Our ‘Fear’ About Bob Woodward

One Book Too Many?

No one can deny that Bob Woodward is an iconic journalist, mostly because of his Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein 46 years ago. But there is a world of difference between being a great journalist and a great author.

Bob Woodward is not a great author. In order to write his latest book, Fear: Trump in the White House, he cozied up to the swamp dwellers within the White House, becoming, in effect, one of them, exchanging gossip and good ole boy slaps on the back over Trump’s silliness, promising to name no names.

The entire book is about how great Woodward’s un-named sources inside the White House are (because they are saving democracy) and how crazy Donald Trump is, not exactly a revelation since we have known that since Day One. The entire book is based on what Woodward calls “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources.”

Un-named sources are the weak link in American journalism. In our 40-year career in journalism, we have had to resort to un-named sources on only a few occasions and that was to protect the lives of individuals whose lives were endangered. You do what you have to do to tell the truth. Woodward’s entire book is based on un-named sources who wouldn’t know the truth if it sat on their face.

The book we expected—and deserved from someone of Woodward’s stature—was one that exposed the Russian criminal conspiracy that put Trump in the White House. What we got was a frat-party style of writing that is neither journalism nor literary.

Isaac Chotiner, reviewing the book for Slate, observed: “sometimes his quotes are just simply not believable as told or transcribed, which is a problem in most of his books on the last several presidencies. Of Afghanistan, Trump is reported to have said, “It’s a disaster there. It’s never going to be a functioning democracy.” I’d sooner believe the president sits up late at night reading Martin Luther King Jr. speeches than I would that he uses the phrase ‘functioning democracy’ in casual conversation.”

The history of American journalists who write books is that they almost always write one book too many. After nearly 50 years at the Washington Post, Woodward probably still has lots to contribute to the education of new reporters. But as an author … well, perhaps it is time for him to retire while he can be remembered as the great journalist he once was.


Book Festivals

1 Down, 2 to Go!

The 2018 Mississippi Book Festival, which took place on August 18, brought in a record number of book lovers—7,600, according to festival organizers. The state is to be congratulated for establishing the festival. Mississippi may be at the bottom in most areas, but the state’s contributions to literature and music put it at the top of those lists.

Coming up next is the Mid-South Book Festival, scheduled for September 10 at the Playhouse on the Square in Mid-Town Memphis. It will feature 75 authors on various panels, a street fair on Cooper Avenue, and book signings galore. Recommended panels are: “Making Memphis,” with authors Sheree Renee Thomas, Joshua Hood, Lisa. C. Hickman and Darnell Arnoult, with moderator Marshall Boswell; and “Suspicious Eyes,” with Jason Miller, Jeff Crook, Michael Morse and John Pritchard, with moderator Richard Alley.

The Southern Festival of Books, the granddaddy of book festivals in the South, will take place October 12-14 in Nashville, a city known more for its music than its rather meager literary output. Even so, the festival has grown since its inception in 1989 to become a major event that draws visitors from all over the country to see and hear some of the nation’s top writers.  The first time New Orleans Review of Books publisher James L. Dickerson attended the event in the 1990s as a panelist, he was approached by a couple who unnerved him by announcing that they had driven all the way from Massachusetts to hear him speak. It was a humbling experience.

Among the authors participating in the 2018 event are: The Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, author of “Turning Pages: My Life Story,” Bob Spitz, author of “Reagan: An American Journey,” Cal Turner, author of “My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values that Built Dollar General Into a Billion-Dollar Company,” Michael Buffalo Smith, author of “From Macon and Jacksonville: More Conversations in Southern Rock,” Tiffany Quay Tyson, author of “The Past is Never: A Novel,” and Christopher Schmidt, author of “The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era.”

Newspapers, Library Journals Contribute To Low Literacy Rates in the South

NEW ORLEANS REVIEW OF BOOKS was created to fill a void left by the retreat of newspapers from their traditional role of literacy advocates. There was a time not too long ago when every newspaper in this area, especially Mississippi, had a book page, if not an active books editor. Today there is not a single books editor in our circulation area of New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and the entire State of Mississippi.

