a bunch of bad photos of authors in front of their crammed bookshelves?

All I have to say to that is: No. What I want is a dose of good writing—quirky, risky, contrarian, witty, weird—everything that, except for a few glimmers, is missing from this chopped-up feature by five extremely talented authors. “The Writer’s Room” is so unintentionally hilarious that I’m caught between wonder at the editorial cluelessness and despair that anyone would believe this is what bookish readers want.

Of the five authors—Colson Whitehead, Douglas Coupland, Mona Simpson, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roddy Doyle—Whitehead is the only one under fifty. He’s also the only writer of color. The five were chosen, T proclaims, because each has a new book coming out. But their age and the fact that the editors selected brand-name writers with mainstream publishing houses conveys just how out of step the NYT is when it comes to literary style.

More to the point of T Magazine—if there is a point—the photos that accompany the text by each writer are anything but stylish. That doesn’t matter to me (you should see my writing office). But in a style magazine, why show a bunch of bad photos of seated authors in front of their crammed bookshelves? Three out of the five are wearing jeans; Whitehead’s face is obscured by the coffee mug he’s holding.

Maybe the “photographs by Magnus Unnar” are meant to convey the informality of iPhone snaps, but I can’t help thinking about the incredible graphic innovations I see all over the Web. I can’t help thinking about what Tao Lin might have done with an iPhone.

The text is also phoned in—maybe literally

The text is also phoned in—maybe literally. Because they’re such wonderful writers, I’d happily listen to any of them ramble away on the phone or in an email or a series of tweets—and they do say some interesting things here. But for a group that’s crossed all sorts of style boundaries in their books, the actual creativity of these authors is undermined by the eye-glazing approach of “The Writer’s Room.”

Coupland notes that after he broke his leg five years ago, “every room in the house became a new room, and what used to be the ‘sculpture pit’ beside the living room became my new office.” He adds:

“I painted it black, which you might think is scary, but instead it makes everything in the room turn warm.”

Okay, I like that (even if he goes on to say that he needs “density around me”). His office, including a bright red desk, is by far the most visually captivating of this staid field.

“I’ve never had an exclusive relationship to a room where I write,” says Mona Simpson, and in her photo, at least she’s sitting at her kitchen table. It’s the only image in the feature that doesn’t include the cliché of books on bookshelves. Simpson’s passage also delves most deeply into how the writing process is affected by an author’s environment. In working on her new novel, Casebook, she notes, “I needed to be watched while I worked.”

Here, she leaps far beyond ridiculous T phrasing like “how the right space can unlock the mind” to indicate why most of the action is really inside a writer’s head:

“I’d rented an office but I was recently divorced and traveling too much for a family illness. I thought that I could hold it together for a day’s work if other people were around. I wouldn’t let myself cry in public. I wrote the first draft on a table in the Santa Monica Public Library.”

Most of “The Writer’s Room,” however, feels like a pointless writing exercise. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to strip of narcissistic undertones, no matter how consciously anti-stylish the details are. Joyce Carol Oates, in talking about the photographs in her study, including “[p]ortraits of me by my friend Gloria Vanderbilt,” immediately follows up with this clinker:

“Like all writers, I have made my writing room a sanctuary of the soul.”

Jesus wept. Maybe not for T Magazine or even Joyce Carol Oates, but for all the other authors—famous or otherwise—who could have provided a more stylish series about writing in a studio apartment, in a parked car, on the subway, in a classroom, in Starbucks, at the beach, and all over the great big galaxy of cyberspace.


And Just in Case You Think I’ve Succumbed to “Negativity”

I was amused to find that the same edition of the Sunday New York Times—the very one that includes “The Writer’s Room”—also comes with the “Bookends” feature “Do We Really Need Negative Reviews?” Both contributors to this NYT Book Review debate, Francine Prose and Zoë Heller, come out in favor of critics rigorously speaking their minds.

“[M]ost writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves,” Heller points out.

Prose notes that she’s recently begun writing negative reviews again, “as if, after quitting for three decades, I’d suddenly resumed smoking.” But it’s not just a guilty pleasure or an exercise in snark, Prose writes:

“[I]t’s a question of what gets under my skin, and of trying to understand why. I’ve begun to think, If something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so.”

These days, plenty of things get under my skin. That’s why Talking Writing‘s new issue, which launches February 17, focuses on literary criticism and reviewing. In my Editor’s Note, “Don’t Kill the Critics,” I not only confess that I enjoy bad reviews; I also argue that we need them to promote serious discussion of literature and culture.

Be sure to check out TW’s new “critics” issue this February and March—it’s a good one.

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