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Beat The Press 

Wednesday, Apr 15 1998
Here at the Examiner Magazine
The most unintentionally fun read of the year has to be the Examiner Magazine's remembrance of New Yorker Editor William Shawn, written by local author Bill Barich and published Sunday. The premise of the piece seemed thin -- Barich never actually worked at the magazine's offices, and his interaction with Shawn apparently didn't extend much beyond one lunch and some phone calls -- but anyone interested in William Shawn would have turned to the story eagerly.

The article focused on how attentive Shawn was to writers, and how meticulously and carefully the magazine edited its contributors' prose. Like many another New Yorker writer, Barich sometimes rebelled against the magazine's rigidity, but in the end came to appreciate the process. He recalled receiving his copies of the issue with his first byline in it, reflecting, "I understood the reason for all that attention."

Too bad Barich did not learn from it; his memoir is an embarrassing piece of work, rife with cliches, banal turns of phrase, and solipsistic observations.

Right at the beginning Barich described himself as "a struggling young writer ... [trying] to learn the ropes." He "had no formal academic training, just the ordinary dreams." The trouble? He had been "unable to get down on paper what [he] felt in [his] heart." Finally, he, yes, "threw caution to the wind" and decided to write a book.

This sampling of sparkling, original prose appeared in the first two paragraphs of the piece. Beat the Press was driven to think, perhaps ungenerously, "Why on earth would William Shawn have ever called you?"

Barich plodded on through the rest of the article; anything that might mark him as a New Yorker-quality writer was absent. Wrapping things up late in the piece, Barich offered us this: "In her riveting memoir, My Brother, Jamaica Kinkaid tells how she always thought of William Shawn as her 'perfect reader.' The phrase stunned me, because I had always called him my 'ideal reader.' "

Beat the Press was stunned, too, because it seemed that the puerility of such observations would never stop. In what may have been an unconscious passive-aggressive response to a story about William Shawn, the Examiner seemed intent on demonstrating how not to provide a writer with even the most rudimentary copy editing. "In Brendan Gill's Here at The New Yorker, I read up on William Shawn," wrote Barich, making himself seem to be a character in Gill's book. A New Yorker editor named William Whitworth is described as "monkish" twice in three lines. And how about: "The New Yorker only had a circulation of about 500,000 readers, but it still managed to be consistently in the black." In that sentence, the word "only" is misplaced, and "readers" is redundant and wrong -- a magazine doesn't have a "circulation of readers," but, simply, a circulation. And incidentally, to say that the New Yorker was "consistently in the black" is to demonstrate ignorance of the paper's fabulous, legendary profitability at that time.

At one point, Barich mentioned Shawn's dislike for references to the human body. A few sentences later, he wrote, "The editorial hand-wringing affected me like a dose of castor oil." So elegant did the Examiner Magazine editors find this phrase that they enlarged it to use as a pull quote. Besides the inadvisability of the image -- Barich's name in Beat the Press' brain will now forever call forth an image of a writer hieing toiletward -- there are myriad semantic problems with the sentence. For one, "hand-wringing" isn't the right phrase: It denotes excessive worry, not overmeticulousness. For another, metaphorically, it clashes with the second part of the sentence: How does hand-wringing on one person's part induce diarrhea in another? And finally -- and here's where readers everywhere will empathize with the late Shawn -- why did Barich choose to use such an unfortunately scatological image, and why did the magazine let him?

But this is merely to underline the difference between a magazine like Shawn's New Yorker and a low-rent operation like the Examiner Magazine. It doesn't help that the latter is apparently put together and proofed by incompetents. Much of the story of Barich's one meeting with Shawn was lost to readers because a column or two of text was dropped out of the middle of the story. And a page or two later a line of type was printed twice -- once at the bottom of a column and again at the top of the next. All in all, the magazine might do better to concentrate on the food and home design features it specializes in. Stories about meticulous magazine editors will just draw in the wrong kind of readers.

Jerry Carroll's Reign of Error, Cont'd
On March 24, Jerry Carroll, the Chronicle's wrongest writer, told readers of his Lively Arts column that Garrison Keillor would be using the Masonic Auditorium for a live broadcast of his Prairie Home Companion radio show. Carroll aficionados were not surprised to read the next day that the broadcast had taken place the Saturday previous. While correcting the mistake, Carroll blamed by name a Minnesota Public Radio publicist, saying that she had sent him an inaccurate press release. The publicist, however, tells Beat the Press the release contained the correct day and date. We suspected as much.

A few weeks ago, this space analyzed Carroll's extraordinarily error-filled output. One of Carroll's most heroic boners was plugging an art show that had taken place a year previously. That time he also blamed the publicist.

In other words, over the course of just a few months Carroll has been the victim of two different publicists promoting two different events a year and a week, respectively, after they'd occurred. The writer of this column, who has spent too much of his life looking at press releases from just about every cultural or entertainment event imaginable, has never heard of such a thing. So Carroll has bad luck indeed. Or he could just be a dope, and one who blames others for his own screw-ups. ... Speaking of screw-ups, Beat the Press made two recently. Ronn Owens' name is so spelled. Also, I misspelled the name of the Chron's new book editor, David Kipen. My apologies to Owens, Kipen, and readers.

Bill Wyman can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Beat the Press, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; or via e-mail at

About The Author

Bill Wyman


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