A reader wrote in to say that she was mystified by the continued employment of Laura Miller at the Gray Lady. “I knew,” she continued, “like an unreliable vibrator, that every time I put a Laura Miller column into my hands, the sensation would start off pleasant and then sputter out because the electric current turned tepid and the vibrator itself was poorly designed. So now, in lieu of a pleasurable Times experience, I’ve been forced to call my man over every Sunday morning and have him ram me against the bedpost to iambic pentameter, while we both shout out Shakespearean sonnets. Fortunately, the downstairs neighbor, a professional drummer, appreciates our mutual syncopation.”
Yankee ingenuity is justly celebrated, independent and far away from Sam Tanenhaus’s hallowed millieu, but why subject yourself to an irksome book columnist when so many sublime ones are available? Every literature freak recognizes the threshold my correspondent has yet to cross: the moment you decide that a book columnist has jumped the shark.
For some, it’s like having your limbs tied up with hard hemp rope, your mouth gagged with a tight hankie, and a dominatrix referring to you as Phil Donahue. Even when you suggest that capital punishment should be aired on national television, there’s still the problem of being muffled by the handkerchief and manacled with the rope. And the dominatrix may, in a moment of kindness, get you your Sunday newspaper with that precious book section. But when the last page is Miller, as opposed to Margo Jefferson or that enjoyable comic strip, the dominatrix gains additional leverage, ruining what is, ostensibly, a perfectly deviant sex life.
But surely readers, who aren’t responsible for filtering through idiotic op-ed columns and deciding upon who gets a column and who does not, and who know what it’s like to suffer through silly book coverage offered by The Scotsman, are more generous? Not really. Even when columnists like Miller grab quotes from noted authors in an effort to justify their stature, it still cannot propel a 1,000 word column that can essentially be reduced to one sentence: “Don’t read the books you don’t want to, dude.”
The fact that these book columnists are so joyless and smug over book-related subjects that are essentially non-issues makes one wonder why these columns exist in the first place. Is the answer simply that Laura Miller is, as Chicha has suggested, sexually frustrated? If that’s the answer, then why the horrendous columns? Other great writers (HP Lovecraft, Emily Dickinson and Cornell Woolrich come to mind) have managed to produce greatness in stark contrast to their nonexistent sex lives. And they were writing fiction and poetry, not literary criticism, let alone a regular column.
There remains one ineluctable conclusion: Laura Miller has served her purpose. She must either produce something compelling in the next 60 days, something that recalls her early days at Salon, or jump over the Harold Bloom Memorial Bridge and throw herself into the Ponderous Hudson.