New York Diary: At the birth of a cybermemoir

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IS PHILIP Gourevitch a matinee idol? That was the unlikely question heard repeatedly at Salon magazine's third annual book awards. Sepulchral girls and mercurial literary agents burbled beneath chandeliers and paintings of 19th-century actors and aristocrats, plus a stained-glass representation of Richard III.

Journalists, digerati and publishing assistants rushed to tell their friends they had seen Gourevitch, author of one of the evening's award- winning books (on the Rwandan genocide). One writer almost dropped his blue martini upon recognizing novelist David "Jernigan" Gates. Half the guests referred to their own prose works - no longer in their desk drawers, of course, but on their Desktops.

On the surface the gathering appeared a genteel book party but it was very much a New York New Media celebration. San Francisco-based bookish on-line magazine Salon blurs these two worlds: it's made a name for itself through book reviews and partisan muck-raking (the Clintonite mag startled many readers with an account of Lower House's Impeachment Chair Henry Hyde's adulterous affair).

While Silicon Alley's techno-heads labored into the night on websites and magazines, the Book Awards, at the Players Club, was more like Rennie Mackintosh than iMac. At a standard-issue Web party, you'd find yourself in a white, rectilinear loft-office filled with guys who know a thing or two about things called Perl and Excite. They'd be talking banner ads. There would be innumerable computer monitors, each screen ablaze with the company's website. Here, name-tags identified representatives of such familiar companies as Oxford University Press and Random House. Observers heard publishing palaver about foreign rights and my-latest-novels and saw guests trickle in from bow-tied biographer James Atlas's very old media party next door (Atlas, the young fogey who writes on Saul Bellow and his children's private schools, is a paragon of a whole different order of literary credentialism). Of course, there were hints of Salon's netliness. There was a slide show of Salon's book reviews photographed off a computer screen, and Michael Wolff, author of cybermemoir Burn Rate, took notes on the proceedings with his eyes.

The Book Awards were also a celebration of an influx of fresh funds into the magazine from undisclosed backers. Some buzzed as to who these new backers might be, but then lost interest, picking up another blue martini, wondering why autobiographical books seemed to succeed again this year and then trying to find some corner of their own lives that might soon be ripe for memoir.

Salon's fete for New York's high-end publishing world is of course part of the larger Net irony - that one of the most successful new media ventures is a business devoted to mail-order sales of old media books. Once, it was thought that the space age would bring "information" travelling at the speed of light, not better distribution of the printed word in its ancient verso-recto form. Book reviewing, which everyone assumed was dead, is now an arm of the highly successful on-line bookseller Amazon and The mirror image of these odd bedfellows - technology and the novel - were on the walls of Players. Portraits of last century's disreputable thesps hang next to their oh-so-respectable rentier-class patrons, levelling any distinction between the two.

Perhaps years from now, a club's walls will be filled with the work of author-snapper Marion Ettlinger: pics of Web designers, cybermemoirists, venture capitalists, editors and novelists, hanging side by side. Future culture-makers may mistake all of these mismatched information industrialists for one and the same.