John Katz

Jon Katz was interviewed on October 23, 2014. Mr. Katz appeared on Booknotes on March 23, 1997, where he discussed his book Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits and Blockheads Like William Bennett.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is Thursday, October 23, 2014, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author John Katz, who appeared on Booknotes on March 23, 1997, to discuss his book, Virtuous Reality. Hello, Mr. Katz, thank you for speaking with us today.

Hello, Lindsey, thank you for having me.

How did your book come to be on Booknotes?

Well, I think I got a call from C-SPAN from Brian Lamb, and he was interested in the subject. He had been following some of my media criticism. I guess he called the publisher first, and then I spoke with him about it. He sounded like a lot of fun and very sharp, and he seemed to really know what he was talking about, so I agreed to do it.

How did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

I didn't prepare that well. The subject at the time was a bit of a controversial book. It was just the beginning of the sort of, you know, the devolution of the news media into the left and the right, and William Bennett was sort of one of the people who was leading that movement from the right. And I found that troubling. I felt that if journalism began getting split into these two camps, people would start thinking of the world in ever-narrowing ways. And I think that interested Mr. Lamb. I think he was intrigued with that. I was just very, very interested in media. And so I think that was basically the foundation of it. I didn't really have to prepare a lot because it was sort of an opinion book.

What do you remember most from your appearance on the program?

Well, you know, it's very unusual in the United States to be interviewed by someone as thorough as Brian Lamb was. You know, he really read the book. He was very thoughtful about it. His questions were so thorough and penetrating, it was almost disturbing compared to what he normally encountered. You know, at the time, I think media was beginning to degenerate into a culture kind of argument, which is what you see all over Washington now. At the time, it was still a bit unusual. There were still people like Walter Cronkite, and the main news media, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the networks, were still very powerful and very influential. And most of the country watched them and followed them, and everything wasn't seen through this prism of sort of arguing on two sides of things. He was a very, very refreshing interviewer. He was just very thorough. He was very thoughtful. He was really sort of rigidly non-ideological and non-partisan. He also had somewhat, at the time, pioneered the idea of bringing listeners into the conversation. This was, at the time, something that was really only done on talk radio, and mainstream media was very resistant to it. And he was very scrupulous about being non-partisan and fair to everybody. At the same time, he didn't suffer fools much either. You know, if somebody had a silly question, he would get rid of them quickly. But it's one of the first times I remember, it's quite common now when you go onto a program to have a lot of callers, and some of it is quite fake. Some of it is simply the news organizations trying to appear to be interactive when they're really not interactive. But he really was. He really did listen to what the callers said, and I think he always made the callers feel very important. And he certainly made me feel very important because of the thoroughness with which he had prepared. So it was very unusual, I think it's unusual to this day, to be interviewed. I've written 27 books. And he definitely stands out as one of the very few people who was so serious and thoughtful about the questions. He obviously prepared them so well. And he, of course, was freer than many people to do it because he wasn't under quite the commercial pressure of the networks or radio. So he obviously had a lot of influence there over time and content. So it was a great compliment to be interviewed on the program. It was done very seriously and it was very meaningful.

You mentioned how thoroughly Mr. Lamb prepared for the interviews, and we actually have his collection of books here. I have his copy of your book with me, and there's extensive marginalia in writing throughout the book. And you mentioned this as potentially not being standard practice for interviewers. But how do you feel as if this might change the interview experience?

