Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let's Not Pretend

Private, Public... Blog

The other day I ran into a former professor of mine and we briefly chatted about what we were reading. He hadn't heard of Bolano, so I mentioned that I'd also been reading Sebald, who, he said, left him ambivalent. “Let's not pretend,” said my English professor acquaintance, a specialist in 20th century literature with a special fondness for Ulysses, and I could see the formalist academic mind working in the space of his Jamesian hesitation, “that this is a novel.” I agreed. (We were both talking about The Rings of Saturn, in case other Sebald is more novel-like.) “And let's not pretend,” I added, “that this is some kind of radical new form. It's just a guy talking about whatever comes into his intelligent head.”

Our exchange got me thinking about the kind of tone or approach that a literary blog should have – not an amateur imitation of literary criticism or reviewing (although anyone who wants to do those things is welcome), not even necessarily an “alternative press” stance. A blog is, essentially, private. Not, obviously, in the sense that it is not intended to be shared with anyone. My communication with the professor was “private” – a casual, candid chat about what we thought about certain authors of current high reputation. Much like I might engage in with a friend in an e-mail exchange. Which is not to say that neither of us would be willing to make these assertions public, although we would want to back them up with some theory and some literary-historical context, if, for example, we wanted to publish an essay on the topic.

The “privacy” of a blog is opposed not to sharing (or publication), but to “the public world” of professional writing and professional opinion, whether as academics or critics. The public world is guided by certain conventions, forms and social constraints. Circumspection, rather than candidness, is the rule; and even critics and academics have a private persona in which they may playfully use the vernacular and a casual tone, and a public persona in which they stick strictly to a professional self-presentation, with a different tone and vocabulary. I'll never forget when I asked a professor friend of mine (not a former professor but a friend who happened to be a professor, so the exchange was even less formal) what he thought of Portrait of a Lady, which I was reading for the first time and with which I was enraptured. He replied, “Isabel Archer makes me puke.”

It's a little like that exchange between the candid vulgarian errand boy, occupying the lowest social rung in the film, and the doctor, the only real “professional” we see, in Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. The doctor gives a complicated explanation of what's wrong with Pepi's boss, employing a lot of obfuscating professional jargon, and then asks Pepi what his position at the shop is, to which Pepi responds in kind. When he's finished, the doctor realizes with astonishment, “You mean you're an errand boy?” “Doctor,” Pepi replies, looking at the man levelly, “did I call you a pill-pusher?”

Sontag v Blog

If blogs are going to change the face of literary criticism, it won't be by imitating critics, but rather by allowing criticism to take on more of a personal and informal tone. This is a matter of tone, mind, not content: blogger-critics should still write engaging, intelligent, grammatical prose, and the best will have real insights into literature to offer. But I think we can afford to be a little more fallible, a little more anecdotal. “I'm just a girl/guy with a blog.”

The great literary critics (as distinguished, a bit artificially, from scholars for the moment) of the 20th century, every one of them American, carefully crafted personas for themselves: T. S. Eliot (the most gloriously, outrageously imperious of them all), Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag. These personas were, first and foremost, infallible. Can you imagine Susan Sontag ever having a thought that wasn't expressed in the same densely intellectual terms as her essays? Even she couldn't – take a look at her posthumously published journals. A "private" journal doesn't necessarily entail a private persona when you're writing with the thought (however faint) of eventual publication in the back of your mind, just as a "public" journal (i.e. a blog) doesn't necessarily entail a public persona if you're writing more or less off the top of your head with little or nothing at stake.

To write and to be an intellectual was once, recently, to craft a persona that had nothing in common with one's mundane private self; that was, perhaps, precisely an escape from it; to craft a self that was smarter, sharper, more elegant and eloquent. I dearly love all of these critics as much for their personas – or their variations on the critic-persona they bequeathed to us – as for their prose and ideas, but it seems to me that as a medium, the blog is far too informal to support such persona-building, which requires an absolute separation between public and private self. Even when a blog is not meant to be about the person writing it, it retains certain characteristics in common with its online “sister forms,” the journal or diary. Professional critics affiliated with respectable print journals often maintain a blog to say, “Hey – look at me, I'm a real person! I can talk like a normal person and express casual, personal opinions that are not necessarily my considered professional opinion!” The blogging form is inherently, well, non-pretentious. Even if you're as pretentious as me.

