Monday, September 7, 2009

Ceci n'est pas un blog; or, Notes Toward a Definition of Blog Lit

Recently, I found a couple of reviews of my book Dementia Blog on social reading sites. Negative ones. The temptation is to answer them, I suppose, but I don't want to do that here. The book, which began its life as a blog and maintains the form (moving backwards from the present into history) works well for some people, not at all for others, and that's how it will be. But I do want to consider a common thread in critiques of the book, which involves assumptions about the blog as a form. What these assumptions are is what interests me here, as they are not elaborated by the writers of these critiques.

Reviewer one liked the concept, but added, "like all blogs, it was too blousey and boring. There's no there there."

Reviewer two wrote, "This is a worthy subject, but seems too blog-like to work as a book."

[italics are mine]

Clearly, these writers know what they mean when they write the word "blog" (according to Wikipedia, "blog" comes from "weblog," by way of "we blog," a term coined by one Peter Merholz in April or May 1999), but they're not defining their term. Political bloggers are often angered by the the dismissive use of the word "blogger" by members of the mainstream media, those journalists who follow leads dug up by bloggers, but then use the word "blog" to mean something akin to "opinionated speech based on nothing in particular." Bias against blogs as sites for objective reporting originates with the blog form's origins as personal, subjective writing. "The modern blog evolved from the online diary, where people would keep a running account of their personal lives" (Wikipedia).

Joseph Harrington, a fellow blogger, wrote to me a month or two back to ask for examples of "blog lit"; one of his MFA students wanted to start a blog as her project. She has since done so. Joe, like Mark Scroggins, occasionally remarks on a boundary between his blogging and his "real work," however obliquely. I'd be eager to know more about their distinctions, which may be institutional ("we do not get promoted for blogging") or personal ("my blog is more diaristic, less rigorous, than is my other work"). There are certainly dozens of poetry bloggers, though most reserve their blog space for critical considerations of poetry, rather than for poetry itself. Ron Silliman's blog is the ur-example. Poet's blogs are also used to publicize work, the poet's own and that of others, and to stage spirited dialogues via the comment function, about rifts in the poetry world (mainstream vs. experimental, white vs. non-white, flarf vs. conceptual). But this is not what Joe would call "blog lit." Linh Dinh posts photographs on his blog; Jonathan Morse writes about photographs on his. But again, not what we'd call "lit." And, before we evacuate that term, let's investigate a bit more.

So what is blog lit? In order to get to the answer, we need to think about what a blog makes possible. Rather than defining blogs by what people have done with them (written diaries, outed racist politicians), why not think of them as a kind of genre? Just as "the novel" or "non-fiction" or "book" contain multiple generic possibilities, so does the blog. It's simply a container for writing, but a container that is limited and enabled by its rules and those of the software that helps the non-computer literate to create one. Let's enumerate some of these rules:

1. It Must Go Backwards

Or, less simply, it must go forwards within a container that moves backwards. The blog's reader will begin with the present and move into the past. The future is what will appear above the text that's now in place. (Let's call this the "future is up" rule.) This temporal construction is not "natural" to us, but creates possibilities, both literal and metaphorical, that "chronological order" or "flashbacks" do not.

2. It Must Fit Inside a Box

I use, which provides me with a narrow box (half the distance across my computer monitor) in which to compose, or dump, my writing. Blogger does not do formatting well, so paragraphs are what work best. The paragraphs work best as boxes, since reading on a computer monitor is easier if there is more white space, not simply indentations at the start of each paragraph. You must think inside the box.

3. It Must Encourage Spontaneity

There are blogs that read as finished products, yes, but most blogs retain the feature of "flow," of "surprise." This is where I think the anti-bloggers feel least comfortable. Blogs are in the tradition of Williams's Kora in Hell, not in that of William Butler Yeats's "Sailing Toward Byzantium." Process is paramount, even if the blog is highly edited, redacted, futzed with. The blogger arrives at thoughts, rather than starting from them. And the finished product is still anti-chronological. Old forms of organization don't work as well. The new ones can be confusing.