It changed the interview experience because you could articulate the ideas to a much greater degree than anywhere else. You know, you had this experience sometimes when you went to Canada, where they had these longer and more thoughtful shows. You rarely had it in the United States. At the time, there were enormous changes occurring in media that even the people in media were not really aware of. And so it was important for me anyway to be able to talk about what I saw happening. You know, the book was sort of presented as a kind of argument between me and Mr. Bennett, but it was actually more an essay on the rise of new media. And I think that turned out to be more important than I realized. He realized how important it was. He saw it coming. And so he gave me the time and the opportunity to draw out that argument. People listening to that interview would have had a rare opportunity to really understand the argument. And if they accepted it, to begin to understand what was happening in media. He stayed in touch with me after that. And we would talk and email back and forth several times. And I think that he saw the main points I was trying to raise and saw they were coming true, or felt they were coming true. So that was both very gratifying as a writer, but certainly to a reader and a viewer. You know, I have got email for years from people who saw that program and who said, you know, "Thank you for that interview. I feel like I understand what's happening to media." And of course, that's very precious to a writer, and I think it's the highest calling of a journalist. It's sadly so rare, I can't think of another time, really, when it happened. And that's in 30 years of writing books. So I think it was a very unique, very unique and unusual thing, and I think people appreciated it. I know we did not have a huge, huge numerical following. But I think people really saw it, people really mattered, and I think it really helped people. Not just in my case, but in all the cases where he interviewed people.

So as you mentioned, Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most of the other network television interviews, which would last three minutes or less. What do you think the benefits or even potential drawbacks of this longer format is for the author or for the viewer?

Well, there's no drawbacks for the author if you are thinking and prepared to talk about your work. And I think the only drawback for the viewer is his time. I guess if I had a disagreement with him, I think the way in which calls are introduced into the discussion can sometimes be good and sometimes just be a waste of time. A lot of the calls were dumb. A lot of the calls were off the point. A lot of the calls were partisan. So there was this unusual feeling of interactivity, but I don't know that he really found a way to really monitor the calls in a way that they were as meaningful as the interview. At the same time, I think people found them entertaining. I think the interactivity that he introduced to interviews was quite significant because, of course, it became probably the biggest factor in modern media was the idea of engaging the readers and viewers in the conversation. It's become such a staple, we don't think about it, but media that are not interactive are struggling, and media that are interactive are prospering. You can almost cut a line right across media that way. People who consume information want to have a say in it. They want to be a part of it. And he grasped that intuitively long before it became a popular and mainstream thing. It's still a bit out of control, and I still feel sometimes frustrated by the erratic quality of the calls.

But he definitely brought this idea that our ideas were all important. The writer was important, the interviewer was important, the caller was important. That's a very radical idea. If you look at me even today, the New York Times is still struggling with this issue even now.  They really are falling behind both in the print and online  editions because they're really not interactive. They're papers like The Huffington Post which are not as good as The New York Times are making a fortune because they really are interactive. So this is a very important thing for media to come to terms with. I think it faces every journalist and every author. It certainly has affected my life as an author. I'm on Facebook now and I have social media and I have a blog which is as important to me as the book and promoting the book is probably more important than a publisher. I guess in a way he was a pioneer in seeing these things rather instinctively. And since there were all elements that he introduced and were part of his broadcasting, he was fortunate in one way in that he was removed from the worst of the commercial brawls. So he was freer to experiment with this form.
But at the same time, if you look, you're paying attention to C-SPAN, it wouldn't be necessarily shocked by what has happened today. 

Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. You all actually spent a little bit of time discussing your writing process and your basement
with your dogs. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing to be interesting or do you think that potentially these types of questions are for other authors and publishers?

I think readers are always shocked at how interested readers are in those details. People ask me all the time, "How do I write? What's my discipline?" When do I write?   Where do I write? I think most of the world wants to be a writer and most of the world wants to read good writing. And even those who don't do it are fascinated by it. And remember that I think at the time, writers occupied a little bit of a different space in the culture that they do now. He had great respect for writers, and writers were very important when someone like Philip Roth or Norman Mailer or someone like that wrote a novel. It was big news. It was on the news. It was on the front page of papers. It was talked about. It was in front windows of bookstores. The publishing world bears little resemblance to that now. Many people argue that the novel is dead. I don't believe that, but it's certainly been displaced in many ways by the internet and by different forms of culture and by the entertainment culture and people television and all kinds of things. So people have a lot more choices. The novel, the book is not as central as it was. I still find when I go in book tour or even through email, people are fascinated by my life as a writer. I always write about it, to some extent, how I write. I still write with dogs under my feet. I still write in much the same way. People still want to know about it. They don't tire about it. I often think, well, who will care how I write? Who gives a hoot about that? But they do. The writer's process is fascinating to people. I think he was more central then than it is now, and I think he respected it much more than people who interview writers respect it.

