Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Final Thoughts on Blogging

I'm pleased that my piece on the prevalent mode of discourse of poetry blogs got such extensive response. I don't expect it to change anything, but I'm happy to have at least started a conversation on an important topic.

Though most respondents were quite civil and thoughtful, even if they disagreed with me, I was surprised and dismayed that some others rather unself-consciously and even self-righteously engaged in the same sorts of petty nastiness and intellectual irresponsibility that my piece decried. I suppose, though, that indicates that I was onto something real.

I found a recent article about literary blogs in The New York Sun by poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch interesting with regard to my piece. Kirsch makes a number of rather uninformed sweeping generalizations about literary blogs (he is writing primarily of book review blogs, and seems unfamiliar with, or at least does not mention, poetry blogs in particular). For example, he writes that "the blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not suited to writing about literature," and further asserts that "no blogger...even wants to achieve" "scope, complexity, and authority," though he does somewhat qualify this with the phrase "that I know." This lack of seriousness or intellectual ambition is obviously true of most bloggers, but it is also true of most print writers. But there are so many bloggers and no gatekeepers whatsoever, so this aspect is more conspicuous than with print.

A blog need not be merely a "miscellany of observations, opinions, and links," though in practice most blogs are. As those who trouble themselves to actually read it know, I treat my blog as a venue for my writing not different in kind than any other, though the immediacy and extent of response (usually, but not always, a good thing) is distinctly different. "The blog form," as Kirsch calls it, does not dictate the content or the shape of the materials it contains. Indeed, the blog is not a form at all, but only a public space, to be utilized in whatever fashion its owner sees fit.

While most bloggers do treat their blogs as private diaries (despite the fact that they are on public display), there is nothing about the blog as a medium that allows only for "bitesized commentary," and I can see no reason for assuming that there is. Nor are short pieces inherently substanceless. Many short print reviews are indeed “bitesized commentary," but this state of affairs is taken for granted. Certainly it is possible to say something in a pithy, concise manner, though it is harder than many people think. Ideally, such a short piece focuses on the essence of the work under discussion.

However, despite my disagreements with Kirsch's piece, I thought that this paragraph was an accurate description of the prevailing situation with regard to blogging.

“In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers—even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers—tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. [RS: This is a phenomenon that one saw in a virulent and extremely malicious form on Foetry.com, which I understand is now defunct, news I am quite pleased to hear.] As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog.”

Most people who start blogs do indeed think of themselves (not always justifiably) as outsiders, and nurse resentments of a sometimes frightening intensity toward what they see as the monolithic and exclusionary literary world that refuses to recognize their brilliance. But that is not the sum of the world of literary blogs. And there is more overlap between blog writers and print writers than Kirsch seems to be aware of.

Kirsch also closes his article on a very reasonable note.

“Still, it is important to distinguish between the blog as a genre and the Internet as a medium. It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages—ease of access, low cost, potential audience—are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications—like Contemporary Poetry Review (www.cprw.com), to which I occasionally contribute—that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose. But there's no chance that literary culture will thrive on the Internet until we recognize that the ethical and intellectual crotchets of the bloggers represent a dead end.”

These will be my last posted thoughts on this matter, as blogging about blogging is just a little too insular and self-referential. I would prefer to focus on more substantial topics.