Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More chance than zero chance

Sooner or later every book-blogger suffers a bout of restless leg syndrome. The self-doubt. The hand-wringing. The earnest resolutions. Darby M. Dixon III is better than anyone at capturing the tones of a blogger’s existential Angst (h/t: The Millions).

Dixon’s answer to the why-O-why-do-I-do-this stumper seems inadequate, but only at first. “[W]hat that reason for blogging is, is that I’ve got a passion for fiction and that that’s something other people ought to know about,” Dixon writes. (People ought to know about the fiction, he means, not the passion.) The answer seems inadequate to him too, because it does nothing whatever “to nullify or eliminate any of the sources of gut-wrenching guilt that accompany every half-hearted post, every one-line entry, every radio-silent week (or two) (or three).” But it does, as he puts it, “leave the door open” to an effect that is not altogether negligible. “What it means”—what his passion for fiction, translated into blogging means—“is that there’s more chance than zero chance that some of what’s in my head might make someone reach for a book that they might not have reached for otherwise.”

Even though I have only been keeping this Commonplace Blog for eight-four days, or have only reached the seventy-seven post mark (which seems to be the standard unit of measure for these things), I agonize about it on a daily basis. Since I am an academic, I worry that it doesn’t “count” as publication. I am afraid that I am wasting my time. I fret that no one is reading the blog; and then, when someone does read it, I fret about my reputation, my immortal part, about being called “silly” and a “racist.” (Epitaph: “he was a silly racist.”) I wonder if I am showing too much ankle, or perhaps should show a little more. I am assailed by a sudden lack of confidence that the books I have been praising recently—Francine Prose’s Goldengrove, Roland Merullo’s Fidel’s Last Days, Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels—are the really important books of our day. I torture myself with the thought that I am the only one in creation who drops the article in a book title when it follows a possessive. (Revised epitaph: “he was a silly racist stickler.”)

There are compensations, however. To blog is to get out from under the heavy hand of editors who believe they can write better than you. In recent years I’ve had editors alter my sentences to “read better,” and have opened the print version to find that allusions or metrical language or parallel structure or sometimes even grammar had disappeared—and cliché or nonce words had replaced them—because the editors failed to recognize them. To blog means also that you need never compose another begging letter. You don’t have to recommend yourself for a plumb assignment any more. If you want to review a book you review it—even if it were published half a century ago. And as a result, no more envy. No more opening the book pages and saying, “Why did they give it to that yutz? What about me?” (No more book pages at all any more, or vanishingly few, but that’s another story.) You got something to say, you go ahead and say it.

Patrick Kurp, who has been at this for going on three years, wrote in response to the anxious noises that I was making:

Writing about books, we’re already a minority, and writing about the sort of books we value and with some care makes us a minority within a minority. . . . Over the weekend I received a lengthy e-mail from a retired lawyer from Seattle, now living in Thailand, who wanted to talk about Walker Percy and Philip Larkin. That’s a guy I never would have known without the blog.For that matter, Kurp is a guy I never would have known without this blog. And as he suggests, the books and their readers are the whole point. I started blogging in part because friends, knowing that I am an English professor, would ask my opinion of writers they couldn’t make up their minds about or wanted recommendations—not for books to kill the time softly, but to improve themselves as readers. Gradually over the last year, while I have been on leave from teaching, I have begun to realize that there is an underground of book lovers in this country who read every chance they get, who do not wholly trust their own judgment, who would follow a book discussion to the promised end if they only could.

I am not saying that we book-bloggers serve them, but better them than ourselves. As long as there is more chance than zero chance that some reader somewhere will discover that, even if she is a minority of a minority she is not a minority of one, perhaps this blogging is not an utter self-indulgence.


Lisa said...

I've only recently discovered your blog, but I look forward to your new posts, more than I do the posts from most others. I always learn quite a bit here and for that, I thank you.

Novalis said...

As another relatively new-on-the-scene blogger, I encourage you to keep it up. I like to think of it as an intellectual donation to the common good, pro bono (I'm sure there are less selfless motivations for all bloggers, but we needn't mention that).

Do you use sitemeter to quantify readers? Particularly for this kind of subject matter, readership doesn't always correlate with numbers of comments left.

D. G. Myers said...

Many thanks for the kind words, Lisa and Novalis.

I don’t use sitemeter, partly because I don’t want to worry about readership (and partly because I have been too lazy to get around to it).

Pro bono is the right phrase. But I also think of blogging, at least for a scholar, as just another means to carry out his scholarly responsibilities. No one really understands the imperative to Publish Or Perish! The original idea behind it was that a scholar gains knowledge and with it the obligation to make it more widely known.

Somewhere along the line “double blind reviewing” and the Citation Index came in. The original thinking behind them was sound too, but many times, now, they serve merely to measure the dominant ideology among scholars.

Art Durkee said...

On the flip side, there is the worry that worms its way often through poetry blogs and online poetry critique boards, that follows in the wake of some poetry journals deciding that anything that appears online has been "previously published" and merits an automatic refusal. You should hear the hand-wringing about this state of affairs, even though not all poetry journals maintain this attitude.

Fortunately, the half-life of the average poetry journal, print OR web, is less than the half-life of radium, and new ones are being created all the time. So it's a big ocean, and one lonely poem will finds its home, eventually, somewhere.

We're in the midst of a gigantic transition, not just between technologies—that's happened before, and I refer the interested reader to the writings of Henry Petroski—but between ways of thinking. Between mindsets.

The hand-wringing often strikes me as overwrought. But then, my natural tendency is that of an explorer seeking out new worlds, rather than lamenting what is lost. So my opinion, for what little it's worth, is that the diversity of opinion is a good thing, and good writing about books, even when we all disagree, is no bad thing. Don't worry about it. just do it. And thanks abound.