When a memoir of questionable literary quality “written” by “the most powerful woman in America” is awarded a Pulitzer, one would expect a burst of outrage from an “alternative” journalistic venue such as City Paper. But it was not to be. David Carr, responding to Katharine Graham’s memoir Personal History’s joining the august company of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (Paper Trail, 4/17), simply used this incredible miscarriage of literary judgment as a means of commenting on the failure of the Washington Post to accumulate more Pulitzers; and he happily ignored the real substantive issues raised by Graham’s Pulitzer. They are: 1) Did Personal History deserve a Pulitzer? and 2) Why is the Pulitzer committee given a free ride by media critics?
Let’s consider first the literary quality of Personal History. Mr. Carr accepts, wrongly, in my opinion, the notion that Mrs. Graham’s biography was “acclaimed” by the critics. What he failed to mention was that there was not one honest review of her book anywhere. All the reading public got was obsequious puffery from journalists who worship Katharine Graham, not for her talent as a literary artist but for the wealth and power that she wields. The most sickening suck-up review appeared in the New York Times by Nora Ephron, who praised Personal History to the skies as a brilliant feminist tract.
The soap-operish theme of Graham’s memoir is “How I overcame my shyness and became the manager of a big newspaper.” A book with that banal theme written by someone without wealth and social standing would never get past the slush pile. In addition to its superficial theme, Personal History is nothing more than a recital of “happenings” and is completely devoid of analysis, insight, and meaningful observations about the sad state of journalism in this country. These deficiencies are understandable when we examine her own admission that she is not a writer and preferred to be in the role of a behind-the-scenes newspaper manager.
Mr. Carr says that Mrs. Graham “sat down and wrote that damn book with no ghost in sight.” I invite Mr. Carr to look at the facts. They are that Graham’s editors wielded a heavy hand in determining what the style and content of Personal History should be. Her main role in this situation was handing over piles of personal papers to her editors and leaving it up to them to decide what should go into the book. Technically, the book was not “ghosted,” but there is a great deal of ambivalence as to how much of Personal History bears the mark of Graham and how much bears the mark of her editors. The sob-stuff that dominates the book is in sharp contrast to the mean-spirited, manipulative side of Mrs. Graham, which was thoroughly detailed in two biographies, Katharine the Great: Katharine Graham and Her Washington Post Empire by Deborah Davis and Power, Privilege and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story by Carol Felsenthal. One point that no journalist is willing to discuss is that Mrs. Graham succeeded in persuading Davis’ publisher to cut off all publishing and distribution of Davis’ biography, and Graham attempted to abort publication of Felsenthal’s uncomplimentary biography. None of the character issues revealed by Davis and Felsenthal are raised in Personal History, whose thrust is to portray Katharine Graham sympathetically, as a “victim” of insecurity and a woman who bravely “triumphed” over the trauma of her husband’s suicide. Soap-opera buffs loved it.
Another question raised by Graham’s being awarded a Pulitzerand bypassed by Mr. Carris how the Pulitzer committee could possibly have come up with such a godawful decision. We need to know who is on the committee, what the criteria are for recognizing outstanding writing, and what route is taken before awards are made. Unfortunately, we will never find out about any of these things in print because the only people who write about the Pulitzers are journalists, who themselves might be candidates for getting into the journalistic Hall of Fame.
One of the oft-repeated truisms in this town is that no editor, in or out of the Post, will touch Katharine Graham with a 10-foot pole. Mr. Carr’s failure to question her dubious newfound status as one of great writers in the country is just one more confirmation of this pathetic slice of reality.