I confess that I had never heard of Lisa Bonchek Adams until this morning, when my editor called my attention to the latest Internet brouhaha. Adams, for those as ignorant as I was, is a Stage 4 breast cancer patient who has been tweeting and blogging about her disease.
Cancer is one of those subjects like diet or child-rearing where everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the right way to do things. In Adams’s case, two prominent columnists -- Emma Keller of the Guardian and her husband, Bill Keller of the New York Times -- wrote articles that, while hedged with all sorts of qualifications, made it clear that they didn’t condone her approach. The Internet exploded with disapproval of their disapproval.
All I could think was, Where was all this controversy when Christopher Hitchens was dying of esophageal cancer? People opined on his atheism and his smoking -- also subjects on which the public never tires of passing judgment -- but there weren’t columns in major newspapers sniffing at him for writing about the deep fatigue and excruciating pain of his treatment. Why not?
There are many differences between Adams and Hitchens, but the most important one is that Hitchens was a high-profile public intellectual who wrote essays on a wide range of subjects. He wasn’t defined by his cancer, even to those who knew him only from his writing. And his essays were self-contained artifacts with beginnings, middles and ends, not snippets of ongoing conversation the way Adams’s tweets are. No columnist could barge into the middle of a Hitchens essay and start making sweeping statements about its author.
Hitchens’s essays and Adams’s tweets do have something in common, however. They are individualistic. Even when they reach for the universal, they speak for specific people with specific voices, specific knowledge and specific experiences.
They thus contrast with the genre conventions of newspaper columns -- the genre requirements that got the Kellers in trouble. Newspaper column writing tends to demand a one-best-way approach to every issue, from budget negotiations to finding a mate. If you wouldn’t do it that way, you write a column about how no one else should, either. How to cope with cancer is a singularly bad topic for the op-ed pages. Cancer patients are too different in personality and circumstances.
When I had cancer, I didn’t want to talk much about it in public. I didn’t want friends and family, let alone strangers, fussing over me. When I wrote about my treatment, I used it to address topics that would have fit easily into books I’d written long before my diagnosis. Although my prognosis was always excellent and Twitter still years away, I can’t imagine emulating Adams.
But that’s just me. What makes me different from the typical newspaper columnist is that I know it.