5.16.2005

Ain't nothing free anymore!?!

Well, it seems that Ms. Braunteuer's argument about the superiority of essayism to blogism gains further credibility by the minute. Her article has unfortunately entered the part of the web that requires registration. The "long-lived ... essay" indeed. If I were a betting man though, I would wager that someone might likely reply to this post with a copy of the article... Stay tuned.

I don't have much to add to what Cristi has already written, but I will say this. What Ms. Brownworth's article fails to realize is the community aspect of blogging. I don't believe that anyone would argue that blogs are as meticulously constructed as the holy essay. Why should they be? The essay comes from a different time of publishing, where it was more expensive and demanding to publish a piece of writing for popular consumption. If you were going to write something, it had to be exactly what you wanted it to be. With the internet, people can reach more easily reach a wider audience than ever before. Publishing one’s ideas is as simple as opening an account with www.blogger.com.

But this is bad she says, because the blogosphere isn't subject to the same checks and balances that essays, newspapers magazines etc are? The point of blogging has been missed. I conceive of our blog in this way: When you're thinking, reading, writing on your own, you have no idea how your thoughts square with the world at large. With a blog, your ideas can be turned loose to peer review. The checks and balances are the people that read your blog, the people that leave comments, the people that make reference to it in their blogs. Invented Usage is a collaborative learning environment. Certainly there is a modicum of authority placed upon Cristi and I as blogauthors, but the site must originate from somewhere. Beyond that, we don't assume the essay attitude of handing down knowledge from our ivory tower. We're entering the trenches of intellectual debate, and our blog is the fake ID we use to get past those who believe that you need "credentials" in order to think. That you need “credentials” in order to have ideas worth sharing.

8 comments:

Long Live The Essay said...

The long arm of the blog

Thoughtful essays, snipped and shaped with precision, are being overrun by weedy, invasive and largely unedited Web logs.

The most popular and accessible literary form, the essay, is a succinct expression of a writer's opinion, written with concision and verve in relatively few words. Unfortunately, for the Internet generation, the blog is fast replacing the essay. But blogs are pretenders to the throne of true essay writing. They mimic the essay much as Eliza Doolittle mimicked the Queen's English before Professor Higgins got his hands on her. Like Eliza, blogs are captivating in their earnest, rapid-fire approach. But they are rarely, even at their best, true essays.

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729) made me fall in love with all an essay could do when I first read it in high school. Smart, funny and intensely political, Swift's satire is a biting commentary on the poverty devastating Ireland in the 1700s. Swift proposes that the poor sell their infants to the rich as delicacies to be eaten. The satiric tone evolves into reformist passion: the rich, Swift asserts, must relinquish some luxuries for the poor to survive.

This tongue-in-cheek essay is a perfect example of how complex and long-lived a well-crafted essay can be. "Proposal" works as well today as it did three centuries ago, its ideas still relevant. Do you remember last week's blog? Yesterday's?

Are classic essays like Swift's still being written, or has the elegant thoughtfulness that is the essay's legacy been winnowed away by its rapacious bastard offspring, the blog? And will the Internet generation, suffused by the blogosphere, lose the ability to write essays altogether? (The plethora of essays for sale online to students portends they may.)

Blogging has replaced the real essay for most people under 30, just as the Internet has replaced the daily newspaper. Polls show more than 60 percent of online readers trust independent news sources like blogs over mainstream news sources. But while blogs provide immediacy, they also breed inaccuracy - from spelling and grammatical errors to errors of fact. An essay, despite the immediacy and passion with which it might have been written, has still been perused by an editor, a copy editor and a fact-checker before it saw print. (Even Swift had an editor.) A blog has been reviewed by no one, edited by no one - not even, in many cases, been proofread by the author.

Some bloggers, such as Andrew Sullivan and Richard Scheer, are former newsmen with real journalistic credentials. Others, like Matt Drudge, are more like Stowe's Topsy - they just grew. Blogland isn't like the world of mainstream journalism, and bloggers are not usually serious essayists like Sullivan or Scheer. Any dot-commer can blog - a serious journalist with years of experience like, say, myself, or the teenager down the block spewing political rants during breaks from Grand Theft Auto. The problem in the blogosphere is that the kid and I will be received with equal credibility.

