June 14, 2007

Literary Blogging

Every so often a dispute erupts about the nature of blogging and its power as a form to express certain thoughts: recently that precise question has arisen about literary blogging- an article in the New York Sun by Adam Kirsch questioned the degree to which a blogger, whose responses are immediate and often ephemeral can actually do what say an essayist in the New Yorker or Times Literary Supplement can do, which is provide his or her reader with a literary context, a way of approaching and evaluating the work in question.

Part of the problem with blogs lies in what is easy to express in a blog format. Its very easy to rant about the events of the day and be parasitic upon the mainstream media- and some of the best bloggers in the Uk do that exceptionally amusingly. Its also incredibly easy to spread gossip and to monitor candidates- American bloggers say ConnecticutBob have proved especially adept at it from the left and right- though in the Uk its a growing phenomenon as well (for a particularly depressing illustration of the way that gossip bloggers can think see this unpleasant comment by Guido Fawkes on a thread written by an analytical blogger.) Analysis though is more difficult- the problem is that many of the pieces say on this website require as James Higham put it more than three minutes of reading time. That doesn't make an analytical blog better but it does make it more difficult to keep going.

It makes it more difficult to keep going because the nature of blogging is such that it discourages analysis. Say I post five articles of a paragraph each- I actually get five times the visitors than if I publish one article of five paragraphs (because of the way that blogger itself works this is true), furthermore in order to bother reading one paragraph you don't have to be more than mildly interested- but for five paragraphs you have to really sustain your interest, especially if they are intellectual and challenging. That's why say a blog like Ashok Karra's will never leap to the top of the blogosphere- too much thinking is required. For instant news a Blog will beat a newspaper- it publishes earlier- but for analysis I'd trust a newspaper columnist who has at least been vetted in some way for writing and insight over a random blogger that I knew nothing about (I know plenty that are better than the newspaper men but there are also plenty that are worse).

Ashok himself has written about this area and his post is one that I mostly agree with- there are good blogs out there and intelligent blogs need to promote each other- I would heartily agree with all of that. What I think Ashok misses though and what the article misses too is that its the economics of the genre of blogging that really mean that analysis is hard to come by- in my view it will always be the blogs that publish short snappy posts or are affiliated with organisations that will be more popular, and analytical blogs though there are some very popular ones will always lag behind. But we shall see- the one thing that is true again about this medium is how much it changes and continues to change- so it may be my thinking is reversed- but at the moment given the way that the blogging world works- given that there are no costs to entry- it strikes me that the limited investment a reader makes in reading a short snappy but inconsequential piece from a poor gossip blogger is much easier lost than the investment made reading a poor long post from a poor analytical blogger.


pommygranate said...


Interesting post.

I followed your link from Guido Fawkes' comment to Stumbling & Mumbling, one of my favourite blogs.

I agree, Guido is an unmitigated wanker.

Re blog posts - if you look at the most successful bloggers, they all post two or three succint paragraphs - Worstall, Blair, Dale, Glenn Reynolds.

I dont think the blogosphere lends itself to long articles.

Take NotSaussure for example - often he posts some interesting stuff, but each post takes 5mins to read. Too long for most blog-surfers.

Graeme said...

I'm not sure that your point about short, snappy blogs versus longer, analytic blogs quite works. You're right that the medium privileges short posts, but building a regular readership depends on more on the quality of the writing than it does on the length of the posts. There will be an investment of time at the onset, but once a reader trusts a blogger to provide interesting or insightful or informed or witty comment, I think the length consideration all but falls away. Norm, for instance, often has long and analytical pieces on his blog, and his readership seems absolutely huge.

It also depends on what you want to get out of blogs. I've come across few blog pieces (read: almost none) that are of the level of articles in the New Yorker or the London Review of Books, and I wonder how much of that has to do with blogging being by definition a medium of amateurs. Even if I was capable of writing a LRB style review, I wouldn't want to put it on a blog--I'd want proper recognition for my work, and the financial renumeration would be nice as well. Blogging, I think, represents an informal way of commenting on matters, and is more like a conversation. It also is a great medium for putting ideas out there even if they aren't entirely formed or thought through. I don't think that this should replace the print media, but there's room for both.

Gracchi said...

Pommygranate yes I think you are right.

