Pressing on

Pressing On (Return of the Phoebe) from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Ah, to be as single-minded as a phoebe! To sing for the sheer joy of it, one’s message reduced to the bare fundamentals:
I am here.
Life is good.
Gimme some sugar.

Isn’t that really what we’re all trying to do, as artists and writers ?

Apparently not. “Whether a person blogs to make a little money, to influence opinion or just for sheer ego gratification,” says Paul Boutin of the New York Times, “amassing a large audience is the goal.” Oh. Oops.

Funny thing, though. Remember my interview with an anonymous blogger? Anon. used a slightly different yardstick to measure success in blogging:

One of my blogs lasted only a few weeks and got mentioned on instapundit and metafilter, logged hundreds of readers daily, was cut and pasted and forwarded as emails, and led to several offers of publication in whole or in part. A year before that, I had written another blog that also lasted only a few weeks. This second blog drew few readers, was not widely linked, didn’t feature my best prose, and when it ended, wasn’t archived by me or anyone else. It, however, involved my wandering in snowy woods by myself several times a week. For that reason alone, I prefer it to its more celebrated cousin.

Now this same individual, writing under a pseudonymn and working with an agent, has gotten an offer from a major publisher to bring out his second novel, which also gestated in a (now discontinued) blog — one with a daily readership probably around 100, I’m guessing. (Which still sounds like a lot to those of us who have been writing poetry for a while, and are used to thinking of a large audience as anything in excess of ten people, including family members!) Nor is he the only friend or acquaintance for whom blogging has led to authorship.

But judging by the advice proffered by most of the blogging experts I’ve read, my friends are basket-cases. Not only do they fail to measure their success by Google PageRank or Technorati authority, but their blogs often lack a tight focus; their titles usually aren’t terribly descriptive; most of them probably don’t know how to use tags to increase their SEO; and their posts often ramble far from the point and include lengthy paragraphs that few casual visitors would be able to focus on (Anon. was famous for that). But like our friend in the video above, they are hardly lacking in dedication.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the American blogging cognoscenti have completely ignored what I consider the most significant blogging story of 2008 so far. Japan’s most prestigious literary award — the Akutagawa Prize, which recognizes up-and-coming fiction writers — just went to a blogger named Mieko Kawakami. She began blogging in 2003 as a way to try and stir up interest in her music, but soon the writing took over. The prize went to her third work of fiction; all three were originally written for her blog.

Kawakami’s award-winning novella, “The Breast and the Egg,” explores the ideas of divorce, the questioning of beauty standards and other themes of solitary womanhood that are still relatively new territory in Japanese literature. Kawakami’s stories in some ways are those of Japan’s Everywoman. […]

“It’s about living, our body, the changes of the heart that accompany the body, the urgency, the problems being born, moment by moment,” Kawakami said. “The fact that we are always doing our best at living.”

So it seems that some top-notch writers are finding their voice through blogging now, even if blogging as a medium for literary expression hasn’t really caught on here yet. As someone who has helped publish bloggers and other writers and artists in a blog-enabled online literary magazine for three years, this is obviously a topic of keen interest to me. In Japan, as the AP article goes on to point out, it’s not uncommon now for writers to produce novels in installments meant to be read on mobile phones. To say that Japan has a healthy blogging culture would be a bit of an understatement.

There are more blog posts in Japanese than any other language, according to Technorati Inc., which tracks nearly 113 million blogs globally. Last year, Technorati found 37 percent of all postings were in Japanese — about 1.5 million per day. Postings in English — from Americans, Britons, Australians and people in many other countries — accounted for 36 percent of the total.

It’s not just a matter of numbers, though. In Japan, the personal or diary blog is the dominant form, not only as a percentage of the whole (which may be true here, too) but in terms of public perception. This makes sense, because letters and diaries have held a central position in Japanese literature for over a thousand years, enjoying equal status with poetry and novels. (You may have noticed the quote at the bottom of my sidebar from Sei Shonagon, whose tenth-century Pillow Book was as much like a personal blog as anything one can imagine.) Moreover, novels based on lightly-fictionalized autobiography have been a staple of Japanese literature for close to fifty years now. So a Japanese blogger with literary aspirations would not have to look far for role models or an appreciative audience.

Here in the U.S., by contrast, the literary establishment seems reluctant even to concede the value of online literary magazines, let alone blogs. The proper curmugeonly thing to do is express distaste for something so obviously deleterious to the cause of true literature, as the British novelist Doris Lessing did in her Nobel acceptance speech this past December.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

God forbid! Then again, if all the bloggers I know followed the advice of the blogging gurus, I think we would have to concede Lessing’s point.

