BOOKS & THE CULTURE 0A Well-known Gun A Writer for Hire Collects His Best BY JOHN RATLIFF CLOSE CALLS: JAN REID’S TEXAS. By Jan Reid. Texas A&M Press. 247 pages. $29.95. Consider the freelancer. To the aspiring writer, the word conjures up a fearless paladin of journalism, bloodied but unbound, dispatching dragons \(or chimeras, or something else with the truth on his tongue, an eye for detail, and the prospect of being reimbursed for expenses. It’s so much snappier than panderer, or mendicant, or hackall of which describe various aspects of the freelance writer’s calling in the real world. The young Jschool grad may dream of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but you can’t commit journalism in a vacuum. If you’re a freelancer, you do it on somebody else’s dime, which means that, whatever your own unwavering commitment to the truth, whoever signs the check gets to say what the story is and how it gets told. It’s true that a good editor can improve even the best writer’s work, but a bad one can lay waste to Paradise Lost and still make his lunch date. And unlike salaried staff writers, the freelancer can’t plead for more time to work on a story without delaying his own payday. He takes the best available shot and moves on, stealing wistful glances over his shoulder. No wonder most of them would rather eat their own articles page by page than have to read them again once they’re in print. So the publication of Close Calls, a selection of Jan Reid’s magazine pieces from the past quarter century, required a certain amount of chutzpah on someone’s part. It’s a gamble: the material may be good enough to stick between perfume swatches in a soon-to-be-discarded magazine, but is it worth sandwiching between hard covers for the ages? And will anybody buy it? It’s the publishing equivalent of re-releasing a made-for-TV movie on the arthouse circuit. Not unprecedented, but risky. Who is this man, Jan Reid, who inspires such confidence in the publishing world? In a winning if slightly disjointed introduction, Reid traces his own development as a writer, an account which offers some insight into his own literary priorities: he recalls throwing a Henry James novel across the room upon encountering the ladylike interjection “Oh! Oh! Oh!” \(As someone who’s often reacted the same way and assumed that the fault lay with the reader and not the writer, I felt both empowered and embarrassed by this New Journalism at the other end of the literary spectrum, as embodied by Tom Wolfe: “The emphasis was on snappy dialogue, scene-by-scene construction, and brash inventivenessWolfe specialized in sound effects.” Reid’s role models were Texas writers like John Graves and Larry McMurtry, whose writing, however stylized, was grounded in language that might actually have been spoken by human beings at some point. Though first published in the pages of the Observer voice as a journalist in the pages of Texas Monthly, where all but one of the pieces in this collection first appeared. He goes out of his way to acknowledge his debt to the magazine and the people who work there, but the prickly independence of the professional freelancer is never far from the surface. He can’t refrain from pointing out that he was let go only a few months after finally being hired as a staffer, and his description of the magazine is something short of a big wet kiss: “A journal that started out rattling the establishment has become the establishment, and like a cat now it often sits preening, adoring its place Earl Nottingham A Jan Reid and friend, from the cover of Close Calls NOVEMBER 3, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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