Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2010 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5771
The State of the Obsession: Report From an Anarchists' Convention
By Paul Greenberg
"Why, then, do rational men and women engage in so barbarous and exhausting a vocation? What keeps them from deserting it for trades that are less onerous, and, in the public eye, more respectable? The answer, it seems to me, is as plain as mud. An author is simply a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting his defiant yells. This being forbidden by the Polizei of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression." ("On Literary Gents,"
Call it verbal exhibitionism. All of us opinionators may have the notorious artistic temperament, but only the exceptional among us are artists -- like Mencken himself. Most of us are just in the grips of an obsession. And we're grateful to find a newspaper that will harbor us. That's certainly how I felt when I was lucky enough to get hired on at the Pine Bluff Commercial as the paper's editorial writer more years ago than I'd care to remember. I'd just been drummed out of
It was a time when young editorial writers would say our job was so much fun that, instead of the publisher's paying us to write, we'd gladly pay him--if only we had the money. Imagine: being handed two blank columns every day to fill with our undying prose. Surely that would be enough space in which to save the country, if not the world.
Then as now, the world may not have been paying us overmuch attention, but it was getting published that mattered, not whether anyone was listening. It was the work that counted, not how it was received. In that regard, we did have something in common with real artists.
I don't hear as many editorial writers as excited about ideas these days. Maybe because there are fewer editorial writers around to be heard from.
The decline in our numbers mirrors the decline of the whole newspaper industry. Yet those of us who are left seem just as devoted to this annual conference and family reunion. You start seeing the same people the same time next year, and friendship develops. Something more than friendship. Call it devotion.
I think if I were ever in real trouble, as I've been from time to time, I'd pick up the phone and call some of the folks I first met here so long ago. And I've done just that from time to stressful time. Even if I didn't, the knowledge that I could was always assuring, It's that kind of outfit.
By now some of the widows of editorial writers I met and admired at these conferences are in attendance. Yes, it's that kind of outfit. We've laughed and cried, celebrated and mourned together over the years; now we comfort one another.
An informal show of hands indicates that maybe half of those here are paying their own way--rather than being on expense accounts, the newspaper business being what it is these days. These meetings can become downright habit-forming, like those of AA.
Membership in the
There ought to be a handy gauge, like a thermometer, that would indicate the health of American editorial opinion. But what would it measure--heat or light, emotion or reason? When it comes to a single quality I'd use as a test of editorial vigor, I'd nominate a sense of humor.
Yet every year editorial writers seem more solemn, more deferential to each other, and just more taken with the Seriousness of It All. That's not a good sign. It may explain why so many of the editorials that I see come across not so much as serious but just dull. Is this the root of what a pediatrician might call our failure to thrive?
These annual conferences reflect the full spectrum of American styles in opinionation--from the frustrated world-saver to the disinterested observer of the human condition. There are the captains of opinion who have a whole crew of writers under their command, and the one-man bands who do everything on their editorial pages from editing the letters to the editor to drawing an occasional cartoon. Their little skiffs find safe harbor at this annual conference, too, right next to the great battleships. Once a year the whole fleet's in.
It's quite a gathering--in variety if not number. At coffee in the morning or around the table at dinner, you might find yourself squeezed in between Mr. Righteous Indignation and Miss Cool Analysis. Editorial writers still come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of sobriety. The good news is that, even if our numbers are declining, our opinions remain as varied as ever and even, on happy occasion, as eccentric.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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© 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.