A Dash of Metablogging

A bunch of new comments on blogging have left me . . . well, puzzled, mostly. What Camille Paglia, Mickey Kaus, and Tyler Cowen have recently said about blogs bears little resemblance to my own (admittedly limited) experience.

Taking issue with Camille Paglia is too easy to be fun, but in a “recent Salon article”:http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2003/10/29/paglia/index5.html she voices some broadly-held notions about blogs (hat tip to “Tim Dunlop”:http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/001659.php ):

Blog reading for me is like going down to the cellar amid shelves and shelves of musty books that you’re condemned to turn the pages of. Bad prose, endless reams of bad prose! There’s a lack of discipline, a feeling that anything that crosses one’s mind is important or interesting to others. People say that the best part about writing a blog is that there’s no editing — it’s free speech without institutional control. Well, sure, but writing isn’t masturbation — you’ve got to self-edit . . .

As a writer, I’m inspired not just by other writing but by music and art and lines from movies. I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of blogs. Most bloggers aren’t culture critics but political or media junkies preoccupied with pedestrian minutiae and a sophomoric “gotcha” mentality. I find it depressing and claustrophobic. The Web is a wide open space — voices on it should have energy and vision.

Paglia describes _bad_ bloggers deftly enough, but only bad ones. The blogs I enjoy the most feature admirable prose, a clear voice, disciplined consideration of what’s worth writing about, good self-editing, and cultural as well as political commentary. They are full of energy and vision. “As I’ve noted before”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/000063.html, good blogs form only a tiny fraction of the blogosphere, but the blogosphere is huge — that fraction contains far more worthwhile blogs than one person will ever have time to read. The worst you can say is that it takes a fair bit of time and effort to find them.

Paglia’s argument seems to be that because most or many blogs fit her description, this makes the whole enterprise suspect. But any medium where there are few or no barriers to participation must be judged on its best, not its average, efforts. In traditional publishing, the entire mechanism of editors and publishers stipulates that only the stuff that actually makes it to print is actually worth our consideration. When evaluating the state of the American novel, for example, we look at books that have been published in recent years, but not at the thousands of unpublished manuscripts cluttering closets across the country. Evaluating the state of the blogosphere is like gauging the state of the American novel if all of those unpublished tomes were up there on the bookshelves alongside Franzen, Smiley, and King. Surveying such a mass, one might easily say “Good gravy! American novelists can’t write!” But that would be an unfair assessment that misses the point.

On to Mickey Kaus, who has a “good piece in Slate”:http://slate.msn.com/id/2090405/ that defends the enterprise of blogging in the wake of the Easterbrook affair. I agree with what he has to say about the advantages of the medium, like speed and uncensorability. (He doesn’t mention one of the best things, which is the opportunity to become familiar with the idiosyncratic voice and personality of another person on a variety of subjects.) But I don’t agree with his assertion that blogging is more analagous to speech than to regular writing. This is just one instance of the “blogging is a different form of communication” meme that I’ve always had trouble with. Blogs are too diverse for that kind of generality. A blog is a medium for _writing_, and the words of any given blog can be just as varied in length, style, tone, and substance as writing anywhere else. But it’s still writing.

I suspect that when Mickey Kaus says “blog” he means “that particular kind of blog that people like me and Glenn Reynolds write,” i.e. a forum to link to other items (news and otherwise) on the Internet and provide witty, occasionally insightful, but always _short_ commentary. This describes all blogs some of the time, but only a few blogs all of the time, and those aren’t the ones I’m interested in. Plenty of blogs (and a greater share of the best ones) tend to write in longer-form essays, and contain plenty of original thought on subjects as varied as their authors. This sort of writing doesn’t have anything to do with speech; it is the same kind of writing you’ll find on editorial pages and Style sections and the Paris Review.

Which brings us to “Tyler Cowen”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2003/10/the_future_of_b.html (hat tip to “Aaron Haspel”:http://www.godofthemachine.com/archives/00000497.html ):

Blogs that offer too much of the author, and the author alone, are vulnerable to other blogs that cream-skim them, and other blogs, thereby offering the superior product. The question is not who can write the best stuff, but who can collect the best stuff, and comment on it most effectively.

A quick review of the trackback links to his entry, or of other comments like Aaron’s, make it clear that just about nobody agrees with Tyler on this point. So I’m only adding my voice to the throng when I say: I don’t understand the appeal of ‘portal’ or ‘linking’ blogs. I don’t read “Instapundit”:http://www.instapundit.com/. Heck, I don’t even read “Atrios”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/ regularly, and he at least I agree with. I don’t think my tastes are all that peculiar, either, which is why it’s frustrating to see discussions of blogging that don’t jive with my experience as a reader of blogs. This peculiar medium for writing has far more diversity and vibrancy than a lot of people give it credit for. Thank goodness.