May 24, 2007

The Occasion for Blogging

There has been a lot of public discussion recently about blogs in the context of the decline of book sections and book reviews in newspapers; much of it has consisted of attacks on literary blogs from more traditional writers and sources and defensive responses from bloggers (see, for instance, this response on The Reading Experience to an LA Times column that promised contemptuously to write "in language even a busy blogger can understand"). I have sympathies on both sides of this fence, as I agree that while anyone can write a book review or literary commentary, not anyone can write one that has interest and merit. In general, my position is simply the more people out there reading books and writing about them, the better all round. The more specific issue I've been wondering about is whether blogging is really only suited to be a form of literary journalism, focused on new releases and current authors in the way that book reviews are, or whether it is possible or useful for blogs also to write more in the spirit of literary scholarship or criticism of past literature. I'm also thinking more about the nature of literary blogs more generally, while well aware that so far I have still become aware of only a fraction of the options and styles out there.

One typical feature of successful blogging is apparently that it is incessant: unless they are constantly updated, it seems blogs lose their currency, their momentum and, presumably, their readers. I have already found that, at least for someone with other work to do, the rapidity of thinking and writing required to put up new posts even once or twice a week makes drafting and polishing impossible, which inevitably affects the kind and quality of writing you can do. This situation would differ, of course, for someone working full-time on a blog. It could also be overcome, or ameliorated, by writing off-line and not posting anything until it has been tidied up, though this too assumes that blogging is not a sideline to a "real" job. It may be as well that depending on the kind of site and voice you are trying to establish, you can take your time and post longer, more thoughtful pieces. It's not as if there are deadlines, after all, and besides, who's really reading most blogs all that frequently anyway, much less one like mine that hardly anyone even knows about? I started quite deliberately writing without a lot of second thoughts, to free myself up from academic hyper-self-consciousness, but all those first impressions are starting to seem inadequate, especially when the book at issue (The Map of Love, for instance) is quite complex, formally and thematically. I'm reaching a point at which I need to consider what I hope to accomplish by writing my posts in the first place and maybe experiment with some more in-depth analyses. But to do that, I would have to take the time and justify it professionally.

Another notable feature of the blogs I am most familiar with so far is their focus on fairly new releases and on the state of the current book and literary worlds. A next step for me will be looking around for people who write about the literature of the past. Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet...books such as John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one's experience of reading "the classics." One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as "Moralist for the 21st Century." But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast.

A number of my posts have been in the spirit of "work in progress" notes, thinking aloud though (maybe oddly) in public--partly in the hopes, of course, of eventually getting some input (a fading hope). At this point, especially with my sabbatical coming to an end, I need to start putting my thoughts together about what I've been learning by reading and (in this modest way) writing outside the academic box.

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