Thanks to weblogs and other modern content management systems, a poem, essay or story can now be written in the morning and published the same afternoon. Does this spell the end of polished writing? Not judging by some of the highly polished books I’ve read by active bloggers, many of them derived in whole or in part from blogged material.(1) On the contrary, I have seen people become better writers as a result of blogging, myself probably included. Writers have always done some of their best writing in a white heat of inspiration, and blogging can either aid or hinder this depending on the personality of the writer and his or her approach to blogging: it can just as easily be a tool for artistic exploration as an agent of distraction.
Many writers prefer to use blogs merely to share news of their publishing success elsewhere, and that’s fine. But I think those with a more exhibitionist streak are missing out on a great deal of fun, and poets in particular — who are almost invariably exhibitionists, let’s face it — are missing an unparalleled opportunity to connect with audiences they might never otherwise reach. But there’s a risk, too: that they will be so seduced by this new medium that they won’t want to go back to jostling for publication in snooty print magazines no one reads, and their professional reputations will suffer as a result.
Blogs began as collections of links to real material published elsewhere, and to the extent that it’s still possible to generalize about blogging as a whole, I’d say that the “Hey, look at this cool thing I just found!” approach still predominates, whether it’s a tumblelog of quotes and images from around the web, a StumbleUpon blog, or the Huffington Post with its tabloidy presentation of news stories mostly lifted from other sources. But that’s as it should be. For the internet to remain vital, I’d guess that linking of one form or another ought to constitute somewhere around 80 percent of total web publishing behavior.(2)
“Publishing” in this sense means simply the creation of something on the internet that didn’t exist before, even if it’s only a link. Obviously this kind of secondary publication depends entirely upon the publication of original work in the first place, a relationship which the less internet-savvy may be tempted to characterize as parasitic. It certainly can be, in the case of commercial spam blogs with content scraped from RSS feeds for the purpose of gaming search engines, but otherwise I think it’s actually a symbiotic relationship, since without incoming links, an online author is limited to whatever readers s/he can reach through email or handbills.(3)
The biggest difference between online publishing and print publishing is its greater ephemerality: anything that’s published online can also be unpublished, and sites that are not actively maintained will eventually disappear. The flip side of this represents a huge boon for author and editor: any online publication can easily be altered at any time after publication. The print-oriented writer’s obsession with producing the most polished work possible is a natural reaction to the immutability of the printed word. Before I began blogging, I too would typically spend days, weeks, sometimes months on a single poem, returning to it again and again like a dog returning to its vomit. Now, as soon as I get something into a half-decent form, I just post the son of a bitch. I can always go back and swap in another draft later — and sometimes I do.
Mine isn’t the only approach, though, just the one best suited to my particular, impulsive brand of slap-dash perfectionism. Other writer-bloggers might prefer to publish later drafts in new posts, linking back to the original (Dick Jones does this a lot, to good effect) or save them for a spin-off project on another site, with component parts linked in both directions. I’ve also come to admire and sometimes emulate the style of some literary bloggers who share notes on the writing process alongside the primary text. This can make many kinds of writing more approachable for a general audience, especially if the notes are informal and personable. As blog software becomes more sophisticated, I hope to see more templates with innovative approaches to the presentation of notes and commentary.
Instantaneous self-publishing gives the author more power than at any time since the invention of literacy, but it also confers a new degree of autonomy on the text. Once published online, especially on a blog with a feed, the text can be replicated endlessly. Though it’s easy enough to instruct search-engine robots not to index a website, doing so kind of misses the whole point of the internet. Authors who desire complete control over their creations should not go anywhere near the web.
Readers have more power now, too: in most cases they can log comments in a space directly adjoining the text, with a reasonable expectation that the author will read them and even respond in turn. Of course, in many cases the readers are other bloggers, a situation that should feel familiar to most poets. But in some cases they’re bloggers from very different backgrounds, specializing in other genres, with cross-communication enabled by a personal/creative blogging culture in which some blogs (like this one, I hope) elude pigeonholing and mix genres in ways that would be considered unmarketable in traditional publishing.
Becoming part of that culture means adhering to a set of mores that might seem strange to those more familiar with the posturing and flame-wars of the political blogosphere, but the rewards include the chance for new kinds and greater degrees of creative interaction. In a nutshell, I’d say the personal blogger has an obligation to be a gracious host (which includes throwing out mean-spirited or disruptive guests as quickly as possible) and the commenters should behave as if they were guests on someone’s front porch: a publically accessable, privately controlled space.
