A few weeks ago I met Suzette Standring, a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Patriot Ledger and elsewhere. Standring is one of those people who lists her accomplishments at the bottom of her e-mails: "Humorist, Writer, Speaker; Immediate Past President, National Society of Newspaper Columnists." It is not by accident that my e-mails trail off into blank space.
Standring's e-mails also tout her new book, "The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill, and other great columnists." "Want to be a Columnist?" the back cover asks. "This book is for you!"
Please send me a copy when it comes out, I said. I promise that I will cruelly mock it. She agreed. "A promise made is a debt unpaid," Canada's greatest poet, Robert W. Service, once wrote, "and the trail has its own stern code."
There is plenty to mock here. The book is a compilation of pabulum and bromides about "voice" and storytelling, offered up by "award-winning columnists," many of whom seem to have cycled through the above-mentioned National Society of Columnists, whatever that is. Here is some exemplary rubbish, in the every-little-snowflake-has-a-story-to-tell vein: "Every columnist holds a unique point of view . . . because no one else in the world has led your life . . ."
Really? Then why do all columnists sound pretty much the same? Hillary this; Obama that. Did I tell you that my refrigerator broke? Homogeneity, thy name is the "opinion" writer.
I suppose there is some useful advice on how to get syndicated, and on "ethics," whatever those are. It's nice to see a big talent like the LA Times' Steve Lopez praised. On the other hand, it's surprising to see promotion-crazed Internet hussy Huffington mentioned in the same breath with Hamill. You would think that a book on columns would include the late Murray Kempton, who has a cult following, or mention Ambrose Bierce, the greatest columnist who ever lived.
There are other gaps. Christopher Kenneally contributes an essay on copyright, but what about theft? Last semester, I regaled a class of BU journalism students on the importance of stealing. Losers imitate, winners steal! I steal from the dead; they're not around to whine to the Columbia Journalism Review. I love to steal little turns of phrase from the late Herald columnist Norma Nathan, who waged a hilarious war against the Boston Phoenix, which pompously fact-checked her gossip columns. The Boston Feenix, she called it, adding: "Did I spell it right?"
To be fair, the book has its moments. Standring reprints Art Buchwald's famous Thanksgiving column, originally published in the Paris Herald Tribune, which tries to explain "Le Jour de Merci Donnant" to a French reader. Ellen Goodman offers some practical advice: "You can be good or bad, you just can't be late." A lot more columnists have been fired for being late than for being boring, as the pages of any daily newspaper can attest.
There is some sonorous advice from Dave Barry, which doesn't sound much like Dave Barry at all. The only advice Barry ever gave me was: If you can find a way out of writing the next column, do it. That was a professional talking.
In Section 3, "A Columnist's Inner World," Standring devotes a chapter to the question, "Can a Columnist Have Friends?" Well, sure. My dog loves me. At least she says she does.
There's some rollicking Boston history in Steve Elman and Alan Tolz's forthcoming book, "Burning Up the Air: Jerry Williams, Talk Radio, and the Life in Between." A lot of life depends on where you came in - I stole that line from Woody Allen - and Williams had begun his embarrassing eclipse by the time I showed up here in the mid-1980s. Still, I enjoyed reading about his interviews with Boston's Own Malcolm X, about his successes in Chicago, and how Williams helped launch Bill O'Reilly and Howie Carr. I can't say Williams's romantic shenanigans held my attention, nor do they help you warm to his "complicated" personality.
Final note: Pretty darned gracious of former governor Mike Dukakis to blurb this book, after all the [blank] that Williams threw his way. There is money in hate, but there is power in love. That is a lesson only half-learned by the O'Reillys and Carrs of the world.
Alex Beam is an award-winning columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.