Thursday, 2 July 2009

Columnist Heaven

Writing is a funny business, and it's hard to pinpoint what it is that makes a great writer. It always seemed bizarre and wonderful to me that someone might pay you to write as a job - especially if it's about something you're interested in. Or if you're a columnist, even just your opinion - now that's nice work if you can get it. While doing some research for a fabulous Polly Toynbee piece on voting which appears in August ELLE - out this week! I'm credited! - I realised that to have your opinion be so valued that the whole nation is reading it each week and in turn forming THEIR opinion is probably the highest accolade you can get as a writer, and a great goal to work towards. Obviously, to be a columnist you have to be someone established, respected and that people can relate to. But it's that X-factor of originality that makes a column I just want to read week after week (it's probably where blogs came from, this sort of following). For me, it's nearly always brilliant descriptive powers, down-to-earth tone and feeling, and very often a sense of indignation that makes these writers so readable.

My absolute favourites (I could never pick just one) are as follows:

Tim Dowling
Tim writes for The Guardian's Weekend magazine. They've put his page up front, which shows what a draw it is for the mag. Tim writes about ordinary life with his wife and kids, very muted stuff, but with such beautiful observations about the little quirks of existence. He sometimes touches on current affairs, but I think Dowling is at his best when waxing on family and home. I particularly enjoyed his recent anecdote of the hunt for their pet snake Mr Rogers, and this one where he helps his son with a school contest, but you should really read the whole glorious lot. Wonderful Saturday mornings for me often involve bed, a cup of tea and Tim Dowling.

India Knight
I've mentioned India before on this blog; I've been a fan for years. I agree with so many of her sentiments (and fiercely disagree with a few) but they are always put across in a way that is somehow simultaneously witty and serious; she isn't afraid to weigh in on larger issues than Dowling, but will often be gracious about others' valid points. She writes a column for the Sunday Times, and a blog about her disabled daughter. I didn't discover her as a columnist though, I read her delightful (semi-autobiographical) book My Life on a Plate in my teens - it is a wonderful, funny, sweet, heartfelt book masquerading as chick lit. When I later read her actual autobiography-come-ode to retail The Shops, I realised how much of the protagonist's life was her life, and immediately understood where all that warmth and eccentricity came from. I have always adored writers who are bold enough to write about their 'ordinary' life; one of the earliest novels I read was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, another was the glorious (and sadly out of print) Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson, and I have always found the oddities of family life fascinating. Knight's passionately expressed points of view and memoirs have made me laugh, cry, and bristle in disagreement. This, surely, is the mark of a great writer.

Charlie Brooker
If you're a fan of TV, humour, or just the sick workings of the human mind, you must read some Charlie Brooker. His masterpiece is Screen Burn, the column that appears in the Saturday Guardian's TV Guide. Most of the time it's Brooker, although now and again you get some poor replacement columnist who just ends up seeming inferior. He dissects a couple of programmes a week, anything that captures his devilish imagination or drives him to despair. One of the high points is his love-hate fixation with reality TV like The Apprentice; he loathes the contestants but expresses this with such eloquent violence that you can't help but keep reading. He also writes a similarly brilliant column in Monday's G2. Brooker famously encourages his fans (having discovered his writing to be a cult hit) to engage in mass protest against things, ring up radio/TV programmes with bizarre requests or participate in delightfully strange challenges. Some of his older Screen Burn columns have been published in a book - read these fiercely funny snippets on public transport, but be warned - you'll snigger like a loon.

These are my favourite three; special mention must go to Marina Hyde (someone once commented that she and Brooker should get together and have tiny satirical babies), Barbara Ellen from The Guardian, who I often disagree with, but she always writes well, and Zoe Williams, who used to write a brilliant column in one of the weekly trashy mags - she was far too witty for them and has moved on to more broadsheet-y pastures.

All of these fine folks seem to have a genuine interest in life and all of its little hilarities - try and stop for a moment in your busy week and read them, it will help you remember the good things.

Do add links to your favourites via a comment, I love being introduced to new columnists.

1 comment:

  1. I love Charlie Brooker, particularly as you said, his mass protests. My favourite one recently was when the goverment were considering upping internet surveillance and monitoring emails. He was encouraging a protest where everyone CC's all their emails to Jacqui Smith for the day to see how much she wants to see everyones emails.

    I think the Guide has a lot of good ones, I love Michael Holden's All Ears and I used to like Grac Dent's soap write up though I dont think she does it anymore? Haven't seen it for a while.

    Worse columnist is won hands down by Michelle Heaton's attempt at writing, nobody else takes so many words to say so little.

    I think you have to have the balance, I think some writers think writing a column is just about complaining but it needs to be witty and well written.