Graeme I think there is something in what you say- yet another interesting comment cheers- I think you are right about the level of trust a reader has in a blogger- I definitely find that with my favourite bloggers. Having said that I think people willing to make the initial investment are fewer when the blog posts are longer- if you see what I mean!

The other point you make is interesting too and I think quite accurate- definitely there is a conversational sense to what I write here and if I were to write an article would not exist- its also written quicker than probably an article would be. Having said that I am of the opinion that in terms of analysis there are blogs out there that are better than the Mainstream Media- its just that they aren't as easily located and there are ones which masquerade as analytical whilst not being so- hence the reader is wiser to invest in stuff like the London Review of Books which he knows will be of a standard.

Thansk for the comment though.

Ashok said...

It seems to me the way the debate is held nowadays among journalists is that the credibility of blogging in terms of immediate news is the more pressing question. See here , for example (Jeff Jarvis' blog "Buzzmachine" covers this topic more in depth).

I think Americans feel that each of their opinions is authoritative moreso than the media's. In fact, media outlets that are smart about ratings, like Fox, will allow not only blowhards like Bill O'Reilly to dominate, but purposely set up people far less dominant and most certainly not-terribly-bright in order that others can go "hahahahaha look at that loser I can do a better job."

I'm not saying any of this to criticize, as much as get you to talk more about the news/analysis distinction.

John Lancaster said...

I have only been a blogoholic for a few months, but every time I stumble across a really good one (and this is one WW!) my thoughts always turn to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America. The medium is different, I know, but the idea of a wide variety of subjects, well researched and presented, still lives in my mind as a model. You and your colleagues have taken the model into the 21st century. My only critisism is that many otherwise excellent bloggers have the tendency to be too expansive. Wisdom can also be expressed concisely.

james higham said...

This is the dilemma. The posts I've really put myself into - linked to the eyeballs and supporting a thesis - these are hardly read at all. Just skipped over in favour of something light I mentioned about blogging itself. Wham - ten comments.

The difficulty, I feel, is what we are promoting ourselves as. In my case, it's a pot pourri and when I do write a serious and longish piece, people think: "Oh, that's just James on his hobby horse again."

Polite scroll wheeling.

I think the avrage reader just wants the message fast so he can click out and visit another in his "rounds".

I might be wrong.

Not Saussure said...

Glad you find some of my stuff interesting, pommygranate.

As to length, I think it all depends on who you're writing for and why -- I blog primarily for my own amusement; it's gratifying that people read it and and find some of it interesting, but I do it primarily because I enjoy writing as way of organising my thoughts -- better than yelling at the Today progamme on Radio 4 (well, I can't yell at the Today programme at the length I would like, or I'd be very late for work!)

Ashok said...

- For John Lancaster: Wisdom can also be expressed concisely.

A proof of that would be nice. The sentiment underlying what would motivate such a statement usually should be brought out into the open, too.

- For James Higham: When I do write a serious and longish piece, people think: "Oh, that's just James on his hobby horse again."

I feel the exact same way, except that instead of "James," I use my own name, which is Linda some days and Joaquim others.

To be serious: without the real posts, that are serious business, it wouldn't be worth blogging at all. And one's audience knows this, and I think quite a lot of them want to comment on the posts it is easier to comment on, and digest the longer ones over time.

The best compliment I could get is that someone is taking the time to reread my work and enjoying the process. That it's been said I'm none too grateful for.

Ruthie said...

"For instant news a Blog will beat a newspaper- it publishes earlier- but for analysis I'd trust a newspaper columnist who has at least been vetted in some way for writing and insight over a random blogger that I knew nothing about (I know plenty that are better than the newspaper men but there are also plenty that are worse)."

I totally agree. And ashok is right about the American media and the sort of average commentators that we often turn to-- I don't think it's necessarily set up that way so that we can feel better than them, I think they're actually trying to appeal to the "common man," as misguided as they've been about their attempts to do so.

James, I know what you mean about the longer pieces, and I experience the same thing-- but if it's any consolation, I read everything you write with interest, even if I don't comment. Usually I don't comment because:

A. I'm American and I understand European politics only very superficially, and

B. I don't often have much to add, because you're so thorough.

The same is true of Not Saussure. And this blog, for that matter. There often isn't much to add to a great post except "Yup, you're right," which feels a little... pointless.

