Dishing about the bossman is a genre worth detesting

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The peon has a pen, and no boss is safe. Books by former assistants about their bosses are hot. From Park Avenue nannies to magazine underlings to stock market whiz kids, everyone, it seems, is using the boss as fodder for a memoir or a satire or a novel. And readers are consuming these books with hearty gusto.

So here goes: The Bossman ate Jell-O. Red, mostly, and no Cool Whip -- please -- he hated the stuff.

The Bossman also hated paper clips, and bad writing and people who "weren't serious." He loved his 1983 silver XJ6 Jaguar, and pink plastic flamingos that reside on lawns, and sushi lunches.

The Bossman was an important guy and for 10 months or so I was his assistant. It was my job to know these things.

And now that I've moved on -- and he's still the editor of The Sun's books pages -- it is now my job to reveal just what it was like to work for him.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour's former assistant Lauren Weisberger reportedly got seven figures to turn her yet unpublished novel based on her old boss into a movie script. Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, two former Upper West Side nannies, told all about their well-heeled bosses in a "satire" called The Nanny Diaries (St. Martin's Press, 352 pages, $24.95) and ended up with a best seller. British-born editor Toby Young got canned from Vanity Fair and wrote a book about it called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (Da Capo Press, 332 pages, $24) that Kirkus called 'Energetic and engaging [provides] enjoyable bitchy specifics of Conde Nast culture.'

Other boss tell-alls in the works include books about bad driving publicist Lizzie Grubman and General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

The phenomenon doesn't seem so far- fetched. Dishing about the boss is part of work culture. When a former co-worker asks after one's superior, he's not looking for affirmation that the boss is a terribly productive and inspiring leader. What he really wants to know is: Does the boss still wear that awful perfume or that hideous tie with the gravy stains on it? Does the boss still lob that Nerf football around the office when he gets punchy? And is the boss really looking for another job?

Books that promise the inside skinny on the rich and powerful -- because there's no point about writing about a manager that's poor and wimpy -- have vast amounts of cover appeal. See yet another tome about JFK Jr. and it's easy to dismiss it with a yawn. Notice that it was written by the former editor of George, Kennedy's magazine, and maybe, just maybe, you might consider it taking it home.

Here's the problem: Rarely do these books follow through on their promises. The inside skinny isn't so fascinating, the tell-all never really gets told. Instead, what a reader gets is a memoir written by a person whose life isn't interesting enough to fill a whole book, so instead the author relies heavily on the boss for fodder.

Take The Nanny Diaries, for example. Not long after protagonist Nanny gets hired by Mrs. X to watch 4-year-old Grayer than the Chanel kid gloves come off. Mrs. X may have really excellent Prada pumps, but she overworks Nanny, ignores her kid and (gasp) feeds him frozen Tofu Pups.

While it's true that calling a book a satire gives an author a tremendous amount of latitude, it's no substitute for such basics as character development and a well-constructed narrative. In their haste to drop as many brand names into the novel as possible, the authors neglect to make Nanny anything more than a one-dimensional simp. By midway through, the book is about as fulfilling as a freezer-burned soy hot dog.

Because writers don't always come clean about themselves, boss tell-alls can provide an antidote to autobiographies filled with puffery. Nicholas W. Maier's Trading With the Enemy: Seduction and Betrayal on Jim Cramer's Wall Street (HarperBusiness, 208 pages, $22.95) is eminently more readable than Cramer's own Confessions of a Street Addict (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26). Cramer's book about his rise and fall on Wall Street, says nothing other than how great, smart, clever, talented the author is -- which grows boring.

Maier's book, on the other hand, chronicles life on Wall Street in the mid-1990s through the eyes of a Bambi-like recent college graduate. Maier depicts his boss at the hedge fund where he worked for five years as a foul-mouthed tyrant with a penchant for destroying telephones and keyboards when he loses money in the market.

He does a decent job of engaging the reader with his outsider's story; however, the book ultimately fails on account of a major reporting error. When the author's original accusations that Cramer engaged in insider trading turned out to be false, HarperCollins had to pulp 4,000 copies of Maier's book.

Oops! Maybe journalism training is not such a total waste of time.

The other issue that looms large in these tell-alls is why the underlings decided to write them in the first place. It's apparent that writing a book about the rich and famous just might make a writer rich and famous too -- although the authors don't always admit up front that they see it that way.

Richard Blow signed a confidentiality agreement in 1995 when he went to work for John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s now defunct magazine George, promising that he would not dish about his employer. When Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, died in a plane crash in 1999, Blow told his magazine staff not to comment to the media. Eight months later, he was shilling American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr. (Holt, 288 pages, $25).

Deciding to write the book, Blow writes in the author's note, "was a personal decision and maybe even a selfish one. I wanted to try to remember John as clearly and vividly as I could, to preserve for myself a remarkable experience. I also wanted to try to show just how different a 'public figure' can be from the people we read about in the papers."

Yeah, for starters the people we read about in the papers usually sound interesting. Blow's personal memoir, filled with all sorts of scintillating details like what Kennedy ate when they lunched, fails to provide a three-dimensional portrait of the man or any real insight into his character.

Just because you work with someone doesn't mean that you know them. Banal office chatter or after-work drinks do not make for a deep understanding of a person's character. That's why, instead of relying on a boss tell-all, it's better to wait for a decent biographer to take up the subject and explore it to its fullest potential.

Soon enough publishers will realize that boss tell-alls don't sell and this publishing craze will come to an end. Which means I'll likely have to find a new forum for all of the dish I've collected about my Bossman's predilection for red Jell-O.

Right now, I'm thinking TV miniseries.

Maria Blackburn, a former assistant to The Sun's book editor, is a reporter in The Sun's Baltimore County bureau. She has no plans to write a book about the editor of these pages. Really.

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