Saturday, June 26, 2010

Essays and Blogs

Here it is, my 75th post. My astute readers will have noticed that for every 25 “postings” I do a piece explaining essays. I say “posting,” not “blog,” because hey, I’m not a blogger: I’m an essayist. But today I'll try to explain blogs too.

When telling people I have a hobby of writing, I merely say I write “nonacademic” essays, and leave it at that. I couldn’t begin to explain in just a sound bite how the essays school kids learn to write are—ahem!— for kids. In the wider world essays start out with different goals and functions, and of course follow different forms. Open any magazine and see: An adult essay never ends with “in conclusion;” it very seldom begins with a topic sentence as a thesis to be “proven.” Such writing would be “bad form.”

I’ve heard that essays in The New Yorker will begin by meandering along and then finally, at the bottom of the first page, announce the topic. This form allows busy New Yorkers, in their fast-paced city, a nice chance to stop rushing… and fix on something that rewards an adult attention span. I wish internet blogs were simularly aimed at adults.

It was a guy with a decent attention span, Paul Graham, who inspired me to do my own internet essays. Graham noted, in his Age of the Essay, that the internet had existed for a few years before people figured out they could use it for blogs. (web log or public diary, with people's comments) His hope was that soon people would figure out they could use it for essays too. This hasn’t happened yet, and I’m losing hope it ever will. So far, no one else writes wide ranging essays like Graham, while my number of bookmarked essayists I can count on the fingers of one hand—not including my thumb.

I was at university when personal computers arrived for the public—but not for the university, not yet. Computers weren’t quite an everyday topic of conversation for people, not nearly as often as when color TVs or 10-speeds arrived, but still there was a trace of the old “left out” feeling if you didn’t have one. Naturally, among us starving students, only the nerds were motivated enough to get one. After all, a computer cost more than a used car.

I remember, back then, being at a seminar of people from Strategic Studies. Some one asked why armies still had those big expensive all-too-vulnerable tanks. I quipped, “Tanks are like personal computers: Everyone knows you should have them… but no one knows quite what to do with them.” As for computers, what we did with them was do household accounts, write letters, address envelopes and, uh… mostly guys resorted to playing computer games like Space Invaders.

At last came the World Wide Web. Meanwhile, at the university, at this time, there was a very long hallway, enclosed from the elements, running along the entire back length of the physical education building. I was probably the only one to notice that, on a campus of eager helpful opinionated young scholars, no one had posted anything at all. And of course no one posted “comment threads” of replies.

Soon the nerds began “surfing” and their word entered our vocabulary. But many students still preferred to put their money on a car. At this time the student radio station magazine, Vox, ran a skeptical editorial. The editor noted that guys who wouldn’t be comfortable in a bathing suit were preaching the joy of surfing to find out, say, how to fix their bicycle. From his cozy music hangout amidst a crowded friendly campus the editor’s question was: Can’t I reach out to living people to ask how to fix a bike?

Today, when everyone knows computers are a Good Thing, the reply to that music-loving editor would be, “Yes but—…there’s so much stuff out there.”
“Yes, I know I should get out and mingle with people, but…”
“Yes, I know I have all the social skills of a zombie, but that’s why I honestly prefer to stay at the computer playing zombie wars.”

I have sympathy but no answers. I have no idea as to when the line is crossed: When does being in a cybernetic community of bloggers, with words on my cold backlit screen, become an escape from my real local community? I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s image of a dog stopping by a sidewalk vending machine so a cybernetic arm could come out and pet him.

As for me, I too like to escape. Sometimes I escape away from reading stuff I will long remember, away from essays or that zombie book World War Z, (which I recommend) into reading fluffy forget-me-right-away blogs. “Yes, but— why do blogs seem to outnumber essays by a zillion to one?”

Because: Essays take more effort. I think of that long phys ed hallway. I guess it follows logically that people who wouldn’t make the effort to post with real paper onto a big hallway won’t make any effort for essays even when they finally have access to a computer. Contrawise, the non-college folks who wouldn’t normally write anything, the folks who, before telephone rates were de-regulated, (lowered) would rather make awfully expensive long-distance-phone-calls than write letters, will now write a blog.

* * *
I like young university students. At the same time, being middle-aged, and having been raised working class, I have an old blue-collar perspective. I’m aware that during the 1950’s the “slicks” were fast disappearing. These were the magazines with slick pages giving the world such things as True Romance and True Confessions. My waitress Sue, who reads pretty slowly when she reads aloud, would have liked them. She loves her Stephen King, but the other stuff? She can get it from television.

