Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why I decided ...

... to retire. Lots of reasons, and I hope to get around to most of them eventually. One of the things I intend to do on this blog from now on is some Montaigne-style rumination. I suspect the great Michel wrote his essays in bits and pieces, thinking things over, and then continuing until he had finished tracing his train of thought.
To begin with, then, I had been thinking about retiring for a while, and had intended to do so by the end of this year for sure (always better to choose your time of departure yourself). The always perceptive Clattery MacHinery posted this the other day: The Long Abandon’d Hill, for Frank Wilson as he retires. In it he quotes from a piece I wrote last year about Jack Kerouac:

Reading Jack’s words after all these years, remembering how much they meant to me once, how I was sure I wouldn’t don any gray flannel suit and trudge to an office day in, day out, and knowing full well that tomorrow morning and the day after and after I’ll tie my tie and sit down at my desk yet again, well, it makes me wonder if I can still, even at this late date, salvage me some authenticity. Yeah, reading Jack has reminded me that living means more than just making a living, and that it’s always easier to get along by going along. As Ray confesses, “I had no guts anyway . . . .”

Kass Mencher, my friend Eric Mencher's wife, is the only person I know who read this and inferred - quite correctly - that it signaled my plans to retire.
I could have continued to get along by going along, but I didn't have to, and I sure didn't want to. So I decided not to.
There are, by the way, no villains in this tale, only policy differences between decent people of good will and common sense.
When The Inquirer's book section was folded into the Arts & Entertainment section back in 2001, one of the things I did was arrange to get space dedicated to book reviews on the inside of the daily features section. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays there was always a book review. Plus, we often ran reviews off the front of the section as well. For most of my tenure we have been running more than 400 reviews a year.
I abandoned roundups. I think they're cheesy. They also stoke the fires of the quarrel over genre fiction and "literary" fiction. As I see it, if a book is worth reviewing at all, it deserves to be reviewed by itself (which is not say you can't put together feature reviews of more than one book - but that's not a roundup).
I also thought that young adult books, which represent a growing segment of the publishing market, deserved some attention. So I asked Katie Haegele to do a biweekly column focused on just those. Here's a Greatest Hits Collection of them. Katie also did a biweekly column called DigitaLit, the point of which, as Katie puts it, was "to report on the places where traditional literary forms meet new media, and in effect create new forms." The young adult column was picked up by papers all over the country, and DigitaLit was going where a lot of people happen to be and no other paper has happened to notice. It's called news.
Finally, I think book review sections should be aimed at the common reader, and not get hung up on literary celebrity or academic fashion. To that end I put together what I like to think of as a repertory company of sound reviewers who wrote well and stuck to the point, never using the book as a pretext for addressing something else. Many of those reviewers were drawn from the blogging community - quite simply because, as I noted here a while back, I noticed that a lot of people in that community knew what they were talking about and could say it in a fresh and compelling way.
As it happens, the current newsroom management team doesn't see things the same way - which, by the way, is their privilege. Their job isn't to agree with me.
In any event, it was decided that neither the young adult column nor the DigitaLit column fit into plans that were being drawn up for book coverage. Sandy Bauers's audio books column was to be dropped as well. There is talk of bringing back genre roundups. The daily book reviews are long gone (but reviews can run during the week off the section front if there's space and a good enough reason).
There is also the desire to have a "name" reviewer every Sunday. That reviewer will have to be paid more, of course, and that will put a strain on an already diminished book budget, so it is likely that reviews taken from the wires will have to run in place of assigned reviews. Now I happen think one should read a review because of what it says, not because of who says it. Moreover, the upshot is bound to be that The Inquirer will end end up running far fewer original reviews and far fewer reviews overall. That will make it far less of a player in the book-reviewing business.
I took Katie out to lunch to tell her that her services would no longer be regularly needed, and I told Sandy the same about her column. By which time I had pretty much concluded that, mutatis mutandis, one further change was in order: To include me out. In fact, it would have been both intellectually dishonest and more inauthentic than I can bring myself to be to implement policy changes that I not only do not agree with, but that also run counter just about everything I had been doing. Bear in mind, too, that I was once a freelancer myself, so I understand the impact this decision had on Katie (you should all send her an encouraging word).
So that, in a nutshell, is how my decision arrived at critical mass.


  1. You're all class, Frank. Writing for you was an education. Thanks for all the work you sent my way over the years. Thanks for all you did to keep people talking about literature in Philadelphia.

    Very best,

  2. Anonymous3:54 PM

    I suspect you'll be nearly as busy in retirement as you were before, though a better kind of busy. I'm looking forward to continuing to read Books, Inq. Will you have a new e-mail address?

  3. Anonymous6:24 PM

    One understands your decision to resign was a matter of honor and your own integrity. One needs to live with one's self before one can live with others. This is an important juncture when when you had to make a critical decision. One appreciates your commitment to stand for that which is very dear to you. There does come a time to move on. You have reached that point when "Two roads diverged in a wood..." May the wind be at your back and the muse by your side. You have done much as book editor, and I must add my own deep thanks for all you have done for the writing community. I am glad your words will continue with the treasure trove that is your blog.

    May the muse be with you,
    Peter Krok

  4. You are a person of great integrity, Frank, and I admire you.

  5. Oh, crap. Katie's stuff was great, and what you and the people you brought aboard was doing made the Inquirer's book coverage fresh and different and better than any of the competition.

    My dad was in newspapers. He's gone now, but at least he hasn't had to watch an institution he wanted to be involved in from the age of twelve go to pieces.

    This is a really dumb move on the Inquirer's part, even though you are far too decent a person to say so.

    Oh, rats. This is very bad news.

  6. This is surprising coming from Philadelphia Inquirer, though not entirely unexpected. Indeed Frank, you took the honorable route. But I had read somewhere that the new manager of the paper was stressing on more local content, so this emphasis on "name" reviewers seems like a sudden flip-flop.

  7. Anonymous11:02 AM

    Hey, Katie isn't the only sad freelancer where the Inky books' section is concerned!

  8. We miss you already! And I'm proud of my wife's insights, too.

  9. You have found a new way to enjoy your retirement. So nice of you. Thank you so much for your kind information.
    Audio Books

  10. Anonymous5:15 AM


    "Why I decided" will one day appear in text books, I think. It not only teaches the high road, it shows the soul of a good Man of the Arts. Having retired a few years ago, I can highly recommend it.

    You made a difference and you will continue to make a difference, because that's the kind of person you are.

    Thank you seems insufficient, and a gold watch is beyond my means. You closed a door and opened a window. I suspect the light from that window is a reward unto itself. Still, I must tell you how very much you are appreciated and respected.


    Sarah Z.

  11. Anonymous12:33 AM

    This is a great post,it certainly makes a good point with the step by step information.