January 2024
Alan Dean Foster

The Importance of Subject Natter

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

It can be hard to write a regular column. Political columnists have it easy. With access to an ocean of material, not to mention the tsunami of stupid that occupies the daily news, there is always something to report on, or criticize, or speculate about.

A political columnist short on ideas can always produce something on voting trends in Carbuncle, Indiana, or which congressman was caught last month wearing women’s clothes (why don’t we ever see a column about a congresswoman wearing men’s clothes? Haven’t these columnists ever heard of Marlene Dietrich?).

Columnists whose beat is the entertainment industry similarly suffer no dearth of material. There’s always some actor caught wearing women’s clothes, or actress caught wearing men’s clothes (wait — didn’t I just …?). Of course, unlike politicians they can say they’re just preparing for parts. Or a columnist can always write a piece about some performer who knows nothing of politics or how government actually works making unguarded or tactless statements about politics or how government isn’t working.

Just as political columnists can write paragraphs wherein politicians comment about the entertainment business. Each profession enjoys a deep and long-standing fascination with the peccadilloes of the other.

It’s great to be a columnist who can focus on a field that boasts a surplus of material. Contrarily, there are the forlorn folk forced to write column after column about subjects that not only tend to repeat themselves, but that draw little attention.

Imagine you are charged with composing a regular column about farming in the Midwest. You can only write so much about the cost of manure (unless you’re a political columnist in the Midwest, of course). Or corn futures. Groucho Marx, now, could probably have written a terrific piece about corn futures (“Corn has a great future even if they’re all flakes — I just cobbed that one together, folks”). That is one group of columnists with whom I immediately sympathize, even though I’ve never met one. Dirt-rich instead of dirt-poor.

Columns featuring animals always seem to do well, regardless of the chosen thrust of the column (especially if you’re a political columnist, who is sorry that good material departed the White House in the person of the President’s bitey dog). Cat stuck up a tree, man bites dog, such subject matter has been manna for columnists for hundreds of years. It does get difficult after awhile to find something new within the genre. Dog stuck up a tree: now that’s fit subject for a new column. This actually happened recently, and the number of columnists who leaped at the opportunity to write about it easily matched in volume anything coming out of mittel Europe or the Middle East.

Perceivings is majorly a column about art and science, but I have been granted leeway to wander afield (not to one in the Midwest). This allows me to occasionally (this being such an occasion) to scribe essentially about nothing. Like Jerry Seinfeld, who when asked what his proposed new half-hour comedy show was to be about, replied to the powers-that-be, “Nothing. It’s a show about nothing.” Easy to say, not so easy to bring off.

I do feel that when I write a column, I have to write about something. So actually, pace Jerry, writing about nothing is writing about something. Even the ‘vacuum’ of space is not nothing. It’s full of atoms, loose molecules, dark matter, photons of all kinds, neutrinos, cosmic dust, politicians’ empty promises, that lost sock from your dryer — hardly a void, yet most folks think of space as empty. There’s no such thing as empty space.

Perceivings is a monthly column. I can’t imagine writing a weekly one. At least, not without a staff of semi-cognitive underlings to do most of the work. That’s how to do a column. With a staff doing all the scut work. Then you put your name to it, collect the columns into a book, go on talk shows bereft of anything actually interesting to say, and collect the royalties.

I’m waiting for the first column to be produced entirely by an AI. I hope it focuses on politics. Let’s see what The Machine has to say about the ongoing feeble efforts of human beings to govern themselves. Personally, if it’s a really smart AI, I think it will write about sports and leave the irreconcilable contumation to us squabbling humans. Probably David Attenborough has already shown us squabbling squabs.

Ah well. What was that column I was writing supposed to be about?

Art: The Musee d’Orsay in Paris now offers visitors a chance to converse with an AI-powered Vincent van Gogh. I hope Groucho Marx is up next.

Science: The Musee d’Orsay in Paris now offers visitors a chance to interact with an AI-powered Vincent van Gogh. Maybe Leonardo da Vinci next?

Music: Groucho Marx chats with Leonardo da Vinci. I could listen to that all day.

Oh, all right. The astounding Diana Ankudinova singing the chant from Dune – Part II:


Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.