Tomorrow is Frank Wilson’s last day as book-review editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. There was a time when the Inky’s book section was big and ambitious, a multi-page pullout that made the Sunday edition a pleasure to read. Them days is long gone, of course, and with Wilson’s departure I think Inky’s book coverage is about to go down the drain as well.
He cared a good deal about arts coverage and he had many ideas on how to make a books section both lively and profitable. He was a man who fought hard to get a Steve Erickson review running off the front of the Arts & Entertainment section. But I suspect many of his innovative ideas fell on deaf ears. I don’t know if Frank will ever reveal the true sacrifice of his labors. But trust me. The man did everything he could and kept at this game far longer than any reasonable person should.
So the news depresses me. Because Philadelphia was lucky to have Frank Wilson. Hell, the whole nation was lucky to have Frank Wilson. He was possibly too smart for this business. He may have cared too much.
Take the word “possibly” out of that penultimate sentence. Because journalism and newspapering require a high degree of education and literacy from their practitioners, lay people tend to think of journalists as intellectuals. They are not. When somebody in the newspaper biz gets called an intellectual, it may sound like a compliment, but it’s not. To be called an intellectual in the newspaper biz is to be called an impractical, unrealistic, Ivory Tower egghead with no grasp of the hard realities of the news business.
That this view is held by people who have been diligently and indefatigably flushing themselves and their industry down the toilet, inch by inch over the past few decades, hardly matters. They know what it takes to put out A Newspaper That Sells, even if fewer and fewer people each day are interested in buying that newspaper.
The glassy eyed indifference of newspaper editors to book reviews no longer surprises me, though it does continue to astonish me.
Back when the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels were becoming a publishing phenomenon, I spoke with an editor about doing a big feature on the series. I’d already poked through the first book, and I knew that doing the research would entail reading some of the worst English language prose ever set into type, so I made certain to ask what kind of play the article would get.
I was informed, in the tone of voice reserved for a child who thinks the family car can be replaced with a pony, that it would run in the back of the Sunday arts section, where the text would probably also be chopped down to nothing so as to make room for the same canned wire copy being run by every other newspaper in North America that particular week.
But, I said, these books tell us things about the commercial potency of fundamentalist religion, and the strain of end-times thinking in America. No matter. It would be a Book Article, and no Book Article would ever run on the front page of the Sunday arts section. That space was reserved for articles about TV shows that were being watched by people who didn’t read newspapers, but would nevertheless be magically drawn to the newspaper because it ran articles about the TV shows they liked.
As someone who had the word “intellectual” tossed at me a few times during my newspaper days, I realize that my opinion has exactly zero traction with the kind of executives who consider newspapermen like Frank Wilson dispensible luxuries. But in my unrealistic, impractical Ivory Tower egghead way, I continue to think that an industry that rises and falls on the written word should be cultivating people who enjoy the written word, not chasing them away.
The wonder is not that the newspaper industry is dying out. The wonder is that newspapers still exist at all.
I’m not saying that better book coverage would turn around declining newspaper sales. I am saying that a not inconsiderable number of people looked forward to reading the book reviews Frank Wilson edited each week, and that his departure leaves that same number of people with one less reason to give a damn if the Philadelphia Inquirer publishes another edition or simply falls on its side and rolls into the Delaware River. I may be an intellectual, but even I can see that’s a pretty stupid business move.