Big Jerk-Head

Several of the events at the lit festival I went to last weekend convened in a narrow room above a karaoke bar, and panelists sat on barstools behind the service counter. Should I say that we dispensed shots of strong advice?


May 29, 2008

Several of the events at the lit festival I went to last weekend convened in a narrow room above a karaoke bar, and panelists sat on barstools behind the service counter. Should I say that we dispensed shots of strong advice? Or that we sang our little hearts out? Probably not. That’s the sort of attitude that got me called “a big jerk-head” by a fellow panelist.

Panel assignments for conferences and festivals are often haphazard; talk about whatever you want, but here’s the advertised topic, organizers say. The topic of the first panel I was on was “Blogging: Web Journal v. Promotion Tool,” but no one stuck to that. The moderator started the session by calling the blogosphere a “great karma machine for meeting people.” One panelist wanted us to know she’d gone to a birthday party for one of her blog readers. Another said it was good for promoting bands or causes.

The dichotomy of journal or promotion was difficult for me, too. Professional blogger sounds like a contradiction in terms, but I was the only one there who writes for money, so neither diarist nor self-promoter strictly holds. I need to be as interesting, accurate, and thoughtful as possible, even if my platform is what my publisher calls a blog, a term that currently applies to texts both by the person whose journal entries begin, “An amazing thing happened in Pilates the other day,” and by Errol Morris. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to blog on my own, but if I had, I’d still have tried to make something of it.

For me, the term “blogging” has come to stand for a failure of the public’s trust that good writing exists on the web, for a lack of ambition in some writers who profess to want to be read widely, and for the unsettled nature of terminology in the digital age.

At the panel I said that I tried to do different things on this blog, including interviews and creative nonfiction, and that despite using the events of my life and my interests to guide me, I tried to look up as much as possible so the writing was not just for me.

At least one panelist spoke of blogging at times solely for herself on pages readers couldn’t reach; others suggested they did it for a coterie. But most also hoped it would help sell first novels their publishers can’t afford to advertise or get them invited to readings (to sell books). Much was said about building a specific kind of community—one of mutual admiration and promotion—that would “get books into people’s hands.” Nothing wrong with that.

Still, if you want to be known as a writer, why not self-promote with the best writing you can do? I hadn’t slept in 52 hours at this point, so I may have come across as a little Churmish when I said that I couldn’t read blogs, no matter how friendly I was with their writers, if they merely recounted whether the morning’s orange juice did or didn’t have pulp. Likewise, while I’m on Facebook and MySpace and have met many fine and interesting people there, it gets tiresome to have the work of friends of friends pushed on me, with “friendship” the only criterion for praise. What is always trumpeted as “AWESOME!!” is often merely awful. If Person A expects me to buy (with my money or time) Person B’s stuff merely on the basis of acquaintance or personality or mutual support, then I will eventually be forced, as a busy person, to stop reading A. I referred to this tendency as the FriendPals Effect and said any blogger could do a little more by writing a short review or running an interview that’s straightforward about the book.

Two of the panelists quickly spoke up in defense of loving mutual admiration and “community building.” One said in a shaking voice that there was no call for “snide” remarks about her novel (I don’t know who reviewed it), and the other joined in with a comment about the kind of “big jerk-head” who brings everybody down. Touchingly, the event organizer looked down the bar at me to see if I was okay. By that time I was already thinking of Anthony Lane’s savage review in The New Yorker of Star Wars: Episode III, in which he says of Yoda’s “screwy syntax”: “Break me a fucking give.” And: “What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence.” What would these writers do if a real jerk-head got hold of them?

Are writers who blog so fearful of losing (or never having) an audience that they’ll do anything to be…pleasant? Don’t mere amiability and programmed caution work against them in the end? I don’t have time to read somebody with the intellectual and emotional capacities of a Pollyanna or proselytizer. I admire writers in any form who develop their content well, often in unusual ways, and are wise, reasoned, clear, informed, aware of the various thought systems they’re evading (or not), and calm (unless wildness is needed, in which case they’re savage).

Yet I’ll defend to the death—somebody else’s, not mine—any blogger’s right to be as chatty as a seatmate on a 14-hour bus ride to Cleveland. I’ll sign petitions that keep the Internet free and open to each and every unintelligible academic. I’ll dance with you in the streets in celebration of the democratic nature of the new technologies, which have given most of us equal chance to look stupid in real time around the globe. But what I’ll actually read is good writing, and when the moderator at the panel asked for our final thoughts on blogging, I suggested ambition. That is, try on a new voice or style; write about something you don’t know; do a little research; dare to work up material for a more finished piece elsewhere; be clear; make the thing interesting and polished.

Thanks to our ambitious friend Neil Verma at Ducks and Drakes, A Blog About Writing, yesterday I read a post by David Bordwell, Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at UW-Madison, on the role of the blogger-critic, which I recommend to anyone who would like her blog to promote her as a writer. Here are a very few lines among many good ones:

At first glance, the Web seems to favor the snack size, the 150-word sally that’s all about taste and attitude. In fact, the Net is just as hospitable to the long piece. There are in principle no space limitations, so one can launch arguments at length. (It’s too long to read scrolling down? Print it out. Maybe you have to do that with this essay.) […] The short form lets you pirouette, but the extended essay—unless it’s simply a rant—obliges you to show all your stuff. In the long form, your ideas need to have heft. […]

Some will object that this is a pretty unprofitable undertaking. […] Well, who’s paying for all those 100-word zingers? And who has paid those programmers who continue to help Linus Torvalds develop Linux? People do all kinds of things for love of the doing and for the benefit of strangers. [….] Maybe only idlers, hobbyists, obsessives, and retirees (count me among all four) have the leisure to write long for the Web.

This isn’t to discourage people from jotting down ideas…and triggering a conversation with readers. …. But we also benefit from ambitious critical essays, pieces that illuminate…through analysis and interpretation. Web critics could write less often, but longer. In an era of slow food, let’s try slow…blogging. It might encourage slow reading.

Professor Bordwell said it too: ambitious. And it won’t hurt our friendship a bit.


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