copyright Bill Widener 2000

Whistlin' Dixie

In a recent letter to Ace ("Last Last Word" of 04 January), it was smugly declared that Dixie had "long been defeated by God, Lincoln, and all right thinking people" and went so far as to sum up the South as "those slavery days." In light of Robert E. Lee Day (19 January), I caint let these scalawag comments pass unanswered. Therefore, in defense of my dear ol' Dixie: I put it well beyond anyone's ability to know whose side God is on, and I myself don't truck with Warmongers and self-righteous hypocrites. If that's what it takes to be in with "all right-thinking people", I'll take Dixie any day! If "those slavery days" is all anyone thinks the War of Secession was about, they're blind fools. Them #%&*#@-Yankees have grown all too fond of using the South as their scapegoat for guilt, and casually dismiss Dixie as "those slavery days" (I spit in their eye)in thier propoganda that is standardised American History. But truth be known, there's much more to the War of Northern Aggression than emancipation, and our struggle was and is more akin to those of our brothers in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales than the Yankees will admit. I'm not denying the dark side of Southern history or culture, but might does not equal right. As a true blue "Southron", I hope yall will understand, I must defend my beloved Southland. God bless Dixie and Robert E. Lee!

Wesley G. Walker

via email

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Behind every well-crafted sentence is a broken writer, curled in a fetal position with the sheets pulled up around him, his mind a raging cauldron fired by anxieties about deadlines, bills, worthiness, weight gain, and a million other things....For a columnist, who traffics in opinion in addition to fact, setting the whole thing in a conversational tone is not just an element of the job; it is its essence...

-Graydon Carter

It's every editor's greatest fantasy to land a great columnist.

Searing exposes of governmental corruption? Nice to have. Earnest representations of the plight of the downtrodden and underserved? Also good. Meaningful, sophisticated reporting and analysis of what goes on in our community? De rigueur.

But let's be honest. It's the columns - for better and for worse - that get a newspaper or a magazine picked up.

And our columnists - love 'em or hate 'em - are what keep the readers coming back, Thursday after Thursday after Thursday.

Ace is especially blessed to have three (if you don't count Free Will Astrology, and we don't, because he doesn't "belong" to us): Lissa Sims anchors the back of the book with On the Block, her real estate column. Rob Bricken enlivens the List with Film Flam. (Will work for Ale-8.) And Jeff Zurcher has quickly become one of our star attractions with sportspeak, anchoring the front. As a former UK football safety who came within inches of being named a Rhodes Scholar, we consider Oxford's loss to be our gain. He's earned the week off from sportspeak, in order to contribute this week's cover story on the SEC.

(And from time to time, our guest space, "Southern Voices," is graced by contributors as diverse as Hal Crowther, Richard Hell, Chris Offutt, or Frank X Walker.)

These are the people everyone wants to talk about when they tell me what they think of the paper.

I was reading Graydon Carter's editorial in the February Vanity Fair, celebrating his columnists, and it reminded me how easy it is to take a great columnist for granted. (He was specifically lauding Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott, whom I love - and Dominick Dunne, whom I loathe, because he personifies everything that's wrong with new journalism in his "look at how many celebrities I know" pretenses at storytelling.)

It's a tricky line to draw. Hitchens and Wolcott both write with an "I" voice, as does Dunne, but that's like saying they all use PowerBooks. It's really not relevant. They're pros. He's a hack. It's that simple. It surprises me that Carter doesn't know the difference.

But then again, it doesn't. Great columnists are rarely built by an Editor (much as we might like to take credit). They walk into your life and your paper, and all you can really say is Thanks. They are a special and rare breed of writer, and mostly, you're just grateful for whatever karma brought them to your door.

A good editor can teach structure and grammar and story building and to some degree, style, but if there's an editor who's learned to teach Voice, they're better than I am.

As Carter wrote, "A lot of hard work goes into making it look easy. This is a generalization, but I always say that the reader's appreciation of something written tends to be in inverse relation to the ease with which the writer wrote it."


Carter's defense was occasioned by a criticism, leveled at his son by a teacher, that his writing was "too conversational." Carter was horrified, and in one sense, he was right to be. Having taught writing for several years now, though, I can safely say that "conversational" in the hands of an amateur, is not a pretty sight.

It's the exact same criticism I earned from some of my college professors, my English faculty advisor in particular, and he was right to call me on it. Despite the fact that I went on to earn a very good living doing PRECISELY what he told me not to do, I can still see his point. Which was (maybe) that I hadn't yet earned that right to be paid for voice or attitude.

A good columnist has earned that right. It's a great gig, but it's one that paints a giant target right on your ass.

The most common charges being, "who cares what you think?" and "what does your uncle/kid/car/beer choice have to do with this this house/game/movie?" and the ubiquitous "any monkey could do that."

I get a lot of queries, from a lot of monkeys, so trust me when I say, they're wrong.

"Conversational," in the right hands, however, looks deceptively easy. And it's an art each of our columnists has mastered, and I want to give them their due.

So when I get a note from a guy who tells me he lives in an apartment and eats dinner standing over his sink - but that he never misses Lissa Sim's house column - why, I just get a warm editorial glow.

And when someone tells me that they hate sports, but still go out of their way to read Zurch, or catch him on the radio, I'm thankful, because I know yet another reader gets it.

I'm no sports fan myself, but I can't wait to open Jeff's emails every Monday morning and read sportspeak. But if he wrote about auto insurance, I'd read that too. And if Lissa Sims comes to me next week with a column idea about footwear, I'll probably print it. -RR