Quickly: A Column for Slow Readers
January 3, 1956
Many years ago I remember reading a piece in the newspapers by Ernest Hemingway and thinking: “What windy writing.” That is the penalty for having a reputation as a writer. Any signed paragraph which appears in print is examined by the usual sadistic literary standards, rather than with the easy tolerance of a newspaper reader pleased to get an added fillip for his nickel.
But this is a fact of life which any professional writer soon learns to put up with, and I know that I will have to put up with it since I doubt very much of this column is going to be particularly well written. That would take too much time, and it would be time spent in what is certainly a lost cause. Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces — it abounds in snobs and critics. That many of you are frustrated in your ambitions, and undernourished in your pleasures, only makes me more venomous. Quite rightly. If I ever found myself in your position, I would not be charitable either. Nevertheless, given your general animus to those more talented than yourselves, the only way I see myself becoming one of the cherished traditions of the Village is to be actively disliked each week.
At this point it can fairly asked: “Is this your only reason for writing a column?” And the next best answer I suppose is: “Egotism. My search to discover in public how much of me is sheer egotism.” I find a desire to inflict my casual opinions on a half-captive audience. If I did not, there would always be the danger of putting these casual opinions into a new novel, and we all know that a terrible thing that is to do.
I also feel tempted to say that novelists are the only group of people who should write a column. Their interests are large, if shallow, their habits are sufficiently unreliable for them to find something new to say quite often, and in most other respects they are more columnistic than the columnists. Most of us novelists who are any good are invariably half-educated; inaccurate, albeit brilliant upon occasion; insufferably vain of course; and — the indispensable requirement for a good newspaperman — as eager to tell a lie as the truth. (Saying the truth makes us burn with the desire to convince our audience, whereas telling a lie affords ample leisure to study the result.)
We good novelists also have the most unnewspaperly virtue of never praising fatherland and flag unless we are sick, tired, generally defeated, and want to turn a quick dishonest buck. Nobody but novelists would be asked to write columns if it were not for the sad fact that newspaper editors are professionally and obligatorially patriotic, and so never care to meet us. Indeed, even The Village Voice, which is remarkably conservative for so young a paper, and deeply patriotic about all community affairs, etc., etc, would not want me writing either if they were not so financially eager for free writing, and a successful name to go along with it, that they are ready to put up with almost anything, and I, as a minority stockholder in the Voice corporation, must agree that this paper does need something added to its general languor and whimsy.
At any rate, dear reader, we begin a collaboration, which may go on for three weeks, three months, or, Lord forbid, for three-and-thirty years. I have only one prayer — that I weary of you before you tire of me. And therefore, so soon as I learn to write columnese in a quarter of an hour instead of the unprofitable fifty-two minutes this has taken, we will all know better if our trifling business is going to continue. If it does, there is one chance in a hundred — make it a hundred thousand — that I will become a habitual assassin-and-lover columnist who will have something superficial or vicious or inaccurate to say about many of the things under the sun, and who knows but what some of the night. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 10, 2020