Sunday, April 20, 2008

Blogging Is Better

I have never had much of a conceptual attachment to blogging, even in the year and a half or so since Rhian suggested we start this blog. I've written a couple hundred blog posts since then, but I don't really think of myself as a blogger--rather, this just feels like more writing, and its public instantaneity more of a novel quirk than a defining feature.

But lately, I find myself getting more and more annoyed at the traditional media's relationship to blogging. Much of this comes from my reading of political blogs, many of which have been the only ready source of actual news since the Iraq war broke out in 2003. Today's piece in the Times about TV news' "military analyists" and their true role as Bush-administration propagandists was indeed appalling, but is not remotely surprising to those of us who have been following online the mainstream media's decline with despair over the past few years. Blogs have served a real, important purpose, not just for political partisans, but for anyone interested in up-to-the-moment investigative journalism. Which should be everyone.

Anyway, the traditional media line on political blogging is similar to its line on literary blogging: that is, bloggers are not legitimate writers. The reason? No gatekeepers. Anyone can write a blog; therefore, blogs are of no value.

Officially, I don't give a crap what these blowhards think. I'm not even a blogger, remember? But as someone who has spent some time among the gatekeepers, I have to say that some of them have no goddam idea what they're doing; most of them value profit over art, loyalty, and the courage of their convictions; and the gate-kept world (at least in the realm of fiction writing) is basically a slum festooned with ten-thousand-dollar jewel-encrusted toilets. This is the primary reason I am not especially concerned that book reviewing in newspapers is dying. Newspapers, by and large, are garbage, and a time will soon come when nobody will believe anything they print anymore.

Now people still do read newspapers. In a lot of places (Ithaca, New York, for instance) the paper is the only way to actually find out what's happening in town, however awful the majority of the content may be. Newpapers made themselves indispensible back in the day, and it will take some time for their primary functions to move into other media. Classified ads, of course, were the first traditional newpaper function to become 100% worthless, but book reviews are next.

I was part of a panel up at school that featured our visiting writer that week, Salman Rushdie. And someone in the crowd asked Rushdie if he worried about the dearth of serious book reviewing in newpapers. He said that he was, and that the internet had not picked up the slack--yet.

I was glad he added the "yet." He thought we might be ten years off. I am thinking less. In the gate-kept world, ten years is a reasonable estimate, but online, there aren't any gatekeepers preventing you from doing things. Change happens quickly. And literary blogs are growing in number and quality.

The thing is, it's pointless to say there are no gatekeepers in the blogging world. There's no gate. The metaphor doesn't work. Think, rather, of the internet as an infinite mountain range, and online literary discussion a single mountain. The best writing is at the top, and it gets increasingly bad as you approach the bottom. Everone knows who's good: there she is, sitting at the peak. If she isn't writing so well, she slips down, and somebody else takes the summit. When he starts to suck, someone's waiting to take his place. You see, on the internet, there is no equivalent of David Brooks or William Kristol: people who, because they are inside the gate, keep on getting to shoot their idiot mouths off in spite of being wrong, wrong, wrong about everything, over and over and over again. It's easy to keep people outside the gate, but it's hard to get rid of them once they're in. On the internet, you're only on top if you're awesome. And when you're not awesome, you're not on top. Effective immediately.

In other words, on the internet, you have to sing for your supper. You might not be able to depend on your favorite sites to always be good--but you CAN depend on SOMEBODY being good at any time. And because we're not beholden to the publishing industry (W6 does not accept galleys, does not take paid advertising, and does not have a click-through deal with Amazon), literary bloggers can write about literature as a continuum. We don't have to address the new thing. And if we do address the new thing, we can mix it up with the old and out of style. On literary blogs, literature is a huge, inclusive, evolving animal, where every book can have its little pocket of relevance, in perpetuity. We can talk about Flannery O'Connor and G. K. Chesterton with impunity, because we're not trying to sell anything. And we might be yelling into a vacuum, but we're yelling whatever the hell we want.

I do not mourn the death of the newspaper review. I've enjoyed some good ones, and resented some bad ones, but on balance, it's time to move on. The only really good book writing is happening in independent magazines like the NYRB and LRB, and the New Yorker and Harper's...and right here, online.

So start a blog and make it a movement. Suck all you want, lounge around the bottom of the mountain. But one of these days you'll have your moment on top. And I hope that Salman Rushdie will be reading your posts sooner than he thinks.


M said...

Amen, over and over. I've learned about books on these internets I'd never have found otherwise. And online is the only place to get news that matters, the only place to find actual meaningful information related to important decisions - health, politics.

jrlennon said...

So Matt you're down to one letter now eh? ;-)

M said...

Yeah. It's hard to muster the thumb control on this mobile phone, so I save it for the comment and cut short the name. Plus, I'm an internet superstar, and I have to be incognito while my site is on hiatus; it's in my contract. ;)

ed said...

Indeed, sir.

Monketah said...

I would add Book Forum to the list. I haven't seen Rain Taxi in some time, so I can't speak for the quality of the reviews contained there, but both publications do a good job of bringing books "under the radar" to public attention, albeit to a small audience.

myles said...

Hear, hear. This internet thing is far more diffuse and diverse than any newspaper or magazine can hope to be, and that's its strength. I can get everything online, ranging from YouTube commenters (spectacularly stupid) to, say, James Wood (really smart). And I can choose where, on that spectrum, I'd like to stop and read.

Good writing will usually be found. If it's online and it's good, it will become known. But newspaper editors can (and do) keep the conversation within a tight boundary. A matter of available space and limited attention. So often, I open the thinning book pages of the local "quality" paper, only to see reviews of books I've heard about online months earlier. It's all so dull and predictable now, in the paper world. Gimme electrons! Save the paper for the actual books, not the reviews.

Laura @ Hungry and Frozen said...

Indeed! I found myself nodding even more than I did during your post about praise/criticism. Damn the gatekeepers! But for blogging I'd have no way of self-indulgently informing people about what I cooked for dinner last night...I'd personally rather Nigella than Rushdie's readership though ;)

AC said...

Of course, as the transition from print to online continues, the gatekeepers will just transition themselves over too. There are already lots of schemes going on behind the scenes that determine things like ranking in search engines (over my head, but I remember seeing recent articles about it).

Ginger Heatter said...

Speaking of writing and merch, as we did in class today, has just added t-shirt icons to some of its "Latest News" headlines. Clicking on the icon takes one to an area of the site where t-shirts with the associated headline and CNN logo are available for purchase. For example, "Arms cache found in girl's treehouse" is just $15 plus shipping. And that's where voters are getting their election news. Crazy.

jrlennon said...

Note to readers: a tote bag with Ginger's comment on it is now available at Cafe Press!

Mr. Saflo said...

Another note to readers: SifBlog and Waffle Town t-shirts are available at Cafepress!