I often think of Brian Lam's interviews when I go on a book tour, or many interviews are on the phone or many interviews are online. And if you get three or four  minutes, you're lucky. No one reads the book. No one asks about the writing process. The questions are not even usually related to the book. So I don't mean, I'm not one of those people who likes to wave the flag for the good old days. We all have to live with change. But if you were a writer, that was great to be on that program.   You were treated with great respect and courtesy, and you were taken very seriously.  And you always left feeling like you were a real writer. And that's his rare now.  That's just unfortunately rare.  And you have to accept the culture moves on.  Things aren't going to stay the same because they were convenient for someone like me.
But I think the culture has been damaged quite a bit by the lack of civility that he practiced and the respect that he showed and the thoroughness that he applied.   I joke with him that when I left that interview, I felt like I'd been laundered. I had been through the washing machine. You know, you just said you just really had to work and you had to think and you had to talk about what you were doing in a meaningful way. That just happened so rarely that it stands out after all the years.

Mr. Lamb frequently asks his guests biographical questions. You all spent a little bit of time talking about your work in newspapers and also about your daughter. Is this generally different from most author interviews you've experienced?

Yes, it's very different. It's radically different. I think he had a very holistic approach to interviewing in the sense that he wasn't just interested in the book. He was interested in your life. He was interested in the things that shaped your life. He was interested in your family and your relationships with the family. He was interested in where you lived and how that affected you. This, I think, was again from a time when writing occupied a different place. It was one of the central ways in which ideas moved through the culture. I refer to it the term holistically because I think it was just most interviewers will ask you four or five questions from the book. These days, they usually ask you questions from a prepared list by the publicist. So you never get a sense of any interest in your life beyond the book. You're lucky if you get that. I think it's very different. I think part of that feeling of being considered more thoroughly. You felt respected and you felt listened to and you felt that what you said mattered because he took so much trouble to read it and be prepared by it. I don't know that anyone has ever asked me about some of the questions he asked me about my family or the influences on my writing beyond what I was saying. I think it's very important.

So were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions?

Yes. Surprised by quite a few of them, I remember. I sort of had heard about him and I'd seen him a couple of times so I knew basically what he did. But I was surprised by the thoroughness and he always made a point of trying to surprise the writer. He wanted to catch you off guard a bit. You had to be on your toes with him. You couldn't just do it by the numbers. Most interviews you go through, you can close your eyes and do it in your sleep. You're not going to be surprised. You're not going to be challenged. But you get the sense of a workout with him that you had to be on your toes and prepared. He would come at you from very different directions than most people did, forcing you to think differently than most people thought.

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview and did your experience on the show change your impression of the program?

I watched it a little bit. I didn't really watch it that much. I've always been allergic to Washington. So I always stayed away from it. I worked there a little bit as a reporter but I never really liked it. I'm not a big television watcher. I would watch it once in a while. I would flick on to see what he was doing and I watched it before I went on. The only thing that surprised me about it, I think, was this experience of dealing with calls. That was a little bit new to me. It didn't make me uncomfortable. It was just different. I also was impressed being there just by his openness to ideas. Whoever came at him with a legitimate idea, he kind of wanted to hear it. But I was not a big watcher of it. I just don't watch television that much.

As you may or may not know, George Mason has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books he used in the Booknotes series. This amounts to more than 800 non-fiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the benefits and uses of a collection such as this might be?

I think it could be potentially quite valuable in preserving this idea of the book in American politics and culture. I think his interviews are probably as good a record as there is of how media worked and how the culture worked and how books interacted with the culture at that time. And also about writers and the enormous influence they had on American life during that period. As I said before, I think their influence is waning. I think it's still there. They're still important to people. But again, it's different. They're not as central. They're not as focused. So I would imagine it would be an extremely valuable preservation of the role of publishing in American life in that period.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked, would you have returned to the program for another interview?

