Who’s the Mack?

by Scott McLemee on April 11, 2007

Every once in a while, I will read something that seems uniquely precise in describing aspects of my own condition. A piece from early last fall by Jerome Weeks — at that point book critic for the Dallas Morning News — was very much a case of that happening:

As Mark Twain observed, anything you’re not obliged to do is play. Anything else is work. And as a book journalist, one is obliged to race after the Media Now-Now-Now – what critic David Denby once called “information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs.”

What’s more, book culture may seem a dwindling, quaint endeavor to advertisers in mad pursuit of illiterate teens and at a time when arts coverage in general is getting dumped or fragmented into a million Web sites. But there are hundreds of thousands more new books released per year than TV shows, sports programs, movies or CDs. For all the talk of the death of print, more people have access to more books now than at any time in history.

That’s amazing but it means keeping up is a full-time sprint. A book columnist must read in gross tonnage, read hastily in trains, planes and lunch lines and read books no one should bother with. One can endure a film or a concert for two hours; reading a pointless book can take days. Recall those dreaded high school assignments: A bad book can seem like a prison sentence.

I know, I know. You spend your time heroically putting out fires and saving lives in the ER. All of this reading doesn’t really sound like work to you. But it is. Otherwise, we wouldn’t pay researchers, law clerks, teachers or librarians.

OK, so we don’t pay them much….

This was writen as a farewell column at the Morning News, but the editors there wouldn’t print it — a gutless decision, even for the Morning Snooze, and one more sign of how bad things are. Instead, it ran at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, which over the past year or so has become the inside-baseball site for American literary journalism.

Weeks now blogs at Book/Daddy (think “mack daddy of books”). He just gave an interview to LitMinds, in which he mentions being “in development” with an idea he has for a new kind of TV show about books. Sort of a cross between Stephen Colbert and Bernard Pivot:

The inspiration came partly from frustration over the less than zero that commercial radio and cable TV do with arts and literature in America — compared to European media. You can target educated, affluent viewers, but once channels like A&E and Bravo get bought by bigger media companies, they start aiming for the same wide, illiterate, American Idol audience everyone else does. You could probably make money with such a book show, but for the media guys, it’ll never be enough money.

….Literature does not always have to be treated as a BookTV snoozefest. Books and wit and rewarding journalism are not incompatible it would seem. Canadian TV has Open Book, an amusing show with an actual comic actress, Mary Walsh, as host to a weekly ad hoc book club. Sort of Bill Maher but with guests who’ve done the required reading.

….Because I don’t live in Manhattan or LA and I don’t lunch regularly at the Four Seasons with the big media dogs, no one’s paying attention. I may have to try shooting a no-budget prototype with a webcam or something.

Great. More unpaid work.

Well at least it’s an option now. No need for it to look like cable-access show from 1983, and the audience could be very large, if not network-TV huge.

Unfortunately a pitch line like ” a cross between Stephen Colbert and Bernard Pivot” probably won’t help him raise a dime, but it’s the best I can think up.



otto 04.11.07 at 11:38 am

It’s the sort of think that a spin-off of bloggingheads.tv could do, if the personalities were strong enough.


Luther Blissett 04.11.07 at 1:17 pm

Personally, I think we could get books on TV with a reality show following the lives of seven first-year English grad students at a research one institution: “This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to study literature in one library and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when scholars stop being polite and start getting real.”

I think there will be enough doltish moments to attract the unibrow portion of the audience: drunk grad students behaving badly at department parties, professors seducing each other and each others’ spouses, professors seducing grad students, professors and grad students burning out and converting to Scientology or libertarianism, undergrads showing up to TA discussion sections in their Juicy-Couture pajamas, &c.


JP Stormcrow 04.11.07 at 1:34 pm

One thought might be to do something along the lines of TNT’s Dinner and a Movie (prepare a “related” recipe durng breaks) translated to Books, to add “spice”. Derivative, but it probably appeals to the correct demographic.


Timothy Burke 04.11.07 at 1:57 pm

I’m actually sorry to hear this in general about the Dallas Morning News: they had a very good culture section, with some thoughtful writers.

The general point about books is also exceedingly important, though. It’s kind of weird that everyone’s talking about the book as if it’s dead when there are more books of more kinds being read by more people than ever before in history. If all you follow is the bouncing of the geist, you miss everything else.


