I once knew a women’s magazine subeditor who was working on a roman a clef about her experience called “The Bitch Pit.” The title could just as easily apply to newspaper features sections, which used to be known as the women’s pages and still sometimes erupt in henhouse fights. Latest case in point: The Miami Herald’s Tropical Life section, which is apparently withholding coverage of a new chick lit novel set in Miami because of bad blood between the book’s author, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, and Tropical Life columnist Lydia Martin.
Part of the backstory here is that Alisa, who used to be a journalist until she quit the Los Angeles Times with an infamous 3,400-word flameout resignation letter several years ago, has a knack for ticking off just about everybody. Although the Times had hired her in the late ’90s as part of some program called the Latino Initiative, a couple of years later she decided her employer was guilty of “genocide” for even using the word Latino. Also, editors hadn’t allowed her to publish a commentary comparing the children’s film “The Road to Eldorado,” set during the Spanish exploration of the New World, to the Holocaust.
Broke and jobless back in her home state of New Mexico, Alisa later explained to Jim Romenesko’s media blog that her resignation letter’s over-the-top tone was due to stress from extreme pregnancy-related nausea. Since the Times had no interest in hiring her back, she went to work for a small paper in Albuquerque. Then she sold her first novel, “The Dirty Girls Social Club,” at auction for $475,000 – a remarkably hefty sum for an unpublished fiction writer.
Although lately she’s been railing against border control and has become something of a go-to girl for nutty quotes about immigration or English-only initiatives, for the past three years Alisa has concentrated on churning out women’s popular fiction featuring Latina heroines. That her latest, “Make Him Look Good,” hasn’t been reviewed or featured in the Herald certinaly seems odd. The book, after all, is set in Miami, which Alisa calls one of her best markets.
Now I’ve always found Alisa’s political opinions pretty ridiculous. The other day, for instance, she told Time (which named her one of the nation’s 25 most influential Hispanics) that the United States was “basically stolen.” There seems a touch of hysteria in anything she does, from her current struggle (recounted on her blog) as a recently recovering bulimic to simply getting on a plane for her book tours; she’s a white-knuckle flyer.
But I admire the way she’s put the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion about there being no second acts to American lives. Plenty of people dig themselves into pits like Alisa did with that resignation letter, but few have the guts and strength to climb out again. She may be a worldclass overreactor, but she’s always had talent. I wasn’t surprised she was able to produce page-turning women’s popular fiction, since even her gassiest manifestos have a real narrative drive.
The bad blood between Alisa and Lydia Martin stems from an interview the columnist did with the novelist a couple of years ago. “At lunch, Lydia was nice and sweet and said she loved my work and agreed with my politics,” Alisa noted on her blog. But the resulting column “body-slammed me to the ground. So yeah, I guess I hold a grudge…[and] had fun skewering” the columnist. Alisa also speculated that the Herald “is populated by right-wing Cubanos” who hate that she’s a liberal Cuban-American with different ideas about Castro.
Because I’ve written about Alisa’s media adventures over the years, a few weeks ago she told me about getting an anonymous note from someone at the Herald tipping her off that “Make Him Look Good” was being blackballed because of its Lydia Martin character. She decided to be philosophical about it, though.
“I think the novelty of my career has died down and I’m just like any other author out there now,” she emailed later. “Which is a blessing (no one ripping me apart) and curse (cue ghost-town wind sound)… that’s what I’ve told myself, anyway.”
That she ruffled feathers at the Herald, though, seems like common knowledge over there. I contacted a staffer I happen to know and got this reply:
“Oh, she was blackballed for sure. The book was scheduled for review, but when the stuff about Lydia Martin was spotted, the review was canceled. Shelley Acoca, the Tropical Life editor who’s a close pal of Lydia, imposed a complete blackout coverage of the book. Ordinarily we would have done a phone interview or something like that to run on the day of her book-signing here.”
I sent repeated emails to Shelley Acoca and Lydia Martin asking for their side of the story and got no reply. So basically, it seems that Alisa was mean to Lydia and now Shelley says she can’t sit at anyone’s lunchtable and everyone should just shut up.
That Alisa can be a royal pain is obvious even just from the titles she’s considering for her next book (I think she should stick with her first choice, the excellent “Girl Crush.”) These include: “All-American Bitch,” “Selfish,” “Me, Me, Me,” “Boosters, Bitches and Babes” and “Latinas Who Lunch.”
But that’s what makes her such a great story, and you’d think that especially in these days of declining circulation, editors would jump at the chance to engage readers rather than bore them.
Beyond that, the public isn’t well served when stories are assigned (or not) on the basis of who Brenda Starr and friends feel like talking to this week. Newspapers are a public trust, and those who work for them have an obligation to rise above their personal squabbles and hurt feelings. Even if they’re women.
Catherine Seipp is a writer and visiting fellow with IWF.?She also maintains?a blog, “Cathy’s World.”