There’s been a tragedy in Libya, and even if there hadn’t been, we would certainly have better things to talk about today than Bob Greene. But talk about him I must.
Thanks to our own Bob (not Greene) for tipping me to this Robert Feder piece catching up with the former Chicago Tribune columnist on the 10-year anniversary of his fall from grace, which my longest-staying readers will recall as a red-circled date around this blog, too.
The firing of Bob Greene was the first post* here that made a splash outside of my little readership, which had formerly numbered in the tens, or maybe the fives. The experience of being an overnight blog sensation was simultaneously exhilarating and disorienting, but I ended up writing my essay for the Knight-Wallace Fellowship on that incident, and I got that gig, so I guess I owe Bob Greene something. But having just read Feder, I think it still needs to be said: Ten years later, Bob still sucks.
In fact, I think that was the point of the blog that day: Who cares if he diddled a teenager? Fire him for being a lousy columnist.
It’s taken a long, long time, but I’ve come to accept that I am a minority voice in the career of Greene. There are plenty of people, people whose opinion I respect, who don’t think he sucks. There’s Feder himself, speaking of Greene’s current venue, CNN.com:
He doesn’t write about abused children anymore (as he did to excess in his final years at the Tribune), but he often returns to other familiar themes with the confidence and grace of an old pro. Reading him again reminded me why he once was a role model for many of us who came after him at Medill.
And there’s Eric Zorn, from whom I expected something more than this:
I had mixed feelings about Greene — he was, he is, an incredibly gifted observer, canny reporter and smooth writer.
With all due respect to Eric, who is all those things: No.
I’m just going to choose the most recent Greene column from his CNN home page. Headline: In Ohio, candidates are salesmen trying to close the deal. Writers generally don’t write their own headlines, but that is vintage Greene. Candidates are selling something? You don’t say! Wow, I never thought of it that way.
And sure enough, that’s it: It opens with a little bit of finger-on-the-pulse reporting, a woman who lives near a presidential speaking venue inconvenienced when she’s expecting a delivery of furniture. The truck can’t get through the crowded street. Not named. Nut graf:
Ohio is getting plenty of visits from the candidates. During the time I was in the middle of Ohio this summer, Paul Ryan was in the area twice, Mitt Romney was there at least once, and on this early afternoon Obama had made his way to Capital. Scenes like this repeat every four years; there are days in highly contested states when something seems almost amiss if you don’t encounter a motorcade or a police escort.
They are traveling salesmen, the candidates are; they hit the road bearing their products — the products being themselves. And although presidential and vice presidential candidates are the most celebrated politicians in the land, they become not so different from the thousands of other sales reps who lug their sample cases across America every work week of the year.
Love that writerly sentence inversion! Impressed, I am not. It helps usher in the tritest observation possible, that politicians are actually? When you think about it? Trying to sell you something. Wow. That’s heavy.
It goes on. We never hear from the furniture woman again, but we do hear from Arthur Miller, although I think this big finish really pegs the needle:
In less than nine weeks, two of the four men crisscrossing the nation — Obama, Romney, Ryan, Joe Biden — are going to find out that they failed to make the sale after all, and two of the men are going to find out that they have successfully culminated the transaction. The nervous uncertainty of that is what can make their high-level pursuit at times feel utterly life-sized.
Arthur Miller, in that same play in which he introduced Willy Loman to the world, understood the compulsion behind all of this quite well:
“A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”
Or, as John Cougar Mellencamp put it more concisely: And there’s winners, and there’s losers, but that ain’t no big deal.
So let’s move on. Feder singled out the remembrance he did of Jeffrey Zaslow, the Wall Street Journal reporter and author who died last winter. Greene “recalled heroically” his more-talented colleague, Feder wrote, so let’s see what that was all about.
The good news: Better. Greene clearly liked and respected Zazz, but once again, faced with the task of finding one original thing to say about him, came up short. His lead:
“What # are you at?”
The brief e-mail arrived late on the morning of January 24. I keep looking at it.
It was from Jeff Zaslow. We first became friends more than 25 years ago. We got together as often as we could when we found ourselves in the same town, usually for long, laughter-filled dinners; Jeff, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, in recent years became the author of multiple big bestselling books, most of them on inspirational themes.
“What # are you at?”
I guess we’ve all experienced the disorientation of losing a loved one suddenly, of having to clean an office or a closet, thinking this was his, but where is he? This box of ashes, this corpse — I talked to him three days ago. Where did he go? Most of us, however, wouldn’t find a totally mundane, four-word-one-syllable email worthy of not only being the first words in our tribute to our friend, but something to repeat. What planet you on, Bob? Planet Bob, where he’s been doing this stuff for years.
It goes on, and yes, it gets better, but as always, the conclusion drawn is mundane. I’ll save you the trouble. You know why Zaslow was a success? Because he worked so hard. You’re welcome.
I said before that the first rule of writing is to tell the truth. So here it is: Greene is a hack, Albom is a hack, but Nall is a hack, too. Was a hack. Writing a newspaper column quickly becomes a grind, no matter how hard you work at it, no matter how brilliant you are. I wrote many, many shitty columns. I, too, tried to spin grand life lessons from trite observations. It is so hard to do it well, to not suck on a daily basis, sparkle occasionally and shine often enough that people want to keep reading you. The best you can hope for is a snappy prose style that will lift even your stupidest material on an ethereal soap bubble of wonder. That’s Jon Carroll’s secret, but even he fails, and fails often. On the other hand, one column as good as this can make up for a decade of failures. I think I read that column every day for about a year when I was miserable at my job, like a prayer. (Bonus: One of my editors also worked for the Mr. Stern Carroll disliked so. Said Stern wasn’t so bad. Lesson: Never let reporting get in the way of a great column.)
I’d like to point out that Carroll’s is an example of how to write about a death that affected you profoundly. Note that the lesson at its center is no less pat than the one in Greene’s. And yet, look how much better.
I guess, finally, what bugs me about Greene, about Albom, about all the other hacks out there phoning it in, is how they don’t seem to get it. They have the best jobs in the world, and they don’t feel any obligation to get better, to get smarter, to be anything other than crowd pleasers of the easiest audience outside of a cruise ship.
Zorn, despite that early stumble into praise, gets it exactly right at the end:
All writers have their private lives, of course, but columnists, in particular, at least ought to be genuine. Greene, however, always seemed to be channeling a character called “Bob Greene,” behind which the real person hid.
…the one book he hasn’t written — either doesn’t want to write or is perhaps incapable of writing — is a brutally candid account of his phenomenal rise, long cruise at altitude, devastating crash and painful period of recovery (tragically, his wife died of a respiratory illness four months after he left the Tribune).
A book by Bob Greene, in other words, and not by “Bob Greene.” It would be the capstone and perhaps spark the revival of a remarkable career.
Yep. It’s one I’d read. I don’t expect to ever do so.
* I’d link to the post, but it’s gone into the ether. I know I have it saved on a CD-ROM backup somewhere, but I’m not going diving for it now.