Jackmormon 04.11.07 at 2:01 pm

first-year English grad students at a research one institution

I’m sorry, Luther, but first year of a English phd program at a spiffy university looks like 12 hours a day of reading. Not good tv.


Ben Alpers 04.11.07 at 2:04 pm

I have an idea: you could have politicians and pundits who author banal, public-affairs-related books humiliate themselves by kissing up to an abrasive but pinheaded host whose endorsement will dramatically boost their sales.

Oh yeah…Imus is coming back in two weeks!


Luther Blissett 04.11.07 at 7:38 pm

Dunno, Jack, in my first year or three in a English Ph.D. program at a research one institution, I still had plenty of time for booze, drugs, music, and sex. As did most of my cohort.


MQ 04.11.07 at 11:49 pm

English Phd students live a very wild life by comparison with those in the, ummm, harder disciplines. They tend to have a certain avant-garde bohemian self-image to maintain.


Doug 04.12.07 at 10:18 am

re: 8. In German and European Studies, we had some very hard discipline indeed. Teutonic, even.


ejh 04.12.07 at 10:59 am

there are hundreds of thousands more new books released per year than TV shows, sports programs, movies or CDs.

I’d like to see some figures before I believe that claim.


Amanda French 04.12.07 at 8:19 pm

Why on earth wouldn’t the Dallas Morning News print the column?


Adam Kotsko 04.12.07 at 9:54 pm

The Valve should sponsor this show. Get Bitch PhD to be co-host or something, and millions upon millions of people would flock eagerly to the thing.


Jon H 04.13.07 at 5:15 pm

The show ought to have a blog, with comments, and they should at some point start having one of the panel members be one of the better commenters.

That’d certainly avoid the sort of panelist inbreeding where you know where a discussion is going to go before it even starts. ie, an NPR discussion on tax cuts, with someone from Brookings and someone from Cato. The Cato guy could probably be replaced by tape of a Cato guy from a similar discussion five years ago.


lampwick 04.14.07 at 5:04 pm

It might be a good idea to combine books and music in some way. After all, all the big chain stores like Borders have books and cd’s together; which supports my intuition that big readers are usually music lovers, and vice versa.

Plus music would give the show some nice punctuation, like on Letterman, etc.

In fact you could have one band or quarter or whatever on during each show, and one author. And part of the show would be ‘critics’ asking questions of the author and the band.

Or something like that.


Carl Rosin 04.14.07 at 5:38 pm

What’s more, book culture may seem a dwindling, quaint endeavor to advertisers in mad pursuit of illiterate teens and at a time when arts coverage in general is getting dumped or fragmented into a million Web sites.

Speaking as a teacher of English in a high school, I both agree with your general comment and want to offer a glimmer of hope to fellow bibliophiles: I have many teenaged students who have read things like Brothers Karamazov and Pale Fire and non-fiction authors like Victoria Postrel and Samantha Power and Leavitt & Dubner just for fun.

Maybe not most, but many. Really.

My team-teaching partner and I have outside reading assignments (on which we have decided tests would ruin the fun, so we discuss and trust) in addition to coursework, and during our wide-ranging discussions about outside reading we find that many of our students really do read good stuff, at least a little, despite their hectic lives. Granted, these are honors-level suburban kids who don’t have to work nights to support their families — although babysitting time after the little charges are in bed seems to be prime for reading — but I do see love of intellectually challenging reading still alive out there.


L. Caution 04.14.07 at 6:22 pm

I’ve been watching France’s TV5 for the past year or two (in an attempt to learn French) and have been impressed by the high level of discourse. Instead of a single interviewer and interviewee, almost all the discussion programs involve a moderator, a panel of 6-10 people and, often, an audience. The program may focus on modern culture in general (new books, movies, tv, music, etc., that need publicity) or may focus solely on books – as many as a dozen (on related subjects) may be discuessed in a single (1-2 hr.) program.

I don’t know what the viewership is like in France, but it would take probably months’ worth of C-Span’s book weekend shows to cover as many books as TV5 may cover in a week.


Jim Satterfield 04.15.07 at 3:48 pm

I live less than a mile from one of the new style open shopping centers. It’s a large, very fast growing suburb of Kansas City. Best Buy, Target, Old Navy, Lowes, etc. are the types of tenants they have. There is a Borders. It’s a busy place. There are always people going in and out and fairly often when I shop there there’s a line at check out and they have books, not just things from the media sections. The cafe generally has several tables with people drinking coffee and reading. It certainly raised my hopes concerning the number of readers in the public.

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