Thursday, November 04, 2004

Three Chronicle Columnists Take Their Morning-After Pill

What is the stated purpose of this weblog? Oh yeah. By thinking and doing, I explore the nature of newspaper column writing in these United States.

A question that came to mind yesterday was: How do columnists decelerate or change the subject or roll with the punches or wave the bloody flag of conquest when the determining event has taken place, i.e., the election is over and there is no longer a bloody thing anyone can do about it.

Obviously, not all columnists have to adjust or acknowledge. Most columnists plow blithely on, sailing "large" with the wind squarely behind them because they are apolitical, either in subject matter -- stamps, quilts, sports -- or by nature.

I have no doubt thousands of general-interest columnists simply ignored the election, at least the partisan side of it. Maybe they said, "Go out and vote." Maybe they said, "When it's all over we are all one nation." These are evasions and placeholders, immediately to be forgotten as the writer intended.

Many columnists, however, paid a great deal of attention to the election, some because they are (duh!) political columnists but others because part of their signature, their voice, is honest talk about their own personal politics, as about all things personal. Here's the problem for both the pol-cols and the activist/generalist: How do you come out the other side, when the thing is done and you no longer need be urgent or apocalyptic.

Something has happened. You were ranting on and on about it before it happened. So what's up.

I note three examples in the Chronicle today, each fascinating in its way.

The least fascinating is Joan Ryan. I like Ryan as a columnist, though there is nothing intriguing about what she does. She has very little attitude, no particular stylistic flourishes, no public neuroses. If George Bush is supposedly the politician Americans want to have a beer with, Ryan is the Chronicle columnist I would most like to have a coffee with. She is a thoughtful liberal, intense without being hysterical. You can tell she was once a reporter. She seems to know things. What she says is always real, usually pretty smart. She never seems to let the possibilities of the metaphor or the invective dictate how she says something.

Today, she writes a predictable column, utterly predictable perhaps, but one I read in its entirety because I agreed with it in its entirety, and probably that is its function in the paper, to sum up with calm and with intensity what many readers are thinking.

This paragraph sums it up:

It is a confounding time to live in a place like the Bay Area. Watching the returns Tuesday night, and listening to voters across the country, I saw that John Edwards was right about the two Americas. But the two Americas are not divided by money but by belief systems that have drifted so far apart we barely recognize each other anymore.

Ryan mirrors our thoughts, with perhaps a little extra polish on the mirror. And there it is in the newspaper, which comforts and reassures us. We are not alone. It is predictable but welcome all the same.

In sharp contrast, read Jon Carroll's column for today. His subject matter is ... bizarre. Carroll is "political" often enough to have a reputation as a bit of a lefty, a champion of the left even. His positions are often clear, usually sort of prettydarnmoreorless clear, but his voice is always ringing in your ears. His ideas even at their most serious are always leavened or gilded or tweaked with his essential playfulness, his overweening or overbearing or overarching attitude.

(Just like me in the preceding sentence. I could have said what I had to say more simply and probably more clearly, but I never miss a chance to style. Like Carroll.)

Carroll's day-after column plays with the notion that he bought a new carpet for his bedroom and -- like the flutter of the butterfly's wing here and the resultant hurricane there, as in chaos theory -- that act rippled across the economy and caused Florida to vote for Bush, making him president. The execution of the idea is clever but a little mechanical, since it's just one joke playing itself out. But it works in the context of the column over time, the constant of inconstancy in that you can never predict exactly what Carroll's idea or his approach or his execution will be.

Now, we could talk all day about how Carroll's approach is in its way as reassuring as Ryan's. He will not be oppressed by the seriousness of the moment. He turns it to a joke. He asserts his individuality, his existential supremacy to externality. He does not give a flying fuck, not today anyway, when others are moping. Again, this is the -- forgive me Strunk and Mr. White, too -- the magic of the newspaper. It is a balance of parts. A pinch of Ryan and a soupcon of Carroll: Voila!

Third Chronicle column of note for today.

Very fascinating.

I am referring to that of Debra J. Saunders, the Chron's resident conservative, whom I usually find unreadable. I read Will for his arch style, Safire for that quirky, insinuating voice, Novak because I don't personally know anyone who is actually evil, and it takes all kinds. I generally read the first two or three paragraphs of Saunders and stop because what she writes seldom seems very smart or very articulate. My impression is that in the runup to the election she had a lumpish, shrill and uninformed enthusiasm for George Bush. But as I said, for me her column has always been a bronc I just can't stay on.

