Column inches

OUT THERE: 'Writing a column is like having sex. If you start faking it, you're dead'
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The Independent Culture
A recent cartoon in Private Eye shows two men walking through Trafalgar Square. Looking up at Nelson's effigy, one says to the other: "Everybody's got a column these days."

The Guardian's Craig Brown has already remarked on the "diminishing minority of people who do not write newspaper columns". As the Daily Mail's veteran columnist Keith Waterhouse pointed out, being a columnist is the journalistic assignment that everyone believes they could do given the chance - and now everybody's getting the chance.

TV presenters, retired judges, sportsmen, comedians, models, politicians, novelists and yet more TV presenters: all are considered worthy cultural commentators in this egalitarian age. Very few bring anything to the party. For most, having a column on a national daily is the ultimate form of money for old rope. Little wonder that respect for the fine art of journalism is at an all-time low.

"There are more bad columnists around than ever before, due to the sheer numbers involved," says Tony Parsons, former Daily Telegraph columnist, now at the Daily Mirror. What is it these fabulous nobodies lack? Parsons believes that authenticity is the key. "Writing a column is like having sex. If you start faking it, you're dead." The mark of a great columnist, he says, is that you would recognise the style - the columnist's "voice" - even if there were no byline on the piece. Though Parsons has no self-doubts about the validity of his opinions, he is sick of being part of "pundit culture", as he calls it. "The last straw was being called up and asked what I thought of camcorders. I knew then that I had to stop giving opinions on things I really don't care about."

The Guardian's Suzanne Moore points out that in an age when people get most of their news from TV and radio, readers expect more analysis and commentary from their papers. There is also an emotional element involved, an attempt to create a sense of intimacy. "Clearly, editors believe that columnists make readers feel more connected to newspapers. Columnists have replaced the extended family, it's where people get their gossip. They phone each other up and say, 'Oh, did you read so-and-so this morning?'"

Unfortunately, says Moore, too many columnists are of the personal-confessional type, and too few make political statements. While this probably reflects a growing mistrust of political ideology, Moore thinks it also indicates a failure of nerve in the media. "There's this notion that a plurality of voices produces a diversity of opinion, but I don't actually believe that. If you read them, most of it's the same old stuff." Moore says she only writes about her personal experiences if she is convinced they have a broader relevance. "A couple of years ago, I wrote about having an abortion, but that was because I thought it important to say that women shouldn't feel ashamed of having had one."

Zoe Heller of the Sunday Times once wrote about a doctor sticking his finger up her bum. "Friends and family were astonished, but I don't consider that a major revelation," she says, although she admits to fretting about some of the things she commits to print. "It's in the nature of someone who is both an extrovert and very thin-skinned, as I am." Heller's intimate, neo-confessional tone has led, she says, to a lot of hate mail. She has also suffered the barbed embrace of Private Eye, turning up in both Pseud's Corner and Egowatch - a league table of "self-obsessed journalists". Having topped the latter myself, I asked Heller whether column-writing and modesty were incompatible.

"Well, it's quite ludicrous, because writing a column is self-announcingly egotistical. It's not like being a wine writer, for example, where you are paid to report on vintages and so on. On the other hand, it's perfectly healthy that they should take the piss out of hacks. If you spend a lot of time delivering opinions about others you have to bite the bullet when it happens to you." And the worst thing about being a columnist? "Continually being told by people, 'I suppose you're going to put this in your column, aren't you?' I just want to scream whenever somebody says that."

William Leith's weekly infusion of suppressed hysteria for the Independent on Sunday is still legend in media circles, years after he decamped to the Mail on Sunday, where he now writes about film. Did he crack under the pressure? Well, no, he says, although he admits, "It does change the way you live. You end up ransacking your life, and it becomes a bit of a strain. I stopped because I wanted to go out and live a bit." Leith says he rejoices when someone accuses him of predictability. "Self-parody at least means you've created a voice. If people think you're doing the same thing again and again, at least they know what you're doing.

Once he has finished the "autobiographical book" he is writing, Leith intends to resume his column writing. "When all's said and done, it's a fun thing to do. You can write about what you like - and that's fantastic."