Can you picture Sontag with a blog? In a blogging world we could never have had a Sontag or a Trilling; they would have had to democratically puncture their elitist personas. And that would have been a shame. But we did have them, issuing from the world of 20th century literary journalism; and now we have a different model, which, while no doubt throwing up its own celebrities (and more of them), may never allow for the level of intellectual celebrity of the great 20th century American critics, simply because there are too many of us. But there's nothing wrong with changing the face of intellectual inquiry en masse. 

Of course there are those even among young writers who are still quite dedicated to the idea of the elitist critical/intellectual persona, like Zadie Smith, who claims to use "heavily punctuated, fully expressive, standard English sentences" even when she texts (see, I shit you not, footnote 4 of her review of that Facebook movie). To which I've got to ask, like, Zadie, why? At best, it destroys the point of the medium, which is convenience; at worst, it's a violation of the manners appropriate to the medium, like self-absorbed Tess Harding* wearing her fashionable hat to a baseball game and blocking the view of the guy behind her. But even Tess is sharing peanuts with him in no time, and we love her for it, not so much because she's shown that she can be a "regular gal" (even if the screenwriters and/or director thought that was the point) as because she's clever enough to quickly figure out, and take wonder in, a whole new fascinating social language. In fact, the social language of baseball viewing is the real game of interest in the scene, in a way that reminds me of Cavell's comments on games and Wittgenstein's language games.

The Erotic Blog

Speaking of Sontag's published journals, in one entry she talks about the difficulty of motivating herself to keep a journal because the motivation is narcissistic rather than the desire to make "an erotic gift of one's intellect." She contrasts journal-keeping not with publication, however, but with speech, which "is social + erotic + has more incentive in the feared and desired expectations of the other than in the perfectly knowable + less mysterious + compelling self demands." (Hey lookit, Susan uses shorthand in her journal like a texter, WTF?) Which raises the question for me of whether blogging, with its link (sometimes direct and sometimes tenuous) to social networking, isn't more similar to the act of speech than to the act of writing. The act of writing, even with (traditional) publication in mind, which is to say the intention of finding an audience, may be more narcissistic (which explains why it's so damn hard to finish anything) than the act of blogging, with the pragmatic certainty that you will find readers immediately, even if the numbers are tiny (they will come upon you by accident, they will click on you on impulse, they will read you out of inertia), and even if they do not, in fact, interact with you (but, unlike traditional publication, they could).

Which would certainly stand the standard complaints about the "narcissism" of blogging on their head. 

*My reference is to all-American people's elitist Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year


  1. I am reading Sontag's Where The Stress Falls at the moment and I am almost totally sure she would not have a blog, or a twitter account, or a kindle. She is old-skool and lovely for that.

    But you are very astute about the 'narcissism' or otherwise of blogging. I get confused at times as I write, and write in that 'narcissistic' traditional way, but I also blog. And sometimes when I put my 'real writing' on my blog I feel so incredibly exposed because it has no defences.

    The thing is I don't think the old-fashioned writer can exist in this world anymore. That is what Sontag was lamenting.

    The tiger is in the library.

  2. I'm sort of lamenting that too, here, but at the same time, so many people (namely, the mainstream media) lament it so well, or at least so loudly, that I've grown more interested in celebrating what the writer is going to become, or at least observing it with interest. Whether I'm picking away at novels on my word processor or blogging away on the internet, I feel very much as if I'm a writer "now," and therefore, that I can't either be or lament not being a "traditional" one. Even if I use Jamesian sentences with two "at leasts" in my blog.

  3. These people are busy celebrating (and defining) what the writer is going to become:

  4. You might also appreciate this, Elise. A mash-up created by Mark and me during a conversation about Sontag as it happens!

