For a place where ideas are supposed to be exchanged in a lively manner, most newspaper editorial pages are, well, not.
The one in Columbus, when I was there, was the last stop before retirement, the place for loyal but lame geldings to put their whitening muzzles to the lush grass for the last couple of years, and be asked to do no work more difficult than carrying the children around the pasture, and have I mixed enough metaphors? (I’m told it has since improved. Considerably.) One of the young newsroom guns used to publish an equal parts scathing-and-fun internal critique of the paper, and did a hilarious takedown of Dispatch editorials. At least twice a month the page could be reliably counted on to take note of an approaching holiday, welcome it, and hope it heralded good things. I remember one such headline: Bean Can Day Awaited. Readers, do you know that “bean can day,” in quotes, does not turn up a single result in all of Googledom? Could that aging scribe have been having his own joke, turning in an editorial for a holiday entirely born of his imagination, waiting to see if it would run? I think so. He was like the National Lampoon’s Penthouse parody, where the copy around the centerfold, month after month, was the text of the writer’s resignation letter, never accepted because it was never read.
My friend Leo does his best with what he has to work with in Fort Wayne, and that’s not bloody much, but even in the high-cotton days, I wondered about the paper’s peculiar attachment to certain writers, both local and syndicated. I think we had to have been among the last papers still running the vile Joseph Sobran, years after William F. Buckley himself had cashiered the anti-semitic bastard from the National Review. (Here’s a recent effort, “Sodomy, Abortion and the Forces of Hate,” in which he refers to our “mulatto president” — still swingin’!) And then there was the uniquely awful Thomas Sowell.
I don’t think this takedown of his latest book can be improved upon, so I’ll just link, quote a passage or two, and encourage the rest of you wallow in it the way I did:
Even jeremiads should have their joys; there is something so wonderful about being a writer and a critic that delivering even bad news can be a source of unbearable pleasure. But Sowell takes no joy in anything he has to say: his tone is as dour and depressing as his conclusions. I understand that the man is a conservative, but can’t he crack a smile? Sowell is such a plodder that even sarcasm, conservatism’s reliable and sometimes amusing old ally, is beyond his reach.
This business of dreary writing escapes me. True, writing can be a torment. But then there is the payoff: the unexpected insight, the sly pun, the implication left dangling for the reader to run with. Did Sowell’s research assistants, one of whom has worked for him for two decades, ever hear him shout with joy? Did he ever run into a colleague’s office bursting with enthusiasm about a brilliant sentence that made a whole chapter hang together? I cannot believe it. There is no grandeur in Sowell’s words, no sign of human creativity, no dream or fantasy of immortality. Sowell writes as if called to grim duty.
It’s that good all the way through. I love a piece like this that singles out something you hadn’t thought of but, once it’s pointed out to you, hits you like a sledgehammer. In focusing on Sowell’s unique joylessness, he puts his finger on what’s wrong with so many newspaper editorial pages. Leo frequently pointed out that the death of oxygenated editorial pages tracked with the rise of the one-newspaper town, that the monopoly on print advertising led to the current model of point-counterpoint, on one hand/on the other hand, and what does the future hold? Only time will tell. Whatever. That doesn’t explain how Sowell found such a comfortable home on his page, but Sowell certainly
towed toed the ideological line, if also being as boring as dry toast.
Joyless — that’s exactly the word for it. Elsewhere in that story I learned with amazement that Sowell has published 46 books. Forty-six! As Wolfe notes:
I confess to not having read them all. But I have read enough of them to know that Sowell is not one for changing his mind. Although he claims to have been a Marxist in his youth, his published writings never vary: the same themes—the market works, affirmative action does not work, Marxism is wrong, and, yes, intellectuals are never to be trusted—dominate from start to finish.
I’ll say. Ironic that Sowell writes like a mirror image of a good Marxist apparatchik in Stalin’s Soviet Union, ain’a?
While we’re on the subject of writers, two recommendations before I leave:
This NYT piece on the discovery of a major influence on William Faulker — a diary kept by a plantation owner who was an ancestor of a childhood friend — is full of great details, not the least of which is its description of the diary itself:
The climactic moment in William Faulkner’s 1942 novel “Go Down, Moses” comes when Isaac McCaslin finally decides to open his grandfather’s leather farm ledgers with their “scarred and cracked backs” and “yellowed pages scrawled in fading ink” — proof of his family’s slave-owning past. Now, what appears to be the document on which Faulkner modeled that ledger as well as the source for myriad names, incidents and details that populate his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County has been discovered.
The original manuscript, a diary from the mid-1800s, was written by Francis Terry Leak, a wealthy plantation owner in Mississippi whose great-grandson Edgar Wiggin Francisco Jr. was a friend of Faulkner’s since childhood. Mr. Francisco’s son, Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, now 79, recalls the writer’s frequent visits to the family homestead in Holly Springs, Miss., throughout the 1930s, saying Faulkner was fascinated with the diary’s several volumes. Mr. Francisco said he saw them in Faulker’s hands and remembers that he “was always taking copious notes.”
And, finally, another NYT story on another celebrated author, this one 17 years old and German, who is battling plagiarism accusations after her hot book of the moment was found to have lots of cutting and pasting from other sources. This strikes me as a rather ballsy defense, however:
Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.
In other words, the sampler’s excuse, i.e., I took that previous thing, yes, but I made it my own. Feh. People who say there’s no such thing as originality are, what’s the word? Unoriginal.
Finally, a good ChiTrib piece on the death of a lesbian bar. A little melancholy, but not — the story points out that as the gay community is welcomed into the mainstream, it has less use for bars as community centers. Anything that gets people out of the smoky air and into the light can’t be all bad.
OK, I’ve prattled on too long and I have much work to do. Enjoy the weekend.