About the Lives of Writers, Book Titles, and Journalism Awards

By Jack Limpert

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 5.19.34 PMLiza Mundy has a wonderful book review in Sunday’s Washington Post on Gail Sheehy’s just published memoir, Daring: My Passages. Here’s how it starts:

“For a professional writer, there are few truly good reasons to write a memoir. Most writers lead boring lives, spending swaths of time sitting at their desks or in coffee shops, rifling through notes, gazing about, looking with despair at the sentence or two they have eked out, wondering if it’s lunchtime yet, and finding other ways to procrastinate.

“Given the uneventfulness of the average writer’s workday, the only valid reasons to publish a soup-to-nuts autobiography are (1) to chronicle historic events they have witnessed; (2) to explain things they did that might need justification; (3) to settle scores; and, related to that, (4) to share noteworthy gossip about other writers they have known and perhaps warred with.

“All of these motivations seem to lie behind Gail Sheehy’s decision to chronicle her life—that, and the fact that an editor suggested she do it—but the upshot is a rather cautious passage.”

Later in the Post review, Mundy makes clear that the book doesn’t deliver on the title, Daring: My Passages:

“All of which could have had the makings of a revealing tell-all. If she had been more willing to betray her social set, perhaps she could have retained the authority and alienation to produce a well-observed memoir about the influencers she has crossed paths with. But in the end she avoids hard reflection or big revelations: She drops names, but when it comes to delivering gimlet-eyed details about the anthropological habits of the high and mighty, she respectfully declines.”
Is there something familiar in that Daring: My Passages book title?

Sheehy has written 16 books, and her big seller was Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life in 1976. That was followed by Pathfinders: Overcoming the Crises of Adult Life in 1983. My guess is that Pathfinders didn’t sell nearly as well as Passages and Sheehy’s publisher decided that if Passages sold well, they weren’t going to be shy about using that word in future titles.

Such as:

The Silent Passage: Menopause (1993)

New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (1995)

Understanding Men’s Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men’s Lives (1998)

Middletown, America: One Town’s Passage from Trauma to Hope (2003)

Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence (2010)

Daring: My Passages (2014)

As a city magazine editor, our magic title word was “best” and we weren’t shy about using it. In planning the next year’s cover stories, we almost always used Best Restaurants, Best Bargain Restaurants, Best Places to Live, and Best of Washington. Plus Top Doctors. Why not Best Doctors? A book publisher had copyrighted Best Doctors. Also Great Places to Work.

On the magazine’s cover, we usually sold four or five stories along with the main cover piece. We didn’t like to repeat “best” so I finally typed out a list of about 25 words that echoed “best,” making it easier to write all the cover lines.

In the magazine newsstand wars, as in the book-selling wars, whatever works.
A P.S. on Gail Sheehy. In the 1980s and 1990s, I often was one of the 30 or so judges for the National Magazine Awards. The awards, given out by the American Society of Magazine Editors, started out with a large group of screeners meeting in New York City in February. Each category had six or so screeners who read the 30 or 40 entries in that category and named five finalists. The screeners often made clear which entry they thought deserved to win.

A smaller group of judges—usually three for each category—then met in March at Columbia University to look over the finalists and decide on the NMA winner, which was announced in April.

In 1987, ASME created a new category, Feature Writing, and the screeners recommended three celebrity profiles by Sheehy as the winner. The judges in that category, as I recall, were inclined to go along with the screeners but a small but influential group of judges rebelled, insisting that Sheehy’s profiles, while well-written, were too lightweight to be honored, especially in Feature Writing’s first year. After heated debate, the judges gave the Feature Writing award to an Atlantic profile of Paul Erdos, a Hungarian mathematician. The Erdos story, by Paul Hoffman, was very well-done but of much narrower interest than the Sheehy celebrity profiles.

The takeaway: In journalism contests, there often is an inverse relationship between stories that readers will want to read and stories that win awards.


  1. George Cowie says

    Thank you for this essay. I had often wondered about the appeal of Sheehy, never quite grasping the nature of the society such writers operate in, nor the rationale behind the awards. An awakening, a passage, for which I thank you. Also, your lead paragraphs are well-written and gave me a reason to continue with your discussion of the point you were making. Thanks to Jim Romenesko for the link to this.

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