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Why this labor reporter is always ‘writing for the reader’

Our September 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Steven Greenhouse’s “Beaten Down, Worked Up.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

While working as a labor reporter at The New York Times, Steven Greenhouse wrote a book called “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.” That book, published in 2008, explained “the many disconcerting ways that American workers were taking it on the chin even as corporate profits and the stock market kept soaring to record levels,” Greenhouse told the PBS NewsHour. But he felt there was another book to be written on the subject that would delve into why workers in the U.S. were suffering.

With this in mind, Greenhouse started writing “Beaten Down, Worked Up,” which examines the rise of American unions and worker power, as well as their subsequent decline, and offers strategies “to help build a fairer economy and fairer society.”

The book examines complex themes, including globalized trade and the profit-making incentives of corporate America. But as Greenhouse told the NewsHour, many readers told him that what they expected to be an otherwise dry subject turned out to be a “surprisingly good read.” This might be thanks to the writer’s advice from a former editor that Greenhouse always keeps in the back of his mind: “Never forget your readers.”

“I try to keep whatever I write interesting and informative throughout, and hopefully at times it’s even captivating and entertaining,” Greenhouse said. More on his writing routine and sources of inspiration below.

What is your daily writing routine?

I retired from The New York Times in late 2014, after 31 years there as a notoriously workaholic reporter — I often wrote 200 stories a year. When I began focusing on writing my book in 2016, I typically got up around 7:30, had breakfast and read the Times until 8:30, and then, especially after the 2016 election, I would spend another hour poring over stories on the Web and social media (seeing what Donald Trump was up to). Then I’d write from 9:30 to noon or 12:30.

By that time, I would need a break from my computer, and I’d walk once or twice around the Central Park Reservoir (1.6 miles around). Then a quick lunch and back to writing, usually from 2:30 to 5:30 — and then often another walk around the reservoir. I found those walks great for thinking through ideas and writing problems. Those walks cleared my mind, and inspiration, insights and even some nice turns of phrase sometimes crept up on me.

What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

It’s hard to point to one favorite childhood book. When I was 5 or so, my favorite was “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson. I loved its mischievousness and imaginativeness, and I guess I loved how Harold was magically creating his own world. My two children also loved Harold, and I look forward to reading it someday to my two wonderful grandsons (both are under 2).

When I was 10 or so, my favorite book was “Homer Price” by Robert McCloskey. I loved how funny it was, and I loved how clever Homer was — for instance, when he ingeniously fixed the donut machine in his uncle’s diner.

When I was 13, a teacher recommended “The Last of the Just,” a searing book about religious oppression by the French author Andre Schwarz-Bart. It opened my eyes to the injustices of the world, and it taught me about courage, heroism and the enduring importance of fighting against injustice.

What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

To me, George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” is an important book that deserves far more attention, especially at a time when there is so much lying by governments, at home and overseas. Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” of course, examine totalitarianism and systemic lying, but “Homage to Catalonia” shows when and how Orwell developed his deep understanding of how governments lie and his abhorrence of government mendacity.

When Orwell was 33, he courageously volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and fascism — in “Homage” he writes about the horrors and heroism of that brutal war. At the time, Orwell was sympathetic to the Spanish communists, but he soon grew appalled at their tactics and treachery — in slandering, libeling, attacking and sometimes even killing their socialist and anarchist allies against Franco. The reader sees how Orwell studied and grew disgusted with the Stalin-backed Communists and their systematic lying and propaganda. In reading “Homage,” I could see how “Animal Farm” and “1984” grew directly out of Orwell’s experiences in Spain. In my view, Homage to Catalonia’s keen analysis of government dishonesty, propaganda and underhandedness remains extremely relevant and valuable and can still teach many lessons.

What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

Advice from a New York Times editor, John M. Lee: “Never forget your readers.” I have taken that to heart, that when I’m writing, I’m serving the reader. With this in mind, I try to keep whatever I write interesting and informative throughout, and hopefully at times it’s even captivating and entertaining. When I’ve taught nonfiction writing, I’ve emphasized this point: You’re writing for the reader. And a corollary: Always keep it interesting.

If you can’t keep the reader’s interest, if you lose the reader’s interest, not only are you failing the reader, you’re failing yourself as a writer. More than a few people told me they thought a book about labor and workers would be boring, and then they’d read my book and tell me, “Wow, what a surprisingly good read.”

Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?

From 2005 to 2007, I wrote a book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.” It explained the many dismaying ways that American workers were taking it on the chin, even as corporate profits and the stock market kept soaring to record levels. (I saw this happening week after week in my years covering labor and workplace matters for the Times.) After that book was published, I started thinking there might be room for another book that explained WHY America’s workers were systematically taking it on the chin — the reasons ranged from the decline of labor unions to globalized trade to corporate America’s preoccupation with maximizing profits.

In 2014, my book editor suggested that I write a comprehensive history of labor in the U.S., and it was only then that I realized I wanted to write this particular book. I told my editor that other authors had written very good histories of labor, and because I was a journalist who focused on contemporary labor and worker issues, I said I wanted to do something different — to write a book that included some important historical background, but one that also explored the modern-day labor scene and the difficulties that far too many American workers face.

I suggested a book that would examine three themes: 1) how unions and worker power helped lift tens of millions of American workers and helped build the world’s largest middle class, 2) how the decline of unions and worker power in recent decades has hurt workers and the nation in some profound ways (look at the increased income inequality, for instance), and 3) strategies and models to increase the power of average workers to help build a fairer economy and fairer society. In the book, I included some inspiring stories that have long fascinated me, like the heroic strike by 20,000 female garment workers in 1909 in New York and the courageous strike by Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.

As for when I knew my writing was “over,” I turned in what I thought was the final manuscript in June 2018. That was not long after the immense, statewide #RedforEd strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and several other states. Later that summer I told my editor that I thought it would be smart for me to add a chapter that took an in-depth look at those strikes — the biggest, most important strikes in decades. (My father was a high school teacher, who was repeatedly voted best teacher in his school, and that chapter was in ways a tribute to him.) Only when I finished that chapter, did I know that the book was done.

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