Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pandering to the Masses, Then and Now

Journalism, it is said, is in decline. And one proof being offered is a trend towards deciding which stories to cover based not on what editors think is important, but rather on what readers want to read--which is to be determined by what they're searching for online.

The subject came up in a recent, and rather testy, interview with Arianna Huffington that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine. The interviewer asked Huffington about an internal AOL memo, leaked shortly before AOL acquired the Huffington Post, saying that AOL wanted "95 percent of stories to be written based on what people are searching for." (Huffington protested that she shouldn't have to defend a memo that predated AOL's acquisition of her website, and said that the document was "very, very, very far away in terms of where the company is now.")

Obviously, journalism based on what people are searching for can leave much to be desired. We could end up with, say, a bunch of stories about Lindsay Lohan's latest escapades instead of a searching analysis of what's going on at Guantanamo. Or a lot of media coverage about the supposed falsity of President Obama's birth certificate instead of a serious examination of what to do about the economy. Oh, wait a minute: that IS what we've ended up with.

But say what you will about the state of American journalism (and there is indeed much to bemoan), this trend isn't exactly new. I've been spending a lot of time lately paging through a magazine that was published in 1807 (I'm researching a novel based on the life of the woman who edited it), and--what do you know?--the same issue, more or less, existed some 200 years ago.

For example: the magazine, which was called The Observer, began serializing a translation of a French novel called Adelaide; Or, a Lesson for Lovers. I'm not sure what the "lesson" was supposed to be, but by the standards of 1807 the novel was pretty racy. It's about a couple of horny teenagers who can't wait for the sanction of matrimony (or perhaps there was parental opposition to the match--I haven't read every word). They do what comes naturally, she gets pregnant ... you get the idea. Not too spicy by modern standards, perhaps, but it apparently caused a good deal of outraged comment in Baltimore in 1807.

Somewhat belatedly, the magazine's editor--Eliza Anderson--decided to stop the serialization. Once she had seen the novel in its entirety, she said, she realized it was "too glowing, too impure, to be presented by a female, to the chaste eye of female modesty." But lo and behold, the public--or at least the segment of it that wasn't outraged by the novel's publication--was outraged by its discontinuation. "Whilst some extracts we have made, from the most valuable works, are passed by," Anderson complained, "this love-tale excites the liveliest interest, and when its publication has been suspended for a week, the office door has not stood still a moment, for the constant, the continual enquiries that were made, to know when it would be continued."

It's hard to tell if Anderson herself was genuinely outraged by the "glowing" and "impure" nature of Adelaide. For one thing, later in 1807 she herself translated another French novel that may have been even racier--according to a modern scholar, it contained perhaps "the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction."

For another, she was pretty sensitive to what kinds of articles sold magazines. In fact, she started The Observer because its predecessor publication, for which she also wrote, was too dull. Anderson thought satire was the way to go--partly because she thought that was the best way to reform and mold people, and partly because she thought it made for a livelier publication.

She was right about the liveliness, but she ended up alienating quite a few people through her satire. On the other hand, as she recognized, the journalistic feuds that were fought out in the pages of The Observer and other publications actually had a salutary effect on sales. She noted at one point that subscriptions reached a sustainable level only after "some strokes of satire and criticism had given zest and interest to our pages."

But Anderson didn't just publish what she thought the public wanted to hear--not by a long shot. She never lost sight of her original goal, which was to educate and elevate the reading public of Baltimore, whether they wanted to be educated and elevated or not. So, alongside Adelaide and other fluffier offerings there were dense biographical tracts on Marmontel and Lord Mansfield and analyses of the contemporary political scene in Europe--the very "valuable works," no doubt, that avid readers of Adelaide were passing by. Not to mention a lot of digs at the follies and foibles of the Baltimore citizenry.

Perhaps the moral here, if there is one, is that successful journalism has always been some kind of balancing act between what readers want and what editors, and writers, think they should want. The Internet has obviously made it easier to identify readers' less-than-elevated interests and pander to them, but the basic issue remains the same. The trick, it seems, is to somehow present serious, thoughtful journalism in a guise that will appeal to the masses.

Maybe in another 200 years someone will figure out how to do that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rip Van Winkle at the Library of Congress

There's nothing like a trip to the Library of Congress to lift my spirits--and to induce me to ponder the upsides and downsides of modern technology.

