Writer Blocked

This week’s Reader cover story is bounty from the American Journalism Review, which signed its author to a contract and then thought twice. The writer, Richard Wexler, thinks he knows why.

“They were very explicit about it,” says Wexler. “I received a call from [senior editor] Elliott Negin, who explicitly said they’d received a call of complaint from the Tribune and therefore they were going to pull the plug. It was flagrant.”

Wexler was just about to drop his second draft in the mail. Negin agreed to go ahead and look at it, but AJR didn’t change its mind. “In retrospect I regret that I sent them a revised version,” Wexler says. “This was a naked cave-in, and by sending them the revised piece I gave them a fig leaf to hide behind.”

Wexler’s article, which he then sent us, comes down hard on the Chicago Tribune, but I’m not as certain as he is that AJR let the Tribune drive it off the story. AJR was wavering already; his long, partisan discourse was better suited to a paper like the Reader than AJR. “When the redone piece came in it was certainly better,” says editor Rem Rieder, who calls the first draft “more of a tract than an analysis.” Nevertheless, “it still needed a great deal more shaping. And second, it was much more about social policy than about journalism.”

A communications professor at a branch of Penn State University, Wexler’s an experienced journalist, but he’s also a crusader for family preservation. (In May he’ll debate Cook County public guardian Patrick Murphy, another target of his article, at a national conference in Phoenix.) Wexler faults the Tribune for causing a panic with its Joseph Wallace coverage two years ago, arguing that judges and caseworkers who’d rather be safe than sorry were incited to snatch children from the homes where they belonged to escape the wrath of a rampaging newspaper.

It’s a strong case. And Wexler’s clearly on the money about one thing: After Rieder got off the phone with the Tribune’s managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski, he rejected Wexler’s second draft without seeing it.

Wexler had been gathering information from the Tribune for months, and when Lipinski called AJR she wasn’t sure she wanted anything more to do with him. “I said I was concerned about him misrepresenting himself, and I asked for their advice. I wondered, was he working for them?” Wexler acknowledges he’d told her last July his goal was to update his 1990 book Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse. But he didn’t start talking to AJR until August.

“He was telling other people he was writing for AJR,” said Lipinski. Wexler agrees again: that’s what he told the Tribune reporters he began interviewing after he got the magazine assignment.

But it also got back to Lipinski that these reporters weren’t necessarily comfortable with his methods.

“It was sort of a bait and switch,” says reporter Andrew Gottesman, who comes off well in Wexler’s article. “The bait was sort of, I want to talk about Joseph Wallace. He was agreeing with a lot of the things I was saying, it seemed like. The switch was to attacking the Tribune.”

Low cunning of this sort, if such was Wexler’s sin, rarely kills a good story by itself. But Lipinski’s call apparently ended Wexler’s relationship with AJR. “I was trying to decide whether to go on talking to him,” says Lipinski. “They said they’d get back to me.” AJR didn’t. But neither did Wexler.

That’s because Negin told Wexler the story was dead. In desperation, Wexler urged Negin–whom he considered his friend in court–to listen to tapes of his interviews and decide for himself if he’d transgressed. But AJR’s mind was made up, and Negin turned him down.

Updike Upbraided

Major writers seldom sound as silly as John Updike did in last week’s New Yorker. An old hand there as a book reviewer, Updike showed up discussing John le Carre’s latest, Our Game. He identified le Carre with a genre of “Cold War thrillers”–Ludlum, Clancy, and Forsyth were the other names he threw in–about which he admitted he knows next to nothing.

“I did once read . . . “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,”‘ Updike allowed, about a book published some 30 years ago, “and though its details are lost in the same fog as those of older engines of suspense by Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, which I consumed as a credulous boy, there was a bitter something at the end of a metal bridge in Berlin that left an enduring taste in my mouth. Or maybe that was from the movie.”

He went on absurdly, “These books tended to get made into movies, and a common difficulty for me began with the appearance of an actor playing the President of the United States, when I knew that there had been no such President.”

This is literary criticism? Getting back to books, the character of the American president, fictionalized or otherwise, does not appear in Our Game. Just as it does not appear in any other le Carre novel I can think of.

