November 15, 2019

Signal to Noise and Sex With Jon Stewart

When Amy Hertz, the new book editor of the Huffington Post, cracked that “book reviews tend to be conversation enders,” she prompted a little flurry of controversy among those of us who care about books, which is exactly what she intended to do.  And here is my contribution to the conversation!

Her comment reminded me of a story that I heard from Kate Gale, the co-founder (with Mark E. Cull) of Red Hen Press, one of America’s liveliest publishers of poetry and literary fiction and non-fiction.  Kate said that she experienced a sharp spike in the readership of her own blog when she strayed from literary matters and wrote instead about her fantasies about having sex with Jon Stewart.

The point of Kate’s story is that the Internet is so vast, so crowded, and so chaotic that it is damnably hard to catch and hold anyone’s attention – the signal-to-noise ratio is overwhelming.  So bloggers are tempted to come up with something sparkly that will draw the restless eye of the web-surfers.

To be fair, Amy Hertz is not wrong in suggesting that our collective capacity for reading well-crafted and well-considered literary journalism is diminishing: “There’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies,” she observed.  Starting with Sesame Street and radio news (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world”), and continuing into the 24-hour cable news cycle and now the blogosophere, the habits of mind that define American civilization have been changing drastically.

But there are still more than a few stalwarts who savor literary journalism, and none are more militant than the readers and writers of poetry.  I recall what happened years ago when Jack Miles (God: A Biography), then serving as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, announced that the section would no longer review poetry books — a clutch of outraged poets backed a dump-truck up to the main entrance of the Times and poured out a load of manure.

So I salute Kate Gale and her colleagues at Red Hen Press. They work tirelessly to call attention to the kind of writing that requires a bit more time and care than a blog entry and reward the reader for the effort with the enduring pleasure of a great book.  And Red Hen Press puts boots on the ground in the kulturkampf that is raging in America today.

Perhaps the best example I can give is my experience aboard a recent flight to New York City.  On the plane, I ran into novelist-biographer Judith Freeman (The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved), who was en route to the Brooklyn Book Festival.  And so was a task force from Red Hen Press, which was participating in the festival and sponsoring a cocktail party in the Village.

You can join in the celebration of the 15th anniversary of Red Hen Pen at a champagne luncheon at the Luxe Hotel Sunset on Sunday, November 1, 2009.  The featured guests include novelist Carolyn See—- a woman who leads and inspires others to lead the literary life—- as well as poet Mark Doty, journalist Naseem Rakha, and poet-critic Alicia Ostriker, among others. For tickets and more information, call (818) 831-0649 or visit the Red Hen website at