Incidentally, Gracchi, in reference to the first article you linked that bemoans the death of book reviews, I think the real root of that problem is that our generation doesn't read.

At all.

Gracchi said...

Right ok- I'm going to try and reply to everyone's post.

Ashok I agree the distinction between news and analysis is important and interesting- the problem is that essentially analysis has to proceed news because in order to decide what is significant you need to analyse a situation. I need to develop my thinking about this because I do think there is a distinction but defining the separation between the two is a complicated business- as say Derrida showed all telling of a story involves warping a story towards your priorities in telling it.

John yes personally I like the analogy of Alistair Cooke- don't forget he spoke for ten minutes though- but that's the kind of length that I aspire to with this blog- and personally I see Cooke as one of my inspirations in what I write here. I think some bloggers do go overboard but often what we are talking about is the distinction between a multiple paragraph post and a paragraph post.

James I do read your long posts- but my response is normally so complicated and would involve so much work that I can never quite fit it into a comment- but I do read them and though I don't often agree, do enjoy them.

Not Saussure- I agree I do it for my own pleasure- personally my blog is my commonplace book, its the place where I make notes on what I've experienced and known- its useful for that. The other thing I use it for is collecting a portfolio of writings together.

Ashok I think wisdom can be expressed concisely- the art of an essayist has been to do just that so Montaigne or Orwell have used the shorter space of the essay in very different ways to make very important points. Also there is the aphorism- neglected now- but used with great effect say by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations. That's not to say that the longer treatise is an invalid form- but that wisdom can be expressed concisely. Possibly a blog format sits well with such concision.

Ruthie- absolutely right on long posts. On literature- I think you are right and wrong. Don't forget that we are more literary than any generation before 1870 simply because the pool of readers is so much vaster and the pool of disposable income is higher. So I'm not sure whether reading has declined but I agree that it faces unprecedented competition and has seemed to be under pressure

Graeme said...

For what it's worth, Norm chimes in on this subject here.

Is literary culture in decline? I suspect not. I'm reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy right now--it's brilliant--but it has a sticker on the cover saying "As featured on Oprah's Book Club". That's a little bit puzzling because as far as I know, Oprah isn't on TV in the UK, but I guess she has "brand recognition" or whatever. That aside, I think it's absolutely fantastic that novels with unquestionable literary merits are getting a broad readership and are being discussed in the public sphere.

Richard and Judy's book club doesn't seem to have quite the literary slant that Oprah has had in recent years (for example, her Faulkner summer) but again, a Richard and Judy selection does mean that a particular book will be read.

This doesn't mean that literary culture is entirely healthy and there's a lot that can be said about the 3 for 2 deals, literary prizes, publishers being more concerned with book sales than with literary merit and so on and so forth, but I don't think it's as much in decline as it sometimes seems.

Gracchi said...

Graeme I would second all your comments about literary culture- I think that's absolutely right- and should have thought of those points in response to Ruthie.

Ashok said...

I actually don't think wisdom can be expressed concisely. What needs to be shown is the thinking involved more than the result.

Aphorisms and truisms are considered wise because they link into a larger body of thought. People that cite them without knowing anything else are very far from wise.

The reason why I'm belaboring this is that our patience for things such as epic or longer readings has indeed declined. I don't think other ages were wiser, but it might have been easier to value wisdom over power in such ages. We're only debating wisdom now because we don't want to be seen - and I obviously don't mean anyone on this blog, or who has commented here - as powerless compared to someone else.

Graeme said...

Adding to the above: I thought it rather funny when the media made a big deal about John Reid quoting Hegel in the House of Commons. The quote, for those who missed the story the first time? "I think the Owl of Minerva will spread its wings only with the coming of dusk." It's the most quotable thing Hegel ever wrote, and to bring up the quote doesn't mean that Reid has the capability to discuss, say, the "Force and Understanding" chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirt (granted, it is a brain-breaker and this isn't a claim that I understand it because I don't). Maybe Reid does understand his Hegel, but quoting the soundbite form of Hegel doesn't demonstrate that and it speaks of the intellectual poverty of the media that this was worth making a big deal out of.