The Birth of Contributors

Electronic spam is never welcome, but on rare occasions—okay, once, recently—it turns into gold.  Was this some kind of twenty-first centory alchemy? Not at all. But it was an extraordinary event nonetheless.

Two weeks ago I was skimming the e-mails caught in my spam filter when, just as I pushed the Delete key, I noticed the name of Carl Rollyson as the sender. It was instant recognition from the long-gone days of the now-defunct readers’ forum, Readerville. Carl is a serious biographer and reviewer of biographies (as well as a professor of journalism) with even more serious credentials to his name. He writes for the “big boys,” currently including the Wall Street Journal. I have always admired his writing from afar but never had the courage to even consider approaching him about BiblioBuffet.

Then the spam showed up. I desperately tried to reverse the deletion. No luck. I couldn’t recall the subject line but I knew it had not struck me as a personal one. And the main question in my  mind—why would Carl be contacting me after all these years?—was one I couldn’t answer.

So I googled him, found his university address, and e-mailed him. He responded quickly, saying that since it was probably a Viagra ad sent by a hacker I was fortunate in that I did delete it. My answer was a quick note of thanks and a (very) brief comment that if he ever did want to consider writing for BiblioBuffet we would be honored.

E-mails flew back and forth over the next two days. He said he hadn’t been on the site since its early days because he remembered we didn’t pay much and straight reviews simply did not allow him to stretch his writing wings in the way he wanted. He was trying to get, he said, a column about biography. A column where he could “write reviews from a biographer’s perspective, drawing on my experience in order to discuss the biographer’s sources and methodology, and, most importantly, addressing the question of where a particular biography fit into current practice, as well as in the history of the genre.”

Well.

It sounded like he needed a writer’s playground.

We made one for him.

Nicki Leone and I are firmly committed to the idea that when you hire excellent writers you should give them the freedom to do what they do best instead of insisting that they corform to your ideas. The necessity of imposing word counts in an online publication is moot at least as far as formatting is concerned. (Audience attention spans are still a consideration.) BiblioBuffet gives its writers complete freedom to say what they want, review the books they want, write about subjects that interest them. They just need to say whatever they choose to say well.

Both of us knew Carl’s writing from our Readerville days so when I peaked his interest with that heady editorial freedom he agreed. His first column went up this week, and it’s a goodie.

So what am I doing here? Hoping, finally, to write about biography and the practice of reviewing it from a broader perspective than is available in a book review, exploring what I expect from biographies, and commenting on how other reviewers and critics treat the genre.

Every two weeks, I will deal with how biographers are treated in the press, while doing some name dropping and perhaps even purveying gossip about the world of biographers—a cosmos I inhabit that includes the NYU biography seminar and BIO (the newly formed Biographers International Organization), as well as reports from friends and run-ins with colleagues in what has come to be called the life-writing business.

E-mails from potential contributors are always exciting. There is such potential, and it is wonderful to hear from someone who thinks BiblioBuffet is worth writing for. That is how all our excellent writers came to us. What is extraordinary about Carl, though, is that he came to us through the magic of alchemy. If spam could be spun into gold, that is.

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