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Blogging and telling the truth

I’ve got a review of Sam Lipsyte’s scabrously funny new novel, The Ask, in this morning’s Australian, and while I don’t necessarily advocate reading the review I absolutely recommend reading the book, which is hugely entertaining.

This morning’s Australian also features a fascinating piece by Geordie Williamson about blogging, which attempts to resituate the deeply tedious debate about the value of online writing by asking some questions about the aesthetics of blogging, and how the form alters the way we write.

Before I go any further I should point out that Geordie (who’s a friend) says nice things in the piece about me and this blog, and in particular the posts I’ve got reproduced in Karen Andrews’ new anthology of Australian blog writing, Miscellaneous Voices (‘On Novels and Place’ and ‘The Day of the Triffids . . .’). But his kind words about me notwithstanding, I think the piece makes some interesting and valuable points, not the least of which is the manner in which many writers who operate in more controlled forms are made uneasy by the immediacy and gregariousness of the online environment, and the importance of recognising that for all its apparent openness, online writing still seeks to control the terms of the reader’s interaction with the writer by controlling what aspects of the writer’s life and experience they have access to.

In a way this is an unsurprising thing to say. Despite the illusion of openness, all writing is fundamentally an exercise in controlling the terms of the reader’s access to the writer’s inner life. This is probably clearest in forms like the personal essay, but it’s equally true of fictional forms, in which the raw material of feeling and experience is encoded and transfigured by the process of creation: even at their most honest writers are always withholding, shaping, controlling. A good reader understands that, just as they understand that a writer often reveals as much or more about themselves through what they don’t say, through their tics and blind spots, as they do in the things they choose to tell us. But it’s also something we sometimes seem to forget in our rush to celebrate the openness and collaborativeness of the online environment. Because whatever else it is, online writing is still about inventing versions of the self, whether as pleasing personas, disguises or simply creations to be deconstructed and analysed, and as such needs to be understood within a critical framework capable of making sense of the complexities of that process. All of which makes pieces like Geordie’s, which is attempting to make connections between the ways we talk about more ostensibly “literary” forms such as the essay, and blogging (and indeed books like Karen’s, which seeks to place blogging in a wider context) all the more valuable.

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30 Comments Post a comment
  1. darcymoore #

    James,

    This an eloquent post about a topic of importance, I suspect, to a growing number of us and thanks for pointing me in the direction of Geordie Williamson’s insightful article. He is correct about the tone of your blog.

    I agree with your comment, about the ‘illusion of openess’, however, the participatory nature of a blog tends to open one wider than what you suggest, leaving some rather larger ‘flaws in the glass’ than one intended or then is conveyed in a static print piece. Strangers, colleagues, close friends (who for some, as it has often been pointed out, are indistinguishable from enemies) all mingle in our online salons.

    It is clear that the web is doing more than ‘reshaping the way we write’, it is, risking hyperbole, reshaping who ‘we’ are…and there is much to be worked, indeed written, out!

    On a another, partly related matter, at my blog, conversations about reading pasts are developing. Have you a similar list?

    April 3, 2010
  2. Firstly congrats to all involved in Miscellaneous Voices – a great initiative and I’m looking forward to having a read. And this is a nice post, James, and I enjoyed Geordie’s article. But a question I’ve had of late is whether blog writing is having an impact on traditional journalism, not so much in the layout of newspaper pages, but in the actual text written. My gut reaction is that the blog world IS having an impact, in that journalism may appear to be heading along personal, chatty lines, though, of course, that’s not the sum total of the blogosphere’s contribution to creative journalism. I don’t have an answer, but I do think the blog ‘style’, if there is such a thing (there is in terms of its openness to structural reinvention and sense of play and mash-up), could be a rich vein for traditional newspapers to mine. Maybe they already are and we haven’t noticed.

    April 3, 2010
  3. Thanks, James – nice post, and good to see Karen’s work getting more nods in the press.

    I often try to write intimately in my books and in the newspapers – with some measure of warmth, proximity, disclosure. And yet it’s impossible to ignore the ongoing control; the management of the implied author. Even if friends and acquaintances are mingling in the comments box of my blog, I’m still contriving a self (honestly, I hope).

    April 3, 2010
  4. So, I’ve been reading and re-reading that article all morning, trying to work out what it is that is making me so mad. Read, read, read, think, think, think, read, read, read.