4. It May Include Anything

Bakhtin didn't have anything on the blog. While intricately formatted poems don't work on blogger, what does is a sense of wild play, in which the writer may run through Bernadette Mayer exercises until she's giddy. Forms don't work mathematically on blogger, but they do work conceptually. Hence, the blogger can write an ode (in prose), epigrams, elegies (in prose), emails, lists, documents, insults (see Ron Padgett). The form of the form is gone, but the import of the form remains.

5. It Must/Will Be Read Quickly

Here's one I don't much like, but seems inevitable, considering the ease with which the reader can hit a link and hightail it away from your site. (Links are important to blogging.) Reading on-line is not the same as reading on the page (even after the on-line material is printed out). This is not to say that the writer cannot write interesting thoughts, but Montaigne's essays are a better example of what is possible than is continental philosophy. You need to try to get your reader to think, as well as to click.

6. It Must Invite Responses

The comment box (another box) can be a significant part of the blog. As most poetry blogs are critical in content, the comment box offers a place for argument, sometimes in ad hominem fashion. But blog lit holds out the promise of collaborative writing, not simply with one's friends, but with the occasional stranger who approaches the blog post as a launching pad to his or her own writing. Cindy Franklin writes about this in her new book, using Michael Berube's blog and memoir as an example.

7. It Must Confuse Public and Private Spaces

The memory I write onto my blog is no longer private; it has jumped the box. Although there are obvious analogues to any published writing, the blog-memory cannot be closed off in the way the memories in a book can be closed, between covers. It enters an archive or concordance, call it google, that recirculates the memory in ways never imagined by the author, and to readers in places unimagined. The ways in which my memory "rhymes" with those of others becomes a space that needs to be thought about more. Many such rhymes are made by machines (WordPress often suggests posts on similar themes). Again, collaboration comes to mind, perhaps even the construction of new memories in the chaotic legislative chamber we call the internet.

These are not my "Notes Toward a Supreme Blog," because

8. There Can Be No Supreme Blog.


TED BURKE said...

I would agree that bloggng is all the things you've described, but the blunt fact awaiting those who actively demean blogging is that at the end of the day blogging is writing above all else. One needn't wax too generally about the history of how new technologies changed the character of writing--the invention of the printing press made the book a public commonplace and made for writing that was for the general reader, not the entombed specialist, priest or benign dictator. The emphasis of writing had changed, of course, but it was writing all the same, professional writing this time, in popular genres, for a growing audience, and there was the inevitable turn in the elitist thinking that there was simply nothing they could do to put the jini back in the bottle and instead accepted the inevitability of moveable type, books and a growing literate population. Blogs, whether we like it or not, mean more writers, and as with all else that has come before, critical terms and critera are still being formed--the best will remain , the rest will fade, simply vanish. We all know that not everything published in print form initially are sentences without peer; most books chew the root, to be honest. The same for blog writing, I think, and we're already seeing a set of standards forming the standards bloggers will be held accountable to.

Joe Harrington said...

I'm cool with the list, as long as it's an historical description, rather than a taxonomic (read: normative) one. That is, the rules are Google's, not blog writers'.

Thanks, Susan - very useful post.

susan said...

Oh yes, Joe, I should have said the rules change with the technology, or whimsically, like Facebook (egad).

Anonymous said...

How does the Magritte allusion work in connection with blogs?

susan said...

That's a good question. I may have lost the thread somewhere, but I think it had to do with the symbolic value of "blog," and the way some turn away from it as symbol rather than as thing itself. Perhaps "ceci est un blog" would actually be what I meant. Trying to cut through the accretions around the word . . .

hdmi splitter said...

I am completely agree with that your blogs are provided nice information but the title of this post is so crapy and i am not able to understand it.

Susan said...

I strongly recommend google: see this Wikipedia entry for a hint:

Anonymous said...

Susan, I am late reading this, but thank you for the list. Blogging is indeed inherently *writing,* and like all writing may be judged for its quality no matter the rules it follows or rejects. One of the aspects of this that I am mentally struggling with -- though not yet in text -- is, what of blogging is art / what makes it art? If I use it for experimentation, does that violate or reduce the artfulness of the micro essays it also contains? Thanks for your thoughts on blogging. -Jen

susan said...

Oh, I'm behind on my blog reading, too, so thanks for noticing this post. I wouldn't separate the question of blogging from the question of art more generally? Blogging is a container, and there is no container I've found in which one couldn't do artful work!