Saturday, September 12, 2009

Blogging is still on the nipple

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 12

by James Marcus

House of Mirth

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

It is tempting to see essayists as proto-bloggers, since they anticipate the waywardness and freedom and occasional narcissism of the form. In my book, Amazonia, I actually anointed Emerson as the First American Online. I think he’s a better candidate than, say, Montaigne, since he was a small-canvas artist whose unit of thought was the sentence: that seems very bloggy to me. The other non-electronic precursors would be the diary and commonplace book. But really, blogging is something different. I think it’s more defined by its universal accessibility than by any specific style.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Nobody in particular. It was the chaotic, fun, anti-professional vibe that got me interested in blogging, and that precluded following any fixed star. (In many other aspects of my life, I am lost without a map and compass and motel reservation.)

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

Two answers. First: not at all. When I write things for House of Mirth, I proceed almost exactly as I would if I were writing something for print. That’s because blogging strikes me a form of publication—it’s there for public consumption. On the other hand, I often post things that don’t easily fit into the ecosystem of publishing (which I picture as a medium-sized plastic terrarium with lots of lizards and too much humidity fogging up the walls). A small meditation on the rock opera I wrote as a teenager, an account of my visit with Aldo Buzzi in Milan—these are things I could probably shape into a conventionally publishable format, but am happy to post as they are. Oh, I forgot the other glaring difference: you don’t get paid for blogging.

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

Or like fishing, chess, cooking, sex, music, scrimshaw, gardening. . . . The statement is quasi-true but its assumptions are pathetic: that anything you do outside of your professional life is trivial. Many people are at their happiest and most fulfilled when practicing their so-called hobbies.

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

It hasn’t.

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.

The Internet is real life on steroids—unless it’s not. I don’t think people are any kinder or more vicious online than they are in real life, but the remote nature of their interactions, and the absence of adult supervision, turns many human beings into assholes. Even Pericles might have behaved like a frat boy under such circumstances. The great thing is that you can delete comments, trash emails, and generally ignore the stuff that bothers you. I was on a panel with Lee Siegel a couple of years ago, and he was complaining about the coercive nature of the Web. I said that I didn’t find it any more coercive than the radio. If you don’t like it, pull the plug.

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?

This question made me smile. Blogging is in its infancy, still (as my father likes to say) on the nipple. In fifty years, to pass the time in our warren of underground, climate-controlled fallout shelters, we can muse over whether blogging lived up to its delightful promise. Hell, we can blog about it. As for the fame thing—outside of gossip, gadgets, and porn, the mighty Internet trifecta, bloggers tend to address a small audience. The level of fame is miniscule. So the lack of fame is meaningless.

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?

See my previous answer. Literary bloggers write for small audiences. As far as I know, even the biggest names (and I don’t mean me) bring in a few thousand visitors per day. To me that is marvelous and impressive and proportionate. But on the playing field of popular culture, those numbers are rounded down to zero. I don’t think Michael Malone is wrong about why certain bloggers have earned bigger audiences—in the end it does come down to trust, which is paradoxical, since you seldom meet the person behind the blog. But when a literary blogger ascends the pulpit, the congregation will mostly be small, ardent, and (mostly) amiable.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Sure, why not?


Peter Rozovsky said...

Emerson is an attractive candidate. I'm reading his essays now, and I am struck at how his unit of composition is the individual sentence. Any number of the essays could be broken down into series of aphorisms.

Montaigne, on the other hand, was not made for the electronic age. He tended to write sentences far longer than 140 characters.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

emm... really like this :)