I guess I re-enter the ring of fire at my own peril, but I feel compelled to return to what has become (or so the publish first, ask questions later crowd would have it) “n+1 vs. lit-bloggers.” At times, the whole kerfuffle has seemed to confirm some of the liabilities n+1‘s “Blog Reflex” sought to diagnose in lit-blogs: a tendency toward contempt or wet kisses, an emphasis on performance over analysis, a reduction of big questions into partisan orthodoxies. These are, in fact, the very same liabilities I thought I detected in the n+1 piece. On the other hand, without some very engaging performances, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Despite the extremely high temperature at which tempers seem to be running, or perhaps annealed by the flames, several noteworthy questions seem to have emerged. To wit:
Does instant communication encourage combat? If so, why? (Is the media the message?) When does anger work to enrich understanding, and when does it hinder it? Are those even the metrics anymore? How can a medium so bound up with the culture industry manage a critique of that industry? Is the blog-as-antidote-to-ideology itself part of the ideology? Is good writing good for writing? Does mass culture exert a leveling effect? Can highbrow and middlebrow coexist peacefully, and if so under what circumstances? What becomes of critique when words are control x-ed and control v-d and the very idea of context, the context of context, starts to evaporate?
I’d like to advance the proposition that we’re all engaged in a test-case. To the extent that we can do something productive with these questions (which will likely involve listening as well as talking, reading as well as writing), we support the idea that the blog has some place at the table of cultural criticism. To the extent that we spend time finding ever more inventive ways to give one another the finger, we prove out the idea that, behind the hypnotic flickering on our shiny new screens, nothing of much worth is happening.
Here, I find myself rooting for the blog in the way I used to root for the Red Sox – passionately, but cautiously. Weirdly enough, this may be not too far removed from n+1‘s attitude. The original “Blog Reflex” piece – which I have read, and recommend others do, if only at the bookstore – proceeded from the tacit assumption that the blog isn’t by its nature the enemy of “critique.” Keith Gessen’s and Marco Roth’s thoughtful, if controversial, their comments here and at Long Sunday only confirm that they believe that the blog might, at least theoretically, offer some counterweight to an increasingly narcotic media environment… a point with which I think most literary bloggers agree.
I took issue with the n+1 polemic because I thought the rhetorical choices – use of the past tense, sweeping generalizations, accusatory tone – tended to prejudge unfairly, and at a very early date, the results of the blog experiment. And to make ad hominem attacks without naming names. Again, I think n+1 editors Gessen and Roth are, if not in agreement with me on this point, then at least open to the criticism. (And in this kind of volatile discussion, it takes courage to come out and offer even a partial recantation, as Mr. Roth did, rather than sticking to the mode of turf-defense.)
Moving forward, it might help to clarify what we mean by “lit-blog.” (A contraction of a contraction of a contraction is bound to cause some confusion.) In responding to “The Blog Reflex,” I took “lit-blog” to mean “blog about books,” because I contribute to one. But I’ve come to see that n+1 meant something closer to “blog that filters contemporary culture through a literary sensibility.” I’m happy to accept this more expansive definition. Thus, as Keith Gessen suggests, my very short catalogue of popular blogs that seemed to refute n+1‘s generalizations should be amended to include not only Maud Newton and Moorishgirl, but also Long Sunday and Crooked Timber and so on. In all candor, Gessen seems to read more blogs than I do… which only makes me wish that “The Blog Reflex” had been more specific in its targets, lest babies and bathwater both end up in the gutter. (To be fair, the “Intellectual Scene” section of n+1 has always been more about the generalities of culture; the specifics are usually covered in the longer essays.)
I stand by my plaudits for The Quarterly Conversation, the LBC, and the Pynchon roundtable, as I stand by my own reviews, but that’s a matter of taste. What’s noteworthy is that each of us seems to be able to come up with a list of exemplary literary blogs. I do resent the imputation that “Keepers of the Flame” name-checked only the blogs of friends or that I prefer blogs that make “noise.” I’m not online enough to have known that there was “a little circle,” and I mentioned Scott Esposito’s blog specifically because I thought he didn’t seem like a noisy writer. (I’m open to correction on this point, but check out his photo on the website… he looks so gentle!) I don’t know Scott from Adam any more than I know Ed Champion from Bat Segundo. I literally just reached for a couple of examples, from among the 10 or 15 blogs I read.
I also think “phenomenally ignorant” is unfair, as are the unbanked assertions in some of Mark Sarvas’ and Ed Champion’s responses to Gessen and Roth’s comments; we could debate the value of name-calling, but – again – we’d be debating taste. I’d prefer for the name-callers to spell out what they mean, or to admit that, hey, in the heat of battle, they lashed out… and move on.
But Mr. Gessen’s momentary lapses in what’s generally an intelligent post – like Mr. Roth’s admission to getting angry; like Ed’s “Je refuse,” like my own flirtation in the original post with imputing the worst motives to “The Blog Reflex” – points to a phenomenon the subsequent comment thread bears out. And which bears analysis, should anyone wish to undertake it: there’s something about instant communication that encourages high dudgeon. This is not always the enemy of thoughtful “critique,” but it does not, in and of itself, constitute critique. “When it comes to hatred, most of us are cowards,” as Marco Roth puts it. Hatred can be a cleansing fire, but to hate bravely requires discipline.
As I see it, the challenge for literary bloggers – at least those who would admit to the temptation to flame, and who would also admit to feeling like their most combustible writings are not their most intelligent – is to find a way to preserve the agonistic pleasures of the medium while doing important work for the culture. I’m not sure if I agree with Gessen’s premise that “bad writing is bad for writing”… that it’s an offense against writing (though Milan Kundera thinks so). But I know I don’t want to waste time reading bad writing. There’s a war on, for Pete’s sake.
Ultimately, the most useful point of comparison for the blog seems to be the print periodical in all its variations. The blog as a medium seems capacious enough to contain short reviews, 5,000-word essays, war reporting, dumb lists, gossip, “ignorant railing.” Anyone has a right to make whatever complaints they want, and – here’s the blessing and the curse of the medium – to hear rebuttal or retraction or further discussion in fairly short order. Rather than spending my time telling other people to shut up, or trying to impose a reign of virtue, I’d prefer to try to step up my own game.
And anyone who doesn’t like that can suck on it.