Herb Caen, He Ain’t
He's no Herb Caen. He's no Rob Morse. He's got little in common with Matier & Ross.
Mark Morford, 36, online columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate.com website, perhaps has a little bit of Jon Carroll in him -- but the Chronicle's quirky print columnist doesn't go as far out on the ledge as does Morford on a regular basis. It's unlikely that even Carroll gets as much hate mail.
Morford is a you-love-him-or-you-hate-him type columnist who's become SFGate's top draw, and his irreverent, in-your-face style -- grammar and conservative sensitivities be damned! -- earned him the "Best Online Columnist" award for 2003 from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. (The Online category was open only to columnists who work for newspaper companies but whose work is published exclusively online. Morford's work has not appeared in the print edition of the Chronicle to date.)
I was the volunteer NSNC judge for the Online Columnists category and selected Morford as the 1st-prize winner (see box at right for runners-up). I interviewed Morford by e-mail after his win was announced.
Q: First, tell us a bit about your background. You used to be homepage editor for SFGate.com. Did you do column writing or traditional writing before this?
A: I whet my appetite by writing awful opinion copy for a college paper, early on, but never did any "traditional" reportage. I wanted to (and still do) write fiction, and non-fiction. Was blessed with a subtly brilliant professor/mentor during L.A. college days; he'd take me to this fabulously seedy bar near campus at noon on a Wednesday, and we'd drink vodka martinis and smoke Marlboros and talk for hours, all about intellectualism and Jung and Marx and political theory, women and world politics, and art and music and the power of writing, and the absolute necessity of breaking the mold. Difficult to credit him enough.
My column is an odd mutation, a sly serendipitous Frankensteinian thing I invented from scratch. And thanks to very tolerant bosses and another terrific mentor at SFGate in its early days, I was allowed to experiment, to develop a voice.
I first created the Morning Fix, a very skewed e-mail newsletter, based on the homepage I wrote every morning. Original idea was to simply dump the homepage heds and blurbs and wit into an e-mail, push the jokes further, the satire harder, add some other tidbits, and send it out. Drive more traffic to the site was the idea, and also to keep me from getting entirely burned out.
The Fix was a hit. I made the entire thing up. Started pushing harder, writing more and longer blurbs under the "straight" story headlines, adding more content, factoids, mullet hauki, strange stuff. It mutated fast, grew, became much more rich and intimate and sly....
Before I knew it, I had a column-length rant going, five days a week, in this weird little hit newsletter, on top of my regular homepage duties. Hearst comes along right about this time, bought the Chronicle and SFGate, brought in new management, desiring a different, straighter, more "newsy" and less personality-driven homepage. They offered me my own byline on the site, along with the newsletter, and handed the homepage duties to someone else. Hell yes, I said.
Q: Your style is to be controversial and quirky. Could your work as it's been published online have run in the print edition of the Chronicle? Would Chronicle editors think that your stuff is appropriate for a print audience, as well as online?
A: Sure it could. Would require a seriously ballsy editor at the paper, to be sure. And no way would everyone at the Chron like my work or think it appropriate to the Chron's more staid, older, suburban, dead-tree audience. I humbly submit that this is exactly the reason they should run my column, however. I know for a fact that the tens of thousands of readers of my newsletter (and my column on SFGate) avoid the print Chronicle entirely, exactly because they offer no fresh voices and tend toward the staid and traditional and stuffy and desperately unhip.
This is sort of the point. I can potentially reach a huge new audience for them. Maybe. It would be a delicious experiment. It might be a disaster. It might be a glorious success. But they'd have to let my column stand as it is now, minimal editing, especially of the racier, pro-sex material. This is what makes the column soar, I think.
Problem is, they'd also get enormous amounts of flak from their more scrunched, conservative readership if they ran me. Which I'm not sure they're willing to endure. Times are rough for papers. Last thing they want is to alienate core readerships, even if that readership is aging, disappearing. It's very tricky. And I'm not exactly sure I want to be in the paper. I fear massive editing. I fear loss of range. Not sure it's worth it. I have an enormous amount of writerly freedom online, not to mention a wildly enthusiastic -- and growing -- readership, for which I am insanely grateful and blessed.
Q: Because you're writing exclusively for a Web audience, do you treat the column differently than if you were writing for the print edition? Are you writing for a different (younger) audience?
A: I don't tailor it in any particular way. This is the only approach, the only style I've ever wanted to write. I knew what I wanted from the beginning -- joyously readable and funny and wry and wicked-smart and very, very different. I suppose I do have a modern, flagrantly non-traditional style, and I take perverse pride in that. I have no desire to be cute, or to merely report facts. The world is full of dry facts that lie on your spiritual plate like a slab of old ham. Very simply, I write in a style I want to read, that turns me on. In short, writing that is (hopefully) wry and sexy and fun and incendiary and thoughtful and winking and open-thighed and highly literate and well-informed and self-deprecating and well-lubricated and happy to buy you a drink. I aim to be a writer first and journalist, well, about 27th, right after idea-monger and trickster and contrarian and satirist and pro-sex advocate and wine enthusiast and dog lover and book fan and clothes junkie and yoga teacher and tattoo advocate and spiritual deviant and did I mention the part about the sex? Boring writing makes my soul curdle.
