Tuesday, June 09, 2009

To blog is to essay

If there is a less interesting distinction than that between “first wave” “litblogs” and “second wave” “book blogs,” I don’t know what it is. (Perhaps the distinction between English professors and the Left.) Nevertheless, Andrew Seal finds the subject absorbing enough to go on and on for sixteen hundred words. (His conclusion? “[M]aking a distinction between two kinds of blogs can quickly turn into making a distinction between two kinds of bloggers.”) The various distinctions that have been proposed, including Daniel Green’s between “litblogs” and “critblogs,” are worthless. The only meaningful distinction is between those blogs that are well-written and those that are not.

Few are. The “five open supersecrets” about bloggers, as Lee Siegel says in Against the Machine (quoted in Benjamin Kunkel’s review at N1BR), are:

1. Not everyone has something valuable to say.
2. Few people have anything original to say.
3. Only a handful of people know how to write well.
4. Most people will do almost anything to be liked.
5. “Customers” are always right, but “people” aren’t.
I am not sure how these five secrets distinguish bloggers from anyone else, including those who write books. They are worth remembering, though.

The important distinction is between the blog as a literary genre and other kinds of writing. It is true that much blog-writing is careless and off-the-top-of-the-head. But again: so what else is new? It does not follow, as Kunkel quotes Naomi Baron as saying, that “The proliferation of writing, often done in a hurry, may be driving out the opportunity and motivation for creating carefully honed text.” Over a century ago, Henry James fretted that “the diffusion of penmanship and opportunity” would prove fatal to literature. But literature has survived even the rise of creative-writing programs, although poetry seems not to have. Blogging may offer the gratification of instant publication, but the motivation for creating carefully honed text, which might perhaps include phrases that are sharper than “carefully honed,” must come from where it has always come—the writer’s self-imposition of standards.

The literary question is what blogging permits a writer to do that other kinds do not. Here is one example. Patrick Kurp, whose Anecdotal Evidence fits none of Andrew Seal’s muscle-bound categories (and so Seal ignores him), has been working his way through Our Savage Art, William Logan’s fifth collection of criticism on poetry; and the criticism led him to return to Logan’s own poetry. The effect is that of a serial review. Instead of a book review that satisfies the publisher’s (and author’s) thirst for publicity—a book review that delivers a finished verdict—you have the adventure of a mind as it inches toward conclusions.

The subject need not be a new book. The Amateur Reader has similarly been making steady progress through Hawthorne (after celebrating Golem Week last month). (And by the way, I shall not allow any discussion of the Amateur Reader to lead me into an even deeper circle in which bloggers obsess over dead-end questions like “When it is it OK to ‘out’ anonymous bloggers?”)

Kurp and the Amateur Reader have made a virtue of the “hurried” pace of blogging. What they have really done, of course, is to return the essay to its original meaning. Rather than seeking a perfectly finished product, they are more interesting in trying out a subject and point of view. Writing “done in a hurry” is not the reverse image of “carefully honed text,” although it belongs to a different world from pimple-squeezing reflections on the difference between litblogs and book blogs.


Anonymous said...

I suppose I'm implicated as an egregious pimple-squeezer here, given that Andrew Seal's post referenced my own post on the matter. It's true that it can be insular, if not downright narcissistic, to ponder what wave/category/silo one's blog belongs in. But this conversation is happening for, I think, good reasons---a point is now being reached where book blogs/litblogs/whatever are starting to actively take over the role that traditional newspaper reviews have played. As a journalist, this interests me, because a few years ago I wasn't convinced that blogs and Web sites could match what many newspapers and magazines were doing, and now it's pretty much a no-brainer. (Of course, the rapid demise of newspapers and their review sections has made it easier for bloggers and those running book-focused Web sites to make those claims.)

I don't think there's much doubt now that a substantial amount of the information the average reader obtains about books and how to read them will be delivered online. What's still up in the air, and what I'm curious about, is how sustainable that's going to be in the long run without real ad dollars behind it. And how those real ad dollars, when they inevitably arrive, might change the shape of these sites. Are we going to wind up with better criticism than the book reviews had, or the same problems in a different format? I think that's one important undercurrent of the litblog/book blog discussion, though most of the posts, including mine, haven't quite hit it head-on.