    And then I realised it’s the dismissive: “Every human who fancies themselves a director…” with its implicit “every human who fancies themselves a writer…” starts a blog. I think it put me in an ungenerous reading mood.

    I guess I take stuff like that a bit personally. I know I’m an okay writer who will never be great. Of course I want to be a better writer, and I strive for better things. But I don’t fancy myself as anything more than what I am – a person who likes to write. I like the form of writing that is blogging. The more I write the more I appreciate people who write better than me. I imagine it’s the same for a lot of people who do whatever it is they do with digital photography and cameras. And I don’t blog because I ‘aspire to print’, I blog because I like writing.

    More generally though, I agree that it was an interesting article, and now that I’ve got that off my chest, I can read it a bit more clearly and shall spend some time thinking about the other interesting things that you and Geordie say. (except that I don’t blog because I ‘aspire to print’).

    April 3, 2010
  5. also, I thought I’d deleted that list bit in brackets, but I hadn’t, and I realise I said the same thing twice. Sigh.

    April 3, 2010
  6. darcymoore #

    I know how you feel Thirdcat, on two counts.

    My unintended ‘flaw in the glass’ was to use the wrong ‘then’ *sigh* and also, I relate to your annoyance about the ‘dismissive’ tone, especially the ‘aspire to print’ line.

    April 3, 2010
  7. oh, and congrats to Karen on the book (very rude of me not to say that before)…and now, that is all and I shall leave your comment box alone.

    April 3, 2010
  8. ThirdCat has put her finger on something that’s been bothering me too: the implication in the article that blogging is somehow only about writing. Actually this is something that bothers me about any collection of blogging that has no graphics or links — it’s sending what I think is a distorted message to those unfamiliar with the medium about what the medium is.

    It was ThirdCat herself who said, years ago now, something that struck me at the time like a lightning bolt: ‘Blogging’s not the new anything. It’s blogging.’ I found this idea incredibly liberating and it made me a better blogger than I was before. Blogging’s a form that involves, at its best, one or more of the following, none of which print or the prospect of print will give you: (1) graphics, (2) hyperlinks, (3) freedom from genre, or other, conventions, expectations and limitations, and (4) a potentially interactive readership in (5) real, or almost real, time.

    I would argue that these conditions or the possibility of them elicit from the blogger, if s/he is open to them, a completely different kind of expression, of which the blogger’s written words may be only a part. And even if they are the whole thing, they will be qualitatively different words, arranged in a different way, from the words s/he would write if it were to be an unillustrated, unlinked, non-real-time and one-way communication destined for a hard-copy page.

    Blogging isn’t (or isn’t just) ‘writing for everyone’. Blogging is a paradigm shift.

    April 3, 2010
    • Absolutely. What I find weird is that this doesn’t get said more in the context of tablet computers and ebooks: every time I hear someone talking about ebooks as the saviour of books I find myself wanting to ask if they really think that. Why would you confine yourself to static, linear text on a device capable of video and sound and hypertext? I think it’s difficult to see how these things integrate with forms like the novel without being disruptive, but I also think it’s quite clear the ebook will evolve quite rapidly (particularly in the area of children’s and illustrated books/comics) so that it can take advantage of the possibilities of the technology, and that once that process gets under way the ebook will stop looking like what we think of as a “book” quite quickly. Technology determines form, whether you’re talking about codex books or the internet. All of which will allow us to develop new ways of writing and thinking and expressing ourselves (and require new ways of speaking critically about that process).

      April 4, 2010
  9. darcymoore #

    Michael Wesch’s ‘The machine is us/using us’ has probably been viewed many time by most but just in case. Enjoy!

    April 4, 2010
  10. I get this: “All of which will allow us to develop new ways of writing and thinking and expressing ourselves (and require new ways of speaking critically about that process)”. Which means as long as we’re cautious and know what we’re doing and keep asking questions, then we’ll be okay. What I don’t get, or like, is this: “It is clear that the web is doing more than ‘reshaping the way we write’, it is reshaping who ‘we’ are”. Is it really doing that? Christ, I hope not (sorry about that Easter reference). Despite blogging being undoubtedly a sometimes exciting newish space to write and work in, why is it that I feel like a party-drug addict who keeps on saying to his friends, ‘As long as we stay in charge and understand what we’re doing and look after each other, we’ll be alright’?

    April 4, 2010
  11. darcymoore #

    Interesting that – and here’s a brief response.

