Sunday, September 06, 2009

It is still possible to be a respected blogger

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 6

by Miriam Burstein

The Little Professor

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

If we’re really going to stretch, you could push the genealogy all the way back to the epistolary networks of early modern scholars. For me, tracts provide the best print analogy: they multiplied rapidly, went everywhere, and spawned the print equivalent of comment threads (tracts responding to tracts responding to tracts. . .).

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

As a blogger, I admire thoroughness and attentiveness, whatever the topic, and I’d cite Laura Demanski (a former fellow graduate student) at About Last Night and Brandon Watson at Siris as good examples.

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

There are no length restrictions, no content restrictions, and (usually) no editorial restrictions. Moreover, instead of blogging about what has been assigned or sent to you—I do get review copies occasionally, but not that many—you can blog about whatever interests you. If you’re interested in avant-garde poetry, you can specialize in avant-garde poetry. Along the same lines, book bloggers aren’t necessarily tied to the rhythms of publishing and marketing: you can write about a book when it comes out; you can write about it several years later; you can write about it a couple of centuries later. (This is not to say that publishers don’t see book blogs as a marketing opportunity, however.)

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

Let’s put it this way. I have a couple of small collections (magazines, other ephemera), which have nothing to do with my academic career or my scholarly interests. I’ve acquired them at my leisure, for no purpose other than to amuse myself. By contrast, blogging—even when I’m blogging about twenty-first century novels—grows out of and feeds into my professional work. I’m trying out ideas that I might use in the classroom, drafting concepts for articles, thinking about long-range projects, reflecting on the teaching and research process, and so on. Even the sillier posts, like the parodies, tend to touch on issues directly related to the profession, teaching, and scholarship. (Cats aside, of course!) Blogging is certainly informal, but for me, it’s not a hobby, and I’ve never thought of it as such.

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

I think blogging has done a fine job of eliminating my penchant for writing in Englishese, as opposed to English. My academic style isn’t identical to my blogging style—the latter is more colloquial, not to mention more given to endless asides, parentheticals, and over-qualifications. It’s not as though I can take a blog post and paste it into an academic article. But blogging has made my academic prose much less dense.

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.

Perhaps it’s because I work on controversial literature, but I don’t think the viciousness has anything to do with blogging! The speed at which you can respond accelerates the flames, though. Blogging is fast, so responses are also supposed to be fast . . . when, often, the response ought to be slow (or non-existent).

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?

Well, since “fame” has nothing to do with “quality” . . . no. I think the automatic notoriety that once went with blogging has disappeared, but it’s perfectly possible to be a respected blogger—which, all in all, is probably better than being a famous one. That being said, I think we’ll eventually see more and more famous people blogging, not people becoming famous by blogging.

I’m not sure how many bloggers ever became “famous” writing about either academic subjects or literature, however. (Authors who blog are a different kettle of fish altogether.)

As for the “golden age,” I tend to be very skeptical of nostalgic formulations like that (especially because we’re talking about just a few years here!). There are more blogs that make you want to knock your head against a wall—violently, for several minutes running—but there are also more blogs with better writing, better content, and better comments.

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?

I’ll answer these questions with a few more questions. Who, exactly, are book bloggers addressing? What audience do they want? On the one hand, I can’t think of the blogging equivalent to Oprah’s Book Club (although, come to think of it, it has its own blog), or perhaps the Book-of-the-Month Club. On the other hand, such clubs already exist, and most book bloggers aren’t trying to duplicate them. Do book bloggers reach the audiences that are interested in, say, avant-garde poetry, experimental fiction, or bad nineteenth-century religious novels? (Talk about your small audiences . . .)

To be contrary, I’ll ask if having a medium-sized or small audience is necessarily a bad thing.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Some book bloggers are good at engaging with and writing about contemporary politics. They should keep on with what they’re doing. Others, like myself, are not . . . which is why I tend to refrain from writing political posts, unless somebody has decided to drag the Victorians into a debate where they don’t belong!


Elena said...

Some of the book blogs I read have a huge audience but obviously not on the scale of something like FailBlog. Why would they want to? Book lovers seek out other booklovers, rather than trying to appeal to the masses. That's why their content often contains quality that can improve our cultural capital/promote discussion, thought, etc.

Some harsh questions in there, answered well though ^_^