TRUE/SLANT - 23 NOVEMBER 2009
For several years now, I have kept in my wallet a few paragraphs by my favorite New York Times writer, Rural Life columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg:
Here is how things stand at midsummer. One of the Tamworth pigs is tame enough to be scratched behind the ears. The other isn’t. Two of the white geese have clubbed together and banished the third white goose from their society. The lame Ancona duck has taken refuge under the old chicken house. We would put her out of her misery, except that her misery is her life. The old Dominique rooster seems to be in a vertiginous state, always leaning and nearly always dozing. During the listless heat of the day, the chickens all lie in the dust beneath the pickup. The horses stand in the hickory shade, incognito in fly-masks, tails flicking.
The vegetable garden has gone feral. The walking onions, the chives and the blueberries are the only signs of civilization there. The less said about that the better. Hopes are high for next year. The crop of chipmunks is incredible. There have never been fatter woodchucks. The pasture is filled with the trial cawing of young crows. The swallows nearly clip me with their wings as I throw hay down from the loft. The bees are populous. The pasture at dawn is covered with spiderwebs that look like the footprints of ethereal elephants. The scarlet bee-balm is in bloom down by the mailbox, and the thistles are purpling. The hollyhocks are coming into blossom and also rotting in the leaf, as they always seem to do.
The days still come in order. Gray light collects in the bedroom long before dawn. Then comes a bleached noon and nearly always the threat of a late-afternoon thunderstorm. The darkness is notated by fireflies, who have been unusually numerous — or is it unusually bright? — this year. The crickets are now whining away, as if they were reeling in August. I am laying in all the thinking I can against a time when summer is in short supply.
I keep this sheet of newsprint, pausing to reread it when perhaps I'm feeling rushed by events, crushed by tasks, or frustrated by something bleak and unappealing. I have come to love Verlyn's spare, detail-laden writing. His pieces are these quiet detours from the rest of the paper, a chance to reflect and derive great meaning -- the same big meat you might get from the Saturday Profile or a big magazine story -- from among the bones of a much smaller animal.
So I was dismayed to see a Slate headline yesterday: The Windiest Windbag in Newspaper History.
I knew instantly the headline referred to Klinkenborg, who most recently filed what I admit is an over-long, mockable meditation on college bicyclists. With that column's smallish crimes of over-handsome prolixity in mind, I braced myself for a mean-spirited, snide, and unfair critique of the writer's work.
I like Jody Rosen, but he is maybe the last critic I would look to for insight on a writer like Klinkenborg. As the Times's Rural Life correspondent, it is Klinkenborg's mandate to ruminate on the country. This is the kind of thing an urbane music critic like Rosen is bound to loathe, ridicule and find little value in. (In Rosen's Twitter Bio, he notes that he's a hypochondriac, a class of folks generally more associated with city shenanigans than the less culturally explosive intrigues of the farm.)
I'm not saying Slate or anyone else should institute for newspaper writing the same sorts of rules book criticism has in place for assignments. But having Rosen take on Klinkenborg is a bit like having Cardinal Egan review the new Vollmann book, or having Bob Woodward tell us why the Pavement reunion tour is doomed.
In other Klinkenborg-hating, it was more than a year ago when Gawker.com's Hamilton Nolan invited the Rural Life correspondent to attend a Raekwon concert in Manhattan. "I'll buy you a ticket, if you promise to write your next column about that, instead of about the way your mare's shiny coat glistens in the low, sultry heat of the coming summer." Great.
Fine, take issue with Klinkenborg's style and whether or not this kind of writing belongs on the page. But both Gawker and Slate seem incapable of letting the rural guy be just that, rural.
(I might not be worth trusting when it comes to The New York Times. After all, I also love Metropolitan Diary, another easy target. I guess I'm also just thrilled these features even exist in the August paper. They seem to confirm my general feeling that personal and detail-rich writing is as evocative and important as anything else.)