    The ‘reshaping who we are’ is hyperbolic unless we think of ‘we’ as all of us, not just the individual.

    The printing press changed ‘us’ too but it was glacial in comparison.

    April 4, 2010
  12. as a critical piece examining the influence of blogging i found it interesting, but a tad limited (probably a function of the limited space a newspaper review can occupy…)

    as a review i didn’t think it really gave me any idea what to expect from the book. some poetry, & some great stuff by james bradley.

    & i moved house, so i don’t have a copy yet, so i still don’t really know what it will be like!

    April 5, 2010
  13. As someone who has “aspired to print” since childhood, I still found the tone of Geordie Williamson’s somewhat irritating. When I first began reading I was optimistic and then… that sinking feeling.

    I agree with ThirdCat about the dismissive tone but even more so, I disliked the reductiveness of it. I can’t help but agree in principle with some of his broader statements, but the suggestion that the form is more readily suited to gossipy, ephemeral pieces (please excuse the paraphrasing) or that it is not well suited to poetry (which appears in this instance to be a blog design issue, rather than a conflict between the form and the media itself)… Well, this is an angle I find tired. All the more so because the same criticism could be levelled at books in print.

    Junk fiction, complete with shoddy punctuation and painful grammar, sells in far greater bulk than works which demand more “readerly monogamy”, and poetry only continues to be published through the loving efforts of very few, for very those very few who love to read it.

    I suppose my real problem is this: How does he define what “thrives” online? Is it what “sells”? What gets the most hits, the most tweets, the most mentions in mainstream media? If that is the case, it is no wonder he perceives “failure”. And if that is the case, it is no wonder I feel like he has missed the point.

    Sorry, James, to spend so much time discussing Geordie’s article rather than yours. Hopefully, I will have time this evening to ponder, and then address, both.

    You know, over at my own blog. As a “gossipy, critical, glancing supplement to the larger narrative of the day”.🙂

    April 5, 2010
  14. Blogging could never be, and would never work, if it was *just* about writing alone, in my opinion, and so I agree with Kerryn, and why I also understand ThirdCat’s point (and thanks for the congrats!).

    One might also consider the fact that I had many submitters write to me with their submissions with the admission that they never really considered themselves as ‘real’ writers, or ‘worthy’ writers – at least not up until a point when their work had started to be recognized by others (which, really, is how writers first start to emerge, isn’t it?). It is this burgeoning of thought, of potential, of creativity, that I think Geordie recognises in his article, and I appreciate that he has.

    This was part of the reason why I wanted to do MV#1. I wanted to see if the book would work, and if so, how. The discussions, such as these here in the comments and in other forums as they arise, continue to fascinate. This is beyond celebrating writing as text, as itself, to begin with.

    April 5, 2010
  15. James,

    If the publishing platform is online maybe there’s much more to think about then just blogging/writing. Reading about and listening to the new “Two Cultures” problem CP Snow explored half a century ago (updated) has been interesting, on a number of levels.

    You may wish to follow @billt on twitter, if at all interested (if you don’t already).

    Maybe we need to think about the impact (and the future) of writing code more? Not sure though about any of this but find it stimulating.

    April 5, 2010
  16. Personally I was disappointed with two things Geordie said among quite a few others which were not worth bothering with – I have come to expect snideness from Australian journalists when writing about online writing, so most of it just went over this duck’s back.

    But the remark about contributors’ work having possibly been ‘gussied up’ for print was ungenerous and misleading, and would have been so easy to check if he had bothered to open a browser and type in a few (supplied) references. One expects that at least from someone doing a book review, though perhaps the strain of considering the online environment as well was too much for him.

    Also one wonders if he even tried to read Angela Meyer’s excellent piece on cultural blogging, which simply blew me away when she delivered it as a talk at EWF last year, and which anyone taking part in this discussion should read if they haven’t already.
    http://blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2009/06/12/embracing-the-medium-what-makes-a-successful-cultural-blog/

    Congratulations Karen for getting it out there, and James for your generous support of the medium and the publication, as well as this discussion.

    April 5, 2010
  17. After leaving my comment earlier, I wondered if I was being too harsh or overreacting. Like ThirdCat it has been “Read, read, read, think, think, think, read, read, read.” Anyway, I have tried to write up my concerns more clearly over at my own blog if anyone is interested.

    April 6, 2010
  18. Adam G #

    Just read Geordie’s article and found it a somewhat lazy piece of journalism. Perhaps it might have made a better blog post?