Blogging enables the mixing not just of genres but of media, too. In contrast to print publication, full-color illustrations entail very little additional expense (and may even be free, depending on one’s web hosting arrangements). The web is in many ways a visual medium, which doesn’t mean that online audiences for longer, unillustrated texts don’t exist, simply that authors have to be aware of different strategies for gaining and retaining readers. Ekphrastic writing is one very common example of the kind of creative synergy maintaining a blog can inspire in its author. Writers with digital cameras can always shift to photoblogging when they start feeling blocked, and the kind of seeing required to take good photos can feed back into their writing.
The web doesn’t have to remain a purely visual medium, though — and this is another of its great advantages over print. Online poets in particular are fools if they don’t at least occasionally take advantage of the opportunity to return listening to center-stage. While eye-catching photos might draw in easily distracted readers, a good audio recording embedded in a Flash player alongside the text can lead someone to actually pay close attention to the poem. Video is another great blogging medium, and while putting videopoems together may seem too complicated for most, anyone capable of writing a sonnet or a villanelle can certainly figure out the basics of video and audio editing. In fact, digital literacy should probably be taught in all college writing programs now.
The greatest thing about the web, for me, is that authors can reach anyone in the world with a connection to the internet, for free or close to it. There is no longer any need for a publisher as an intermediary. The personal weblog medium offers the potential to reach beyond traditional audiences for poetry, nature writing, and other genres that commercial publishers have for decades considered irrelevant. While it’s true that blogging has passed its peak of faddishness, I see that as a sign of growing maturity. And all the people who are now using Facebook and Twitter instead of blogging are still looking for cool things to link to and tweet about.
Many print and online magazines will not consider previously blogged material for publication, causing the more ambitious writers to avoid posting drafts of their work, except possibly in password-protected posts. The irony is that in many cases a poem posted to the author’s blog can reach more readers than it would receive in all but the most widely circulated magazines — even online magazines, which are all too often poorly designed, practically invisible to search engines, and lack any kind of feed.
On the other hand, self-publishing alone does not advance a literary reputation, which is essential if academic advancement is at stake. One solution is for literary bloggers to publish each other. The same tools that enable the easy publication of a personal weblog can be used for any other kind of online periodical. Authors (and readers) can organize formal or informal networks through interlinking and the use of social media tools. We can rise together rather than compete for pieces of an ever-dwindling publishing pie.
Networked bloggers can help promote not only each other’s online work, but books as well, through organized virtual book tours. Audiences built up through years of blogging can be counted upon to buy copies and in some cases to assist in viral marketing, too.
Books need not remain the holy grail of literary publishing, however. Think what writers of such titanic energies as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, or Pablo Neruda would’ve done had the web existed in their day. Though books are wonderful and will probably always be produced, much of what goes into a blog really can’t fit into a book, and the experience of reading a regularly updated blog as it is being written certainly can’t be reproduced in print. Balancing the immediacy of it are the opportunities for comparison and perspective provided by internal and external hyperlinks, archives, and search unequalled by any indexing a traditional book might provide.
While there is no one best way to present literary and artistic material online, the personal weblog may be the best suited for this age of the memoir. Writers concerned that a focus on personality might draw attention away from the work itself should consider applying a “copyleft” licence to their works, such as a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence, to release them for creative re-use and remixing by other writers, artists and musicians. We can also engage in networking and community building with other bloggers, as mentioned above. This includes collaborative projects of all kinds, as well as participation in blogging memes, carnivals, writing and photo prompts, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, and so on. We can provide readers with tools such as email subscriptions, easy social media sharing options, and print-this-post buttons to encourage the redistribution of works originally written as part of a journal-like blog stream. With all these possibilities for transformation, though, no longer can we think of a creative work as having a single authoritative version. Like its author, the blogged text is forever a work-in-progress. (4)
(1) In addition to the poetry chapbooks by Rachel Barenblat and Sarah J. Sloat that I’ve reviewed previously, these include: Going to Heaven by Elizabeth Adams, Mortal by Ivy Alvarez, Mapmaker of Absences by Maria Benet, Cargo Fever by Will Buckingham, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit by Stephen Dodson and Robert Vanderplank, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me by Brent Goodman, and The Idea of the Local by Tom Montag.
(2) A completely made-up statistic.
(3) During my first eleven months online, before I discovered blogging, I was publishing stuff on a Geocities site, and advertising mostly via email. I get more page views now in a single day than I did in those nine months.
(4) Where does all this leave the critic, then, if writers are reviewing each other and no longer competing for the attention of publishers? Personally, I think literary critics need to combine forces, incorporate, and open an app store. If you want to be a gatekeeper in today’s increasingly open, content-sharing, remixing media environment, you simply have to build a more attractive gate.
Written for Via Negativa’s sixth birthday. Thanks to Jessamyn Smyth and Arvind for the Facebook discussion that gave me the idea to attempt a personal blogger’s manifesto.