Yes, I would have absolutely any time. I was always disappointed in that rule because I thought it was a little bit arbitrary. I think it should depend on the writer and the book. Not only the rule just seemed a little arbitrary to me. Because my writing evolved. I wrote about media at the time. I don't write about media anymore. Since that time, I wrote about animals and rural life and many other things. So I would have certainly preferred him to judge it by the book rather than the writer. But it also, in a way, made him very neutral. He couldn't be accused of favoritism. And it forced him to be open to new things and new ideas. So I understand why he did it. From a selfish perspective, I would love to have it on there several times.

Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb?

Not enormously. I think the publisher was excited about it. I think publishing people heard of me a little more. I think he had a very loyal and rabid following. For years, whenever I went anywhere, people would tell me they saw me there and they liked me there and they remembered it. But I don't have the sense of him as being a huge driver of book sales. I think he had a small, very dedicated and influential audience. But I don't think he really was moving in that direction. I don't think C-SPAN had the kind of audience that the more mainstream networks did. I never had the sense that it really altered my publishing life much.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

No, I don't think so. I think the conversation kind of reinforced my feeling that the book was in the right place at the right time, that I was catching something. I thought he was also seeing it and reacting to it. No, I think I felt pretty good about myself as a writer after talking to him. What have you been working on since this book? And which works are you most pleased with? Also, given the topic of virtuous reality with morality and new media, consumption and fear, have you considered doing an updated version of this book? No, I gave up media criticism some years ago. I moved upstate New York and I've been writing basically about animals and about rural life and about my life on a farm here. So I haven't written about media in, I don't know, 10 or 15 years. I found that media changed so much that I was not comfortable with it anymore. I think the book was unfortunately all too prescient, more so than I imagined. I thought media as I knew it, as Brian Lamb practices, it's gone pretty much. And I think it's a great loss. It's really not something I really want to be a part of. I think it's too divisive. It's too hysterical. It's too unprofessional, frankly. I think the values that he practiced are largely gone. So I haven't written on that subject. I've written maybe 20 books since then. And none of them have been on media. So I don't think I want to revisit that. I think the media, as I understood media, just doesn't really exist much anymore. It really has become a culture where it promotes argument rather than understanding. It doesn't do the kind of careful listening and research that he did. It doesn't cling to the non-partisan ideology that he did. So if you're going to be a part of media, you have to choose which side of the boxing ring you want to get in on, who you want to fight with. And that's not how I really wanted to spend my writing life.

In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then-contemporary society, or perhaps since?

I think Booknotes sort of sanctified and respected the position of the writer in American life. I think it gave writers a sort of almost unique opportunity to articulate their ideas and their values. I think it gave them an opportunity to be heard that really doesn't exist anywhere else in the culture and didn't then and doesn't now. I don't know the impact it has now. I can't say I really know that. I feel probably the impact is that he preserved a way of looking at the world that hopefully will be an inspiration against people and may come around. And maybe people in the future can look at Booknotes and understand what television journalism could be and how ideas can really live, can really matter. That all ideas don't have to be arguments, that everyone doesn't have to be stuffed into a bottle of left and right. There are lots of different ways to think about the world. And maybe even the idea of the writer as a person in search of truth and in fact can be remembered and recalled, even returned one day. So I think he was a warrior for that. I think that's a lasting contribution. Whether it has an impact on life today, I don't see it really. I don't see what he did being practiced much today, unfortunately.

Well, is there anything else that you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

I don't think so. I just think he was a very, very admirable person, a very, very conscientious, a very unique person, and I was very privileged to have been on that program. I consider it one of the high watermarks of my life. I try not to be nostalgic because I think that's kind of a trap, but I certainly wish there was someone like him around, and if there were, I'd certainly love to be on his program again. I don't think I'll see that again, unfortunately, and I think it's too bad. But I'm grateful to have experienced it, and I'm a great admirer of him, and I think there was no one like him, and there's no one like him now.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Thank you, Lindsay. I appreciate it. Thank you.