When blogging about illness, what’s TMI? The NYT wades in — and angers many

By Caitlin Kelly

Maybe you’ve been following this recent firestorm?

The one in which Salon, a popular American website, called The New York Times’  former executive editor Bill Keller, and his wife, Gilbey’s gin heiress Emma Gilbey, despicable?

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Both of them wrote about cancer patient Lisa Adams, who has advanced breast cancer.

From Salon:

Lisa Bonchek Adams is a mother of three living with Stage 4 breast cancer. She blogs and tweets about what she is undergoing and the decisions she is making about her health; she does so frequently and to a large audience that’s rooting for her. And to a prominent husband-wife pair of journalists, she’s somehow offensive.

Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, published an Op-Ed in that paper today indicating that Adams, in spite of the image of positivity and strength she generally broadcasts on her social media platforms, is dying and doing so in a manner somehow undignified; Keller draws a comparison between Adams and his late father-in-law. “His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.”

That “trench warfare” has, for Adams, included a variety of medical studies; Keller indicates that Adams’ personal decisions about her health, and her expressing herself online, somehow detracts from people who choose not to undergo experimental treatments or who choose to slip under with less of what is traditionally known as “fighting.” He even finds a Stanford associate dean who is willing to say that Adams “shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”

Here’s an analysis piece from NPR’s blog:

the piece enraged a lot of Times readers, according to public editor Margaret Sullivan, that she heard a great deal of negative feedback, and who herself said “there are issues here of tone and sensitivity.”

Boy … you can say that again. By closing the piece with a piece about a dean who “cringes” at Adams’ alleged embrace of a “combat metaphor” (unsupported by any quotes from her own writing) and salutes those who show grace and courage, Keller implicitly suggests that to handle your disease as Adams has is one way to go. The other way to go is with grace and courage. And that’s very unfortunate.

Adams herself says that Keller, along with his wife Emma Gilbey Keller, who also wrote a controversial column critiquing Adams’ handling of her cancer (that was in The Guardian and has since ), have misrepresented the basic facts of her medical status, and Keller has already admitted he got the number of kids she has wrong. These disputes have been pretty thoroughly inventoried in a . And writers at outlets including and have been sharply critical of the need to explain to a cancer patient how to handle (and discuss) having cancer.

This is an issue I’ve thought a lot about — how much to write or blog about one’s illness or surgery or medical issues — and how much to never share beyond one’s circle of intimates. People, in my view, who are the ones who are most likely to have actually visited you and your family in the hospital or come with you to the chemo suite, perhaps.

One woman I know, barely, professionally, shared a lot of detail on Facebook about the effects of chemo as she was treated (so far, successfully) for breast cancer. But there was a lot I wish she had simply kept to herself.

She got a lot of emotional support, which I understand — why she craved it and why people offered it.

My mother had a radical mastectomy in 2003. She is alive. She has survived multiple cancers, including thyroid and a meningioma, a form of brain tumor.

In other words, I already live in daily fear of my genetic heritage and have little appetite to read anything about cancer.

That is not a judgment of people who do, but the effect of knowing too much firsthand already.

I get my medical tests and keep a careful eye on my own body and that of my husband.

I’ve already stared down plenty of doctors and Xrays and seen too much and heard too much. I saw my mothers’ very large brain tumor on the Xray and had to give informed consent for her; here’s the piece I wrote about it for Chatelaine, Canada’s largest women’s magazine.

Who am I to complain when I, too, have written these sorts of stories? They can, I know, be helpful to others and provide comfort to the ill and to their families.

A friend my age died of cancer in January 2006 and several men in my apartment building are currently fighting cancer.

It’s not that I don’t care about people who are ill. It’s the reverse. Instead, I find myself worrying about people I do not even know.

For me, that’s not the best choice.

I have really mixed feelings about this sort of thing — none of which suggests I’m right.

How do you feel about someone sharing a lot of very graphic detail on-line about their illness?

Writing Books? Waste Of Time, Argues NYT Editor Bill Keller

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Nice.

Here’s the editor of The New York Times in this week’s Times Magazine on the utter folly of writing books:

So, why aren’t books dead yet? It helps that e-books are booming. Kindle and Nook have begun to refashion the economics of the medieval publishing industry: no trucks, no paper, no returns or remainders.

But that does not explain why writers write them. Writers write them for reasons that usually have a little to do with money and not as much to do with masochism as you might think. There is real satisfaction in a story deeply told, a case richly argued, a puzzle meticulously untangled. (Note the tense. When people say they love writing, they usually mean they love having written.) And it is still a credential, a trophy, a pathway to “Charlie Rose” and “Morning Joe,” to conferences and panels that Build Your Brand, to speaking fees and writing assignments.

His larger argument — an extended whine about losing his staff to the distraction of writing books instead of filling his pages — is that writing books (and we’re speaking here of non-fiction) is a waste of time because they don’t get reviewed, (or get trashed), don’t sell, don’t make money.