26 Replies to “Pressing on”

  1. Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. It took me a minute or two into the video to realize you’d superimposed a recorded sermon/song on the phoebe footage. At first, I had this delicious idea that you were filming a phoebe at a tent revival, and I kept wondering what the other worshipers made of this goofy guy pointing a camera toward the sky.

  2. “…their blogs often lack a tight focus; their titles usually aren’t terribly descriptive; most of them probably don’t know how to use tags to increase their SEO; and their posts often ramble far from the point and include lengthy paragraphs that few casual visitors would be able to focus on

    Um… I’m guilty. And what’s an SEO?

    I suppose the correct thing to say is I don’t care whether my blog’s famous or not (it isn’t, of course), but I have to confess to to occasional lapses when I get irritated by seeing the popularity of some inane blogs. But, the irritation doesn’t last; popularity would have its shortcomings; and I get huge satisfaction about posting something I think has at least a little quality and finding it does indeed connect with a handful of readers.

    Blogging can be an art form (including literature). I suspect Doris Lessing was thinking of a particular style of blogging. Condemning blogging in general is like condemning books in general because there’s so much Da Vinci Code crap out there.

  3. Lorianne – I’m flattered that you think I’m actually adventurous enough to attend a tent revival! I had a chance when I was marooned with my brother in Summerville, WV a couple summers ago, but took a pass.

    pohanginapete – Actually, I doubt that Lessing is aware that blogs like the ones in our blogrolls even exist. Most people aren’t. They associate blogging with political snark, hobby-blogging, or teenagers on MyFace.

    I share that irritation at times, but it usually doesn’t take the form of jealousy because VN is getting just about the readership it deserves, I think. But it bothers me that some of my friends aren’t better known. I do flirt with the idea of starting a literary blog network, but I have my hands full with qarrtsiluni and can’t really even find the time to do all i want with that. The thing about being a content-producing blogger is that one has to spend a considerable amount of time away from the computer (or at least the internet, for those of us who write first drafts in Word).

    Oh, SEO stands for search-engine optimization. It’s really only of interest if you’re trying to make money from advertising. Otherwise, I can’t think of any good reason to care how attractive one’s site is to search engines. Very, very few people who find one’s blog that way ever become regular readers, as far as I can tell.

  4. “…their blogs often lack a tight focus; their titles usually aren’t terribly descriptive; most of them probably don’t know how to use tags to increase their SEO; and their posts often ramble far from the point and include lengthy paragraphs that few casual visitors would be able to focus on…”

    Sheesh … you sound just like my twin. ;-)

  5. Timethief, I presume? No, I think there’s a vast difference between simply giving blog tips, and acting as if there’s one best way to blog.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. There is real hostility towards blogging amongst some journalists. Janet Street-Porter – widely read and a social commentator since the ’60s – has mounted two swingeing attacks on ‘its inanities’. I assume dry-mouthed panic on her part at the sudden invasion of hitherto under-populated territory by writers who could probably scribble her off the map. Write on!

  7. Dick – Well, I’m not completely unsympathetic to journalists’ complaints, because many news organizations — at least here in the states — are compelling them to start blogs now, and that can only hurt the one thing they still do better than 95% of political bloggers: investigative journalism. So in an industry that’s already cutting way the hell back on reporting, we have the prospect of the few remaining reporters chained to their desks and responding breathlessly to the same few, shallow stories du jour as everyone else, instead of spending days or weeks on a single story as was once the norm. Sad.

    Harry – Glad you liked that one! Woulda been better if I’d used a tripod, but what the hell. I’m sure the Rev. would’ve appreciated a real recording studio, too.

  8. I’m glad Pohanginapete brought up the SEO question. I didn’t know what that meant either. I don’t like the whole counting comments concept of popularity and worth. Lots of very shitty movies have huge audiences and make a lot of money. That does not imply inherent value in the product. Dharma Bums gets a lot of hits, but you know I mostly write crap. I’m never sure why people show up at all.

  9. robin andrea – And you know I’m not going to agree with that last assessment. People show up because they like your heart-felt mix of nature observation and commentary, and they comment because they like you and because you are generous with your comments on their blogs. I feel your writing is very clear: it never says “look at me,” but it rarely has any awkward spots, either, and thus your originality is able to shine through. (Never confuse a lack of novelty with a lack of originality!)

