This Thing Looks Like This; Or, Maintain mental purchase but…

Posted by Lizzie on 06/12/10

I’m opening up Old Hag again.

This will be followed by — at some point in the not-too-distant future, and a not-too-jarring redesign — a what-proves-to-be-intemperate-despite-my-best-efforts disquisition on why, but I’m just going to start my reposting by pointing you to the lovely OFP (Official Favorite Person) offerings of Maud Newton on the new Lorin-Stein-edited Paris Review‘s blog, The Paris Review Daily.

They asked Maud to record a week in a reader’s life, a task for which she seems admirably up (though as her mother I do want to point out Maud is a very accomplished writer, speaker, lawyer, critic, author and elsewise as well as a “reader”, etc., etc.).

10:00 A.M. Strong homemade coffee and chocolate-covered almonds for breakfast. My sister’s at work already, but her partner has read and enjoyed Memento Mori, so we talk about that.

10:45 A.M. Check e-mail. Continue ongoing exchange with my friend Laura Miller about iPad applications that may be useful for readers and the impossibility of finding those hypothetical applications amid the clutter of the online store. We both use RSS readers, Instapaper, Kindle, iBooks, Epicurious, Netflix, Twitter apps…. There are supposedly thousands of options now, but as she says, “to look at that #$&! app store, you’d think it was more like 500.”

and my favorite, which may or may not be funnier if you have seen the gesticulations in question:

7:30 P.M. Sláinte on the Bowery with Alex and Lindsay. We start drinking before the greasy snacks I’ve ordered arrive, and soon I am drunk, although I’ve only had two glasses of wine. Already my upper lip is going numb and I’m intermittently shrieking in the Floridian-Texan-Southern accent I semi-jokingly slide into with friends on these occasions. We’re gossiping about people we mutually loathe, so all is well, but I am already aware of the need to modulate my voice and try to keep the gesticulations to a minimum.

Okay. Fuck, I got started. I am going to disquisish, mildly.

It has been officially difficult for me to watch all the major publications move into blogging. It sets off all the mental regions in which I am a delicate flower.

When I began blogging, in August of 2003, I will speak confidently only for myself but toss this general idea as a rock into a pool with rings extending outward to other rings of rocks conceivably tossed in this pool, if others wish to join me as rocks, and say, in that day, blogging was truly a losing proposition. It was a thing done by those at absurd crossroads, at bottoms, undisputed outsiders, and outsiders in uninteresting ways with uninteresting jobs, if jobs at all.

I began Old Hag not to get myself “out there” but really, to have a conversation I’d long been wanting to have with others in private, so overwhelming did I find the idea of doing anything in public. I’d spent my life being forced to get my proper druthers to get into an Ivy League school — a charge for which I am not ungrateful — but after I graduated, I found it entirely impossible to continue the task with any genuine kernel of impetus.

I thus spent my 20s in a variety of jobs that seemed okay to present to others at parties. I worked in regular publishing. I worked in teen publishing. I got a Masters in poetry. I taught a lot, at a pretty good school, in various departments. I published a number of novels in series for teenagers. I published a lot of poems that I didn’t entirely dislike, and even a book of poems I am okay with. I had a good shield of a resume which nonetheless, at the age of 30, hadn’t kept me from being fired already from about 4 jobs and leaving 4 more, because at any job I always either fell under the protection of a boss who decided I was smart and did the work well and it didn’t matter that I didn’t care, or the bulls-eye of a boss who saw entirely through the fact that I didn’t care and wished to skewer me on it.

That August of 2003, I, fired, had begun to do a little of the cultural criticism and reporting I’d meant to do. In Baltimore, unknown, in a horrible apartment, 40 pounds overweight, in a dead-end relationship, it didn’t seem it could do anyone harm. It seemed unlikely, actually, that it would come to anyone’s attention at all.

Then I did a cover story on Laura Lippman that — it fucking did! — changed my life.

It wasn’t the story, which was perfectly well received and still one of my favorites. It was Laura, who that month chose to do an author’s page I was checking to see if she’d mentioned me that instead mentioned two people named Maud and TMFTML, who you young folks now perforce know as Alex.

I didn’t know who they were, because they were both anonymous. Also, in the land before web 2.0, they were nobody. But I wanted to talk to them, because they were having a conversation I often had in my brain, on my solitary jogs, and it didn’t seem like anyone would come to harm if I tried, especially as I, too, would be anonymous. So I started this, with this post. (Sorry for spam that comes up when you click; I don’t know how to get into that template anymore, which says something.) Then this person, who is now this, responded.

