In his Times column today, Joel Stein drums up web traffic and blogosphere chatter by throwing down with his readers. Don't email him, Stein writes, because he doesn't care what you think. In fact, he thinks it's kind of pathetic that you would write to him with your opinions.
I don't want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don't listen to them either. That sound on the phone, Mom, is me typing.
Some newspapers even list the phone numbers of their reporters at the end of their articles. That's a smart use of their employees' time. Why not just save a step and have them set up a folding table at a senior citizen center with a sign asking for complaints?
Where does this end? Does Philip Roth have to put his e-mail at the end of his book? Does Tom Hanks have to hold up a sign with his e-mail at the end of his movie? Should your hotel housekeeper leave her e-mail on your sheets? Are you starting to see how creepy this is?
Not everything should be interactive. A piece of work that stands on its own, without explanation or defense, takes on its own power.
Calculated provocation? Dunno, but the column tops today's list of most viewed LAT stories. As for what he says, he's wrong about the value of the conversation, especially for the kind of work he does. (Uh, he's no Roth or Hanks...but then neither am I.) But there's something to it. Roughly a third of the email I receive from people isn't worth the time it takes to read — it's lazy, not thought through, or reflects the writer's inner demons and has nothing of value to communicate. Correspondence sent to a newspaper has an even lower value rate, in my experience. Conversation with readers is crucial, but let's not exalt the voice of the idiots. Everyone's thoughts are not equal; some should be noted and dismissed. I treasure the other two-thirds though (and repeat last year's January resolution: I will try to answer more email in a more timely fashion.)
Regarding Stein, Chris at the blog Big Action writes: "Still not funny... but this is the first time I've ever agreed with a Joel Stein column."
Plus: Comments at the Times' Opinion blog.