    “The most interesting thing about the anthology, however, is just how much blogging shares with digital film.” Really?! Fair suck of the sav.

    April 6, 2010
  19. Sorry for my silence, it’s been a pretty child-intensive few days. Just wanted to give the link to Cerebral Mum’s post, which she was too modest to include in her comment. It’s at:

    http://cerebralmum.com/2010/04/miscellaneous-voices-lost-in-the-fray/

    April 6, 2010
  20. I’ve never really thought about the limits of openness in regards to blogging but I suppose, everything has its limits to how open it is. There’s only really one other person that knows a hell of a lot about me, my partner and that’s about it.

    Everyone else, even close friends, I guess see my through the filter of what I choose to reveal.

    April 6, 2010
  21. Hear, hear Mr Solah. We all present ourselves through various lenses. Blogging is no different in that respect.

    I am not at all surprised to hear the esteemed lit reviewer of a conservative broadsheet damn with faint praise anything that’s not published as high literature. I am surprised to see that some were!

    Good to see this excellent discussion on Karen’s brave anthology. It is a pleasure to be in such writerly company, I must say.

    April 10, 2010
  22. Hello James – I wanted to comment not on the blog piece but on your review of The Ask, and especially the second para. ‘Writing is a profession largely defined by the gulf between the vaulting ambition it requires to keep pushing on and the indifference of the public’ – I liked this very much. It’s not often talked about, this gulf, though often, I think, felt, and sorely, by writers. And being, as you say, ‘constantly reminded not just of your failings as a writer but your failure as a writer’, means that the process of writing is often accompanied by gouts of shame, and a summoning of courage to overcome that shame and keep writing, or to keep writing despite the persisting sense of shame, that can feel almost hysterical. All of this, of course, a silent, internal, private process.
    I read very few blogs, btw, because of the time sink-hole factor. And this is almost the first comment I’ve made in a blog, except once or twice on my friend Virginia Lloyd’s. It’s her references to City of Tongues that brought me here; well, that and the link at the end of your review!

    April 10, 2010
    • Thanks for that Kate – I appreciate it. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, the way we all try and suppress the panic and anguish that’s so often a part of writing? Because although there are small successes, it’s always – and inevitably, I suspect – about failure: nothing you do is ever as good as you meant it to be. And every visible success is shadowed by any number of failures, things that didn’t work or ideas that went nowhere. I suppose the real point is that while self-belief is vital, doubt is as well, since it’s doubt that makes work good, because that’s what creates the sense of risk and of the writer being exposed in the work. The problem is an excess of doubt is as deadly to good work as an excess of self-belief.

      April 12, 2010
  23. I agree with ThirdCat and Kerryn Goldsworthy.

    However, I guess I am one of those annoying little unknown insects who does have an ‘aspire to print’ dream.

    Why *shouldn’t* bloggers – or journal writers using biros or those who possess three nostrils aspire to something greater? What kind of snobbiness are people clinging to when they dismiss blogs?

    I blog because, nearly six years ago, I was recovering from a physical and mental breakdown due to overwork in a job I detested and under-fun. A friend emailed me to say that she’d set up a blog. I clicked on her link, started to read and was inspired to set up one of my own. It nourished me and kept my writing ‘fit’ in that I wrote freely and often, not worrying about receiving reject letters, being outright ignored or having to write to a prescribed style. More importantly, being a fledgling blogger meant that I began to read more and more other blogs written by mostly brilliant-but-unknown people ‘out there’. And thus it grew…

    People may pooh-pooh the idea of blogging as not being a legitimate form of writing, but they’re just the ones who are feeling threatened by having to deal with competition from a newer and more immediate form of communicating. I’ll come right out and admit that most of my favourite writers these days are found right here on my humble computer screen.

    April 16, 2010
  24. I highly recommend reading Mark Pesce’s post, What Ever Happened to the Book.

    April 16, 2010
  25. Apologies if this is (continuing to be) off-topic but Margaret Simons’ piece is very different to Mark’s but on a fascinatingly similar theme.

    April 17, 2010

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Miscellaneous Voices in ‘The Australian’ | Miscellaneous Mum - Trying to find the objective correlative, everyday
  2. Miscellaneous Voices: Lost in the fray? | The Cerebral Mum
  3. Lazy blogging? We haz it « adelaide from adelaide

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