I will not bore you with  the list of this who is now this. Suffice it to say there are quite a number, between 2002 and 2010. Some were this’s who were always doing other things, and twinned a blog this with the other career. Others were plucked from non-paying this into a job doing the same this they’d been doing and thus were paid this’s, which was both lucky and just. Other this’s were brought into mainstream blogging and then mainstream media and it didn’t suit them and they returned to their unpaid original this, with ads. Some were this and stayed this and made a ZILLION DOLLARS as this. Some jump, and continue to jump, from one this to another this within various institutional structures, both a curiosity to and a supposedly hip move of the institutions in question.

It’s this last kind of this that brings me to the delicate flower aspect of the cultural shift — for me, at least. Not very long after I started blogging — HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME — the New York Times Book Review wrote to ask if I wanted to contribute. Looking back on it, I am thinking, you know, a healthy mind in a healthy body would have almost certainly received that as just due for a nice unpaid online portfolio and a smart move for the institution in question. (Why didn’t I do that? Why don’t I just do that? I’m ridiculous.)

I didn’t do that. First, I had to stop being anonymous, to write for the Times. This was an enormous problem. I liked being an anonymous. It meant I could have my actual personality without strangers feeling like they knew my actual person, Googleable by address, 2743 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, USA, which would have felt weird. But it was also a rank power move by the Times. It said, We’ll be featuring you, yes, for this work that you do. But you’ll do it in our way, with our rules, through our judgment, and you will be glad that we, finger of God, have condescended to briefly touch ours to yours. 800 words, $400, by Tuesday. Mazel.

Well, magazines do this all the time, of course. (O just overwrote me so baldly I am amazed I don’t have my own contributor’s page, and I love O anyway and always have.) And New York Times, now you have 47 blogs, and I don’t run a daily paper, so ha ha ha, right side of history ==> here.

Still, it was curious to be lifted up and expected to be offer thanks around when I wasn’t making the calls to them, after all. I was a blogger! A new thing they were trying! Maybe I’d work out! Maybe I’d be able to do what they did, so well! What could these bloggers do, besides “blogging”? This was strange for me, as I wasn’t a goatherd from Crete but in fact someone who’d been raised in the same places and trained at the same schools to do exactly what they did, and of course I could do it, and I liked it, I had just been a little too insecure to bulldoze/sweet-talk/strategize my way into it before. I was lame, you know. Yet at these same time I was annoyed at being so anointed. If they liked what I blogged, why not hire me to blog?

They did not hire me to blog. Instead, they hired me to do what they did, but always made it clear I was a “blogger” at the same time. (I can’t find the original instance, but Ed did set the event in type here.) But what the hell did I care? Who says no to the Times? The Washington Post? (Where I first, wonderfully, encountered Justin, whose The Passage I reviewed in something that will post shortly, GOD WILLING.) Did it matter that the same media plucking us for our purposes insisted on depicting us as clubby and insiderish ourselves? (Another article that’s out of the cache.) Given to unappealing, tribe-like behaviors? Put, in short, a very newslike, media spin on us, people who, with nothing to lose, were deeply and truly and (I thought!) privately, as unspinningly, in short, as possible, just fucking around?

I guess this is something I should have seen coming — because if you are one of a class of people who explicitly sought a robust public venue and a robust public career, it won’t occur to you that those linking to you and discussing you are actually doing it because blogging is a wonderful place to have a catty, fun, illuminating conversation about culture available on the internet across state lines. It will seem as if they want YOUR ATTENTION. They are linking to things you did! Talking about things you said! You are a person, after all. Maybe you should write back, irate. Or hire them.

And now blogging is — and very shortly became — something people do do because they are ambitious. (So much so that Maureen Johnson just had to write a wonderous, excellent Manifesto about untangling blogging from personal branding.) My pet peeve is not the branders, who are funny to me, because I am a bad person. (The enthusiasm! The pens and hats!) My pet peeve is the media who, after constantly treating me as an amusing quantity who, despite the zillions of print articles I have written, is still a blogger, while they, who are now blogging, because they crashed their whole goddamn field, are somehow not bloggers except for how maybe they are RUNNING blogs, want to tell me what to do.

Here is what I have to say to you.