  5. So have you read Paglia's 'Sexual Personae'? She's hit and miss on authors, but the chapter on Dickinson is worth the price of entry. Or, you know, taking it out from the library.

  6. I read Sexual Personae when it first came out but I wasn't so into Dickinson then and don't remember that chapter. I will look it up again.

    Mark's just posted an essay which mentions 'lad lit' in passing. I am suddenly reminded of Nick Hornby (and later John Cusack)'s character in High Fidelity.

    An archetypal Loser!

    But women are jerks and make mix tapes and associate music with lost relationships too. There are so few portrayals of women in that situation. Maybe being a woman 'alone' is still a dangerous image. As Dickinson showed it to be.

  7. I am going to be your chief spammer at this rate

    But this really resonated with what you have been talking about here:

    'It's funny to be talking about blogging -- which for its entire lifespan has been dismissed broadly for being superficial and narcissistic -- as being a besieged outpost of well-developed, thoughtful writing, but I think that's exactly what's happening. It's no one's "fault" -- it's just the natural evolution of popular content production and consumption towards the most frictionless state: from books to periodicals to personal websites to blogs to Twitter to the Like button. When a medium comes along that's easier than clicking the Like button -- maybe thinking you Like something -- you can be sure everyone will speculate about and then bemoan its death before moving on.'

  8. Well, I'm sure a woman alone and have been for some time. That may have something to do with it (the lack of women losers on TV). The culture trains you to believe there's no such thing as an attractive, youngish single woman (single as in not just available but non-dating). Apparently if you're not fugly and you're still under forty, men will be drooling down your shirt 24/7. Not so! (For one thing, if you haven't settled down by 30, all the men between 25 and 45 are taken, and no one seems to get divorced anymore. That's another hipster phenomenon I've noticed... marry/get into a permanent long-term relationship early and stay that way forever, or maybe get divorced late, I don't know, I haven't seen how this story ends yet.) That's why Fran of "Black Books" is such a rare representation, and both liberating and terrifying (from a female perspective I mean).

    And if there's anything more dangerous (from the perspective of the culture) than a woman alone, it must be the pining woman... the mixtape-making woman who's still in love with her ex or a guy who doesn't know she exists. For the Loser Male, this is business as usual (and makes him adorable to the - right - female viewer - and himself). In pop culture, though, the woman in this situation goes straight to Crazy Stalker.

  9. yes and in pop music some of those 'crazy stalker' women include PJ Harvey, Kristen Hersh and Alanis Morisette.

    Not really acceptable 'losers' but more like the mad women in the attic.

    Though they do have some kind of respect as musicians. But I think they still portray a very troubling version of womanhood.

  10. I once made a mixtape for someone and the first track was Rid of Me by PJ Harvey. He played it whilst driving and said he nearly crashed the car, when it kicked in with those words: 'and don't you wish you'd never met her? don't you don't you wish you'd never, never met her?' He described it as 'terrorism by post'.

    I consider that a highpoint in my Loser career.

  11. My favourite portrayer of troubled/troubling womanhood has to be Courtney Love, especially circa 'Live Through This.' Of course that's always a dangerous name to bring up, even among women who are riot grrrl/grunge fans!

    I had completely forgotten that I made a mix-tape (they were still tapes then, too) for my ex-husband when we were in the process of breaking up. I have no recollection of what I put on there, but I bet it was pretty... visceral... "Rid of Me" is a classic female loser move, I think - masochism and all. Currently my signature song in that respect is Johnny Cash singing "Delia's Gone"!

  12. Courtney Love is a great example. I have to love Love.

    I hope Mark returns to this conversation. When I first started talking to him we discussed 'Whipping Girls' and how some women are really trashed by everyone-the media, feminism, 'nice girls' and boys etc.

    I think he had Sarah Palin in mind at the time, but I also thought of Britney Spears, Jade Goody (from the UK Big Brother show), more recently Rihanna. And Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse. Mark thought of some whipping girls from history as well but I can't remember who!

    I think Courtney Love would be a good one to add to that list.

