Saturday, August 21, 2010

Not so fine print

By the time the dog could get the day’s newspaper to its master, the latter was already reading its digital version. “Should I get the paper from tomorrow or not,” asks the dog to its master. Unless Yann Martel decides to make something out of this New Yorker cartoon, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is most probably going to be the last mainstream work of fiction on the totem of past generations— newspaper.

Rachman’s entertaining debut is a warts-and-all account of a “stolidly black and white” Rome-based English newspaper’s heyday and decline in 1954 and 2007, respectively. Brace yourself for a peek into a self-contained universe where the editor-in-chief is pondering sleeping with an old flame while the paper is staring at the abyss and the publisher’s basset hound is called, wait for this, Schopenhauer. Rachman tells his tale in eleven chapters through eleven characters associated with the daily, whose circulation is down to its last 10,000 and it doesn’t have a website.

Rachman displays a David Lodge-kind of ability in etching out a farrago of zany characters, who could have easily walked into any Luis Bunuel production: be it the Business Reporter Hardy Benjamin (“practically forty and I still resemble Pippi Longstocking”); or News Editor Craig Menzies (“has nothing in his life but news”); or Copy Editor Ruby Zaga, who spends every New Year eve in a different hotel to ward off the ennui of her perpetual singledom; or Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko’s struggle against what he sees as “encroaching entropy”; or Cairo Correspondent Rich Snyder, who vocalises with the matchless authority of a man who has never been known to hit a note on pitch; or Ornella, the obsessive reader, who is intent on finishing every old edition, leaving herself trapped in the past and blithely unaware of the present; or Corrections Editor Herman Cohen, whose true calling in life has always been as a proofreader (“finally, arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy”).

Rachman’s impressive journalistic credentials (AP correspondent, International Herald Tribune’s Paris editor) shine throughout the book. Be it the way he names the chapters with headlines straight out of Onion (“Kooks With Nukes”, “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126”, “Global Warming Good For Ice Creams”) or the Houellebecquian way of describing the characters’ tics.

While the book’s tone may inspire comparisons with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, its soul is more attuned to Michael Frayn’s Towards The End Of The Morning. Rachman has been able to demystify the print industry for the lay audience. I would prefer the Financial Times review of the book, “These journalists could just as easily be in banking or in advertising (the influence of Joshua Ferris’ downturn drama ‘Then We Came To The End’ is certainly present), or in any field that people fight to get into, but then, years later, fight to escape.” Thus, the uninitiated are to understand that there are hardly any Mikael Blomkvists in journalism. Most are as much a journalist as Tintin was. My former editor wasn’t far off the mark when he remarked that “journalism is the last resort for rejects of the world”, where sub-editors moan about lack of recognition and reporters fit that new full form of MBA doing the rounds: Mediocre But Arrogant.

To Rachman’s credit, the action most worth reading in the book is not at the centre of things but where edges meet — at the end of each chapter, Rachman chronicles the newspaper’s inception till its demise. What started as a product of fashion and a multimillionaire’s (Cyrus Ott) fancy ended up as follows: “The greatest influence over content was necessity — they had holes to fill on every page and jammed in any newsworthy string of words, provided it didn’t include expletives, which they were apparently saving for their own use around the office.”

The Imperfectionists is to be seen as more than just a piece of fiction. Last year, 15,000 newspaper jobs ended up in ether across the world and, you needn’t be a cynic to predict that the bleeding has just begun. The advent of 24-hour TV news and online information sites are increasingly making a newspaper’s information stale before it appears. One train of thought doing round has been aptly put by Kurt Andersen in Vanity Fair: “Life is manically parceled into financial quarters, three-minute YouTube videos, 140-character tweets. In my pocket is a phone/computer/camera/ video recorder/TV/stereo system half the size of a pack of Marlboros. And what about pursuing knowledge purely for its own sake, without any real thought of, um, monetising it? Cute.” Onion even did a story titled “Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text”. Thus, Rachman’s book is a grim reminder to the newspapers that a reinvented business model to sustain professional news-gathering is of absolute necessity. Slamming across a newswire copy that could easily be read online will no longer do. Make your opinions count. We are living in a world where Beaverbrooks and Hearsts will be seen as benign in the wake of the Internet’s dominance.

