A case for replacing the Times’ op-ed section with these classic columns.

Brittany Allen

April 17, 2024, 12:49pm

In a recent entry from his excellent newsletter “How Things Work,” the labor journalist Hamilton Nolan decried the state of the column, as epitomized in the op-ed section of the paper of record. In a snort-inducing takedown, Nolan argued that the kind of writing manufactured daily for a broad audience tends toward the mediocre when it is not “actively malicious.” (For example of latter, see this piece from Mother Jones connecting Pamela “Public Enemy” Paul’s recurring vitriol to anti-trans legislation.)

Nolan makes a strong case for the structural flaws baked into the medium. On the one hand, as (sh*t-stirring, reactionary) opinion writing looms larger and largerfiguratively and literally, on the Times’ homepageit’s become easier to conflate musings with news. Which is obviously no bueno, for a free press. And on the more innocuous end, if you are not delighted by, say, Margaret Renkl’s taking empathy cues  “from the squirrels in [her] birdhouse,” it is true you will never get that time back. It is lost, forever, just like those poor, evicted birds.

I’m pretty convinced by Nolan’s railing. But I’m also a Pollyannawith, it should be noted, a tiny horse in this race. Columns have not always been cesspools of poorly argued pablum. The form has had some diamonds, and I wonder if revisiting these might help us reimagine the column’s platonic ideal. If I had my drothers (and a time machine), I’d like to replace a good three quarters of the paper-of-record’s opinion masthead with these bygone minarets.

Greg Tate’s “Black-Owned,” in Vibe

The late, great Greg Tate’s column in Vibe magazine “was a staple and a megaphone,” intended to spotlight vanguard Black makers across mediums. In his regular corner, the fleet-footed Tate conducted interviews, interrogated hip hop, and wrote praise notes to his favorite artists. He had a special knack for capturingwell, vibein language. (Of  D’Angelo,’s “Voodoo,” Tate wrote, “There are times when the music on this disc sounds so raw, so naked and exposed, you’ll be tempted to throw a blanket over its brittle, shivering bones.”) I pour one out regularly for this flyboy, whose musings remain a joy to read.

Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal,” in The Village Voice

Writing in ArtForum, Amy Taubin credited the filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ column on-cinema-at-the-cinema with leading her to underground film. In his weekly report, the late polymath gushed about indie creators like Harry Smith and Andy Warhol, and wrestled with his establishment film critic peers. Taubin says of the journal entries:

“…it is their slash-and-burn immediacy that makes them exciting. Reading them in the Voice and again today, one has the sense that Mekas is secure in the place from which he speaks, and that he says plainly what’s on his mind without fussing about the niceties of prose, damping down hyperbole, or tailoring his style to the standards of art criticism or journalism. He wrote about the liberation of movies in a voice that inspired liberation.”

I mean, sold. Is anyone doing this today?

“Reviewing the Reviewers,” from Spy

The comedian Will Hines considered the late Spy “…a club for funny people too smart to be scared off by small type.” Voice-driven commentary populated this snarky rag, which was known for punching up and committing to the bit.

In a tweet last week, author Adam Sternbergh lamented the loss of Spy‘s “Reviewing the Reviewers,” column, in which subjects got to snap back at their goofier critics. But thankfully, Internet Archive has a trove of back issues. Just to throw a rock: in the October 1986 edition, you can find such pearls from critic’s critic columnist Michèle Bennett as: “We are distressed to note that The Village Voice‘s David Edelstein is a man obsessed.” Bennett goes on to chide “the dog day sloppiness” radiating from the Times’ Book Review, right before she mocks another author for his “dangerous case of the wangdoodles.” I stand with Sternbergh.

“Eat This,” from Sassy 

Did you know Kim Gordon once lived on tuna tacos? And Mike D messes with carrot cake? “Eat This,” a back page column from the much beloved Sassy magazine, aspired to be “a new sort of recipe column which proves once and for all that cooking is the only difference between snails and escargot.” In a typical entry, an up and coming indie musician would share a dubious recipe and a Proustian reflection. Here’s Evan Dando’s (TM) “Morning Noonan Knight Sauce”: “Melt chocolate and water together, stirring over low heat until one solid mass of muck.”

Innocuous enough. But even if you weren’t really gonna make “Kim’s summerific shrimp kebabs,” or Thurson Moore’s chili, this section could be surprisingly poignant (See the mother’s day-inspired ‘Pastarama a lamama!’). It was also exactly the right length, andsometimeswise. Per Christina’s potato recipe: “Mashed potatoes are a skill you’re gonna need to survive in this world. It’s a jungle out there.”

Lynda Barry’s “Ernie’s Pook Comeek,” alt-weekly syndication

I know, I know. This is arguably a comic strip. But somehow, ‘column’ feels a better descriptor for this strange and wonderful serial, brought to your local alt-weekly from the bright mind of Lynda Barry. Following the odd duck sisters Marlys and Maybonne, this graphic romp explored the stranger corners of childhood. Happily, you can find an excerpt right here on The Hub.

Barry, a recognized genius, portrayed the icks and outs of coming-of-age in this singularly unflinching series. I miss narrative comics in the newspaper. Let’s start a petition to bring these back.

To summarize: I abide the column when it’s a good distraction. I love the column when it’s a passionate, thoughtful praise noteor witty screed, as seen in Nolan’s own newsletter. Though we must keep throwing stones at the overconfident, underbrained Public Enemies wielding their pulpit power in outrageous bad faith, I pine for a media culture that still gives good whimsy. Maybe we’ll get one again, someday.

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