A columnist’s work is never done


For decades, columnists helped form new communities through their journalism. But now, they're dying out. Русский


Кирилл Кобрин
12 May 2016

The genre in which I write for openDemocracy is tough to define for a Russian. My efforts are definitely not “articles”, and certainly not “socio-political articles”. They’re more like “essays” or “columns” in the classical, European definition.

Since I write in Russian, but for an international platform, I am tempted to talk at length about my genre and its place in western and Russian tradition — in other words, the history and meaning of the “columnist” profession.

A trip down memory lane 

The word “column” originates from the printing house. In the 18th century, people started to publish periodical press, as well as inventing a sustained scheme for laying out materials in a magazine or a newspaper.

The newspaper text was divided by columns (even before the 18th century), then it became obvious that a column made separate by spacing and/or font could be turned into a kind of special rubric.

In the printed press, a special rubric must appear regularly. It shouldn’t just come out on schedule, it should also have a specific author. This is how the connection between a regular space and a regular author was first created — and, eventually, the “column” genre was born. It doesn’t matter that the page is usually electronic today.

Salon_de_Madame_Geoffrin (1).jpg

Une soirée chez Madame Geoffrin (1812), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier. Public Domain: Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison / Wikipedia. SRegular authors are an interesting phenomenon. In order for them to exist, certain conditions must be in place. 

A regular author must be known by the reader. This was only made possible when the “Republic of Letters” (Respublica literaria) — the metaphoric conglomerate of people who wrote and were published in several European languages — came about in the 18th century. This was a social and cultural category of people who, in one way or another, had a similar agenda. The agenda was “enlightenment” in nature and had the common good in mind — even if the writings of a specific author did not in any way concern themselves with it. 

The idea of the common good was a kind of horizon the citizens of the Republic of Letters strove toward — even those citizens who were ready to send people to the gallows for using words such as “republic” or “the common good”.

At the same time, it is hard to see most of the religious writers of that period, even the best ones, as members of this Republic, if they were only interested in theology or canonical matters. Yet the author of vaudevilles and cheap pamphlets could easily score that metaphoric member card. 

The idea of the common good was a kind of horizon the citizens of the Republic of Letters strove toward

I mention the Republic of Letters not because I’m interested in history’s decorative flourishes. The thing is, it is this Republic that ultimately made various modern media genres possible, “columns” among them. 

The main criteria for column content is some idea of the common good, whether it is buried amongst gossip or cooking recipes. Kim Kardashian’s naked selfies OR an argument about what makes a good avocado salad - these all only make sense within the context of society’s ethical, aesthetic or ideological concepts, i.e. in the context of the common good. 

Being known to the audience and having a public agenda are two factors that ensure the columnist’s existence. The third is economic in nature. It depends on money.

It’s very hard to get rich in this world by doing honest work. One can survive – not make the sort of money that makes one stop thinking about money. This situation has only worsened after the 2008 financial crisis.

Earning money as a writer has always been hard, even in the 19th century, when a growing market was gobbling up everything even marginally fit for publication. If novels, short stories, poems and plays did not earn enough money, the writer to work for a newspaper or magazine. There, a writer could write about anything, from books to exhibitions, from politics to farming (look up Afanasy Fet’s excellent agrarian essays sometime). The writer was paid. Not a whole lot, but enough to live on.

Furthermore, back in the day, newspapers published serialised fiction. (This is how, chapter by chapter, The Three Musketeers was released.) I remember how 20 years ago, I forgave Novoe Vremya, a nationalistic old Russian newspaper (as published by Alexander Suvorin), when I stumbled onto a Chekhov story they published toward the end of the 19th century. Chekhov’s prose made Novoe Vremya’s xenophobic crap fade into the background. 

A genre is born 

Yes, they came to work for the newspapers — the fiction writers, the playwrights, and even the poets. There was also the category that found a balance between the genres, that of the essayist.

Since Michel de Montaigne created the essay genre in 1580, our kind of writers (I’m using “our” deliberately – this the group that I belong to) grew and grew in number. Although, when compared to “regular writers” or “poets”, it is apparent there aren’t that many of us at all. 

Of course there were those who wrote essays alongside other works — Swift, Rousseau, Chesterton, Borges, Flann O’Brien, George Orwell, Roland Barthes, Andrei Sinyavsky or Andrei Bitov — but there were also the “pure” essayists.

The father of the modern essayist is Thomas De Quincey, author of the controversial Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey was a tireless essayist on everything under the sun, from Mongolian history to the political economy. Even though he had a terrible habit for opium tinctures (it was a two-part addiction: both to the opium and the whiskey he diluted it with), De Quincy lived a long life, and made money exclusively from writing for various publications, particularly for the famous Edinburgh Review. His collected works are twelve volumes of finest quality. 


Thomas De Quincey. John Watson Gordon. Public domain / Wikipedia.De Quincy created the vantage point from which the columnist observes the world — the position of a clever, well-read person, who has something to say. He’s not, God forbid, an academic. A real columnist is not even a journalist in the modern sense of the word — although lots of journalists write columns. 

A journalist “informs” and (rarely, actually) “analyses”. A columnist “speaks” or “argues”, this is what makes his or her work attractive (or unattractive, as the case may be). A columnist speaks using his own name and doesn’t sully his work with the unbearable social, political, national or religious “we”.

The columnist instead can say that “we, the stamp collectors”. Or “we, the lovers of Argentinian Malbec”. Or, as I said, “we, the representatives of a particular literary profession”.

