Blogs and Essays: A rant

Blogs and Essays: A rant

From the Baltimore Sun: The Long Arm of the Blog by Victoria A. Brownworth. In sum:

Blogs are not essays, but somehow blogs are going to replace essays, and that’s bad because essays are great, whereas blogs are crap posted on the interwebs by the illiterate unwashed. Samuel Pepys and Jonathan Swift would not be impressed with the blogosphere. But you should be impressed that I mentioned those two men, because I am smrt and am a Real Essayist. Respect me.

Why am I being so harsh? I generally try to be respectful of the articles I link to, but my sinuses feel like their full of concrete at the moment and I have less patience for this kind of strong-arming by the mainstream media than I usually do. And strong-arming it is: this article is maliciously disingenuous, and you can consider that my thesis statement.

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.

To suggest that everyone in the blogosphere has the same level of credibility shows a startling lack of research on Brownworth’s part. Even a basic understanding of the Google ranking algorithm flies in the face of this idea. Authority is calculable and regularly calculated online. Why, just yesterday I was talking to my buddy Jason about the problem of “A-list” bloggers, the ones with all the credibility and all the attention, and how that ranking system hurts women and minorities. So, not only are we not all equal on the internet as Brownworth suggests, but we are actively in the midst of a years-old debate about the lack of diversity in the blogosphere hierarchy.

[Jonathan Swift’s] “Proposal” works as well today as it did three centuries ago, its ideas still relevant. Do you remember last week’s blog? Yesterday’s?

Brownworth obviously misunderstands the term “blog”. If you want to make a comparison between “essay” and something related to the blogosphere, the term you’re looking for is “post”. A blog is not an essay. A blog post, however, could very well be an essay. It could be an essay that took four years to write. It could be an essay that was originally published in the New Yorker. Or, it could an essay that was published on a blog and then later in a book by a reputable publisher. A post could be a snippet of dialogue, too. It could be a link and nothing else. It could be an audio file, a podcast. It could be a picture. It could be a piece of short fiction. It could be a book review. But it could also very easily be an essay.

…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.

No. they are not essays at all. They are sources in which one might find essays posted, but they are not in and of themselves essays.

What’s a little fudged definition between friends? Am I being deliberately obtuse? What’s the problem with confusing “blog” with “post”?

Brownworth’s problem with bloggers is that they do not have all the careful editors and quality-control personnel imposed upon them the way that essayists do. Because the essay as a literary form is a technology so advanced that it actually comes equipped with five other human brains attached, so that whenever you sit down to write an essay you are immediately surrounded by an editorial team.

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?

Here is where Brownworth’s vocabulary problem twists around and becomes a non sequitur, where it becomes intellectually dishonest. The “art of the essay” is not being lost as she is suggesting. If anything, the literary form of the essay is at an all time high, since so many people are latching on to non-fiction writing. Suddenly it’s not only paid “essayists” who are can write essays that other people can read and respond to. Anyone can do it; that means there are more essays around. They may not all be good, but they’re definitely not all bad. If Brownworth’s interest is in encourage thoughtfulness and good essay writing by us as a society, she should be applauding the blog, since writing is something that improves with practice. The pool of practiced essayists is in fact growing.

There are no “checks and balances of standard essay writing”. There are “checks and balances” in the mainstream media, which is what Brownworth really means to talk about. This has nothing to do with Pepys and Swift and everything to do with big business and what it wants you to know.

I am the last person in the world to suggest that bloggers will or should supplant journalists. But the reality is this: the mainstream media, particularly in the US, has failed, and bemoaning this as the loss of an art form is disingenuous.

A wake up call: that little law about freedom of the press that everyone jumps up and down about? That doesn’t actually apply to journalists. It applies to the press, as in, the publisher of the newspaper itself. The journalist is merely an employee of the person who has the right to publish whatever he wants. (See Fox News if you think I’m making this up.) If a journalist covers a controversial story, the owner of the press in under no obligation at all to publish it. Journalists are required to represent their employers first and foremost, not the “objective truth”, whatever the heck that is.

Further, newspaper articles are never exactly the length they need to be according to the topic at hand, with just enough examples and quotes and research and exposition. Newspaper essays are never considered complete simply when they have reached the end of their argument. They are crafted and edited to fit into a certain number of inches on a page.

So here we have two clear influences on the “pure” art form that is the newspaper essay; the bias of the owner of the press and the space available that particular day. Do either of these things improve the quality of the essay as a literary form? Would Jonathan Swift have taken kindly to chunks of A Modest Proposal being sliced out to fit the confines of a particular publication? Why should we prefer this content to the product of blogs, since bloggers are, in fact, the owners of their own presses, responsible only to themselves with no word count limits?

And why exactly should we prefer an essay written by a journalist?

There are lots of active conversations about the relationship between the mainstream media and the world of blogs. Those are very worthwhile arguments to have. What we’ve learned is that objectivity is dead, everything is subjective. When publishing is as easy as it currently is, what sort of subjectivity do we prefer: institutional faux-objectivity or on-the-ground-running personal experience and upfront opinion? Whose point of view do you want to hear first: that of an intelligent and articulate Iraqi woman living in Baghdad during the occupation, or that of an intelligent, articulate and well-trained journalist embedded with the American forces?

This article of Victoria Brownworth’s strikes an elitist and nonsensical low blow that is enabled by that legitimate argument about blogs and the media. Hiding behind the spectre of a dying literary form is intellectually dishonest. The issue at hand is about legitimacy. The jury is still out on how we as a society are going to rule on that one.

0 thoughts on “Blogs and Essays: A rant

  1. This is an excellent and well thought out response. It looks to me like a good example of a solid essay, but in that author’s view, it is a post and does not count. Hmm. You provided a good sense of the author’s points, and some well presented responses. Thanks for pointing it out. It seems another example why the MSM is so afraid of blogs to the point of adopting blogs themselves. Daily Show had a nice segment on how the MSM is using bloggers, including reading right out of blogs. Clearly they see the writing in the wall that they are failing, and the best they can do is attack the medium that empowers others and is leaving them in the dust.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.