Updike admitted that he’s felt “a pang of awe” at observing “society’s serious people, the white male power brokers, the airborne harbingers of the free world’s deals,” propping in their laps the “serious escapism” of a genre that intrigued him as a callow youth. (Did no one prefer his The Coup?) To demonstrate how far he’s drifted from this genre, Updike expounded on le Carre’s career. “Le Carre has already exhibited magical powers in persuading hundreds of thousands of American readers that the forces of British espionage were a staunch and canny bulwark against the Red Menace, contrary to local reports that the United States did the heavy lifting for the free world and that the British secret service was distinguished chiefly by the multitude of Cambridge-educated pro-Communist moles the old-boy network had myopically sheltered. . . . Americans in the movies made from le Carre’s novels are a negligible and loutish lot.”

Updike ignores the pungent representation in every le Carre book of Britain’s moral and material delapidation, of which the secret service is the author’s emblem. He also ignores Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Perfect Spy, each a meditation on British treason. But then, Updike at best saw the TV versions. Maybe his complaint about Britain’s canny secret service should be directed at Alec Guinness.

There’s serious history between le Carre and the New Yorker. Three years ago the magazine, under its then brand-new editor, Tina Brown, carried a dismissive Talk of the Town piece on a biography of Rupert Murdoch by le Carre’s friend William Shawcross. Le Carre wrote in, complaining that the assignment had gone to someone already on record as holding Shawcross’s book in contempt. The reason, said le Carre, was to discredit before it appeared in America a book unkind to Harold Evans, the former Murdoch editor who was Brown’s husband.

Le Carre told Brown in a later fax, “You have sent up a signal to say that you will import English standards of malice and English standards of inaccuracy.”

Brown responded that if le Carre could make his point in the paragraph it was worth she’d publish it.

In short, Updike’s in the cheerless position of looking like someone toeing a company line. “I think probably the major stopper for a Byzantine conspiracy theory,” New Yorker book-review editor Henry Finder told me, “is that anybody who knows John Updike would be rather hard pressed to think he ever does anybody’s bidding.”

Finder said he assigned Updike the le Carre book out of curiosity, to see what he’d make of him. How do you think it worked out? I asked.

“Interestingly,” he said. “I think Updike’s always interesting to read. It brought out a sort of light-fingered, sort of deft side of him. One thing that’s very difficult to pull off is to be in a position of saying, “I don’t usually read this genre, but–‘ When you do this it usually kills the piece. But here he managed to pull it off.”

Not by a mile.

A Hero’s Welcome

“I’m out.”

With this brief statement Achilles, greatest warrior of the pre-Hellenic era, announced he was leaving his tent and resuming combat. And the Greeks, mired in inconclusive combat for close to ten years, become overnight favorites to triumph in their siege of Troy.

“In a war with no dominant army,” observed the sage Nestor, “the return of the best soldier I’ve ever seen could easily tip the scales. If I were Helen I’d start packing my bags.”

Achilles had stopped fighting because he was feuding with the Greek commander Agamemnon. He also insisted that he wanted to spend more time with his family, until Ulysses pointed out that he didn’t have one. The burden of leadership passed to the less charismatic Ajax, who’s been heckled mercilessly by camp scribes for wilting in big-battle situations and having a name that sounds like a scouring powder.

Can Achilles still dominate in mortal combat? How will he match up against the dominant big man of the post-Achilles era, Hector, son of Troy’s King Priam? These questions will soon be answered. Achilles has been spoiling for battle with Hector ever since Hector slew Patroclus, driving Achilles into paroxysms of grief. Now sources close to the Greek champion are saying that if the old moves are still there he not only means to kill Hector but drag the body behind his chariot.

“If he wants my son’s corpse he’ll have to earn it,” said Priam, while conceding that if Achilles can raise his swordplay to the old level he’ll be unstoppable.

Achilles’ announcement sent waves of joy through the Greek camp. But there are scattered naysayers.

“Is this what a true role model does?” wondered heroic bard Samsonite, author of the best-selling The Achilles Tendencies. “Why doesn’t he take time to read the classics? Or better yet, since none of them have been written, try to write one? He could have turned his snit with Agamemnon into history’s first antiwar protest. That would have been something worthwhile.

“But no. It turns out that all Achilles knows how to be is a warrior. Just another guy who whacks away with his trusty blade and slaps towels in the Aegean. And in the back of his mind he probably thinks he’ll be young forever. But no one’s invincible.”