You're interested in, as you say, the literary question of what blogging permits. I look at the "wave" discussion as a way to start addressing the *economic* question of what blogging permits. That's perhaps unseemly territory, and it's a few steps away from the core work of thinking and writing about books, but it's not a wholly irrelevant discussion.

D. G. Myers said...

No fair holding me accountable for my own comments, Mark. Your blog is covered by the last distinction of my first paragraph. You belong to the first sort.

While I agree that blogs “are starting to actively take over the role that traditional newspaper reviews have played,” I am not sure what the distinction between “waves” of blogs has to do with that role.

As for “how sustainable that's going to be in the long run without real ad dollars behind it.” My guess is that the bloggers who care about books will continue to blog about them, with or without free review copies or ad revenue. I write both kinds of reviews—for print media and for my Commonplace Blog—and the only difference is that the blog gives me the freedom to review any book I want.

When I can afford them, I even prefer to purchase my own review copies. It is my small contribution to the profession of authorship. The remainder of the economic question isn’t “unseemly”; it just doesn’t interest me much—at least from a writing angle. I have little or nothing to say on it. I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on the question, though, even if secretly I think the question belongs to the realm of book publicity rather than books.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I've been (lit/crit???)blogging for over three months now and still haven't found my pace...

People blogging to learn, or to become better at articulating their thoughts, or for the sheer love of reading probably aren't concerned with categorizations.

THOUGH I can appreciate that there's enough of an online literary WORLD for there to be such distinctions and arguments concerning their validity. I just can't imagine it would mean much to people who'd read and write just as honestly on a popular blog as in a personal notebook.

Art Durkee said...

All well said.

For me the key point is, as you say, that good blogs have really done, of course, is to return the essay to its original meaning. That's been in my mind since the blogging enterprise began, as the mostly unstated conceptual frame behind why I write what I do, and why I read certain other bloggers with regularity. (Whether or not I always agree with them is not the point; that they incite and inspire is.) One thinks of course of Montaigne, because it is in his spirit that I think a lot of the best blogging occurs.

As to whether or not poetry has survived the rise of creative writing programs, I only half-agree. I'd say that poetry as a publishing/academic/teaching/MFA cluster of mutually incestuous business models has indeed suffered badly, getting ever more silly and pretentious. On the other hand, there are plenty of "independent" poets out there, who work on poetry in the best sense of the word "amateur," and who have avoided the creative writing program traps by not attending any—and some of whom are producing some very good poetry. It's just that it's farther off the radar of the usual discourse about and around poetry; some of it turns up on the blogosphere, even.

D. G. Myers said...

Good to hear from you, Art.

In his essay on presumption, Montaigne wrote that his critics “may, if they please, accuse my project, but not my progress: so it is, that without anybody’s needing to tell me, I sufficiently see of how little weight and value all this is, and the folly of my design: ’tis enough that my judgment does not contradict itself, of which these are the essays.”

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"real ad dollars, when they inevitably arrive" - ha ha ha ha! I am imaging skeletons clutching their cobwebbed keyboards, waiting for those inevitable dollars.

9 of 10 books I read are free. Yet I receive no advance copies. So the discussion of perks also makes me laugh. (Answer to the riddle: the library).

Thanks for putting me in such august company, by the way. Not being quite at Montaigne's level, I sometimes need people to remind me of my folly. But the reverse is also helpful.

Andrew said...

I'm relatively new contributor to blogosphere, but tooling along its snarled byways has helped me settle into a renewed love affair with the essay.

Although my degree was in fiction, what's now dribbling out of my keyboard is non. I've been reading a lot of E.B. White lately and the late-great John Leonard. I keep trying to amp-up on Thoreau but his hook hasn't set in my gill.

Can a writer weave themes in the jagged yet organic manner of the Web, and still sit at the desk at the old school of the 20th Century masters?