It’s a shining testimony to Rachman’s writing abilities that while the book raises questions more pertinent than ever before, the humour quotient never lags.Inan industry where bastardisation is the name of the game, this is, all rights reserved, inglourious basterdy at its very best.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Pressing the reset button

Will he or won’t he? Answers are he won’t and he will. United States President Barack Obama will find it a tough going at the elections to the Senate scheduled in November for 36 of the 100 seats. Obama, however, will try every trick in the book to get the economy back on track (unemployment rate in the US was 9.7 per cent in May 2010). Best-selling author Richard Florida’s latest book The Great Reset: How New Ways Of Living And Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity might help Obama in more than one way. Books on the meltdown are being written at a pace rivalled only by Martin Scorcese characters’ penchant for mouthing expletives. Sadly, owing to the glut, most of the writers tend to choke on their own bile. Florida’s fascinating slim book is cut with different cloth: it tries to find answers for the future in the two biggest economic crises the country ever saw in 1873 and 1929.

Florida’s book is a long-form extension of a cover story titled “How The Crash Will Reshape America” that he wrote for The Atlantic magazine in March 2009. (Minor digression: What’s it with Atlantic’s cover stories turning into books, this being the second book to have released in as many months after Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains?)

The prose of The Great Reset might lack the snap, crackle and fizz of Florida’s best-selling books like The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?, but he makes it up with a plethora of coruscating observations. Florida says that “The First Reset” took place during the Long Depression when the US saw the transition from small cities and an agricultural society to dense industrial cities. “The Second Reset”, a consequence of the Great Depression, gave us the sprawling suburbs and great metropolitan areas that defined recent times. “The Great Reset”, whose midwife is the latest meltdown, that Florida talks about, is the shifting of the tectonic plates in the US “from an economy based on making things to one that revolves around knowledge and creativity”.

Florida terms this shifting as “spatial fix”. He argues that “positioning the economy to grow strongly in the coming decades will require not just fiscal stimulus or industrial reform, it will require a new kind of geography as well”. The argument holds water considering America’s tendency to over-consume and under-save, the main cause of the current meltdown, a consequence of the post-War spatial fix — housing and suburbanisation.

Here are a few forces that Florida expects, if worked on, will trigger the Great Reset: considerable dependence on public transport (preferably through high-speed rail); transformation of millions of service jobs into middle-class careers that value workers as a genuine source of innovation; creation of “megaregions” that will drive the development of new industries; and, of course, change in attitude towards home ownership (yes, rent it out).

The “megaregions” that Florida refers to are the concentrations of population that encompass several cities and their surrounding suburban rings. The largest in the US is “Bos-Wash”, which comprises Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. According to Florida, it’s the megaregions, not nations, that really power the global economy considering the fact that the world’s 40 largest megaregions account for two-thirds of all global economic activity.

A memory of a virgin hard drive is almost a prerequisite to assimilate the book’s arguments (wonder if Obama is left with such a memory). This is apparent when the writer connects disparate dots dexterously. Sample this: According to Florida, New York will continue to be the financial hub of the world despite a double-dip recession lurking around the corner. He reasons that once a top financial centre, always a financial centre. Case in point: Amsterdam, which has been the centre of the world’s financial system in the 17th century and ever since, is one of the top-25 financial centres. The book’s otherwise turgid prose turns sparkling when the writer narrates anecdotes of his parents and grandparents, who experienced the last two crises. I could have done with more such anecdotes.

All’s not well with the book though. It is high on compelling statements but abysmally low on convincing arguments. Florida says, with the benefit of hindsight, the US could have followed the Canadian banking system and the current crisis would have never occurred. That’s almost like saying Norway is an ideal form of economy for European Union countries. What works well for a small country doesn’t necessarily mean its bigger counterparts should follow suit. Florida tries his hand at doing a Malcolm Gladwell and doesn’t achieve much success with that. By collating the employment numbers from 1970s to 2009 in a chapter titled “Good Job Machine”, all Florida could remark was that the lower-paying routine jobs in the service economy (food service workers, janitors, home health care workers and the like) will never leave the country!

