“Remarks are not literature,” Gertrude Stein warned the young Hemingway.
“Blogging is not writing,” I kept saying, a few years ago, to myself.
When I get involved in a lot of “actual” writing projects, like now, I can’t find time to write these blog posts. But since these blog posts involve writing, and I’m free on the blog to write whatever I want, and I take writing the posts seriously and enjoy writing them, I’m wondering what’s “actual” about the nonblog writing I do. Usually my nonblog writing involves an assignment (that is, I’m not the only person who wants me to do the writing); and editors and/or collaborators (I’m not the only person who has something to say about how it’s written); deadlines; money; and more readers than I get for my blog. Those are all good reasons to write elsewhere than here. And I was doing it long before I ever started blogging, which I resisted for years.
Yet now I end up questioning both the blogging and the “actual” writing. One part of me says that maybe I should just go totally self-published online. There are a lot of reasons to do so — but nobody has expressed impatience with writing books and taking commissions better than my old friend Kyle Gann in his piece Almost All Is Vanity on his blog “Postclassic: Music after the Fact.” (Warning: If you have no sense of humor, and/or are under 50, Gann’s piece will bum you out.)
The irony, there, is that a “published” writer is questioning the value of publishing offline — when you’d tend to think a writer published by somebody else, which not everybody gets to be, would see less value in being a blogger, which everybody now does get to be. But something unexpected changed when the Internet made everybody a publisher (too often everybody doesn’t realize they’re publishers, but still). Potentially, it can now look more fun to publish just like everybody else does, now that everybody else is publishing too. Less lonely, for one thing — even though I do reach more readers through books and magazines than I do on my own site. Maybe if I stopped all that, and just really bore down on my own site, I could shift the balance.
But even if I worked on getting critical-mass readership for the blog, and even if I succeeded, would it ever have the feeling of heft or texture that comes with writing a book for an established publisher or an edited essay in someone else’s magazine? It wouldn’t. At least not yet. Part of that may just be a dinosaur thing.
But part of it works more like this: In publishing the pieces on this blog, which bounce off my books, and off current affairs, and off other people’s books and blogs, I have begun to develop an explicit thesis about what I’m really saying, bottom line, both about American history and its problems, and about how those problems resonate with other existential issues. I didn’t expect that to happen, but it’s been happening, and I don’t know if it would have happened if I’d continued to write only in the context of being published by somebody else. So that’s cool. I have a better idea of what I think and feel and grope toward knowing. And at least a few other people find the posts valuable in their own right.
But when I envision developing that thesis, and possibly presenting it, I imagine it taking the form of something I can only call a work. Blogging, ultimately, involves remarking on stuff, as in the Stein quotation above. It doesn’t add up to a work. (Gann’s No Such Thing As Silence, for example, is a work, as is John Cage’s 4’33’“, the piece Gann’s book discusses.) The distinction is not online vs. off. Blogging is like having a column, and sometimes writers have anthologized their columns, but that anthology isn’t a work; we look for something more significant from some of those writers. One may download both an anthology and a work or buy either at a mom-and-pop bookstore or monster retail chain. It’s a difference in kind, not in delivery system. And while blogging (and FB and Twitter, etc.) encourages everybody to have a column, it doesn’t seem to me to encourage work. Yet.
I don’t yet see a space anywhere online where full-scale works (of prose) successfully exist solely in that space. A work may still need to have a physical dimension (as its name implies), even if you prefer to download its virtual dimension. Today’s NYT piece on kids and textbooks may even support that idea.
[UPDATE: Anyway, what I started to say was — see? this is how lame blogging is — that I’m busy with some writing assignments and can’t figure out to keep the blog going as well as I’d like, and I find that surprisingly frustrating. That’s all.]