Thursday, September 19, 2013

 

The "Great Honor" of Writing for Free


The next time a plumber fixes your sink or toilet, offer to give him exposure in lieu of payment and see how well that conversation goes--or tell the waiter at your favorite restaurant that instead of paying for your meal you intend to tell all of your friends just how great the restaurant is. That sounds ridiculous, right? If someone provides a service and/or a product to you, that person expects to be fairly compensated and you have no problem with providing fair compensation. Most businesses operate that way but, sadly, that is not how the writing business functions (or the chess teaching business, in many cases, but that is a story for another day). Writers are often expected to feel honored to have the opportunity to give away their work in exchange for nothing more than supposedly valuable exposure--but any self-respecting professional should feel insulted by such offers.

From 1998 to 2001, Steven Brill's Brill's Content provided a welcome corrective to a variety of media excesses. Brill's Content fulfilled the classic journalistic credo to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"--which is a noble and necessary calling but not necessarily a commercially viable venture. The June 1999 issue contained an article by Josh Greenfeld, who wrote seven books, received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay Harry and Tonto and reviewed books for a variety of publications in the 1960s--including The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, Time, Life and Playboy. In 1969, Greenfeld reviewed Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint for The New York Times Book Review. Then, in 1996, Greenfeld received a letter from The New York Times Book Review explaining that they were putting out a special 100th anniversary edition and they would like to receive Greenfeld's permission to include all or at least part of his Portnoy's Complaint review. Greenfeld writes, "The letter makes it sound like a great honor for both me and the book and asks me to sign the bottom of the letter granting permission. I figure Portnoy and his author, Philip Roth, might want to be included in the honor roll of the most 'significant' books reviewed in the Book Review since its inception. Besides, I'm sure they'll send me a few bucks as an honorarium. Enough for a dinner. So I fax back my permission."

The special edition is published in October 1996. Greenfeld notes that it has "page after page chock full of ads interspersed with reviews. But nary a word of thanks to the reviewers. Which annoys me. But what the hell? With the revenue coming in from all those ads, they'll surely be sending me a bigger honorarium than I'd anticipated. Maybe even enough for a dinner or two."

You can guess what happened next--or, rather, what did not happen. Greenfeld allowed a few months to pass, then he sent a short note to the publication's editor, Charles McGrath. McGrath did not bother to reply but in the summer of 1998 he had the gall to write to Greenfeld and request permission to include Greenfeld's review in an upcoming book-length version of the 100th anniversary issue. Greenfeld immediately responded and declined to grant permission, prompting a phone call from Mike Levitas, an executive from the New York Times' book division. Levitas told Greenfeld that none of the reviewers had been paid but that he would be willing to send Greenfeld $50 out of his own pocket. Greenfeld comments, "That's insulting, but I let it go and repeat my grievance. He says that the people at the Book Review say they never got my note. Nonsense, I say, that's the other side of 'The check's in the mail.'" Then Levitas tells Greenfeld that the book has already been put together and it would be too late to pull the review and that even if they could do so this might upset Roth. So Greenfeld calls Roth and Roth tells him that he is fine with whatever Greenfeld decides. Greenfeld's subsequent letter to Levitas deserves to be reprinted in full:

Dear Mike:

I've thought a great deal about the Portnoy review and decided that though I have great personal affection for you and we go back a long way together, I cannot in good conscience as a lifelong freelance writer give permission for the Times to print that review gratis again. The Times originally paid me $150 for it and three runs for that sum is just ridiculous even if two of them are recycles. After you told me that no other reviewer has asked for any payment I looked through that issue and discovered that at least half of the other reviewers were dead and a good deal of them were Times staffers and of those still among the living, many are in the danger zone of still publishing books. You said you thought Philip might have a concern if he were not included so I called him and he told me he would not care in the least if he were not.

Neither the Times nor its Book Review are charitable institutions. And neither am I. But let's all act as if we were as a matter of principle. I suggest that in order for me to grant permission for the reuse of that review the Times donate $500 in my name to a charity of my designation. If that's not possible let's just forget about it and let sleeping reviews lie.

All my best,

Josh Greenfeld


One might expect that Greenfeld's cordial and direct letter concluded this matter; the Times could elect to make the charitable donation or to leave Greenfeld's review out of the book. Instead, the Times first pressured Roth to call Greenfeld and ask him to change his mind--and, when that failed, the Times simply published Greenfeld's review without his permission! I have a theory that some people just need to be hit--feel free to interpret that metaphorically or literally (I got the idea after hearing Charles Barkley say that the one way to tone down Dennis Rodman's antics on the basketball court was to give him a stern elbow, after which Rodman would calm down and just play ball); such people do not respond to logic and they do not seem to get the message until someone grabs them by the collar and makes it quite clear that they would be well advised to change their conduct. Levitas and McGrath seem to fall into that category.

Greenfeld had no idea that his review had been published without his permission until November 1998, when he received a "Dear Contributor" form letter accompanying a complimentary copy of the book. Greenfeld replied:

Dear Book Review Editor:

My enjoyment of the holiday season was not enhanced by the arrival of a copy of your "anthology of the Book Review's greatest hits." Nor did the "thanks" in your accompanying "Dear Contributor" note make me feel any better. Because I distinctly and categorically withheld permission, both in writing and over the phone, for the inclusion of any portion of my review of Portnoy's Complaint in your hit parade. Now I don't know whether it's a policy of the New York Times descending from on high, or simply some loyal 43rd [S]treet apparatchik's idea of following a party line, but the malign neglect of a writer does not sit well with me.

McGrath responded by essentially claiming that it was all a misunderstanding and that, in any case, Greenfeld should not get so worked up about the republication of a 30 year old review. That last dig particularly offended Greenfeld, who offered this rebuttal as the coda to his Brill's Content piece:

That is exactly the point and one not to be disparaged. As a retiree receiving a pension from the Writer's Guild of America, I am, in a sense, being sustained, in addition to my residuals, by the screen work I performed on a freelance basis decades ago. The same goes for my Social Security payments. And perhaps one day when McGrath achieves the age of serenity as I have, he will receive pension checks from The New York Times for the editorial chores he once performed in some distant past as what the Japanese aptly describe as a 'salary-man.' Meanwhile, why quibble with him or the The New York Times? I feel like a gnat flying over an armadillo's nest. 

Except that I'm right.

Shame on the New York Times Book Review and all other entities that treat writers like dirt. R.I.P. Brill's Content--it is unfortunate that your voice has been stilled. Bravo to Josh Greenfeld for speaking truth to power.

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