Florida is prone to toot his own horn and while that is not a crime, evoking his best-selling works proves to be a speed-breaker when the reader is on the intellectual autobahn. Expanding from his original essay, the personal and economical meanings of the subject seem not to enlarge, but rather to dissipate. He has somehow contrived to say less in a book than he did in an article. Having said that, this book is highly recommended for the very fact that the writer tries to make hope possible rather than making despair convincing.

Literary, shmiterary

Fresh’ is a catch-all term used in Bollywood. It will describe a production with two unknown faces or even a storyline that is borderline predictable. However, one look at the trailer of Aisha and the word ‘fresh’ doesn’t seem out of place to describe this Sonam Kapoor and Abhay Deol starrer, set for an August release.

What really sets Aisha apart from the usual crop of Hindi cinema is that it is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. A faithful adaptation, one hastens to say, given Victorian elements such as Abhay Deol playing polo and the leading woman being a personification of chastity. Sadly, history is not on the side of Aisha.

Bollywood’s tryst with classic English literature hasn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Apart from Vishal Bhardwaj, who has successfully adapted Shakespeare’s plays to build an enviable oeuvre, Hindi film directors have never taken more than a passing interest in the world of Charles Dickens or Somerset Maugham. Take a look at the handful of movies inspired by books written in the 19th century and it is a classic embodiment of the expression, “many a slip between cup and the lip”.

Saawariya, Bhansali’s dark love story, was adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights. Apart from introducing talents like Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, the 2007 Diwali release fizzled out like a wet cracker.

Something similar happened to Gurinder Chadha, who, fresh from the success of Bend It Like Beckham, tried to adapt Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The end product, Bride and Prejudice, turned out to be a turkey (imagine Sooraj Barjatya directing a P G Wodehouse book). Minor digression: The best adaptation of a Jane Austen book in Indian cinema was done by Rajiv Menon in his directorial debut, the Tamil film Kandukondain Kandukondain, which remained quite faithful to the gravitas of Sense and Sensibility.

For reasons beyond my understanding, Hindi cinema has been content with making films from contemporary books that are middling at best. Erich Segal’s Love Story comes across as the apogee of the protagonist’s reading habits (Ranbir Kapoor holding a Haruki Murakami in Wake Up Sid was an aberration). Hrithik Roshan and Rani Mukherjee bond over mawkish prose in Mujhse Dosti Karoge and somehow the sentiment continues to endure till date with Sonam Kapoor expressing her romantic predilections while hugging Love Story in this week’s release I Hate Luv Storys (sic).

Technically speaking, Love Story has been adapted twice in Bollywood cinema — Akhiyon Ke Jharoke Se starring Sachin and Ranjita, and Khwahish, which gave a carte blanche to Mallika Sherawat and Himanshu to pass-the-polo-mint at least 17 times on screen. Judging by their failure, love means never having to say sorry, especially to the audience.

Erich Segal’s Man, Woman And Child saw itself unfold on Hindi screen in the form of Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom and enjoyed quite a bit of success too. No writer, however, held or holds as much sway over the country’s consciousness like Chetan Bhagat. His One Night @ The Call Centre, which was made into Hello, which didn’t help the limpid careers of the lead actors like Sharman Joshi, Gul Panag and Sohail Khan in any way. But Rajkumar Hirani’s Aamir Khan-starrer 3 Idiots, which was ‘inspired’ from Five Point Someone, has achieved cult status. But then all these books are contemporary.

Since Sonam Kapoor has already tasted failure with Saawariya, one would expect her to exercise caution with Aisha, which happens to be her home production. For all you know, Aisha: the movie might be all strip and no tease. However, if the movie bucks the unfortunate trend, who knows the Bollywood audience might be introduced to Dickens or get first-hand knowledge of Kafka.

Source of despair

Hours after the Stanley McChrystal story got published in Rolling Stone, Politico, a US-based news web-site remarked that the writer Michael Hastings was a freelancer and, ipso facto, could write such a no-holds barred piece. As usual, Politico got it wrong. Any editor would hack his or her right arm for such a damning piece. So what if the ‘sources’ might never be helpful again. My exhibits: Woodward and Bernstein were cub reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate. Seymour Hersh was a freelancer when he broke My Lai. And as New York Times puts it, “It was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the slam-dunk WMD intelligence in the run-up to Iraq.”

