Monday, October 8, 2007

Death of a Sex Column Part 1

I saw it coming. It was as nebulously foreboding as an impending break-up, triggered by a single practical change. You know how it is: something's not right, but you're not sure so you convince yourself that they still love you and therefore stay where you are. No, I will not quit, you say to yourself, out of fear of being dumped. I will not race to the end without any specific reason for doing so, or just to avoid a broken heart. And yet your gut is burning with intuition.

The single practical change in this case was when Manhattan Media bought the New York Press. I was not alarmed by this news; actually, my first thought was that I would possibly get paid more than the paltry $100 per column, and if not that, at least get paid on time. (New York Press is notorious for dysfunctional payroll...once I deposited a check that bounced and it took them months to reimburse me for the $10 fee my bank charged).

I visited Jerry Portwood in his new sanitized office then met with the new publisher, Tom Allon, who had nothing but positive things to say about my column. Jerry had prepped me with the news that I was one of the few writers they were keeping. Not only were they keeping me, they didn't want to change a thing. Allon even wanted me to get more involved with the NY Press website; we discussed cultivating reader interaction through sex polls and a blog. Other than the elimination of the sex ads in the back of the paper (I admit I miss those girly Asian asses and She-Male crotch shots) and a few formatting changes, the New York Press was relatively intact after changing ownership. But the offices were too clean, too khaki. And the letters on the wall in the lobby spelling "New York Press" blended eerily with the names of the other publications: The West Side Spirit, New York Family, Our Town.

Everything was cool for about a month. My column, as usual, was published with hardly an altered word. I had completed a "Lust Life" book proposal, and was prepared to write this column every week for at least another year, riding the waves of my inevitable book deal until a few months after publication, when I would appropriately, nobly resign.

That seemed to be the ideal progression, as long as the paper remained an edgy backdrop for my uncompromising style. But I, as well as you readers of the New York Press, saw that "edgy" started to lose its edge when the paper made the ungraceful transition from being "New York's Premier Alternative Weekly" to "New York's Independent Weekly Newspaper."

"Independent." What is independent? Someone or something independent is not influenced by outside authority, opinion, jurisdiction, or corporate sponsorship. I am independent.

As I was independently travelling to Washington D.C. for an independent film festival, I opened that week's "independent" issue of the New York Press (Sept. 12-18) to my independent column, and was horrified that a NYU Cancer Institute ad was placed right in the middle of "Lust Life." A conservative woman posed purse-lipped with the quote "I won't allow colon cancer to take over my life." Now, I have nothing against reaching out to the cancer-stricken population, but why was this ad stuck in the middle of a column about sex at Burning Man? Maybe it had something to do with the title "Burning Desire" (which was the editor's invention after my original title "Erotic Desert"). Mmmm. Burning Desire. That's hot. And that reminds me of my burning intestines. Oh God, maybe I have colon cancer. Now I can't finish reading Lust Life because I'm worried I might have colon cancer. I better call the number in this cancer ad before it's too late. Hey, I won't allow colon cancer to take over my life either--that's why I get colonics.

Wait--there's more! On the editorially devoid page opposite Lust Life / Colon Cancer, were ads for five NYC hospitals, The Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue Family Programs and Tribeca Spa of Traquility (their typo, not mine). Still slackjawed, I turned a few pages and landed upon "Hudson Valley Happenings"--a 10 PAGE promotional guide to regional fall festivities such as organ recitals, Dutch Weekend, Family Day at Constitution Island, and Family Fun Events at Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art. It's not that I wouldn't go to Hudson Valley for a pleasant weekend of fucking in the foliage. What disgusted me about these changes was how incongruent they were in relation to my column and New York Press as a whole. New York Press wasn't founded on family values. It was founded on the enlightened cynicism of young liberal urbanites that wouldn't read The West Side Spirit if it was the last free paper in New York.

My lover, who was sitting next to me in the bus, said, "This is not the New York Press. This is something else." We discussed my position in this morass of conservative change. He suggested that the Village Voice might be a better place for my column. For a few moments, the current Voice seemed significantly more appealing than the family-fun filled pages in my hands. Then I remembered that not too long ago, sex writer Rachel Kramer Bussel had her "Lusty Lady" column unceremoniously booted from the other NY alternative paper that used to be cool. "Maybe it's better to stay where I am for now," I said. "The new publisher kept my column; that must mean something."

I saw it coming. After the film festival, I went to an artists community in Vermont to work on my book for two weeks. Alternative Newspaper Suffers a Long, Slow Death, I wrote as a mock headline in a piece about my romantic adventures in DC.

I saw it coming. While in Vermont, I googled myself and found some unflattering comments about me in response to a post on Gawker regarding an offensive rejection letter sent to an aspiring sex columnist for pitching a new column to the Village Voice.

I saw it coming. A couple of days before I finished my column for that week, I received an email from new NY Press editor-in-chief David Blum, saying, "Please call me." I didn't call right away.