For those who have never experienced its delights, let me explain that the Library of Congress--and in particular the august Main Reading Room--is a shrine to that now almost obsolete format (or should I say "platform"?), The Book. The high-domed reading room is adorned with such a profusion of ornate marble and imposing allegorical figures representing all things book-related that it can sometimes be hard to concentrate on the actual, usually rather modest-looking, book in front of you.

But the Library's collection is far from modest. It's basically everything that's ever been published in this country, and a lot that's been published outside it--plus unpublished letters, diaries, maps, drawings. You name it. All brought to you on a silver platter (metaphorically speaking) a mere 30 to 90 minutes after you fill out a call slip with one of those tiny eraserless pencils otherwise reserved for keeping score in miniature golf. And all this for free--or rather, paid for by tax dollars. For my money, it's tax revenue well spent.

But as to technology: yesterday I had an experience in the Reading Room that illustrated the ways in which old-fashioned book-related research methods can lead to serendipitous discoveries. I had requested a scholarly article on the Baltimore Almshouse, which I thought might be relevant to the novel I'm now researching (one of my characters is based on an early 19th-century Baltimore doctor who tended to the poor). As it turned out, the article dealt with the wrong time period. But in the same bound volume of the scholarly magazine I found another article--on the Baltimore yellow fever epidemic of 1800--that I eagerly realized was right up my alley. I learned that the predicament of the poor during the epidemic led to the founding of the Baltimore Dispensary, where my doctor was a key player.

What does technology have to do with this? Well, if I'd looked at the Almshouse article online--in isolation rather than in a bound volume with other articles--I never would have come across the yellow fever article.

On the other hand ... after reading the yellow fever article I made my way down the hall to the Microform Reading Room, which is something of a letdown after the Main Reading Room. The last time I was there, perhaps a year ago, it looked like a forgotten broom closet that for some reason had been stocked with recalcitrant, creaky microfilm readers. It still looks like a broom closet, but the old microfilm readers have now been banished to a back room (and the back room of a broom closet is a pretty ignominious place to be banished). In their place stood sleek little black models perched next to equally sleek computer screens.

A friendly librarian, noting my confusion, explained that the new microfilm readers were actually hooked up to the computers: you viewed the images on the monitors, where you could enlarge or darken them or rotate them with the click of a mouse. Not only that, she told me, you didn't have to copy things the old way: by pressing a button that caused the image to be temporarily sucked into the bowels of the microfilm reader, only to emerge as an often illegible hard copy at twenty-five cents a pop. Now you could simply copy the images to a flash drive, take them back home, and insert them into your own computer.

Of course, being a female version of Rip Van Winkle, I hadn't thought to bring a flash drive. But the gift shop stocks them, apparently for hapless souls like myself. I was happy to fork over the somewhat exorbitant price of fifteen bucks--not that bad, really, when you consider the flash drive is a lovely shade of blue and doubles as a souvenir, since it's emblazoned with the words "Library of Congress." After the librarian gave me a crash tutorial in using the newfangled equipment, I spent a few joyful hours stalking, and saving, my microfilmed quarry: The Observer, an obscure weekly magazine published in Baltimore during the year 1807 and edited by Eliza Anderson--the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States and one of the main characters in my novel.

How happy did this make me? I can't even begin to tell you. When I started researching Eliza, I had to transport myself to the Maryland Historical Society library in Baltimore to read the magazine in bound volume form. Oh, they had it on microfilm, but the copier function had ceased working at some undetermined time in the past, and there was no money to fix it. I couldn't even xerox the hard copy pages of the magazine because they were too fragile. Nor could I even use a pen to take notes, because only pencils were allowed in the library. So I spent many hours taking notes on the articles with an increasingly dull pencil (the library did provide an electronic sharpener, which would periodically pierce the silence), and sometimes copying them word for word. Let's just say it was a bit tedious.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that the microfilm was also available just a Metro ride away from my house in Washington DC at the Library of Congress--where they had an actual working microfilm copier, albeit a cranky one. What I really dreamed of, though, was a way of having access to every page of every issue of the magazine at home, so that I could draw on them at leisure in writing the novel. It was hard to predict which pages I would need and therefore which I should copy, but it would have cost a fortune--and taken untold hours--to copy them all. And the idea of buying the reel of microfilm and a cranky microfilm reader of my own crossed my mind, but I quickly dismissed it as unrealistic. Clearly, there was no way my dream would ever come true.