What Michael Hastings did was old-school journalism. A senior journalist once defined it to me: “It’s calling and calling and tracking leads and this is what journalists used to do before they got used to being fed scraps and doing sting nakhras when their sources were caught in a weak moment (read drunken haze).” In the current times of fixing up appointments in a watering hole, Hastings instead hung around McChrystal and his coterie for a month, which was facilitated by Mt Eyjaffjallajokull’s explosion. You can’t expect McChrystal to say “Bite Me” instead of Biden at the spur of the moment.

Hastings’ interview was an unqualified anti-thesis of Mark Twain’s impression of an interview: “You (the interviewee) close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything.”

And anyway, what sources is Politico referring to? Preserving your sources during journalism’s heyday was done by dropping in at their office and chatting them up instead of sniffing around for a story idea. Nowadays, journalists’ sources are restricted to either their gTalk list or, even worse, Facebook friends list.

Post-Twitter, major news stories are broken through the users’ unbridled exuberance to showcase their tweet-sized thoughts. One Mumbai-based tabloid even has a section called ‘cho-tweet’ to chronicle Bollywood celebrities’ garbage heap. The day is not far off when officially every mainstream daily and news channel has desk dedicated to tracking celebrities’ tweets.

Facebook faux pas

“I left Facebook because I want to be taken seriously,” said a woman to New York Times. This must be the closest digital equivalent to “throwing the baby along with the bathwater”. Here’s why. While there is a lot of pap floating around, Facebook also allowed me to know people with whom I share similar interests.
Now, this woman, who has an account since her college days, suddenly had the epiphany after joining a job that her ‘embarrassing’ pictures taken at college parties might send out wrong signals to her bosses. Here are a few thumb rules where you can have your Facebook cake and eat it too.

* First things first, stop those stupid status updates like “my kitten just purred” or “I am applying red nail polish” followed by at least seven exclamation marks. You are not Paris Hilton, live with that.

* I know it’s tough but stop playing FarmVille, Mafia Wars and their various clones. These games are like junk food but your brain is so conditioned to them that you can’t wait to milk those jersey cows. However, I would implore you to refrain from playing these games for a more important reason. Understand that your Facebook account is an extension of your CV. No company, unless it’s Zynga, will appreciate an employee with the highest Mafia Wars score. Here are a few numbers: one per cent of the population of the world is an active FarmVille user, eight per cent of white-collar workers are playing FarmVille, it has more users than Twitt-ah. Got the drift?

* Don’t try to be overtly funny. The ironical relationship that you are in with a friend (of usually same sex) might not go well with your prospective boss. For laughs, imagine this: An aunt who joins Facebook, looks up her nephew and, even without sending a formal “friend request” discovers, that little Rahul was listed as ‘married’ to someone of the same sex. And his mother hadn’t even told her he was gay— let alone invite her to the wedding!

* Facebook group is the best thing that happened to me in the recent past. It’s an amazing lift to know that there are people in the world, who read this arty gay magazine called Butt. However, it’s the existence of groups like “Thank you Pakistan for taking Sania Mirza, now take Rakhi Sawant also” or “Orkut murdered Facebook” that vitiates the social networking atmosphere. If you think that joining these groups makes you funny, I am the tooth fairy.

* Like the New York Times source, you too might have uploaded pictures of yours taken in the spur of the moment. You can’t expect to point it out. There are many things that one might comfortably pin over a desk or hang on a wall, but that would best not be made visible to just anyone online. And please, job or no job, delete your display picture that impersonates Andy Warhol’s over-rated painting of Marilyn Monroe. Warhol doesn’t deserve this kind of adulation, his patronistation of Velvet underground notwithstanding.

* Stop accumulating those ‘friends’. A survey says that you can at most have 150 friends in a lifetime. I see teenagers totally at home with at least 800+ friends. As William Deresiewicz, recently argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“We have turned [our friends] into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud…. Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling.”
Hope this detox helps you to lead a healthy social networking life.

PS: How could anyone’s parents be their ‘friends’ on Facebook? It’s like being chaperoned by your dad to the disco.