I saw it coming. After I emailed my column to Blum and Portwood, I received another email from Blum, saying "Please call me tomorrow morning." I was going to start the column for the following week so I could get it out of the way and focus on my book, but decided to wait until after the conversation with Blum. As if what he had to say would influence my next column. I recalled the comments he inserted into the first column I sent him two weeks earlier (Burning Desire)--he sent the original column back to me with comments like "this is too fantastical to believe" and "what does this mean?" I admit the column I sent was a bit under par--it was late and I was still recovering from the surreal environment of Burning Man. However, in my year and a half of writing this column, I never had a column emailed back to me (occasionally the editor would email me a question or confirm a minor change with me, but this was the first time a column was returned to me with major criticism inserted in capital letters). After my ego revived from the sting, I improved the column and sent it back with some clarifying comments of my own... "two souls connecting in the dust" literally dust of the playa, figuratively magic dust...I trust the intelligent readers of NYPress will get this. He may or may not have appreciated my notes.

The possibility of getting fired did cross my mind.

Meanwhile, the cover story that week was about a publicist's dating debacle with actor Eric Schaeffer...I read Kelly Kreth's article and almost choked at this paragraph: "His particular fascination with excretions spoke to me. Being a woman who is no stranger to poop stories, having published a few of my own on Poopreport.com, I imagined Eric and I someday falling love, showing each other our bowel movements—the most intimate of acts in my estimation. I got butterflies just thinking about it." I thought it was strange that such provocatively disgusting details made it into the cover story of a publication that was steadily moving into a conservative zone. Even more disturbing was that Kreth's article read too much like a sex column.

I called David Blum in the morning. With all the signs leading to this moment, it was not shocking to hear him say that he was discontinuing my column. But even if you expect to be dumped, the words still sting. He said he felt bad, that doing this was the worst part of the job, that he was sorry we never even met. (He wanted to meet me and he even invited me to an editorial meeting, but I was so busy in between my recent trips that we never had the chance.) I had just been rejected, but I wasn't going to let him go so easily. I asked why. "And please be honest. I want to know," I said.

"Well...it's a matter of taste," he said. "Your flowery language obfuscates the clarity--"

"But is it my writing? Is it my style?"

"Obviously, you can put two sentences together..." (well, thank you very much) He claimed he didn't know how else to explain it other than a matter of taste.

"Is it the subject matter? Is it too honest, too edgy?"

He referred again to the flowery language, saying that it "obfuscates the clarity so that the stories don't seem true." He brought up the Burning Desire column as an example. "They are all true," I said. "I don't even embellish." He said he believed me, but that he just didn't believe the stories when he read them.

Well, I couldn't argue with that. If he can't see the truth beyond the lyricism, he doesn't get my column.

I probed further. "Is part of the reason political? I mean, the paper has been moving in a more conservative direction since Manhattan Media bought it."

Allow me to paraphrase his response: It has nothing to do with the sex ads being cut, I don't have a problem with sex in the paper, this week's cover story was about sex...Kelly Kreth...did you see it? Anyway, I just got here a few weeks ago and I have to make some decisions and I guess I just want to do something different. I tried to do something different at the Voice (he alluded to the short-lived sex column by two sexless married women...)

Oh my God, this is the same guy who fired Rachel! I didn't remember his name when that news was unleashed and only now realized the connection.

He admitted the sexless sex column was a bad idea. "Don't think it's political," he said.

"Are you hiring a new sex columnist?"

"Eventually, but not right away. We don't have anyone in mind."

I kept him on the phone for at least 20 minutes. He was kind enough to endure my grilling. It was the least he could do. He also mentioned that he really liked the column I just sent him, and that he was going to publish it. He thought it was clear (unlike the flowery others, apparently), and a nice ending that summed it all up.

"You're right, you're not Carrie Bradshaw," he said.

I wasn't sure if he meant that as a compliment or a critical affirmation of where I stand. Maybe both.

We hashed it out a bit more. It was a genuine conversation, or so I thought. He respected me enough to explain that he didn't want to work with me to try to change my column so that it would suit his taste. That's not the role of a columnist. A columnist is autonomous, like the free-spirit who will never change who she is for a lover. "You're a columnist," he said. "I can't change you and I don't want to change you." A columnist cannot write to please an editor. She can only write from her heart.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

It sucks no matter which way you look at it. I got fired first as a columnist (I was officially a translator, but that second firing was still a year or two away) from the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico where I wrote as the curmudgeon with the heart of gold, criticizing everything and everyone but with a funny edge, which is a way to love, you know?
I got fired because some ladies married to money did not appreciate what I thought of their "Club de Damas CĂ­vicas" and their upcoming Hat Show.
So, hey, it's not over till it's over, like bukowski said.

sphynx said...

The Kelly Kreth cover story mentioned was worse than described. It was billed on the cover as an expose of NYC's worst boyfriend, a guy allegedly so bad even his publicist won't date him anymore, written by his publicist Kelly Kreth. Instead we were served a big helping of thinly-veiled publicity for the actor Eric Schaffaer, complete with extensive appreciation of his gorgeousness, glowing praise of his movies, and a late-in-the-article outright admission that she's met a lot of worse guys in NYC. Gah.

Stephanie, your column will be missed from NYPress. As is the charmingly smartass and refreshingly human Dategirl, who I still read online from her Seattle outpost. But we can definitely do without Dr. Dot, also recently departed from NYP, who wrote the lamest sex advice column I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

when I came to nyc last summer, I came across your column and I was sadden by the departure of you column