Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 5

by Frank Wilson
Books, Inq. – The Epilogue

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

I think of book blogging as just another technological extension of literary journalism. Were Sainte-Beuve alive today, I suspect he would easily adapt to blogging. In fact, book blogging seems to me to have restored to literary journalism a good deal of the passion and immediacy that had long been missing from it. It had become restricted to pretty much the same people writing pretty much the same thing about pretty much the same sort of books. Blogging has opened up the field immensely. And that, in my view, is all to the good.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Basically, my blog is modeled on Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit. By and large, I link to things — articles, blog posts — that I think readers may find interesting. I try to keep my remarks brief and to the point. There are plenty of blogs that I enjoy visiting — as indicated by the links and the blogroll — but I am too canny to risk modeling what I do on them, because they so clearly and distinctly reflect the personalities behind them, which happens to be one of the things that makes blogs so appealing: They are spared the homogenization that the print media have more and more come to be characterized by.

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

One of the reasons I decided to retire was that the new newsroom management wanted more “name” reviewers. My own feeling has always been that what one wants in a review is a coherent response from an articulate reader. Who cares if a famous writer says another famous writer’s new book is simply marvelous? That writer still has to make the case in the review that any other decent reviewer would have to make. The purpose of a book review is to help readers decide if they want to spend money on a new book. In other words, it isn’t about who the reviewer is. The preoccupation with “name” reviewer and having novelists review other novelists is characteristic of print media’s toadyism. In book blogging you have people who like to read telling you about what they are reading. It is, to be sure, the electronic equivalent of word-of-mouth, but that is what really drives sales and, by extension, can have influence on the course of literary events. So the answer to the question is that book blogging vastly expands the manner in which books can be reviewed and the range of books reviewed.

How do you respond to this statement?: Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.

My response is, “So what?” Van Wyck Brooks deplored how the professionalization of literature was causing passionate amateurs to be marginalized. He was using amateur in the strict sense of someone who does something con amore, for the sheer love of it, and not for the money or prestige or notoriety it might bestow. I started hiring bloggers to review for me precisely because they seemed to me to be amateurs in the true sense who could also write.

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

I don’t think so. I’ve been at it too long. Writing 800-word reviews for a newspaper made me into a sprinter, and that makes me well adapted to blogging. Shorter is harder, by the way, and usually — though not always — better. But that’s another, more complicated story.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?--the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

I have grown impatient with trolls and cranks. Anyone who thinks his argument is better because it conveys his rage ought to think again. I favor shunning. If the comment is gratuitously nasty — we’re not talking about rapier wit here — I say delete it, even if there is some substance to it. The best way to encourage good manners is to discourage bad manners. And the best way to do that is not to tolerate bad manners. Don’t say anything at a keyboard that would risk a knuckle sandwich in a bar.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

I don’t agree at all. I think we are only at the beginning and that the potential of literary blogging has scarcely been tapped. My own style of blogging is essentially electronic marginalia, but I have been thinking that this itself has a potential that I have hardly begun to exploit. I have already begun citing passages in books I have no intention of reviewing. But I can comment on those passages, say something about the book, and give the reader some idea of what the book is about and so give them a sense as to whether they might want to give a look themselves. I have a number of poetry books I have read that I think deserve some attention, but I don’t have the time to write that many full reviews, so I figure I’ll cite a poem I especially like and say why. I can cite another poem from the same volume later if I feel like it. A different sort of review, but no less effective, I think, in the long run. And this doesn’t even touch upon podcasting and video, aspects of blogging I plan to explore as well. Blogging, in fact, is still in its age of exploration. If it has a golden age, it is yet to come.

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have "earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not," because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers "to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better." Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

I think what he says applies mostly to blogs that focus on news and celebrity and politics, and only indicates why people in general read whatever in general. I doubt if any classical music blogs — or even jazz blogs — attract large numbers of readers. Nor am I sure that any book blogger will ever earn a huge audience. But I suspect that, with innovation, some may gain audiences large enough to attract the attention of publishers. In fact, many already have. I also think that “forms” peculiar to blogging — such as what Patrick Kurp has perfected — are going to attract more and more attention. The point of blogging is that it enables one to do literary journalism in new and quite possibly better ways. The idea that newspaper or magazine book reviews must be the models for judging new writing seems to me quite false.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

I prefer to avoid outright political commentary on mine, though I do take an interest in the nature of discourse and politics provides plenty of examples. The problem is that many people seem to think that is you question the structure of an argument you have necessarily taken a stand one way or the other regarding what the argument addresses. It would, for example, be altogether possible to favor government-run healthcare while deploring the arguments that have been advanced in its favor. But that requires a degree of sophistication most political true believers (or true believers of any sort, for that matter) seem incapable of. That said, sometimes politics is pertinent to the book you’re writing about. So you learn to put up with the occasional crank and have to be prepared to delete the raving loon. Nevertheless, it is possible to disagree cordially. Like Nige, I am skeptical of global warming theory, but not a denier of it. To affirm or deny it, it seems to me, would require more knowledge than anyone appears to possess. Naturally, though, both Nige and I are probably thought by many to be deniers. I can live with that, and I’m sure Nige can, too.


Maxine Clarke said...

That's more like it!

jon faith said...

addressing a prior subject, it is good that you are back at work. I find it odd that are disquieted by working with someone nonverbal, no pun intended, although I recognize it is simply a question of familiarity. Over ninety percent of the folks I work with are nonverbal,. wee've had had sublime weather here the last two weeks and I haven a few folks each day out to our courtyard and read aloud from Bleak House, hardly pastoral, but rife with dialogue that I ham with my best accents. It will sound shop-nerdy, but i am intrigues by the oversized tricyle; we utilize wheelchairs with small wheels, to avoid errant finger-to-spoke contact.
Enjoy the holiday. jon

R/T said...

It's tough to argue with Frank Wilson's sage observations and comments, so--deferring to a fine mentor--I have nothing but good things to say about Frank's contributions to the ongoing discussion. Well done!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Newspapers have given up any pretense to caring about books. Blogs are the only mass medium that has picked up the torch.

I remain uneasy about the false comparison between blogs on the one side and newspapers or the mainstream media on the other. A more accurate comparison would be blogs on the one side, and all printed media, including handbills, billboards, porno mags, cereal boxes and bubble gum wrappers, on the other.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Nige said...

I certainly can, Frank - and it's good to read such positive and well argued comments on literary blogging. Like you, I'm fairly sure this is more an age of exploration than the afterglow of a golden age. Let's hope we're right...

Art Durkee said...

Frank says it well, and I agree with almost all of it. And also with the manner in which he says it.

His comments on shunning the unmannered sit particularly well with me.