Tuesday, September 08, 2009

In mankind’s largest agora

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 8

by Brad Bigelow

The Neglected Books Page

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Little self-produced ’zines with tiny circulations. Diaries and journals. Occasional conversations. And nothing. Before the Internet, it took a significant effort to express one’s views to more than a handful of people. In the case of my interest in neglected books, I pretty much kept it to myself.

The Neglected Books Page is the second site I’ve created about a fairly obscure topic of little serious interest outside a small audience. Twenty or thirty years ago, the best I could have done, I guess, would be to assemble enough essays on the topic to qualify as a book and then publish it myself or find some specialized or academic publisher, which would at best result in a few hundred copies finding their way to little-used library shelves. And once published, it would be next to impossible to add more to it.

In giving individual easy access to a potential mass audience (if usually only an actual audience of dozens), the Internet is truly a new, and so far, unique medium.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

My #1 inspiration was David Madden’s first Rediscoveries book, which collected short essays by a variety of writers about little-known or long-forgotten books. It got me interested in finding other such books and gave me a model for how to write about them.

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

The simplest answer is that someone asks a reviewer to write about a book. Aside from a few well-known bloggers, none of the rest of us gets asked by anyone to write about any topic. The other main difference is time. Book reviews almost always have to come out just before or after a book first gets published. One can post about a book whenever one feels like it. A good thing, because some of us have missed the deadline by decades.

How do you respond to this statement? “Blogging is just another hobby,
like stamp collecting or hockey.”

In my case, I agree completely. My blog is not how I make my living or any more integral to my family, friendships, and choices than stamp collecting would be. FDR was a lifelong stamp collector: in what biography does that ever take center stage?

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

Not fundamentally. The main thing it’s given me is a reason to write on a regular basis. I think writing, like many other skills, is something one only masters with practice, particularly practice with feedback. Every post is an opportunity to get better at writing.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?—the ad hominem
attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

I guess I’ve been lucky, because I’ve yet to have a hostile commenter on my site. I do have the occasional spam and malware link posts, which the filters usually manage to trap. The Internet is mankind’s largest agora, after all, and there are pick-pockets and other shady characters along with legitimate customers and readers. The risk of attacks—whatever their motive—comes with the territory.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

What qualifies as an age as “golden”? A blog is a tool that allows a monologue can become a dialogue or conversation. But with so many millions of bloggers, it’s not surprising that more than a few monologues never make that transition. There might have been a brief window when blogging was enough of a novelty that novelty amplified content. But the prerequisites for fame on the Internet aren’t fundamentally any different from those in any other setting. If you want fame, you have to attract a lot of attention. To get a lot of attention, you have to make a lot of noise. The medium through which the noise travels is less critical.

Honestly, fame is the last thing I’m interested in getting from my site. That’s why my name doesn’t even appear on it.

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have “earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not,” because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers “to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better.” Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

This question and the last make me wonder what the point of this symposium is. Are we discussing writing about books, entertaining the masses, or achieving widespread notoriety? It’s only the first that I care much about. A site about neglected books and a huge audience are just not things that go together.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

No more or less than they are in expressing any other opinion. If it’s my site, I can write what I want, assuming I’m not living in a police state. For some people, politics is part of living, breathing, reading, and writing and that’s inevitably going to come out. For me, politics is important but it’s not bound up with everything else. I regularly read and write about writers whose politics I probably wouldn’t agree with—Isabel Paterson, for example. It doesn’t require taking a position for or against their views.