    And Eminem. A man, but definitely a whipping girl.

    Eminem is unable to be a Loser in the classical sense. And I think the masochism could be part of it. But I'd have to ask Mark about that too, as Mozzer was a masochist and he still had Loser status for his fans.

  13. I think this conversation escaped Mark's radar. We got back onto the loser/hipster topic but it's OT for this entry. I think there's something masochistic about the act of self-identifying as a loser, at least in indie music, as in the Beck and Radiohead songs. Mozzer was sort of a pre-loser, preparing the way for the full loser onslaught when indie music crossed over into the mainstream in the early 90s. But what kept him from being a loser in the later sense is, I think, the fact that he always hated someone else more than himself! He was no whiner; he was angry. "I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine and it owes me a living." Greatest opening couplet ever. Took my breath away when I first heard it.

    As for whipping girls, I don't know Jane Goody but I always had a soft spot for Britney, who had some great pop singles, not least (the masochistic) "Hit Me Baby One More Time," which Courtney Love once designated as the song she wished she had written. Courtney Love is probably the all-time whipping girl. I'd like to hear the historical ones, though! I can't think of any at the moment... unless maybe Catherine the Great, demonized for her alleged sexual prowess? Sternberg made a great movie with Dietrich about it, 'The Scarlet Empress.' And maybe Wallis Simpson?

  14. Oh, and spam away! You may in fact remain my only spammer, but as far as I'm concerned, the internet's about conversation and people alerting you to cool things.

  15. Back to that blogging article and to the topic...

    I have started to become a bit snobby about blogging, and when I have arguments online, to differentiate between those who blog and those who don't. It seems so easy to react to someone's ideas/writing/opinions with a tweet. If that person has bothered to blog a whole essay and then you can dismiss it in 140cs I feel a bit pissed off.

    I think this is different from people commenting under articles on websites of National publications. The power and structure of those publications means the journalists still have more status than the commenters.

    But in day to day internet discourse, I feel a protectiveness to people who put themselves on the line in this way. And yet, I also know I am being a bit Sontag-like in my elitism and my 'more words are better' idea.

  16. I think Mozzer was prone to some whining. But I agree he had an anger and also a sociological comment to make. It wasn't ALL about him, even if it was. Eminem doesn't have a wider commentary to make, about e.g. American society. Just the minutiae of his anger and hurt.

  17. It's true, Eminem didn't really make any social commentary - other than pointing out that he WAS one. I like his first two albums very much, but then he fatally started taking himself too seriously (in common with everyone else). Which is a luxury few British acts can afford (Bono aside, maybe), which can help keep them interesting longer.

    That Fimoculous link you sent me - the writer mentions how he tends to skim blogs even if he likes them and wonders whether that's evidence that (long-form, text-heavy) blogging is dead. I think it may be more reflective of what you say - that bloggers don't have the weight of "brand names" (like 'The New Yorker,' 'New York Review of Books,' etc.) behind them, so one gives the writing/thought its due and no more - and on the internet, that "due" means skimming. (Although skimming is not unique to "intellectual" internet writing. Witness all the intellectual in-jokes about unread 'New Yorker' articles. 'The New Yorker' is the tl; dr of periodicals. Personally though, if I'm going to read a 'New Yorker' article I tend to read it all the way through. Saves me from reading the biographies that are being reviewed.)

    I agree though, I have no wish to leave any nasty drive-by comments on literary/intellectual/pop culture blogs. An unpaid stranger has taken the time to present me with an argument on a topic of interest to me (whether I agree with what he/she says or not) or introduce me to a new thing - for free. As for tweets, though - yeah, it's too easy (unless you're promoting an article you like). Although I suppose I wouldn't mind negative tweets. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about (Oscar Wilde fangirl here, again!). But if once upon a time people complained that critics were jerks for taking apart works of literature that people had put such a lot of work into, the dismissive tweet is "criticism" reduced to drooling idiocy. (I look forward to your tweets.)

