February 10, 2006

"A column is not a 750 word transcription of your id."

TNR's Keelin McDonell just hates Sarah Vowell's NYT op-eds. (If you have a TNR subscription, you can read his piece here.) Excerpt:
Vowell has made her own politics perfectly clear--"I am a capital-D Democrat"--but her allegiance is to whimsy. Not humor, which might expose the ridiculous, but whimsy, which merely makes light of it. And she is a true partisan. Of deaths caused by AIDS and poverty in Africa, she indignantly notes that it's "literally the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Literally? Dumbest? Really? Even the most correct of sentiments cannot withstand expression in such juvenile terms. Other times, Vowell simply free associates her way to a theory. What does she think of the Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Texas State Capitol to display a Ten Commandments statue? Well, "[t]he other night I was flipping channels and..." I'll spare you the next two paragraphs and tell you that our intrepid columnist discovered that human nature is imperfect.
It sounds bloggy to me. Get used to it. This is the way people will write about politics in the future. The Times needs to appeal to younger readers, and that means the regular slots on the op-ed page when they open up are going to go to people like Vowell, and not to older writers who've built their reputations by following the established conventions of column writing. And this has to be what's really bugging McDonell so much. Hear his pain:
Vowell's qualifications for the job are limited. She has spent nearly ten years as a commentator on the radio show "This American Life," where she applies what the San Francisco Chronicle has called her "nasal and high-pitched, somewhere in the neighborhood of Bart Simpson's sister Lisa" voice to programs about popular culture and history. She has published four books of humorous essays. She is young and has appeared on "The Daily Show." She is popular. But in all these successes she has not, so far as I can detect, demonstrated a sophisticated or, for that matter, unique, grasp of current events. This did not prevent the Times from recruiting Vowell to fill the pages of, as she calls it, "the most uppity newspaper in the world."
Is her voice even relevant or is McDonell just irritated? Actually, it is relevant, because there are already podcasts of the columns, and in the future, we'll want to hear the columnist and not just an actor doing the reading. Four books of humorous essays? That's a limited qualification for writing essays? Really, McDonell is quite ridiculous.

16 comments:

Harkonnendog said...

He has a good point here, though-
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Of deaths caused by AIDS and poverty in Africa, she indignantly notes that it's "literally the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Literally? Dumbest? Really?
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I mean blogginess is one thing, but should people really get PAID to write stuff like that?

More to the point, would anybody pay to read stuff like that? No way. Well, I'm assuming the other op-ed writers are better than her. I don't pay for any of it so I don't know...

Jen Bradford said...

Have you ever heard her voice, Ann? Let's just say takes getting used to. I'm sure it's her real voice, but there's no escaping a feeling of schtick in it.

It peeves me that This American Life podcasts aren't free. I know. Not her fault.

Michael Farris said...

I love Vowell on this american life (her goth makeover, high school band stories and johnny cash/june carter tributes are real hilights) the voice is funny but that show is full of funny voices and learning to listen to her is well worth the effort.

She was also the voice of Violet in the Incredibles.

I'm pleading the fifth on her writing until I actually, you know, read a bunch of stuff she's written.

Ann Althouse said...

Sure, I've heard her voice. I'm a big fan of "This American Life," and I've listened to her audiobook of "Assassination Vacation." It's a highly amusing voice.

P. Froward said...

The Times needs to appeal to younger readers...

If, as you imply, "younger" is synonymous with "stupid", we're in trouble. And being younger than you myself, I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to burn an embassy.

Tibore said...

""A column is not a 750 word transcription of your id."

What?... he's never read Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, William Pfaff...?

... or this guy? :)

Yeah, I think Eggagog is the most id-unrestrained writer of the whole bunch (thanks to Ms. Althouse for bringing him to my attention). He's so id-loose I think he needs ritalin.

Johnny Nucleo said...

I like that the big dailies are giving columns to enfants terribles like Sarah Vowell and Joel Stein. Comparing their thought and analysis to that of, say, Jonah Goldberg, confirms the current crises of liberalism.

But I think Keelin McDonell's hatred of Vowell stems from envy more than embarrassment.

As for a column not being a 750 word transcription of your id: What about Maureen Dowd?

RogerA said...

Perhaps the NYT is making yet another marketing mistake--I happen to like the quality of younger enfant teribles that I hear on NPR; but is not the NYT trying to nail down the Hampton's set? appealing to their lifestyle? Just thinking out loud here, and if the NYT puts her some kind of pay access thing, she will go the way of MoDo--and btw: MoDo is the standard for a 750 transcription of you id; viz: "ehhhh Dick Cheney--dont ogle my google." The New York Times can go nowhere but up!

Elizabeth said...

I love how conservative Republican columnists squeal their irritation that a columinist is partisan and a Democrat.

in_the_middle said...

P. Froward, don't you mean "younger and stupider

RogerA said...

Elizabeth--I simply didnt follow your point. Why would I NOT expect the NYT to hire a partisan democrat on their staff--Bill Safire is over the hill, and David Brooks is their resident conservative--I dont expect balance on their editorial page--they have papers to sell to people who, generally speaking dont like republicans or conservatives--Not a problem for me.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Henry said...

I mostly like Sarah Vowell's stuff, though I haven't read or heard much of it. You certainly always know where's she's coming from, since she circles back over it so much. And her ironic ambivalence about getting to a point is somewhat refreshing in contrast to the weighty-pronouncement style of most pundits.

Johnny Nucleo said...

I take back what I said about Keelin McDonell being envious of Sarah Vowell: It was a cheap shot.

I, on the other hand, am very envious of Sarah Vowell.

Also, because he writes for the New Republic, I assumed McDonell was left-of-center. Actually, I have no idea.

And to anyone out there wondering: Why this sudden change of heart regarding McDonell? Is it because you now suspect he might be right-of-center?

The answer is: Yes!

bearbee said...

When is a young writer no longer referred to as young?

elcurado said...

I guess I'm a little slow on the draw, but for anyone still reading, I feel compelled to tout Vowell:

It was unclear to me whether McDonell's criticism was aimed more at her (unjustified), or the so-called Newspaper of Record (justified, perhaps).

Many of McDonell's comments (and some of the comments here) focus on superficial things like her voice, etc. But what is most amazing about Vowell (and what should be apparent to anyone who has read a good chunk of her work), is that in addition to being a humorist/essayist/radioist, she is a dedicated and conscientious historian.

Put her head to head on U.S. history w/ McDonell (or most of the Times writers for that matter), and she'd leave them in the dust.