Q: Chronicle feature colulmnist Jon Carroll has always been pretty off the wall. Is it fair to say that you're further off the wall, ergo not "printable"?
A: I absolutely love Jon Carroll and have nothing but the utmost respect for his enormous talent and consistency and Jesus with a gallon of White-Out, 20+ years 5 days a week and he's still the most wonderfully readable columnist going. But he is "off the wall" in a "I think my cat is a Republican" sort of way. I'm off the wall in a "You should really try this gorgeous bejeweled butt plug" sort of way. So I suppose the answer is yes.
But "not printable"? No. It's definitely printable. I work very hard to make every word, every line as deliciously readable as possible. I have zero desire to be just another polysyllabic ranter, a lefty Howard Stern, orally and intellectually diarrhetic. I want joy and funky divinity and sex and humor. I want to ignite readers, fire them up, to encourage them to be more responsible with their lives and their viewpoints and their bodies. As such, my column is very intentionally juiced by two specific energies/perspectives I don't think you'll find in any other semi-mainstream columnist or newspaper, as far as I know: spiritual fierceness and sex. These are essential. Mandatory. They are not included for shock value.
Q: Have any other columnists influenced your style?
Q: Obviously you're trying to be funny and entertain people, but I also sense that you often try to persuade. Can you describe your political intent with the column? Do you think the column persuades, or just annoys those with a different point of view?
A: Sure I want to persuade, to make salient and radiant points. But that's just one level. As I said above, I want a hybrid. I hope to ignite readers, inspire them to take responsibility for their divine funky selves, celebrate their connection to the world. I very much hope to make them think, laugh, wince, smile, recoil, shrug, sigh, cry, shake their heads, lick their lovers, kick the walls of their cubicles, and immediately wish they could split to a hot tub in the woods with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka, a naked S.O., and the collected Yeats. Preferably all in the same column.
Q: How much feedback/mail do you typically get after a column is published? And what's the ratio between mail from your fans vs. those who hate you?
A: All depends on the column. A particularly pointed anti-Bush anti-war column will get me gobs of sneering hate mail, mostly from the delirious, hardcore psychopatriots at freerepublic.com or lucianne.com or andrewsullivan.com, et al, where they post chunks of my column in their discussion forums, along with my e-mail address, and encourage each other to flame me, usually in the cutest sort of monosyllabic, ragingly homophobic, horribly syntaxed, misspelled sort of way. Makes me proud to be an American. My girlfriend loves the anti-SF gay-bashing they aim my way, I might add.
That said, the overwhelming majority of my mail is wonderfully positive and incredibly supportive. For the Morning Fix newsletter, even more so, as it's very intimate and personality driven. I have amazing readers. Incredibly passionate. And I get a lot of mail. Only a fraction is hate mail. But man, is it ever bilious.
Q: Do you think you have any fans that are politically conservative? Judging from your feedback, it seems they do read you!
A: "Fans," no. "Masochists," maybe. I have many regular hate-mailers, as I'm sure do most columnists. I have many regular flamers who still surprise me and occasionally write in with "normally I disagree with everything you say, but this time, you really nailed it." It's an odd phenom. People hate you but read you religiously. These are the people who, every single day, are actively seeking something to piss them off. And nowadays, they are legion.
Q: Describe your writing style. It's unconventional, often not grammatical. What's your formula?
A: Oh, man. I know what I strive for, but I also know I have a long way to go. It's an evolution. I suppose I aim for one part DeLillo, one part David Foster Wallace, one part old Tom Robbins, one part stream of consciousness, one part Peets mocha, one part post-coital flush, one part orgasmic syntax abuse, one part nipple pierce for the AP style guide. It lives at the intersection of Divine and Ungodly. Where the long snake moan meets the cool intellectual margarita. Wry informed satirical thought-provoking absolutely essential effluvia to make you squirm and blush and laugh and sigh. I hope. I fail all the time. But that's just part of the process.
Q: I've had conversations with Vlae Kershner (SFGate's news editor) where he's mentioned the occasional tug-of-wars over some columns. Do your editors have to rein you in sometimes?
A: Rarely, anymore. But we've definitely had some run-ins, one or two of which were rather serious. We have a fine relationship now. I know the column's boundaries, more or less. I know how to grow it well, lean into the fire without getting overly burned. Early on, I pushed boundaries just out of rebellion and attitude and because I wanted to see what I could get away with, how much I could upset the establishment, because I felt it was in desperate need of upsetting. Now I push when I feel the topic calls for it. Now I really earn those anal sex references, dammit. I am also exceptionally proud of the fact that the column reads like nothing else out there. It surprises people. Catches them off guard. The style, the tone, the topic angles I try to take are often so radically different from mainstream media. People don't know what to make of it. Thankfully, most love it. But many don't.