Monday, January 27, 2014

Entrepreneurs of the spirit

Will Wilkinson laments the decline of “old school blogging,” the original style of blogging—before the media outlets launched their group blogs and bought up the first-generation “personal bloggers”—in which the blogger composed a self, day by day, “put[ting] things out there, broadcast[ing] bits of [his] mind,” and in return finding a place for himself “as a node in the social world.”

What Wilkinson has to say about the self is provocative and largely true, I think. The self is a convergence of loyalties and enthusiasms and beliefs and habits. That there is a “stable” self, which persists through the flux of illness and health and better and worse, is an “illusion.” Wilkinson’s best line is that the “self is more like a URL,” an “address in a web of obligation and social expectation.”

But I am even more interested in what Wilkinson has to say—or suggest, really—about the economics of blogging. “Old school blogging,” as he calls it, belongs to a “personal gift economy.” The blogger gives away his reflections, and “in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer.”

The minute a blogger joins the staff of a magazine, though, everything changes. Everyone likes to get paid for what he does—I am no exception—but blogging for pay changes forever the blogger’s relation to his audience. The “web of obligation and social expectation,” into which the blogger-for-free inserts himself, is narrowed and focused. In reality, his audience shrinks to one (or, at most, a handful): his boss or bosses.

When the blogger becomes a “channel” for a media organization (to use Wilkinson’s term for it), he must adhere to more than the house style. He must also trim his judgment to suit the editorial fashions of his employer. Even where the blogger thinks of himself as a member of the magazine’s family, as I thought of myself at Commentary, conflict is inevitable.

As a literary practice, blogging is fundamentally an exercise of intellectual independence. A blogger no more thinks in a house style than Thoreau did in writing his journal. Writing as a staff member of a magazine, though (even when, as I did at Commentary, you are writing a one-person blog), you must second-guess yourself with regularity, asking whether you are setting yourself, even if accidentally, at odds with editorial policy.

One of the incidents that soured my working relationship with John Podhoretz, Commentary’s editor, was when I reviewed Hillel Halkin’s novel Melisande! What Are Dreams? Halkin’s novel was released in England by Granta, but was not being published in America. It never occurred to me that this would be an issue—Halkin was a longtime contributor to the magazine, the novel was brilliant and memorable—but Podhoretz was justifiably annoyed with me, because the magazine’s policy was not to review books that are not published in this country.

In taking on Halkin’s novel, I acted like a blogger, not a staff writer. I failed to recognize that, when you write for pay, you no longer write for yourself. To the reading public, you do not even write under your own name. When I praised Stone Arabia in a review on the Literary Commentary blog, Dana Spiotta’s publisher whipped my praise into a blurb and attributed it to Commentary. My name went poof!

The other day a trio of journalism students at Ohio State University came by to interview me for a class project. “What would you say to my generation about the future of journalism?” one of them asked to wind up the interview. “I’d say the future is both exciting and frightening,” I replied—“or maybe that’s the same thing.” The internet has made it possible for anyone to set up as a journalist—that is, to write regularly, on any subject that catches a fancy, as if keeping a journal. No one can tell anyone else what to write or not to write, or in what style. The marvel is freedom. The problem, as always, is how to monetize the work.

I had no practical solutions, beyond repeating the naïve ’sixties slogan “If you do the right thing money will come” and telling about the novelist Roland Merullo, who worked as a carpenter while writing his first novels. Complete editorial freedom is available for perhaps the first time in the history of journalism, I told the students—but only if they were willing (God help me) to become “entrepreneurs of the spirit” and not employees.

Whether the “old school” and “personal” bloggers can return to their first spiritual entrepreneurship, after having their literary thinking altered forever by writing for pay, is a question that may concern more than themselves alone. The answer may also suggest something about the future of journalistic freedom.


Lee said...

Independence is of great value - and not just for bloggers, but all writers.