Until now, that is--just a year later. It will take a while, but I can copy every single page of The Observer onto my flash drive and install them on my computer. I'm amazed. But my amazement is nothing compared to what Eliza Anderson would experience if she were to be revived and told that all 52 issues of her magazine--the publication she sweated and slaved over for many hours each week, the source of so much joy and angst, the means by which she made her minor mark on history--could be easily contained within a bright blue object that's only two inches long.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Agony of Age

I haven't written for a while, mostly because my 87-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia and cataracts, has broken her right leg for the second time in four months and is now recovering from major surgery. All of which has led me to think about (among other things) the indignities and unpleasantnesses of hospitalization, then and now.

By "then" I mean, of course, about 200 years ago -- the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the period I researched for my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, and that I'm currently researching for my novel-in-progress. Because one of the characters in the current novel (based on a real historical figure) is a doctor, I've been reading up on the history of medicine.

As with so many things about the past, the more you know about medicine back then, the luckier you feel to be alive now. Sure, things go wrong in modern hospitals: no one tells you the doctor you've been waiting for for two hours has decided not to come after all; the nurse takes forever to answer an urgent call for help; what seems like a steady stream of people invade your room and ask you the same questions over and over again. Even my mother, who has trouble remembering what happened five minutes ago, can tell that she's been asked these same question many times before -- and to show her annoyance she often refuses to answer, which doesn't help matters any.

But at least she doesn't lose all access to food the next day, which is what might have happened to an uncooperative patient in the 18th century. According to a book on 18th-century medicine, appropriately entitled The Age of Agony, patients at London's Guy's Hospital who engaged in cursing or swearing, or were "found guilty of any Indecency, or commit any Nuisance," were to lose "their next Day's Diet."

Not that their "next Day's Diet" was liable to be all that enticing. My mother has a menu of food choices from "room service" that she finds overwhelming -- or would find overwhelming if she could see well enough to read it. Maybe the hospital kitchen wouldn't win any stars from Michelin, but at least there's more variety than was to be found at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, where the menu was restricted to bread, boiled beef, "milk pottage," and beef broth. On the other hand, each patient also received a daily allotment of a pint of "Ale Cawdle" at night and three pints of beer. That might have made things a little more tolerable. Nevertheless, patients at Guy's and other hospitals routinely slipped out to nearby "Publick-Houses" and "Brandy Shops" and came back to the wards drunk. As a result of which they forfeited "their next Day's Diet," which was apparently an all-purpose disciplinary measure.

You can kind of understand the patients slipping away to get drunk when you consider that there wasn't much for them to do in the hospital. No TV, certainly, which is the only thing that seems to keep my mother's mind off her pain and relieve her of her general disorientation (she always finds comfort in the world of Turner Classic Movies). In some hospitals there was group Bible-reading on Sunday evenings, led by "some sober Person in each Ward" (assuming, I suppose, they could find one), but not much else in the way of entertainment. Patients at Guy's who were able-bodied were kept busy taking care of the weaker patients and helping to clean the wards and fetch coals. If they shirked those duties -- well, you can probably guess the punishment. But for a second offense they would actually be discharged from the hospital.

Not to mention that there was very little the hospital could do for you, other than warehouse and feed you. In fact, a hospital was likely to make you even sicker than you were when you came in, given that -- before the advent of germ theory -- you would be kept in close proximity to all sorts of pathogenic organisms harbored by your fellow patients. Other drawbacks included the noxious smells from the lack of sanitation and the intense discomfort due to infestations of lice. In 1765 a surgeon at Guy's remarked that in London hospitals "bugs are frequently a greater evil to the patient than the malady for which he seeks an hospital." No wonder hospitals were reserved for the poor. Wealthy invalids preferred to do their suffering at home.

I suppose all of this should make me feel much more appreciative of the modern comforts and conveniences at my mother's disposal. But it's a sad truth that no matter how much we understand, on an intellectual level, that we're really a lot better off than many others -- including those who lived in the past -- it's our present distress that looms larger in our consciousness. Should I tell my mother she should feel lucky that her hospital bed isn't full of lice -- or that she has a private toilet, even though at the moment there's no way she can get to it? It would probably only add to her general confusion.

The truth is, two hundred years ago my mother and many of the other elderly inmates of the rehabilitation facility where she is currently housed wouldn't have lived long enough to suffer the ailments of old age. Their lives would have ended before their bones grew so brittle and their eyes so dim. We can thank modern medicine for that. And sometimes, I suppose, we can also curse it.