You link wrong. You’re not funny. Often, you’re boring. You think posts are something you “pitch”. You think posts should be timely, or related to news. You think other bloggers should respond to other bloggers, preferably in chin-stroking ways like, “I appreciate your thoughts, Gwendolyn, yet I…” You want headlines maximized for SEO. You want things to have a peg, you want to call sources for comments, you pester your readers for response instead of allowing readers to want to respond.

You take, in short, all the organic, non-annoying qualities of original blogging, those that did attract actual readers, actual readers that wanted to be friends, as I wanted to be friends with Maud and Alex, and replace them with the dead and useless dregs of an industry you crashed and a vast spread of spotty knowledge that has been proven to monetize exactly nowhere.

Worse, you seem to take blogging as some amusing shift you’ve been asked to do that is entirely within your powers. You are a fancy important journalist! You are an ACTUAL writer. Okay, maybe you are. But you are sure as hell not a blogger, any more than that dude with the novel in the drawer is a novelist. And yet you think of blogging before you as a bell curve at which the stink of gossip blogs resides on the left and the guileless, unskilled offerings of patent non-writers exists on the right, and in that empty, juicy center, you will soon take your rightful place.

That there is a bell curve is correct. However, you are not the center. That is owned, really, truly, and rightly, by a select group of political, tech, arts and general special interests bloggers who have been doing this for a very long time, some for free, some now supported by their slice of an audience, but all because they fucking like it, not because they were hired to do it.

I’m not actually sure you’re in the bell curve at all yet. You’re in some shadow diagram on the facing page, pumped up by a lot of money, littering the pages of your equally pumped-up peers with swaps and links. You have bought a lot of eyeballs and you have them, which is fine — it’s your money. But whether you’ve earned or will be able to earn out your audiences is a mystery to me.

(Some of you, I have to say, a lot of you, are not like this at all. You are naturals who enjoy and understand that you’re working in a different form with tools you too can assume and wield. You are interested in this other form. You, my friends, are delights. I already talk to you all the time, so I’m not talking about you.)

Do any of you feel like I’m the indie band member lamenting the co-opting of blogging by mass media, which was as inevitable as the crash of print itself? I’m not. I don’t care who blogs. Anyone can whistle. I do mind, however, the take-over of the landscape by boringness, tedium and rank chin-stroking that calls itself blogging when the very nature of blogging is to avoid those things.

My friend Laurel recently wrote how Twitter is a cocktail party. Well, as I said recently at a panel about whether or not to keep blogging, blogging is a dinner party, and not the kind where the boss gives a big speech at the podium and then everyone mills around feeling important and handing each other their cards. This is print, you mothers. Blogging is ideally we’ll all get drunk, someone will get in a fight, two people will commence an affair, and the roast will sit too long in the juices but that dessert somebody brought will be really good. Stop handing me your card.

I have spent about the last two months complaining about this, on the phone, to my friends, at length, people who have done nothing to deserve it, who deserve better. I am also motivated herein by your new, MSM, astonishing inability to pay. Because all of you print people who scorned bloggers but have moved into blogging and helm publications that “blog”, Earth to you: You don’t pay. And you’re not ashamed! You say it aloud like it’s fine when you call — “We’d love you to do this. Unfortunately, we can’t really pay.”

Officially I am taking stand that this is RIDICULOUS. I will keep writing for many of you if you still want me to after I publish this long, mean thing because I like you, and I love and appreciate your edits, and many of you have audiences I wouldn’t otherwise reach and I like to dip my toe into the editorial projects you’re pursuing over there, and I think, as both a spiritual, practical, and intellectual task, writers should take on venues and formats with which they are unfamiliar. But just FYI, publications, owned by corporations, branded, bonded, on the NASDAQ, HQ’d, HR’d, Incorporated, who pay nothing: YOU ARE FUCKING RIDICULOUS.

And I’m blogging again! At fucking length. Okay, end disquisition. Continuing the original post:

I’m very excited for the interim Caitlin-Roper-edited Summer edition of the Paris Review, which is allegedly in the mail to me as we speak. I was a passionate reader of Plimpton’s Paris Review, and respected but always shitcanned Gourevitch’s. (I don’t like photo essays, and I don’t like war reporting outside of novels like So Little Time or Regeneration. I was annoyed at how the last issue treated Ray Bradbury like a daffy uncle they’d recently realized was a writer of some acclaim, then felt more proud of themselves for noticing than interested in the writer. This may be unfair.) When it comes in the mail, I will blog about it.

And so nice to see you all. It — and you know, this — has been too long.

Filed under: blog in the day |