Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Fool's Parade

About every week to ten days, I learn something new -- bang! comes the insight -- through my little ploy of studying column writing by writing a "column." For instance, in my last six posts I have admitted to game addiction, incompetence at home repair, fear of the very children I teach and a tendency toward drinking rather more than I should.

It's one thing to talk about variety in subject matter, but shouldn't there also be variety in tone? I may be overdoing the notion that fallibility is one of the more attractive attributes -- and thus a useful rhetorical strategy -- for the personal columnist. Still, it seems to me that, as in the case of the buffoon dads in so many sitcoms of the near and distant past, a kind of modesty puts readers at ease. I can think of all sorts of qualifications to this Corollary for Columnists, to wit:

* Midwestern and small-town columnists might be more self-deprecating than big-city columnists, since there's a difference in social style. Garrison Keillor exemplifies this idea, and the understanding of this idea, in his Lake Woebegon monologues on public radio.

* There should be a nice little difference between male and female columnists in the way the game of incompetence is played. You'd think men, since they are men, would have a harder time admitting their weakness. You'd think women, encouraged as they are either to "accept" their inferiority or to disguise their equality or even superiority, might play at incompetence more often. But maybe the power imbalance in American society makes a man who will admit his fallibility -- his vulnerability -- more attractive to readers. And maybe the opposite is true for women.

* If fallibility works for personal columnists, it certainly would not work for pundits and commentators. The Iraq war and its aftermath illustrate this point. My impression is that columnists who were utterly wrong about WMD etc. etc. etc. etc. either ignore their error, recast their error or deny there ever was an error, as have so many of our Maximum Leaders. Fallibility and modesty don't float the boat when it comes to punditry.

* Gentle ironists (I try but I am not what I want to be, and ain't that just the way it is) more than fierce satirists (see all the errors of the world in general; I now point to a better way) should be into cataloging their own weaknesses. This approach might help us find the balance point in the work of Dave Barry.

Are any of these hypotheses true? What I like about this insight is that it is testable. You can probably get a group of student research assistants to more or less agree on what you mean when you say a columnist is displaying modesty, ignorance or fallibility and do some "content analysis" of, say, six months worth of columns by a particular columnist. You can (I may) produce a scholarly artifact. And certainly this a question I can ask columnists when I interview them. I would think this is an issue concerning which they would likely have an opinion.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to see how our leading local columnist handles the problem. Jon Carroll is willing to admit his imperfections -- my impression; I haven't coded six months worth of his columns -- but he is also good at broadcasting his various excellences.

For example, in today's column he name drops like crazy. The general tone is self-deprecating: Decades ago, Carroll was the West Coast correspondent for the Village Voice. He had little to do, so occasionally he went back East to fill in for vacationing editors. In New York City, he writes, "I was a California boy. I was agog." At a party, "I seem to remember Philip Roth punching out Saul Bellow, although I may have been drunk at the time."

That's the thrust of the piece. Carroll is a bit of naif. He is thrust among well-known journalists and writers -- the 17 names of which he perforce must mention -- and those names still have weight. This has a kind of balance. He is not saying he was at the center of things making and shaking, but -- for a moment -- he was at the center of things watching.

He concludes:

I do have an actual point to make: If you get a chance to be where stuff seems to be happening, take it. Someone told me last night that Berlin is the new Paris; go to Berlin. Go to Shanghai. Collect a whole lot of memories -- you can't sell them on EBay, but they do sustain you through the harder times to come.

For any of us, pretty good advice. For the columnists or would-be columnists among us, this is Tab A goes in Slot B, item Number One in the basic instructions.

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