Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please…

Some guests on Open Source really bring Chris Lydon‘s verve to the fore:
“Who will be the sort of toilet training stylists for people interested in words?” (at 31:10, MP3)

And there’s something to be said about the potential for conversations to entrain interesting conversational style. Not merely co-emulation, not exactly the “Medici Effect” or even the “Wisdom of Crowds.” But something, possibly, of the more conversational dimensions of intersubjectivity.

The discussion about blog writing specifically reminds me of LibriVox founder (and fellow Yulblogger) Hugh McGuire advocating academic blogging. In a first entry (republished on Huffington Post), Hugh talked about his perception of poor writing on the part of academics and offered blogging as writing practise. (I later blogged my own thoughts on the same issue of academic blogging, with special emphasis on public involvement.)
The tone of Hugh’s first post was rather harsh and, partly because of comments on his blogs, he posted a second entry (also republished on Huffington Post) about academic blogging in which he described how liberating blogging can be.
While Hugh is a blogging advocate in this context, his work in general is clearly “pro-book” and he has made repeated comments about the importance of physical books and libraries. Even his LibriVox work (releasing public domain recordings of public domain books) celebrates books for their literary quality. In this sense, I perceive McGuire and Moody to be “fighting the same fight” (especially since I personally tend to take a radical stance which could probably be called “anti-book”).

One difference, though, is that Hugh positions himself in the Web-savvy context without reference to (perceived or real) generational differences.
In conversation with Lydon, Moody made repeated comments about chronological age and “generational categories.” (Lydon created part of the context for these comments.) While Moody himself may still be rather young, some sections had a bit of the “kids these days” feel of discussions of generational differences. (I tend to do the same with “parents these days.”) From an anthropological perspective, one might say that these discussions have been occurring in almost any cross-generational context. The main specificity of those discussions relating to people born during the 20th Century in Euro-America is that those generations tend to be perceived as predefined and named (especially with reference to Baby Boomers and “Generation X”; I tend to prefer the “Baby Bust” categorization). Sociologically interesting a special case, but relatively inconsequential in terms of the tenor of those cross-generational “debates.”

The term “experience” seems quite relevant in this context, especially if it can be linked to the well-known definition of “experts” from a cognitive perspective. In this context, one might argue that experience, instead of chronological age, is the main differentiating factor between “generations of” writers (or any other set of practitioners, for that matter).

The Psychology 101 rule of thumb, based on extensive research by Herbert Simon and others, is that (regardless of domain) it takes ten years or ten thousand hours of practise to make an “expert.” Clearly, there are other necessary but insufficient conditions to make an expert. However, this temporal one is more germane to the discussion at hand and more widely understood by the general public. Case in point: during a recent conference on innovation, well-known communicator Malcolm Gladwell emphasized this “practice at least 10,000 hours” dimension from his most recent book. Through his presentation at least, Gladwell demonstrated a similarly generalized understanding of expertise research as the one I’m using here.

According to more recent research on the cognitive basis of expertise, this necessary but insufficient practise can be gained through different means, including “hands-off simulation” (my own term, based on my limited understanding from Philip Ross’s Scientific American work on that body of research). In other words, one may not need to actively “do the exercise” to benefit from the experience, as long as the practise happens in her/his brain. No idea if “reading as practise for writing” is considered directly in this context but it would make sense. Moody himself mentioned time spent reading, dismissing the reading experience of bloggers.

(I would argue that most bloggers read as much, if not more, than Moody. A major distinction, however, is that bloggers read “copious amounts” of shorter texts, a reading habit Moody repeatedly connects to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Apart from Moody’s potentially harmful “diagnostic,” I think it more appropriate to consider blog-style reading in view of the quest to diversify voices and viewpoints. This is where blogs deconstruct the “author”: “authority,” “authoritative,” “authoritarian,” “authorship,” “authoring.” But I digress.)

Socially, the association between age and expertise (more precisely, “expert status,” but the term “expertise” is used in the psychological description of experts) only makes indirect reference to practise. This lack of direct reference to practise might explain the “generation gap” statements in the context of writing expertise.

Which brings me back to blogging and writing style.

While blogging is a relatively recent phenomenon, it would be difficult to associate it with a specific generation. In some parts of the World, teenagers have been early adopters of social media and a large number of them used to (and some still) maintain personal blogs. Because of this connection, there might be a tendency for “blogosphere outsiders” to assume adolescent blogging is the most representative form of the art. But there are bloggers of any age and of any level of expertise, from widely published authors and well-known journalists to “geeky” specialists of computer technology and amateur photographers. On occasion, blogs even serve as a way to distribute texts which were previously available offline (public domain books, epistolary archives, etc.). Blogging, of course, is merely a “medium” (the “channel” in Jakobson’s model of verbal communication). The fact that a given text is available on a blog has no implication in terms of the style of that text.

But there is something of a “blogging ethos,” a set of tendencies commonly observed in blogging contexts. Hugh McGuire associated some of these tendencies with the potential for blogging. But some of Hugh’s colleagues from the “HuffPo” have described these tendencies in broader terms.
During a recent intervention on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, self-labelled “blogging evangelist” Arianna Huffington mentioned several key dimensions to blogging (US and Canadian videos). Through those mentions, a broad concept of “rawness” was constructed. Not that all blog-writing is “raw,” but blogging tends to follow Eric Raymond’s “release early, release often” principle from the FLOSS movement (“Free/Libre Open Source Software”).

In literary contexts, this principle can be understood as the basis for an “aesthetic of the draft.” Following this principle, authors release their “rough drafts” («premiers jets») as blogposts. Any of these drafts may be the object of a “rerelease,” a slightly more polished version of the same text (such is the case for this blogged version of my comment on Lydon’s blog). In software development, versioning systems handle this chain of releases in a very elaborate fashion (sometimes with “nightly builds” and “forked projects”). Perhaps more importantly, FLOSS development allows for diverse people to contribute to these different versions, in an organic type of collaboration.
Early bloggers, some of whom had a background in computer technology, seem to have used this release model implicitly. But instead of organic collaboration, most blogs rely on “feedback systems” like comments and trackbacks (notifications of posts on external blogs with links to an internal blog).

From a reader’s perspective, the “literary” quality of a large number of blogposts may seem rather low. From a blogwriter’s perspective, blogging is practise. Low-stake practise. Despite the literary importance of Queneau’s «Exercices de style», most people would apply different criteria when reading writing exercises and published material. If a “blog-born writer” becomes famous, these early drafts may become as valuable as early sketches from a well-known painter.

Blogging is just over ten years old. If Simon’s “ten year law” is accurate, we should now get the first “expert bloggers.” These skilled writers may be hard to find but, surely, even Moody knows a blogger or two whose writing style is up to the exacting standards of a canon-minded writer.

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