This is where the columnist differs from the political writer, who solicitously cares for the public good and is always calling you to do something. A political writer is an experienced prostitute, who’s selling objects for common use. An essayist is like a random person you have a conversation with at the library, café, or park bench. Not all real essayists are columnists, but all real columnists are essayists.

Ultimately, a “column” is a product of a new age in European culture, christened under the cold shower of Protestant individualism.

A ‘column’ is a product of a new age in European culture, christened under the cold shower of Protestant individualism 

But let’s get back to money. Money is important. Money is what led writers to join the press, and the press, in turn, offered them a space known as the “column.” This was a mutually pleasurable union – a famous writer’s name was used to adorn a publication, lending it more popularity, a popular publication then lent the writer even more fame. The reader paid and read, the writer wrote and made money, the publication published and also made money. 

All of this, with some variations, continued in the last century and even in the beginning of this century. Even the decline of the printed press, the arrival of the radio and the television, didn’t change the situation much. Both radio and television even adopted the “column” genre, turning it into special, author-led rubrics. 

What destroyed the genre? The internet, of course. 

The death of argument 

First of all – no. No, you’re not about to read the complaint of an old-fashioned hack who’s angry about the huge amount of bloggers that are running wild. 

I only want to categorise the moment we’re all living in. This is the moment in which tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people publicly speak their mind on many different things — and if there are no mechanisms for editorial, aesthetic, ethical and semantic filtering of these points of view, if the value of a point of view is only measured by the amount of readers and fans, then the “column” genre is dead.

The “column” genre depended on a specific publication having a special place for a special person, who regularly speaks/argues about various special topics. A “column” doesn’t just express a point of view, but an argument, based on logic and common sense. This argument will be back up by facts that, it is expected, are not known to the reader.


Oh dear, self-expression seems limited to "liking" things on Facebook nowadays. Image: PIxabay.And, as I said above, the “column” genre can exist only if it keeps in mind “the common good”, even if it denies its existence (or tries to ignore it). 

Today, everything is changed. Any idiot can get facts from Wikipedia – and nobody’s cares that Wiki, although undoubtedly great, is a worldwide social initiative, not a real encyclopaedia. 

Nobody’s interested in arguments, the globalised world is crazy for emotions, leaving rationality to scientists and accountants. 

Modernity’s main motto is “express yourself!” Those who aren’t sure about the existence of the self, who aren’t used to express that which goes outside the boundaries of propriety, and who doubt they want to witness the self-expression of just anybody, they have nothing much to do in this modern age. What’s the point of writing? And it’s not as if anyone will read them — because sapienti sat, while nobody else cares. A decade or so ago, this wasn’t obvious to me. Now there is no clearer truth than this.

The creation and consumption of political writing is the main daily ritual of Russia’s educated public

There is also the national and culture side of things. I belong to the Russian language and Russian literature – where the essayist genre is, important exemptions aside, nonexistent. That’s just how it went down.

Yet for a century and a half now, Russian writing is awash in politics – the creation and consumption of political writing is the main daily ritual of Russia’s educated public. 

Politics let’s you decide who’s “us” and who’s “them” to feel a sense of direction – and always march in metaphoric formation.

When there’s no place for discussion

We all know what makes the Russian tradition special.

First of all, people were not allowed to discuss socio-political issues for fifty years after the conversation first began. I’m talking about the epoch that began with the ridiculous sentencing of Alexander Radishchev for publishing Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow under Catherine the Great and lasted until Pyotr Chaadayev was declared insane for publishing his first “Philosophical Letter” (and then the next 20 years or so, until the reform of censorship under Alexander II). 

Just because public discussion was banned doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. First of all there were the salons — censors weren’t let in there due to being lowborn, or else the censors themselves sat in salons discussing politics and what’s happening to society. A highborn censor changed his bureaucratic uniform for a good suit when he walked into a salon.

This state of things displeased those who weren’t let into salons – and those who didn’t believe that the elite would get to action after it was done blabbing.

The displeased were the majority. They started their own clubs, where they argued until they went hoarse. They took their fiction on love and everyday life and weighed it down with certain themes and hints. This weighed down Russian writing in general – it stripped away the luxurious language of Pushkin and Lermontov. Yet it also gave Russian writing depth and, in due time, brought it international acclaim.

The mainstream of Russian literature was triumphant in its social biases. But marginal genres, such as essays, were unlucky. When Alexander II allowed political writing, the levy broke — it broke so much so that any personal observation which was not socio-political in nature was ignored, or even sneered at. 

History repeated itself in the Soviet Union — only with more tragic consequences for victims of censorship. Now we’re witnessing the third — more technologically advanced, yet also comical — act in this drama. I hope it is the last. 

Of course, the special nature of the Russian, then Soviet, then modern Russian press, its underdevelopment and lack of a language for public discussion, is also a factor here. There is a lack of genuine politics, lack of real political parties. Then there is Russian culture’s lack of trust in individual expression, which is caused by everything I described above. This doesn’t mean we’re doomed or cursed. Any situation can change — provided there’s the desire and will to change it.

I’m unlucky. I never wanted to engage in political writing. I’m lucky a lonely lover of cycling in a country where everyone rides cars — I had to invent my own bike. 

There are other such inventors in my culture. We run into each other on life’s side streets, far away from noisy squares dominated by furiously passionate speakers. We exchange knowing glances and ride along to take care of other matters atop our bizarre, lopsided, homemade bicyclettes.  

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