Not long ago a young woman told me that she attended a reading by a famous person (not really a writer, but he's written some books) and while standing in line to have his latest autographed, people were asked to write down the dedication they wanted him to pen. I'd heard of writing names - to help with spelling - but I'd never heard of composing complete messages for besieged authors. From the author's perspective, I can sort of understand it; it saves you from having to think up something that's not a cliche. But it still seems odd - the signed equivalent of a selfie. I told the woman she should have had him write: "I'll always remember our night in Venice."
On the memoir panel Saturday morning, Mary Karr declared that there is no blurred line between fact and fiction. The blurred line, she said, is between memory and imagination. Her co-panelist, Sandra Cisneros, thanked all the book fair volunteers, who, she said, were unfailingly helpful and cheerful (something that, as an occasional speaker, I knew to be fact).
Over in the Gehryish Building 8, the New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee wondered if other animals think that leopards look slutty. A short while later, on the memoir of place panel, Suki Kim expressed exasperation at being labeled a memoirist when her book about teaching in North Korea is a work of investigative journalism.
Sunday morning, Laura Lee Huttenbach talked about her book of conversations with a former Mau Mau general and then was criticized by a Mau Mau supporter in the audience who clearly hadn't read her book (or listened very closely to her talk).
In a session on Florida history, Lyn Millner read captivatingly from her book about the Koreshans.
Walking back into Building 1, I saw P.J. O'Rourke sheltering from the rain. I introduced myself and told him that, of the handful of famous writers I sent my last book to, he was the only one who was kind enough to respond.
Lauren Groff, Sloane Crosley, and Nell Zink failed, surprisingly, to fill the auditorium, which was a shame, as their free-flowing discussion produced one of the liveliest panels of the weekend, one that touched on marriage, family, and sex.
They were followed by Padgett Powell, Adam Johnson, and Kelly Link. Powell read first, noting that if he'd known the lectern was going to be transparent he would not have worn shorts. He was also a little out of sorts, he said, because Johnson had just won “a big award” and "it's hard to read in a room that all the air has been sucked out of by a better man." Johnson, when he took the lectern, also commented on its transparency (he was wearing baggy jeans), and graciously acknowledged Powell's influence on his work.
Monday morning I woke up early and turned on C-SPAN2, which was still showing panels from the Miami Book Fair. Campbell McGrath appeared, noting that poetry was no longer being written mostly by "boring white men in blazers." (His loose-fitting shirt saved him from inclusion in this dire group.)
Kay Ryan interrupted the reading of one of her poems to explain that some of the words in it were italicized, something that those in the audience had no way of knowing. To remedy this, she said, she would tilt her head to the side whenever she read something that was in italics. It was a brilliant solution, but, as she admitted, very distracting. "You have no idea what I just read, do you?" she asked after she'd finished. So she read the poem a second time.
The postscript to my National Geographic Traveler ordeal is that the story that finally appeared was missing a number of things that were contained in the original story, including the description of my walk through the old Jewish quarter and my mention of the then soon-to-open Jewish museum.
Within days of the issue's appearance, the magazine received three letters from subscribers all complaining that I had written about Warsaw without once mentioning its Jewish past. The editor in the letters department asked me if I had any suggestions on how the magazine should respond.
Yes, I emailed back, I certainly did.
(I'm off on a short fact-finding cruise; will be back here on the 12th.)
There has been a wave of sympathy for National Geographic since news was announced of the turmoil and layoffs there. While part of the marketplace, National Geographic always seemed to hold itself above the fray, immune to the crassness and duplicity of many organizations in the publishing business. Yet National Geographic Traveler is the only magazine that has ever willfully inserted a fabrication into one of my stories.
It was a piece about Warsaw. When I pitched the idea, I mentioned that I had taught English in the city in the early ’80s, and written a book about Poland. This was not enough, I was told; in order to work for National Geographic Traveler, my story had to have a “personal quest.” OK, I told them, I’ll try to get into the prison where my wife was born.
I traveled to Warsaw in June of 2011. The story was published in August, 2013. Over those two years the story – along with countless emails – passed back and forth between me and my editor, until, finally, it no longer resembled the story I had written. The personal quest, which they had been so insistent upon, took a back seat to attractions for tourists. I was told to bring out more of the “romance” of Warsaw. I tried to explain that Warsaw, unlike Paris, or Prague, is not a romantic city. It seemed that the reality of the place was less important than an airbrushed portrait that the magazine could present to its readers.
Or maybe its advertisers. When I received the last of many rewrites I was shocked to find that it had me walking into a hotel and looking for a bar that I had never heard of. (Though I proclaimed, in this new version, that it was one of Warsaw’s famous watering holes.) I emailed back my objections and was told by my editor that she had been in Warsaw and had enjoyed a drink in the bar, which was situated in the city’s most luxurious hotel. I told her that no Poles I knew went there, and urged her to replace it with the popular place – a 24-hour beer and vodka joint across the street – that I had written about in my original story. She didn’t, and I assumed her decision was based on hopes of getting the luxury hotel to advertise. Instead, she got me to end my relationship with National Geographic.
The current issue of Sports Illustrated (Nov. 2), which was clearly put together before the weekend, features a New York Met on the cover. And not just any Met, but Daniel Murphy, the second baseman whose two errors in two consecutive World Series games largely contributed to the Mets' defeat. The headline? "The Amazin' Murph."
The first thing I learned last week at TBEX, the national conference of travel bloggers, is that instead of being crass and saying you want to learn to make money from your blog, you say: "I want to learn to monetize my blog."
The second thing I learned is that in order to monetize my blog I pretty much have to change who I am. Not a lot of time at the conference was spent talking about content, but when the subject came up, it became clear that a blog should contain material that people are looking for. And in travel, that means tips and information, not observations and musings. Also, more people are looking for information on Las Vegas, Nevada, than on Las Vegas, New Mexico, and my philosophy as a travel writer - which I once wrote on a chair in a bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas - has long been "celebrate the unsung."
This is partly why I'm no longer a newspaper travel editor, newspapers being as hungry for readers as bloggers are. But the beauty of blogs is that you're your own editor, which means that I can still write my reflections on less visited places. And, in a perversely satisfying (and non-monetizable) synchronicity, my blog will be less visited too. It's just like high school: The kids who are different are rarely popular.