Goodbye, Boston Phoenix. Unlike Google Reader, you're irreplaceable

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

Out with the old—and out with the new. Witness the abrupt folding of the hallowed Boston Phoenix, born 1965, on the same day that Google Reader, born 2005, noisily closed up shop. The yeoman print alt-weekly, founded for Beantown collegians, opted for a supremely discreet exit: On Twitter, just after the staff had been told doors were closing, @bostonphoenix tweeted, “Thank you Boston. Goodbye and good luck.

But while Google-watchers geekily weighed the financial and technological pros and cons of shuttering Reader, there were sounds not heard in their analyses: Tears. Wails. Rending of garments.

That was saved for the announced end of the Phoenix. I have to admit, I’m also grieving as I write this. But before I tell you my own misty tale, it should be noted that almost everyone of a certain age in East Coast journalism has a story about the Boston Phoenix. There are, of course, the superstar journalists who cut their teeth on that paper’s trademark scholarly-groovy style, which was never as bullying as the voice of the Village Voice: Peter Keough, Janet Maslin, Susan Orlean, David Denby, Michael Sragow, David Edelstein, Scott Rosenberg, Ella Taylor, Stephen Schiff, Owen Gleiberman, Henry Sheehan and David Chute.  

Then there are those (everyone else?) who either went to college in Boston or visited friends there. We turned to the listings in the Phoenix to figure out where and when Galaxie 500 and the Pixies and Throwing Muses were playing. We came for the listings and personals, stayed—at Au Bon Pain or South Station—to read the criticism, the essays, the wonderfully overreported investigations and…the Caroline Knapp.

I bring up Knapp, who died of lung cancer in 2002, because she to me was the Boston Phoenix. From 1988 to 1995, Knapp wrote the profound “Out There” column. Writing, sometimes, about a figure called “Alice K (not her real initial),” Knapp wryly chronicled the introverted misadventures of a brilliant, hypersensitive and complex urbanite—herself. It was a nonsolipsistic self, practically Jamesian, who looked both inward and outward, and took in—warily, hungrily, gratefully, always thoughtfully—the world around her.

In 1991, Knapp published a column that described being with her dying father:

My father stared out across the room, a pained expression on his face.
"I guess what I want to hear from you," he said, his eyes not meeting mine, "is that you think I'm a decent person."
I wanted to cry. My father, who I've idolized all my life, is terminally ill. His condition, which developed quite aggressively and with little warning, was diagnosed in early May, and I have spent the better part of the months since then watching him confront the end of his life, and doing what I can to help him.
"You are far more than a decent person," I answered. "You are my father."

In New York City, around the same period, Candace Bushnell was launching the formidable “Sex and the City” column in the Observer, the one that would go on to be a TV series and two movies. But while Bushnell wrote caustically about sexual mores, seemingly with an eye on a franchise, Knapp spoke entirely for herself. “Out There” had a soul-searching moral integrity not associated with the exhibitionist or tattle-telling or voice-of-a-generation single-woman columns that cropped up around the country in the 1990s.

Knapp’s “Out There” very clearly took place in Boston, too, where Knapp’s family lived and died, and where, fighting addiction, she eventually became part of an earnest and principled recovery community. Glamour in Boston was little more than glasses of wine at the Ritz, with no one scheming to sleep with rich men or otherwise hack a social system in the manner of the Bushnell girls. Rather, Knapp and her friends, in the column, were usually talking about sanity and souls. When she published her best-selling masterpiece in 1996, “Drinking: A Love Story,” it became clear that Knapp felt inspired and not inhibited by the intellectual and can-do spirit of Boston, among the athletes and academics. In finance-and-high-life New York City, she was bored and nervous.

That she took seriously both the city of Boston and the obligation to write fearlessly about her experience in this wondrous format of the weekly first-person alt-weekly column shows up in the work: “Out There” holds up—has even improved—as few weekly columns do. “Alice K's Guide to Life: One Woman's Quest for Survival, Sanity, and the Perfect New Shoes,” Knapp’s first book, is a collection of the columns, all of which first appeared in the Phoenix.

I wrote for the Boston Phoenix a handful of times—a review of “Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings," a cover story on international club kids in Boston, a roundup of books to buy for the holidays. My friend Tom de Kay, whom I’d known in New York, was the canny literary editor at the time, and he and his colleagues, including Ellen Barry (who later won a Pulitzer at The New York Times) deftly helped me through growing pains as a writer.

Editors at the Phoenix took their jobs seriously, too. The Nathanael West collection had been edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, a monster-wig in the Harvard English Department. The fact that he worked nearby, knew his American literature and sat on fathomless intellectual capital meant there was pressure on me to get the review right. In New York, a reviewer might feel similar pressure when reviewing a book that received a big advance, say, or had a TV star as its author.

But the Phoenix piece I remember writing best was the first article I ever wrote for any real paper. De Kay called me up. It seemed Knapp—whom I never met but occasionally admired at in frank wonder—was on vacation and they needed someone to fill in. Would I attempt to write an “Out There”? I swallowed hard, and agreed.

I went personal, because I had nothing else yet to say: I wrote about the time my mother read my diary when I was a teenager, and therein discovered I’d been doing coke—and other sketchy stuff. I was briefly tempted to make the article salacious and play up the sex and drugs, rather than the moment of understanding I came to with my mom. I even, no kidding, thought of working in something like TV dialogue in vain hopes of “selling the option” to a television producer (ugh).

Fortunately, I had Knapp’s gorgeously measured voice in my head. She wrote with honesty and deliberateness. I read dozens of her columns in preparation. If I followed Knapp’s model—the whole Phoenix model, really—I decided I could write youthfully but also with dignity, with humor and integrity both. I don’t know if I pulled it off in the rookie piece that ended up being headlined, gulp, “Coke Diary,” but it was a wicked privilege to be given the chance. Thank you, Boston Phoenix. We’ll miss you.
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