Reader Reminiscences

Vivid Portraits: Irony did not die


I began at the Reader as a movie reviewer, during one of the most dismal periods in cinema history. Somewhere I still have all the swag the distribution companies sent along in their efforts to excite us about their listless product – posters for movies with titles that strain with their eagerness to easily please: The Sweetest Thing, Death to Smoochy, Josie and the Pussycats, Mona Lisa Smile. I have a Mylar poster for the Johnny Depp movie Blow (for snorting blow off of, apparently), a calculator with the logo for A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and a Gosford Park mystery board game. Eventually I moved into various editorial roles over a period of a few years. We were a news- paper with no staff reporters, so covering the news adequately – and offering any substantive investigative reporting, the bread-and-butter of alternative weeklies– was out of the question. We relied on a team of very committed and reliable freelance writers, often with full-time jobs of their own, to nonetheless create a vivid portrait of the city. We angled to capture the city’s character and culture. But the very enterprises we sought to re- view were always potential advertisers, creating a constantly festering sticky-wicket. There was a theoretical separation between sales and editorial, but it was hard not to feel responsible when a salesperson lost her contract when an advertiser decided to punish. Because, basically (and not in theory), we were responsible. (Theoretically, however, honesty and integrity were responsible.) And at times it seemed like the only people reading us were people poised to be offended. Sometimes we provoked, to check their pulses. Did we have to run a photo spread of a Barbie doll topless and snorting coke off her dune buggy’s fender, for an innocuous article on spring break fun? No, we probably didn’t need to do that. (“My little girl saw it and asked, ‘Mommy, why is Barbie doing that?’” reported one complainant.) And this skewed, ironical stance left us on the wrong side of popular temperament in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But that reverence for stoicism was short-lived, and reports of the death of irony proved greatly exaggerated. Now, of course, the sardonic voice of the alternative newsweekly is the voice of the blogger – and of practically everyone on Twitter, Facebook, etc. While it was sometimes a challenge to find writers who could write that way, now there’s no avoiding them. There was much I loved. I found Omaha to be idiosyncratic and grittily poetic, and The Reader was our opportunity to shine a light on that mix of the highbrow and the lowdown (most amusingly captured in Leslie Prisbell’s “Bar Hag” column). And at the time we were the only publication in town to report in depth on the gay community, and to regularly feature long-form journalism. We also had full-color profiles of local artists and photographers, and interviews with local musicians. And leaving the office to go watch an awful movie or two wasn’t the worst way to spend a working-day afternoon. I haven’t written a movie review in many years. I write novels now, and I’m a professor of English at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There are fictional Omaha artists, writers, and an alt-weekly editor in my third novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop, which is a kind of warped Valentine to the city, inspired by my days at The Reader. My most recent novel is The Swan Gondola (out in paperback in February), which is set in turn-of-the-century Omaha. I haven’t left the movies entirely behind; my novel in progress is set partly in Jazz Age Hollywood.

— Timothy Schaeffert 


Category: Specials

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