    Below a certain threshold of popularity, the number of comments is a good index of the author’s own sociability. Once one gets above that threshold, blogging seems to get a lot less fun, which is why I am so hesitant to embrace the accepted wisdom about the purpose of blogging. I remember how much fun Real Live Preacher was in the early days, when its still-anonymous author interacted with a lively bunch of mostly non-Christian commenters at Salon blogs, and how hard he took it when he started reaching a wider audience and found himself unable to keep up with the comments any more.

  10. My biggest blog faux pas is writing about a bunch of different topics without a consistent theme. If someone visits looking for more sewing and knitting posts, they’re bound to be scared off by Appalachian stereotypes or Linux tips and techniques. Or bug pictures. Whatever you like, I have something that won’t interest you.

    I do consider SEO and usability, because some of what I write is “how-to” or informative. That’s a big part of my own Internet use, so when I contribute a little something to that vast information pool, I try to place it where others can find it and write it so most people can understand it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed my “Google Ads”–if I run them for the next five years, I should make the minimum amount Google will actually pay out. However, since I added them to the blog, the Google search engine appears to serve up my posts more frequently.

    Obviously, I don’t consider SEO very much, or I’d be writing a fiber arts blog, a natural history blog, and maybe a local history blog. I put them together with all my other passing fancies because I don’t know how to compartmentalize my thinking, and because the blogs I like best are the ones where I am often surprised. Like Via Negativa.

  11. Hi Rebecca – Yes, I suppose for the audiences you want to reach, it would make more logical sense to have three or four different, more focused blogs, and then a “lifestream” blog or combined feed for those who want to read all your content together, like me. (I’ll admit I don’t always read all of the fiber arts posts, but I always enjoy looking at the pictures, and it’s nice to get a sense of what all you’re up to.)

    Glad you find things that surprise you here. That’s quite a compliment — and a good yardstick for evaluating blogs, I think.

  12. I had to smile at this post. I only started tagging two days ago, and not very well, someone turned up from a fashion blog lambasting me for tagging my Mantua gown poem as fashion, fortunately it was caught as spam so I left it there. I am not in it for the bloglove as I call it, but for community. I know no writers IRL, which is very depressing. I love that I can hang out with likeminded people here, read good stuff, okay feedback’s great but knowing I’m not alone is better.
    But blogging’s just like life, there are those who are driven and those who are not :)

  13. My parakeets like the audio — whether they are responding to the phoebe or the ‘pressing on’ I can’t tell.

    And I, of course, am one of those lost-cause bloggers. A small audience, and most of those come for the cat posts.

    A literary blog network — I like that idea. I considered a Ning network for poets who blog, but, like you, decided I’m full enough as it is.

    I think there are many more readers than acknowledged for whom personal and literary blogs are the heart of the internet.

    So, let’s just keep on beating.

  14. Jo – that sounds like an entirely appropriate use of a tag to me. who says people with an interest in fashion aren’t looking for poetry? The way some blogging communities get possessive about tags at is ridiculous, especially since we’re unable to opt out of their silly public tag pages and keep all our tags local to our own sites (something I’d do at qarrtsiluni in a heartbeat if the option were available). I do like the way tags allow a finer-grained categorization of blog posts, and haven’t made up my mind yet whether to start using tags here.

    As for those who are driven, I’m very much not. Blogging is a great excuse not to submit my work elsewhere. And the community is a unique pleasure you won’t find in traditional magazine or book publication.

    SB – I did flirt with the idea of writing a follow-up post briefly profiling a dozen or so examples of what I consider “successul and outstanding bloggers” (the title of an actual blog!), and as it happens both you and Jo were on that list. But then I figured, heck, anyone who’s curious about my blog community can simply click on the commenters’ links. And look, here you are!

    Ning would be one way to do it, for sure. Or even a simple aggregator site. Whatever. Yes, let’s keep trying to prove the critics and the blog experts wrong. Blog on!

  15. I’m still a sucker for blogging on blogging! Good discussion.

    Not much to add, except rather irrelevantly and not very cleverly that I found Joe Hyam while googling for pink onions, and another friend who I e-mail with as well as blogging exchanges while looking for the words of a song, so search engine searches do yield readers sometimes.

  16. Interesting discussion, sorry to get to it so late! I like the interaction part of blogging, the sense of community both in terms of visiting other people’s blogs and in getting comments on my blog. I have to be honest and say that if I got almost no comments on my blogs, I would have given up after a year and concentrated on trying to get published elsewhere.

