A perspective on blogs from the literary battlefield


Sven Birkerts offered a stirring piece in the Boston Globe this weekend about the rise of literary blogs and their impact on the print medium. Departing in letter from the corporate world — but remaining in the same spiritual hemisphere — this one cuts deep at Telos. I relate entirely to the writer’s attempts to embrace both the essence of classic literature and the potential presented by new information channels.

He writes:

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of “post” and “update,” the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of “I’ve been thinking . . .” approach. At some level it’s the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.

I feel his pain, but plead for Mr Birkerts to be patient: like many things web and viral, the blogosphere will continue to shape itself. While I agree that the Internet is rife with independent yet pointless bloggers riffing on their day to day experiences, that does not diminish the high quality that exists on other pages, penned by other minds with the potential to establish themselves in exciting, as yet undiscovered ways. Indeed, many would argue that the difference between amateur and professional should no longer be decided by print publication credit, but by insight and expertise. Blogs give voice to those who otherwise have none. This is a good thing.

The “assumption of referentiality” is a second area that is cast negatively as evidence of informality. One beauty of linkage, however, is education, and the potential to allow readers to share a foundation of insight can create a stronger bond, encourage dialogue, and lead to greater insights on both sides of the screen. Ironically, the perfect example lies in Mr Birkert’s next paragraph:

Some of [this was] addressed in a recent essay in Harper’s by novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick in which she took up the questions of shared discourse, addressing what she saw as not just the threats to print, but more ominously, to literary reading itself.

As a reader that was completely hooked on Mr Birkert’s perspective, here was a perfect place for a link to Ms Ozick’s viewpoint – or, as it happens to be subscription based, a link to her bio, some info on the essay, etc. Worth noting as well that her thoughts were not surprisingly the subject of much intelligent banter in the blogosphere (exhibit A). As Mr Birkert’s piece goes on to discuss her writing in some detail, this kind of background would give me better insight into the discourse; the immediacy of a link would allow me to brush up and return without losing the thread of the conversation.

Literature and media change. The threat of online books replacing hard cover isn’t as imminent as some would have me believe, yet the mere thought of it turns my stomach. The evolution of ideas preserved on the printed page is sacrosanct; a first edition of Dickens, Mark Twain’s original typeset publication…these bear the marks of fingerprints left over the centuries. e-books will tacitly remove the indulgence of such physical history from literature. That breaks my heart.

Blogs may be a step in that direction, certainly I agree with Mr Birkert that they herald a new and difficult transition for day to day media and literary reviews. But just as when serialized novels declined with the advent of new printing technology, the masses today likewise demand access and freedom. There is much to embrace there.


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