I discovered titlepage.tv thanks to Ben Chambers of The King’s English. He commented with a link to titlepage’s second episode, which contains an interview with Sloane Crosley (among three other new writers). I felt compelled to go back today and watch not just Crosley’s section, but the entire hour-long episode. I had never heard of the web site, and was surprised to find that there have already been six episodes. After watching the first one, and then checking out the brief descriptions of each other episode, I was intrigued. I thought, ‘Hey! What a terrific idea. We need something like this site.’
And we do need something like titlepage.tv, but something a lot less clunky.
The first episode I happened to watch had major problems. The conversation feels stilted and forced. Menaker interviews each author one by one, leaving the others to patiently wait and gaze with feigned interest at the speaker. The camera is so jammed up in their grill documenting their facial expressions that every bored look (Aleksandar Hemon looks particularly dubious or annoyed by what Nam Le is saying at about 34 minutes into episode 5), every weary, furrowed brow, every tired yawn is captured for all to see.
In fact, the camera work in general zooms in far too close for comfort on the face of whomever is speaking, and painfully remains there for minutes at a time, long stretches in which we see every pore on the guy’s face. Side angle shots of Menaker’s nose or Nam Le’s forehead are puzzling, and you wonder just how limited a budget this thing is working off, or, if they do in fact have money to burn, why they don’t actually edit their footage properly.
In addition, the writers seem to be miserably uncomfortable, sitting straight-backed in white plastic chairs that look like they were hurriedly purchased at Target by Menaker’s teenage intern or something.
Finally, I’m sorry to say that the questions asked are mostly tedious or overdone. It’s clear just by how long it takes Menaker to ask the questions that the show is trying too hard to probe unique aspects of the interviewee’s new work.
There are, luckily for Menaker and his staff, easy solutions. If they care to enact them. First of all, they need to chill out with the camera. Keep the view removed, maybe a not-too-distant focus of the whole circle from two different points behind the group. Let’s see this party as a whole, rather than ridiculously close zooms of one author’s eyes or mouth.
Next, how about some briefer, broader questions that give the authors more room to expand and talk about what they would like. This goes hand-in-hand with another idea: propose questions to the general group as a whole, so that the guests actually speak to each other and interact in compelling ways, rather than sitting around waiting for their turn.
They need to bring in couches instead of chairs, throw a table in the middle with maybe some crackers and hummus, and ask thought-provoking questions to the entire group, so that we have multiple voices being heard at once.
Oh, and by the way, another glaring gaffe is the strange, jilting moment at the opening of every episode, after a voice-over describes each author, when we see Menaker from a slightly off angle, staring into a camera situated a bit to the left of us, and he says, “The title of today’s episode reads…” Come on. The title reads? Just be normal! Look right into the camera, directly at us, and say, “Today’s episode is called ‘You Always Remember the First Time.’ Because today we are interviewing four writers who have just published their first book.” Be normal.
All this criticism is not to say that the site fails completely, or is unnecessary. The New York Vulture page, in a post months ago (I’m behind on discovering this site, clearly), harshly mocked Menaker’s show as “painful to watch,” and I don’t think I would go that far. Some of the exchanges are smart and illuminating, and the conversation thrives (naturally) when we are lucky enough to see a guest who is well-spoken and confident. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with most of the writers who have hopped aboard. This is what makes it so much more special when we do have a respondent (to Menaker’s mostly lame questions) who is engaging and animated (see Ceridwen Dovey in ep 2, David Hajdu in ep 3, or Nam Le in ep 5). Sometimes the rare interesting guest is actually so fascinating that you feel compelled to go out and buy his or her book at once, as was the case for me with Simon Winchester after he articulately described his new book The Man Who Loved China.
Menaker deserves to be commended for the effort, and as a ravenous book lover, the idea of Titlepage appeals to me. But the execution is poor. It could be great, but for now, it isn’t. Let’s stay tuned.