So, why exactly do we authors keep stepping up to the craps table, eyes agleam, a stack of chips clutched between our fingers?

As author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, and a former reporter for three dailies, and a 20-year Times freelancer, a few reasons:

Writing books means a respite from the endless hustle of pitching ideas

Writing books means not cranking out endless articles of relative meaninglessness for as much freelance pay as offered in the 1970s

Writing books means fleeing the bizarre, tyrannical or petty demands of the worst editors

Writing books means finding and working with an experienced agent whose skill and enthusiasm will champion your work, not a revolving door of editors half your age

Writing books means reading and speaking with your audience face to face, finding out who actually reads your work and how they feel about it

Writing books means your success (or failure) is wholly yours, not the reflected glory and easier access to sources of working for a Big Name Organization

Writing books means finding a welcoming tribe of fellow authors, generally happy to share information about how they got there — a break from the elbow-in-the-eye competitiveness of writing for a daily newspaper

Writing books means, after months of thinking deeply and broadly about an issue or a person, you’ve thought it through enough to possibly offer something new, lively and provocative – – not “just the facts”

Writing books means having months to think, research, read, interview, write, edit, revise — not minutes or hours

Writing books means breaking as far away from the pack as possible, not running as fast as you can to keep up with it on Big Stories that are often, within weeks, forgotten

Writing books means taking an idea and exploring it from every angle your editor and publisher — and word length — will allow. Journalism these days simply does not offer anyone sufficient real estate to explore anything beyond, at most, 5,000-7,000 words, the length of a book chapter

Writing books means exploring an idea or person or issue about which we are passionate — getting paid to learn

Writing books can give you access to grants and fellowships to help you do the work

Writing books means sharing your ideas and passion with readers who care as much, or soon might thanks to you, about this stuff. Intellectual evangelism!

Writing books means creating and enjoying intense relationships with your agent, editor, publisher and publicists. While writing and revising remain intensely solitary work, the production and promotion of your work, relying on the skills, experience and enthusiasm of others, becomes a team sport

Writing books means creating new, and often astonishingly intimate, relationships with total strangers — your audience. It’s fantastic to open your email and read, as I have with Malled, “Your book bolsters me” or “Have you been sitting on my shoulder for the past 23 years?”

Writing books means finding new, unlikely and unexpected alliances. I interviewed a man in Canada for a guest blog for the Harvard Business Review. “I want to promote the hell out of your book,” he said after 10 minutes of conversation. And so he has, to his large and international network

Writing books places your books and ideas in libraries worldwide. Talk about a global economy!

Writing books, as Keller grudgingly admits, can create entirely new (and lucrative) opportunities for the lucky few. “Malled” (did I tell you this yet?) has been optioned by CBS as a possible 30-minute sitcom. That’s pretty cool.

New York Times Will Fire 24 Final Employees To Hit Its Goal Of 100 By Christmas

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Pink slips for Christmas. That’s what 24 New York Times employees are facing this week as the paper winds down to its goal of buying out 100 employees by year’s end.

It’s been a hell of a fall for anyone connected to the Times, staff or freelance. I earned one-third of my income from the paper in 2007 and 2008, writing for a suburban section since decimated, as well as covering business, real estate and other issues for them. My final story for them of 2009 runs tomorrow in the Business section, ironically enough, a piece about how small businesses around the country are dealing with slow, late or non-paying clients.

I rarely even pitch my editors there anymore, so few are the assignments and so long the wait to run a story — which is only when we freelancers get paid. Now, with so many other publications slashing their budgets, the line-up for the Times’ remaining assignments already stretches, for one section editor I know, into April.

My partner works there and we spent the fall discussing whether or not to take the buyout. He did not.

It’s hard to overstate, for those outside journalism, the allure for many staffers of working for the Times: decent pay, a union with clout, smart, tough colleagues, international prestige, interesting work, the chance to move around internally from one section to another, even from covering Queens to a posting in Africa. It’s a bit like joining the foreign service. The deal quickly becomes clear; you subsume your ego into the service of a large, slow-moving, politically liberal organization, a place where confrontation is often considered declasse, and in return for hard work, you received the assurance — often face to face in the biannual “throw things at Bill” all-staff meetings (that’s Bill Keller, the editor in chief) — that you had a place there.

The place has changed, deeply and for good, insiders say. Some foreign correspondents who could rely on the services of their own car and driver have lost this privilege. Last year, every union employee took a five percent pay cut to help the company stay afloat, in return for 10 furlough days. The mood this week, as might be imagined, is grim and scared. Even two or three years ago, a talented Times editor or writer could practically write their ticket to the next terrific gig. No longer; 24,000 print journalists were canned in 2008 and every week has thrust more unemployed competitors, many of them also in Manhattan, into a crowded and deeply competitive marketplace.

I’ll be competing with some of these people for freelance work and, as I send out my resume occasionally for a staff job, that as well.

I wish them the best.