    I can understand why people just dismiss blogging if all they know of it is the personal diary type of blog (not that i think that type of blog is bad but i can see why it doesn’t come across well)

    I like to think that my blog is well put together and can be seen as a package where everything is serving the same function. But I know that people who don’t like all the aspects of it (poetry, craft, environment, reviews) may be put off reading the whole thing.

  17. Lucy – Yes, indeed – serendipity plays a major role in helping us find each other. Whether that’s enough of a justification for bloggers to expend a major effort on SEO, I don’t know. I do appreciate blogging platforms like WordPress that are built to be search-engine friendly and easily accessible to all comers, I’ll admit. At one level it’s a basid part of usability. But the flip side of that is the enormous amount of comment spam one gets. I’m on track to reach half a million in just two years.

    I always thought you and Joe were old friends, though – I don’t realize you met through blogging! A very fruitful encounter, then.

    CGP – Yes, and community for poetry bloggers can turn into a gentle sort of workshopping, too, can’t it? Though I gather there are places online where one can get more unsparing critiques of one’s writing if that’s what one is after.

    As for the attitude toward personal blogging, let’s remember that there are a lot of poetry critics who don’t care for the confessional style in poetry, either, regardless of how many fans it attracts. Some of that stems from sexism, I think, since the genre is dominated by women, and/or snobbery: the notion that the personal is trivial by definition unless it concerns itself with weighty issues of life and death and Man’s Search for Meaning.

  18. I think confessional poetry is a difficult one, because I think the sloppiest poetry will tend to be confessional, people just writing down their emotions to get them out with no real thought for form. There’s an increasing amount of that type of poetry around too. It has its place, poetry can be very valuable therapy, but its not necessarily going to be able to hold its own. Then confessional poetry may all get tarred with that brush. Yes, there is sexism too in the anti confessional poetry stance.

  19. All very true. But I’ve never shared the fears that many critics seem to have about that, that the huge amount of bad poetry out there hurts the cause of poetry in general (and i don’t believe that the introduction of free verse has either increased or decreased the proportion of doggerel to good poetry). I’m sure if we were able to go back in time to Elizabethan England or the Tang Dynasty China, we’d find that 95% of the poetry written then was garbage, too.

  20. Yes you’re probably right about the proportion of bad verse to good verse having stayed more or less the same but its more likely to see the light of day these days – anyone can go to an open mike event or start a blog….. I love free verse and I think that in fact the growth in free verse has actually prevented a lot of doggerel, as badly written formal poetry is much more obviously bad than badly written free verse.

  21. Dave, big thanks for your perspective on confessional poetry, I agree, there is a sexism in it, because women do tend to write it (myself included) and I am at a loss to understand the backlash……why is it any worse if badly done than any other kind of crap writing…….oh and many thanks for the compliment, right back at you, absolutely.
    Juliet I agree about the badly written formal poetry (we keep bumping into each other on these discussions GRIN).

  22. Yeah, rage on, all well said. Blogging will soon start to be seen as a medium of artistic expression, creating a blog is creating a single unified work of art, the use of links and community becomes part of the medium, if we could figure out some basic monetising technique that didn’t involve google ads or throwing links for money alone but which was honest and ethical we could just forget all about the paper publishing world and let them get on it with their old unilinear one dimensional black and white words in row world while we create an entirely new art form, that would be fun,

  23. CGP –

    badly written formal poetry is much more obviously bad than badly written free verse.

    Yes, but it’s also a lot more fun, don’t you think?

    Jo – Well, I used to share some of those negative reactions, in part because the confessional style seemed to excuse much sloppiness, as Juliet says. But Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s Stealing the Language broadened my perspective considerably: one of the few absolutely essential volumes of criticism on modern poetry.

    Paul Squires – I agree; it would be nice to make money. But I enjoy giving stuff away, too, of course. Print-on-demand self-publishing, via or similar outfits, may be part of the answer. Most publishers offer 15% royalties at best, so if you’re any good at marketing yourself, you can make a lot more money self-publishing.

    And blogs are a great promotional tool, presuming you’re willing to network properly. Patry Francis’s success with The Liar’s Diary offers an excellent lesson in how to combine blogging and online networking with a traditional publisher’s marketing strategy.

  24. LOL, yes badly written formal poetry is much more fun!! Yes, you’re definitely right there.

    Blogs are a great promotional tool, I have a series of writing workshops coming up that i was asked to give after an environmental organisation in town stumbled on my blog. Plus my first payment for writing came through blogging contacts.

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