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.