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Tuesday, March 08, 2011  

Dan Savage, Newspaper Man

My big Washington Monthly article on Dan Savage's ethical worldview has gone online and seems likely to be received with an emphasis on its critical rather than its appreciative side. That's fair, since the critique is what makes the drama. We could only briefly touch on an interesting part of Savage's biography, which is that he grew up steeped in the world of Chicago daily newspapers. His admiration for Ann Landers is widely noted, and her style has echoes in his. But he's just as reminiscent, to me anyway, of a columnist like Mike Royko--prolific, hard-edged, with a gift for a phrase that jumps off the page and sticks with the reader.

With a few exceptions (at least one of which I was glad to include in the article), Savage's style does not exactly touch the sublime. But I can remember where I was sitting when I read some of his columns, even many years later. Riding the #6 bus in Hyde Park while reading a column rebutting Nader voters in 2000; sitting at the now defunct Cafe Florian to read his September 11th column; reading the 'How'd That Happen' column in at the Memorial Union in Madison. That's what good writing--really good writing--does, and looking back on my examples it's striking to me that the topic of sex isn't necessarily what made these columns memorable.

In fact, the seed of my take on Savage's ethical worldview was probably planted at Steep 'n Brew on State Street in late 1999, when I read his answer to the young immigrant who was living with a woman in San Francisco under false pretenses. “This sounds more like a question for The Ethicist, a charming new advice column in The New York Times Magazine, but since you asked, I’ll give it a go. You are an asshole." I didn't realize at the time that such questions and answers would become his mainstay, but the question and the answer, down to the offhanded use of a word like 'charming,' stuck with me. Writing for a newspaper, even an alt-weekly, needs sharpness and charisma and an intuitive movement in order to work. At his best, Dan Savage's writing has these qualities in as good a measure as anyone I've read.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:16 AM
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