January 11, 2004

A Special Column by Laura Miller

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Miguel Cohen is unwell this week. He reports that he Super-Sized his McDonalds meal by mistake. He believes he's suffering from mad cow disease. I asked Miguel what increasing the size of his fries and drink had to do with beef. He replied, "You just don't know, man." While the doctors investigate Miguel's condition, Laura Miller has agreed to fill Miguel's shoes with a special exclusive.]

Columnist's block, like a bad heroin habit, is a subject of lackluster interest to those who are capable of filing a column that actually includes a few nifty ideas and a great annoyance to me personally. It differs somewhat from writer's block in that the columnist is faced with the prospect of sounding important, because the columnist must keep her job, even when she really doesn't know the audience she's writing for. "To hell with filing the article," once said Jayson Blair to a friend, "let's go get sushi and not pay. I'll make the shit up as it comes along." Well, we all know what happened to him. At least the writer has talent, whereas the lofty book columnist is often a windbag who cannot grasp so much as a whit of the typical book enthusiast's mind. The columnist does not understand that most people do not give a damn when she writes in a smug, highfalutin tone and that, if they do, they're generally reading the New York Times Book Review with their pants draped around their ankles while on the john and have every intention of using the back page as a clever substitute for something I cannot mention in a family newspaper. Either that or they're a unique form of starfucker, pining for a Salon gig, or they're wise enough to keep their trap shut. If you complain of not being able to write a column, you might be openly mocked in the book community (though never to the columnist's face) or even satirized on a blog.

Marilyn T. Chambers, star of Behind the Green Door, wouldn't dare to write a book column unless she had some inkling of what she was talking about. Nevertheless, you can see how important I sound because I referenced a figure whom you may or may not have heard of. The brilliance of including Chambers in this paragraph is that I can spell out her credentials (i.e., Chambers starred in a piece of smut called Behind the Green Door, in case you didn't catch that fact the first time) and somehow get through Chip McGrath's filter. Chambers is intrigued by the neurological dimensions of faking orgasms in general, not because she has endured columnist's block (although, if she were a columnist, we might say that she has) but because she has gone through episodes of something not dissimilar: she sings for her supper. We might call this avocational condition "whoring."

Just how much whoring is too much remains a tricky question. Mata Hari, who was a sharp cookie who liked to dance, and who found herself gyrating obsessively (giving the columnist redundant clauses with which to increase word count), explains, "The dance is a poem of which every movement is a word." Scientists studying the effects of logorrhea, which is what might happen if you were to apply a certain rectal condition to words (i.e., this column), tested for it by asking columnists for columns describing their state of health. Most responded with columns that were too long: the shortest at around 6,000 words. Some scientists resigned from the project immediately. A few collapsed, reporting that they could not read a newspaper column for several years, after being exposed to such limitless verbosity. The handful of scientists left standing asked, "What the hell does any of this have to do with Mata Hari and dancing?" In fact, an early draft of this column was so bad that the folks at the copy desk pined for another David Brooks column. If you're a prolific popular columnist (or you think you are) like me, you can delude yourself into thinking that you're better than those groundlings making wisecracks, or those people who have a sense of humor that you lack. Writing a worthless column is an art, albeit a low one, beyond reproach, that comes out painfully. You may not realize this, but my life is in shambles. Of course, if I admitted anything human like that, then perhaps the perceptions would shift. If I suggested in any real way that I was passionate about books, then you might love me the same way you love Michiko. But allow me this small metaphor, for I am not inured to rejection notices the way that most of you may be. I have not written a novel and I don't have Michiko's Pulitzer, but I am a columnist. And I have an airtight gig. I want to keep my job. You like me, right?

A little snark or playful banter is easy to mistake for something serious. I'm not quite sure where I was going with the Mata Hari reference. And I don't know what I was thinking when I mentioned Marilyn Chambers. But perhaps I can offer a scientific hypothesis that will get us back to the main.

In 2003, many of the book blogs, reading the New York Times Book Review because they liked books and they liked Chip, noticed from time to time that one columnist was full of shit. In other words, too much of a grand gig (i.e., writing for the New York Times), as well as too little (i.e., anything written for Salon), can trigger columnist's block, and this explains why "the bigger the lack of passion, the bigger the block." Lewis H. Lapham writes the same damn column every Harper's, but at least he is a harmless enough crank. Lapham may be one-note. He may have a testosterone that doesn't quit, but he has a passion and a sense of humor. So it was something of a shock to see him writing about George Plimpton this month. Apparently, someone at Harper's finally got around to telling him that his blustery assaults on Bush were maiming small children in Ecuador.

A friend of mine (yes, I have friends) once invented a "cure" for this condition: to counteract a series of humorless columns, create something more humorless. Think up a bland, banal subject -- something like columnist's block or covering a book that you're inclined to hate from the first page -- and expend 1,000 words on it. In your mind invest it with such life-defining importance that your entire journalistic career hinges upon this one central silly thing. You must take a topic that no reasonable person would waste a paragraph on and approach it as if it were some truly important ideal, something as important as the Federalist Papers, something as pivotal to this planet as carbon.

Blocked or not, columnists have been disappointingly unimaginative in their responses to columnist's block. One exception is the tiny literary genre of book columns on the back page of the New York Times Book Review. No, not those cutesy cartoons. Hint hint. I know of only one worthwhile columnist who I can read even when I know she is suffering from columnist's block. In fact, you may not know this, but I have assembled a small chapbook which features this columnist's ouevre. It reflects, I believe, the highest pinnacle of columnist's block. Such useless credos as "you have to live" before you write are pure poppycock, because any real columnist knows that she can bluff her way through anything. Particularly when the columnist has failed to live and cannot crack so much as a smile. Whatever tortures the reader must bear, that makes it art in my book.

Posted by DrMabuse at January 11, 2004 12:01 AM