In blogging, the checks and balances of standard essay writing seem not to apply. With its component of endless ruminations, incomplete (and often inconsistent) ideas and run-on sentences, is blogging really an online tributary of the art of the essay or the Internet kudzu slowly wiping it out? Immersed in Blogland, one cannot escape the keen sense that the line between fact and fiction - blurred so delicately and purposefully by the founders of the New Journalism, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson - has been muddied irreparably and with no concern that it ever be redrawn.

George Orwell, reporter and essayist, provides a most compelling admonishment for bloggers. His 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," asserted that with writing comes responsibility; that sloppy, self-congratulatory arguments damage the language as much as poor usage does; that how we use language - and to what political or social end - is essential to maintaining its integrity. Blogging claims to do this, but with no actual filter, can it?

To their credit, blogs often deal with controversies sidestepped by mainstream newspapers and magazines. But so do the best essayists - and with a lasting clarity, not mere provocation. In Edward Said's Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, and his final book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said writes with deliberate and conscious eloquence about the impact of humanism on politics in a world in which oppression, colonialism and imperialism are realities, not simply classroom theoretics. Possibly America's foremost political essayist before his death in 2003, Said's own experience of exile as a Palestinian shaped his worldview.

What is defining about his essays, however, is that they meld the political exigencies of myriad blogs with a gracefully discursive line of inquiry that is absent from the blogosphere. Said examines the basis for a humanistic democracy, explores the multicultural with depth and breadth.

Many blogs attempt the same thing, particularly on the Middle Eastern crises that Said writes about so powerfully, but the solipsistic approach of these blogs often diminishes and even negates their arguments. Length simply doesn't replace clarity when it comes to an essay; as a longtime editor told me when I was a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News, "If you can't say it in 850 words, you can't say it."

My editor wasn't entirely correct; some ideas need space to evolve their complexity. But Swift's "Proposal" is amazingly short - shorter than almost any blog I read daily.

Nor must the personal that is the heart and soul of blogging be sacrificed in a more fully developed essay. In Joyce Carol Oates' most recent collection, Uncensored: Views and (Re)Views (Ecco, 372 pages, $24.95), she declares that "the dynamic of storytelling is hidden, but not absent" in essays. She explains how she has come to view the development of her role of critic as an ethical standard (ethical standards being another missing component in the blogosphere). Like Said, Oates compares and contrasts the world of literature with the world it reflects.

Never mere observer, Oates personalizes every book, every author, every piece of criticism. This is the essence of the writer, and in these often short but always immensely rich pieces, Oates, by example alone, explains the importance of keeping the essay alive with the same ferocity that Orwell used about language.

Differently personal is Jonathan Lethem's latest collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 160 pages, $22.95). Lethem takes popular cultural iconographics and relates them to his own life. The essays begin as discussions on movies and art, but evolve into a deep, incisive reflection on the relation of what we see to who we are, each intrinsic to the other.

There are those who will argue that the kind of essays written by Orwell, Said and Oates are apples unable to be compared with the oranges proffered by even the most talented bloggers. But it's not so much comparability that's at issue; rather it is the excising of careful, well-thought-out prose, replaced with writing that is often mere political musing and cultural journaling (and not of the Samuel Pepys variety).

Bloggers are more Web-cam style diarists than essayists.

What one has to consider, in the art of the essay, is the legacy it leaves. Said makes a clear case for the importance of a multicultural voice, as many blogs do. But Said contextualizes that importance by defining its historical and intellectual foundation; his words have immediacy, without the datedness of the blog.

Blogland is a sprawl, fast encroaching on the fragile landscape of the finely wrought essay. While blogging has its place, it would be tragic if, 300 years from now, there were no essay from our era as powerful as Swift's for future generations to reflect upon and admire and instead just the diarist musings of writers whose most salient talent is their spontaneity.

Victoria A. Brownworth's essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and her collection, Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life won several awards.

W. S. Cross said...

I was at a writers conference in NY recently, and several editors were extolling blogs as a way for alternative writing to find its audience in their corporate world of same old, same old publishing. I don't know we're there yet, but it beats waiting around for the current dinosaur of publishing to get its act together.

Cristi said...

Agreed! It's a great way to submit your work to peer review and see how it stands on its merits. Writing in public is getting into the trenches, as Scott said.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful invention it is, this thing we call the Internet!

Anonymous said...

Come and check it out if you get the time 8-)

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