Surprise today! She has a columnful of bullet points suggesting things that Bush, having "failed to unite a country soured by political division," could do to prove himself to be something (my words for the rest of this sentence) other than what he so obviously is.

What recommendations! Fire Ashcroft. Promote gay unions. Nominate "acceptable conservative jurists" to the Supreme Court. Raise fuel standards for U.S. cars!!

In my opinion this is utter utter fantasy. Bush will do none of these things. It's as if she is suddenly changing the terms of her pre-election argument, abandoning continuity in sudden favor of common sense, laying the groundwork for opposing him, not embracing him. Here is discontinuity between her recent columns and her triumphalist moment. I guess I'm pointing out a change in tone, a commensensical one replacing that of the paranoid enthusiast.

This may not be fair. Three paragraphs of Saunders and I'm gone. Usually.

Fascinating collection of Chron columns today in toto, though. Ryan is grim but stalwart, Carroll is winking and finger-snapping, Saunders is there with a nervous twitch saying whathaveidone?

Update: Here's a second thought. Saunders could have gloated, of course, and maybe she wanted to, but that might have gotten her tires slashed. Some of us are a little sad, and some of us are a little scared.

Where the updating never stops: A friend, knowing nothing of today's post, gives Carroll a look and puts the boot in:

What the hell is he doing? He can be so good when he tackles issues like the horror few are facing, and what does he do? One of his fucking reductio ad absurdum columns. That pissed me off so bad that I've vowed to write a letter to the Chronicle. I did not need a useless piece of wasted space like that on this day.

And a final word from the man himself. Jon Carroll writes:

Well, part of it was how quickly it had to be written. I was mostly reacting to the pervasive gloom, and figured I could say something more pointed when I knew what the hell to say. This is one of the lessons: If you don't know what to say, don't say it.

And an update to "Where the Updating Never Stops":

I'm glad you posted my comments, but had I known you were going to I might have put a bit more thought into it, or at least fixed the typo that has "we" appearing as "few." And I might have added the fact that I am a long-time fan of Carroll's column--have long saved it for last when I read the Chron, was way upset when they cut him back to three days.And while we're at it, what's Carroll's excuse for Friday's column on Ashlee Simpson? He had another 24 hours to come up with "something more pointed," and he punted again. Who the hell cares about Ashlee Simpson or her "more famous" sister? We just got our hat handed to us by a bunch of Christian fundamentalists who are bucking for a Jesus jihad. Everyone I talk to is in mourning, looking for answers, a new direction, a modicum of hope. Hell, I'd even take a good kick in the pants. But don't try to talk to me about lip-syncing celebrities at a time like this.

The really last final word posted on 11/11 that no one will probably read anyway since there are no rearview mirrors in blogworld: Jon Carroll said in a frank and cordial exchange of views with Column*Which that he would analyze the recent election in his column when he had something to say about it and not just to say something about it because he had a column to write, i.e., space to fill on deadline. Now, he's writing about the election. It is a characteristic of Carroll, whether consciously intended or simply intrinsic, and thus inevitable, that his voice consists not only of his style but of the nature of his content: Call his opinions quirky, off-the-wall, contrarian or freshly insightful. Some/many of his ideas seem his own and not a regurgitation of the mainstream or the obvious. And that's where he is today, or so it seems to me. Maybe he is simply collecting and presenting a thread of ideas from the Internet and from personal conversations and thus he actually is a compiler and not an originator. If so, he's mining and refining a thread I am not exposed to. Map props to the mad king, whatever the circumstances.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Michael: I agree with you about Joan Ryan. I never saw much reason to read her, either: smart, perky, wholly predictable. It appears she has never spoken to anyone she'd have a serious disagreement with on anything that matters. That's the beauty of living in Ross and commuting to San Francisco (if she doesn't send her stuff in by the internet). Everyone living in that charmed soap bubble shares the same reductive opinion set, so when reality blows the door off the hinges -- as it has a habit of doing now and again -- she is ut-ter-ly shocked, awed and really, really jaw-droppingly amazed. "But . . . how could this happen?" Jon's quick feet let him dodge the biggest, baddest cannonball until he can figure out how to say what has to be said. He'll be back on message tomorrow, those little feet tapping out a bright beat that makes you think of not Gene Kelly but Dennis O'Connor in (insert film). Debra, sadly, is just a bad writer. I think the Chronicle prefers to make tokenism palatable by having a hack working that side of the street. It makes everyone feel smarter. But life is too short to waste on bad writing, particularly on the subject of let's-bind-up-the-wounds. On more important matters, I see the Chronicle's circulation has taken a dive. Like the Supreme Court is said to do, I think the leadership should study the election returns.