John Avlon is a political commentator — he’s a centrist — and a columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He’s written two books, edited two more, and contributed to Empire City: New York Through the Centuries. For his Piccolo Spoleto Literary Festival appearance, which happens to be the event’s finale and reception, he’ll discuss some of the selections from Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies, and Triumphs, Avlon’s second co-edited column anthology.
City Paper: As a columnist, what do you look for in a column?
John Avlon: In a word, storytelling. My favorite columns tend to be by stylists who are telling someone else’s story to make a point about the debates of the day. Simply expressing an opinion seems to me lazy and largely useless — which doesn’t mean I don’t fall into that trap more than I’d like. But if you can add a sense of perspective and a sense of humor to current events, you’ve performed a public service of some sort. And so storytelling sums it all up: a clear voice, compelling characters, and a bit of enduring wisdom at the end.
CP: What do you learn from columns like the ones featured in the Deadline books?
JA: The power of the reported column. The best columnists got out from behind their desks and reported their stories, knocked on doors, and met the people they were writing about. Before the ubiquity of television, there was more of an emphasis on vivid, descriptive writing. It was also fascinating to find out that humor columns were originally a staple of newspapers — they balanced out the earnest editorials on the other side of the OpEd page. There are some great humor columnists in our time, most notably Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen (oddly, both of the Miami Herald). But it is an under-utilized tool that ensures news never tastes like medicine.
CP: Do you have a favorite column that you’ve ever read? That you’ve ever written?
JA: A single favorite column after reading thousands in editing the two volumes of Deadline Artists is a very tall order. The greatest columnists, to my ear and eye, are an easier call: Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, and Mike Royko. Interestingly, none of them ever wrote for the New York Times or Washington Post. “The Death of Frankie Jerome,” by Westbrook Pegler, “A Short Story About the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” by Molly Ivins, “The Southern Gentlemen,” by Murray Kempton, and “Are You John Lennon?” by Breslin all stand out as individual favorites. As we say in the intro to the books, deadline artists balance the urgency of news with the precision of poetry and the result is an improvisational American art form.
It feels sacrilegious to list any of my columns near these classics, and I don’t devote much time to thinking over my work in the rearview mirror. But I always put a lot of work into my 9/11 anniversary columns. I liked a recent column where I interviewed two young sisters who left the Westboro Baptist Church to find a life of their own. I’d first met them when their mother brought them to picket Walter Cronkite’s funeral. On a lighter level, I enjoyed a piece from the 2008 campaign where I argued that the song of that election was “The Righteous Path” by the Drive-By Truckers. One more: a story for The Daily Beast earlier this year where I broke the news that Michele Bachmann was under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. I think I’m off her Christmas card list.
CP: What is the most important trick that every columnist should know, regardless of what topic they may cover?
JA: Write what you would like to read. Use humor to make a point whenever possible. Bring perspective to current events. Always try to keep your sense of compassion intact. Take your work seriously but never yourself.
CP: What can attendees expect from your Literary Festival appearance?
JA: I’ll read from some of my favorite columns from both Deadline Artists volumes, because the columnists are the stars of these books. But I’ll also talk about the newspaper tradition and the irony that while obituaries for newspapers are being written every day, opinion writing is proliferating like never before online. The idea that inspired Deadline Artists is to learn from the best of the past so a new generation of journalists can carry this tradition forward into the digital era.
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