Every year I attend a national conference of editorial writers and listen to us deliver critiques of one another's work. It can be a dispiriting experience, especially when the editorial under the microscope is one's own. But one thing I've learned:
After the editorial being dissected has lost its news value, all that may remain is a desiccated husk - dry, brittle, the same old party line or empty stridency. But if the editorial being examined had more than news value, if it used the news of the day only as a jumping-off point to say something about the human condition, preferably something of depth and value, even of use and beauty, it still interests months, even years, later.
I like what a fiction writer named Nancy Mairs once said: "The trick, with this as with any genre, is to satisfy its requirements while escaping its confines." That's it. The reader's expectations of an editorial, however minimal, should be met. But it's a poor editorial that doesn't go beyond that minimal expectation.
An editorial should express an opinion - about a news event or a public figure or a local ordinance or even the weather - but go beyond the confines of its subject to say something about life in these times, or even first principles. Flaubert would have made a great editorial writer. He took a subject as common as an adulterous wife in a small town and made "Madame Bovary" out of it. He went beyond the confines of his subject.
The successful editorial, or even newspaper column, has gone to a second level. It is still alive long after it appeared in that most ephemeral of products, your daily newspaper.
Too drearily often, we who write editorials don't escape the confines of the form or the subject. Instead of thought, we offer ideology. Instead of laughter, just general irritation with the world. We who write them fail to break the bounds of the news we're writing about and let a revealing light in.
Routine is our deadliest enemy. It's as if editorial writers didn't dare risk a real, original idea. That would involve real work. So we wind up speechifying at a faceless audience instead of addressing a real reader. Or kicking a few platitudes around and calling it opinion.
To judge from the general tone of the conversation at this year's convention, the state of American editorial writing is... well, it's been better. It's not just the economic crunch in which the newspaper business finds itself these days. It's not even the familiar problem of getting the younger generation to put down its cell phones and iPods long enough to read a newspaper. It's something more - a general malaise about the whole calling. A doctor would call it A Failure to Thrive.
What would really be new and enlivening at this depressing juncture in the history of American editorializing would be a return to the old: the old standards, old competencies, old revelations - not in order to replace whatever's new today but to lend it some saving perspective.
Here's a word from the past: The late Grover C. Hall Jr. wrote editorials for the grand old Montgomery Advertiser in an era when Southern newspapers led all the rest because they had character, and characters. I've got an editorial of Mr. Hall's framed on my office wall. In it, he pointed out that editorial writers have got the grandest job in the world. So why not write like it?
In the end, what matters is what always mattered: the words, the words, the words. And what's really the matter with editorial writing is a loss of faith - in words, in the power they represent, and in our power to use them. Or to let them use us. For the best thought has an irresistible power of its own.
The surest symptom of our malaise is the various cures recommended for the sad state of the American editorial. Some are familiar panaceas, the kind that have never worked but are rolled out every year as if they were brand new. For example, somebody always suggests that we start signing our editorials. Yes, we're talking about the same editorials we write, rewrite, edit, talk about, and then have our publisher approve - if the publisher didn't suggest the editorial in the first place. So how many names would we have to sign at the bottom of each editorial? At that rate, the byline would be longer than the editorial.
More to the point, the whole notion of a signed editorial is a contradiction in terms. For then the editorial would no longer represent the newspaper's opinion but an individual's. Why not just write a signed column and be done with it? Start signing editorials and the idea that the newspaper has an opinion, a personality, a tradition and continuous history of its own would become just a formality.
Then there are those who believe that, to restore this patient's old vitality, what's required is a technological fix. Maybe turn the editorial column into a community forum, a kind of electronic bulletin board. (In that case, what would Letters to the Editor be for?) Or transform the editorials into blogs. But that's not writing, it's talking.
There ought to be something premeditated, even with malice aforethought, about committing an editorial. If the reader just wanted to talk, or read instant opinion, all he'd need do is eavesdrop on cell-phone conversations, God help him.
The essence of an editorial is that it's the product of an editor. This fascination with technique - how to set up a blog, how to get on the Internet, how to do this or do that - is not a good sign. I think it was Raymond Carver, the short story writer, who said that, when a writer wants to write about technique, it means he's run out of anything to say.