This process has escalated during the past 20 years, reaching warp speed in more recent years with the decision of Gannett to downplay or eliminate book reviews as a regular feature in their newspapers in the South. That is a significant blow to literacy advocates because Gannett owns the major newspapers in Tennessee, Mississippi, and several important newspapers in Louisiana: Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette, and Alexandria. There are two non-Gannett newspapers in New Orleans, the New Orleans Advocate and the Times-Picayune, neither of which has a books editor.
The Clarion-Ledger, a Gannett-owned newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, is an anomaly in that it has a weekly book page, but it does not have a books editor and it is not staffed by the newspaper. The book page is the brainchild of local businesses that pay for the reviews and author interviews themselves as a community service.

This abandonment of books by newspapers has had a significant impact on literacy. In Mississippi and Louisiana only 84 percent of adults possess basic prose literacy skills. Tennessee does somewhat better with an 87 percent literacy rate. To an ignorant Southerner those rates may sound great. But when you compare those rates to the rest of the world, the following countries, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, have higher literacy rates: Cuba, Vietnam, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Albania, and Argentina, to name a few.
In actual numbers that gives Mississippi 480,000 residents who cannot read, Louisiana 752,000 residents who cannot read, and Tennessee 819,000 residents who can’t read. Those number are simply not acceptable.

Compounding the illiteracy rates in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee are those other statistics that give one pause. Take Mississippi, for example. When you combine incidence of mental illness with incidence of intellectual disability, almost one in three Mississippians is in need of professional help. Louisiana and Tennessee are not far behind Mississippi.

Of course newspapers are not the only problem. The Library Journal and Booklist, the two most prominent journals published for libraries, have not helped by instituting book review policies that shut out Southern book publishers in favor of the large New York publishers. That may be good economic sense for the journals, but it does nothing to increase literacy rates in the South, and may result in the closing of many libraries in the South. Books about Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana are published almost every day. But they go un-reviewed, making it difficult for librarians to fill the needs of the people they serve.

Residents of Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee need biographies, fiction and history books that target the strengths and failures of their region—and they are not getting them because such books are being blocked in favor of books about other regions and countries.
We call our circulation area the Mojo Triangle. It is a magical place where all of America’s original music was created and a good deal of its great literature. It is now ground zero for the moral and intellectual rot that has infected the body politic of this nation. One way to fight that rot is to read good books. They are out there, just not where you can readily find them.

Until now you had no place to go to read about new books. Now you have us. We are free—and always will be.

2018 Mississippi Book Festival

Mississippi has provided America with some of its greatest writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, Willie Morris, and the list goes on and on.

The one thing that all of them have in common, with the exception of a couple of borderline talents, is a belief in racial and religious tolerance, and a dedication to intellectual pursuits (sometimes called liberal or progressive ) that further the public good.

The 2018 Mississippi Book Festival, scheduled for August 18, has no one of the caliber of the above-mentioned legends in attendance, but it has dozens of best-selling authors and up-and-coming writers who are worth meeting and listening to.

One person who should have been invited is Joyce Carol Oates, who ignited a firestorm in Mississippi recently when she responded to a tweeted image of a William Faulkner image on display at Mississippi State University. In response, she tweeted: “So funny! If Mississippians read, Faulkner would be banned.”

Everyone from the governor up, huffed and puffed about the comment as if Oates had insulted the Confederate flag that is embedded in the Mississippi State flag. She meant no insult at all, as she made clear in subsequent media interviews. She was merely alluding to Faulkner’s racially progressive views, which she felt would not be welcomed by white Mississippians.

Of course, Mississippians read books. Some of them, anyway.

Millsaps College in Jackson is to be commended for inviting Joyce Carol Oates to speak at the institution several weeks before the book festival. We are pretty sure the people in the audience had read a book or two.

Ironically, the book festival barely alludes to Mississippi’s greatest writers or to their leadership on the crucial issues of the past century. Instead, festival organizers invited some individuals who have made careers out of opposing everything Mississippi’s top-tier writers have fought for over the years. Karl Rove is a good example. A Richard Nixon supporter back in the day, he went on to become one of the architects of today’s hateful politics. Promoted as a headliner, Rove is an insult to the state’s literary tradition. He will be “interviewed” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, a pretty good guy but not a Mississippian.

Among the panelists we recommend:

Tiffany Quay Tyson (see our review of The Past Is Never on the Books page) at 9:30 a.m.

Michael Farris Smith (The Killer) at 10:45 a.m.

Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones) at 12:00 p.m.

Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) at 1:30 p.m.

Mississippi Publishers Roundtable at 2:45 p.m.