Sarah Boxer’s new book.
Last fall while visiting Boston, I met up with my friend Sarah Boxer, an excellent cultural journalist and cartoonist. Over an appropriately American lunch of hamburgers and coke we chatted a bit about her upcoming book Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, an anthology of strong blog writing. The problem with such a book, I thought, was the question of whether blog postings could work on the printed page. Sarah was very conscious of this difficulty and seemed to have worked hard to winnow her selection down to the best postings out there without doing violence to the free-for-all spirit of the web.
I’m looking foward to seeing Sarah’s book (which is now out) but our talk got me thinking about how blogging might be changing the nature of prose.
I like blogs well enough (as is evident by the fact that I’m writing in one) but there is something about online jotting that mitigates against good prose, or at least the type of prose that deserves to be bound up in a volume. Good prose, pot sticking prose that clings to your memory, is deeply inscribed. In the age of print, the writer was someone who was trying to make his or her mark in the world (literally, literarily and figuratively). The written word was designed to be inscribed on the printed page and in the reader’s mind. However abstractly a writer might compose his or her prose, even when the writing was as air-less as Kant at his most ethereally idealistic, the words still existed as things in the world, ink indented on the page. Good prose in the Guttenberg years, was always, to some degree, challenging: reading and riddling out are sibling acts.
Inscribing, marking, riddling out: these are physical, material activities. In the age of blogs, we’re more aware of how bodily an act book reading is. (With perfect Hegalian timing, the academic study of “book culture” is taking off at exactly the same time as blogging). If I want to find a passage from a book, I can usually zero in on it by thinking back where it was on the page in physical terms: was it near the beginning of the book or at the end, on the left hand side or the right, on the top of the page or the bottom? It’s surprising how often you can locate a remembered passage by holding a book: the act of having a volume in hand brings back a sense of where to look.
Computer prose, by contrast, is transient, ephemeral, weightless, not located in a single spot but discombobulated out there somewhere in cyberspace. Blog words have no inky inscribed physicality; they’re ones and zeros residing in an angelic electronic realm, back-lighted messengers from a two dimensional reality.
Not being inscribed or marked, blog prose is harder to remember (it doesn’t leave a mark). Like TV commercials and pop jingles, blogs flit in and out of memory. Conversely, it’s easy to skim over blog prose, to get the gist through a quick once-over. Of course, Google acts as a substitute-memory, so if I do want to find a half-remembered posting, I rely on the efficiency of well-chosen search terms. In effect, memory ceases to be spatially-based and instead becomes the skill of thinking with the logic of Google search terms.
What does this mean for the future of prose? The super bright Sarah Boxer offers some thoughts in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books:
Two years ago, I was given a dreadful idea for a book: create an anthology of blogs. It could not be done, I was sure. Books are tight. Blogs are reckless. Books are slow. Blogs are fast. Books ask you to stay between their covers. Blogs invite you to stray. Books fret over copyright and libel. Blogs grab whatever they want with impunity -news, gossip, pictures, videos. Making a book out of bloggy material, if it could be done at all, would kill it, wouldn’t it?
Bloggers are golden when they’re at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn’t the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that’s no way to blog.
Blogging at its freest is like going to a masked ball. You can say all the spiteful, infantile things you wouldn’t dream of saying if you were in print or face to face with another human being. You can flirt with anyone, or try to. You can tell the President exactly what you think of him. You can have political opinions your friends would despise you for. You can even libel people you don’t like and hide behind an alias. (It’s very hard to get back at anonymous bloggers who defame you because, by an act of Congress, Web site administrators aren’t liable for what’s written on their sites. And erasing anything on the Web is almost impossible.) You can assume a new identity and see how it flies-no strings attached.
A splendid essay – so much so that I’m going to re-read it when I get the print edition of the New York Review of Books (long essays are hard to read online, another problem with blogs: they are all sprints rather than healthy, nourishing jogs). And of course after re-reading the essay I’ll look out for Sarah’s book.