  18. oh I like tweets-there is a kind of cut and thrust of people just launching one liners that is fun. And, a bit old-fashioned in a funny way, a la Wilde like you say.

    But there is a special way of dismissing someone whereby you can read their blogpost, then write a tweet saying why it was rubbish,very deliberately, to make the point you wouldn't even deign to comment on the post.

    I probably do it myself! I am just noticing the culture. As you point out, where 'criticism' is reduced to something. Not always drooling idiocy, as some tweeters are very sharp. But to dismissive single comments.

  19. That's funny, as soon as I published that (or thinking about it later) I thought, "Hmmm, but I do love the art of the one-line put down. So perhaps I've been too hastily dismissive!" I did give Twitter a try, but it didn't seem to be for me. I know lots of smart people on there, though, who absolutely love it, from friends to Stephen Fry (sadly not a friend, although I suppose I could follow him on Twitter).

  20. you could follow Stephen Fry on twitter but he is actually really dull on there.

    It is a bit like real life, twitter, where some horrendously boring twats are treated as if they are hilarious and everything they say is 'Re-Tweeted', whereas some very bright funny people are left in obscurity, howling into the wilderness.

  21. You're not a Fry fan? It took me a very long time to forgive him for playing Oscar Wilde, but Fry and Laurie plus all those seasons of QI eventually converted me into a qualified fan.

  22. I think if you are English whether or not you like Fry has more social significance than for other people. He represents a certain aspect of British middle class 'gayness' that for some of us is unpalatable. Which him playing Oscar made even worse. You might have to ask Mark about it! He will sum it up much better than I could.

  23. Did someone mention Stephen Fry? Ms B probably said it best when she said he was a stupid person's idea of someone smart. But that of course doesn't mean he's stupid.

    Back in the late 80s I used to go to a gym that Hugh Laurie used. Strangely, their was nothing Bertie Wooster about him in his shorts at all. He never spoke to anyone and was intensely focused on his intensely sweaty workout. So I wasn't in the least bit surprised when this man who played a bumbling foppish buffoon became a prime-time US TV star. You can bet it didn't happen by accident, much as he would like you to think so.

    One day he brought his plump friend Stephen along. A historic moment as this may well have been Stephen's first and last visit to a gym. I had just finished using a leg curl machine and Fry was waiting in his shorts to use it. He went to lower the weight, saying in that familiar gay donnish voice: 'Oh, gosh, I couldn't POSSIBLY lift as much as you!' His eye may have strayed to my thighs. (I was in my 20s back then.)

    At the time I was flattered that he had stayed 'in character' for me. But later I realised that he couldn't switch it off. He's even more ambitious and needy than Mr Laurie, but at least Mr Laurie clearly has 'time off'.

    Three hundred years later none of us are allowed any time off from Stephen Fucking Fry.

  24. Yeah, those are the things we don't understand across the pond - the dominance of the tiny, fairly uniform media of the tiny island by certain figures, which could start to make you gag. Also, re Elly's comment, I think we still don't "get" the reality of class resentment in England. We're aware of classes here and aware of being poor and of other people being poorer still but for some reason we don't resent the wealthy. My sister suggested it's because they're not as snooty as the upper British classes, and I added, "Yeah, the American rich are dirty trash. We get to look down on them culturally."

    I don't know if Fry's a stupid person's idea of a smart person - he's certainly articulate - but I do know that my MA from a backwater university in the Canadian prairies can go up against his Cambridge education any day, to judge from the number of times I've "corrected the TV" on a fact or concept when he's on. Yet no one EVER challenges him (even when, like Craig Ferguson, they're perfectly intelligent too... but you can't get a word in edgewise).

    Nevertheless, living in a country where we're dominated by American media, it's still enjoyable for us to see someone in the media celebrated for being intelligent, even if you can debate the actual intelligence at work.

  25. I totally walked into that one!

    I wanted Mark to tell us about the whipping girls...

    It might have been Mae West? Or Joan Crawford?

    But at least now Elise has a sense of the context of antipathy, in some corners of England, to Stephen Fucking Fry.