Thursday, January 03, 2013

It’s not my New Year

I make my resolutions in the fall, after reminding God that He will decide, in the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy, “who is to live and who is to die.” (Then, after saying I will leave it up to Him, I resolve not to die.)

But there was the neat coincidence yesterday of Helen Rittelmeyer’s “New Year’s Resolutions for Bloggers” and Andrew Sullivan’s announcement that The Daily Dish, his nine-year old blog, will separate from Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, which has hosted it since 2011, and head off on its own behind a paywall.

Rittelmeyer and Sullivan are two of the best bloggers out there. (This is probably the first time they have ever been linked to each other in any way. My apologies to both of them!) The Amateur Reader, no slouch at blogging himself, said in some awe that Rittelmeyer “writes like a mix of Joseph Epstein and Florence King.” (Like King, she also writes for the National Review, although not nearly often enough for my tastes.)

Whatever else you think of him—it is de rigueur among my allies on the Right to mock him without stint or letup—Andrew Sullivan is a pioneer of blogging, who has influenced the literary form of the blog probably more than any other blogger. (I might also observe, on a personal note, that he has been far more loyal to me and my writing than most of my so-called allies on the Right, for whom I simply dematerialized after being “parted” from Commentary.) Disagree with him all you want. The fact remains that Sullivan is one of the most dynamic and indelicate personalities on the blogscape.

If you’ve already clicked over and read Rittelmeyer’s resolutions, you’ll see that I have intentionally flouted the second of them in my previous sentence. I do so in homage to her unique prose style. (Don’t want her to think I am flattering her most sincerely.) Rittelmeyer’s entire approach is summed up in her last paragraph: “Good writers don’t make allowances for intellectual idiocy.” Her five resolutions are five different ways to avoid making allowances.

What caught my attention was her fourth resolution:

Disregard the haters who denigrate blogging as a medium. Blogging is an amateur’s medium, but there is a lot to be said for amateurs. Bloggers sometimes write about things they know nothing about. Professional journalists often write about things they know nothing about. Academics write about things they know so much about that they no longer have any passion for the subject or any sense of its intrinsic interest, since, for understandable reasons, it is all now very boring to them. So don’t be intimidated by their credentials or put off by your lack of them.Of course I agree with her. I’m on record as saying there is no outside credentialing agency for critics and writers. Perhaps it has ever been so, but especially in the “age of the dying of the word,” as Howard Jacobson refers to our times, anyone who cares for exacting thought in exacting sentences is motivated by the amateur’s love (with the help of a little aggression) and not the professional’s obligations and code of ethics (which are euphemisms, as George Woodberry said a century ago, for money-getting and reputation-sustaining).

Blogging is not merely an amateur’s medium. It is a dissent from the professionalization of literature, where professionalization is represented by English departments and creative writing workshops and print magazines and large publishing houses which are subsidiaries of even larger conglomerates. What Jacques Barzun calls the professional’s fallacy (namely, the superstition that understanding is identical with professional practice) has transformed the institutions of literacy into closed shops. If you’re not employed in the literature racket, you might as well, in literary terms, not exist.

Bloggers shrug, and go on doing what they are doing. Above all else what distinguishes them is their willingness to write for free. Occasionally they may be paid for their efforts, but even if the pay dries up, they will go on blogging. No one is better than Andrew Sullivan at explaining why:       When I first stumbled into blogging over 12 years ago, it was for two reasons: curiosity and freedom. I was curious about the potential for writing in this new medium; and for the first time, I felt total freedom as a writer. On my little blog, I was beholden to no one but my readers. I had no editor to please, no advertiser to woo, no publisher to work for, no colleagues to manage. Perhaps it was working for so long in old media that made me appreciate this breakthrough so much. But it still exhilarates every day.
       For the first time in human history, a writer . . . can instantly reach readers—even hundreds of thousands of readers across the planet—with no intermediary at all.
True enough, Sullivan proceeds to raise the livelihood problem (“as the pretense of old media authority ceded to the crowd-sourcing of argument, fact and thought, one thing remained elusive: how to make this work financially”), but this is a subsequent problem, a worry that is different in kind and later. It is never easy to monetize freedom. Sullivan is reluctant to acknowledge the contradiction in his thinking. On the one hand, the breaking up of old media authority; on the other, a nostalgia for the living wage paid by the old media authority.

Freedom’s just another word for no one left to woo. For the writer (whose best readers are among the dead), freedom is an absolute. The man needs to eat and put a roof over his head, but not the writer. For writers, the breaking up of old media authority is the most significant event since the invention of print. For the first time in human history (as Sullivan would put it), a writer’s only compromises are those which are forced upon him by the demands of what he is writing. The only authority is the authority of authorship. The word is dead! Long live the word!

In the coming year, I resolve to enjoy my freedom thoroughly.


scott g.f.bailey said...

God grant you health this year, and many opportunities for writing!

Anonymous said...

I'm with Bailey on this one. All the way. Best, Kevin

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I wish you long enjoyment of your freedom. And I owe you for Rittelmeyer.

Andrew Fox said...

May you have nothing but improving health, much success, and an absence of heartbreak in 2013, David. Thank you for returning to your original blog with such enthusiasm; I am a regular reader, and I benefit greatly from this.