The pressure's on the few remaining newspaper columns.
Illustration by Alex Fine
The reviewers haven't been entirely kind on the subject of Inquirer columnist Lisa Scottoline's new novel, her 15th. Lady Killer was reviewed by Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly this way: "Yet another legal thriller centered on saucy Italian-American attorney Mary DiNunzio, Scottoline turns out one stale cannoli ... her Scooby-Doo-meets-The Sopranos capers only stretch the reader's disbelief further."
Publishers Weekly called Killer a "less than convincing" thriller, adding, "Scottoline fans will cheer Mary as she stumbles toward the solution, but others may have trouble suspending disbelief." Booklist also focused on the affection of her fans: "Not the best of the Scottoline's, but plenty good enough to please the author's enormous audience."
Despite the lackluster reviews, the Inquirer is excerpting the book--a perk many publications offer their columnists when they write books (and which I expect from PW if I ever write that many words).
The thing that's puzzling about Scottoline is that despite the fact she's a smart lady, her novels and columns are disappointingly ordinary.
In Chick Wit, her Inquirer column, she's written she can't live without People and subscribes to Time "so I can put it on my coffee table and impress people."
She's written about wanting a home theater system, about her love of room service and about driving in a blizzard. She's covered her kittens' personalities, Scottoline "family hijinks," having lots of husbands and New Year's resolutions.
Since starting her column last March, she hasn't tackled one serious issue--which, I suppose, isn't her role. At the Inquirer she's been positioned as a humorist, a kind of urban Erma Bombeck, difference being that when Bombeck was satirizing the suburban set between the '60s and early '80s, there were all kinds of columnists.
Today, though, newspapers are strapped. Staff cutbacks run deep, and budgets have been sliced to the bone. Space is at a premium. Editors are forced to do serious soul-searching. Are they making the best use of the space they have?
Mike Argento, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, writes on his organization's website: "Certainly, a lot of columnists just sit on their asses and share their thoughts with their readers. And some of them are pretty good."
But Argento doesn't advocate ass-sitting, citing journalistic greats like H.L. Mencken and Murray Kempton as role models--tough shoes to fill. "To me," he writes, "the most memorable columnists come from the old-fashioned newspaper tradition of getting out and reporting."
Many columnists don't hit the streets--often because of having to juggle other roles, either inside or outside the paper. Column-writing alone doesn't typically pay a living wage, so in between scrabbling to make money to pay rent and outrageous gas bills (fie on you, PGW), many columnists are forced to file without the street-reporting stimulus that once animated Kempton.
Newspaper columnists can define a publication's voice and public image.
The New York Times--despite cutbacks and staffing changes--still has a number of distinctive voices that shape public debate, like Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Nicholas Kristof.
In one recent week Frank Rich was tackling the GOP's image problem, Kristof was writing about our policies in Africa--territory he mines consistently and persuasively, and Dowd--provocative, delightful, razor-sharp--was writing about the eloquence of Obama's campaign rhetoric.
And what does the Inquirer serve up? The decidedly parochial Michael Smerconish, who can't write a paragraph without referencing himself in a self-indulgent and distinctly unserious fashion.