Yes, TV killed the slicks, and it killed the pulps too. Sue doesn’t blog herself, by the way, but it seems to me that a lot of her friends who type madly onto the blogosphere are literate but not readers. Not of books. They are typists, but not writers. Not for abstract thought. Naturally they wouldn’t care for essays.

I like Sue; I had her over to my housewarming party. She likes me too, yet obviously I would never expect her, let alone her friends, to read my essays. However, when it comes to ignoring my stuff, what is my excuse for any surfer with a university degree, let alone a degree in something considered extra smart like Computer Science? Of course I wouldn’t expect them to literally read my stuff, but I am surprised to find they don’t read anyone’s essays at all.

Some of the computer “guys”—they don’t merit the honorific “nerds”—are like Sue: they seemingly can’t read or write. How bizarre. As it happens, I already knew there was such a thing as a university graduate who doesn’t read books. Now I am finding that some of them can barely even read a longer blog.

I say this after reading the comments on the blog of one of my four bookmarked essayists, Stevey, who writes for computer programmers. I like Stevey’s humor. For me, a nonprogrammer, half of his stuff I can tell is real good but it’s like trying to read The Jabberwocky. Happily, the other half I get. In Stevey’s post of January 7th, 2008, Blogging Theory 201: Size Does Matter, he explains how he decides on his blog length. He looks at reading duration
“… and some folks like to read slowly. Heck, some don’t even read at all. It’s one of the amazing miracles of the internet: write-only people. They won’t read but they somehow find a way to write. You see them comment in all the time in my blogs: ‘I didn’t actually read your entry, but allow me to comment on it all the same…’ Lovely.”
I know what he means. I have read too many such comments for Stevey, complaints that his pieces (A) are too long or (B) … should be written as a sound bite. My reaction: “WTF?” They don’t get it that Stevey writes “long,” by their standards, to serve a purpose. Part of their problem is their expectations for “blogs” as being “short.” What’s a man to do… put up a headline “Essays by Stevey?” They’d still complain.

Never mind. All I can do is mutter that quote from Mark Twain. (~)

Expectations by readers are one thing. What are the expectations of the actual bloggers?

* * *
By “bloggers” I exclude the good folks of LiveJournal, as they seem to live in a nice sunny world of their own. Many other bloggers, though, seem to live in a grayer more competitive sphere… As a man from Tennessee says, “our grandparents lived in a troop of monkeys,” with a hierarchy, and therefore people tend to do a lot of comparing. In the real world some people genuinely believe in having a “mono-value,” a simplistic judgmental one-dimension criterion of “money.”

In the blog world a good many truly believe in the value of statistics: simplistically counting the “hits” on their site, or even hits on specific posts. I have even read where a few people were nasty and competitive for who has the best “stats.” Happily, I’ve also read many postings of generous advice on how to increase page hits. For some folks it might be healthier to ignore stats and simply see their blog as a chance for an ephemeral conversation. In other words, as being simply social.

But if a blogger, similar to an essayist, is striving for posts of lasting value, then I doubt the wisdom of choosing to have a mono-value of “stats.” Or, for that matter, having any mono-value in one's life. It’s too easy to be trapped. Graham once reported in an essay that after he received stock in his tech company he suddenly just couldn’t help evaluating his every action by “how it would affect the stock,” rather than “how it would affect the work.” And I once read on a U.S. waiter’s blog where every day, all day, he kept up a mental cost-benefit of how each customer was doing, value-wise, as a tipper. (In fairness, U.S. waiters are paid very little compared to waiters here)

It is money, I am sure, that is the root of some of the competitiveness, as certain bloggers desperately need to advertise their small business or generate funding from running advertisements on their blog. As for me, in my everyday job, as a “professional,” I am legally constrained from having a mono-value of money.

As a "blogger," I could simply type a one-sentence essay, “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not.” After I gave it a catchy title, All I know about sex I could hit the “post” button and watch it get more hits than any other page I wrote. So much for stats.

Lately I’ve been following blogger Penelope Trunk (her pen name) who has a background as a business columnist. She writes on life and careers in a blog that includes lessons from her own life, even some awfully personal stuff. I should expect her blog to include archives. And I’m right, it does. I should also expect that she would write with pride, with substance, with a belief that her pieces have some lasting value. And I do. But her fans don’t. If they comment on a post that is any older than the food in my fridge, then they apologize. My reaction: WTF? I don’t expect a column post to be as lasting as an essay post, but still, I expect that Penelope put a modicum of tender loving care into her baby with hope for its future. And then to have people apologize…

When I am writing or public speaking I know I have made a connection when someone’s eyes light up and they say, “Yes! Let me tell you what happened to me!” In other words, when they feel moved to comment. So don’t apologize.

Of course many blogs, like those of Sue’s dear friends, are expected to be social, with easy social comments. As ephemeral as flowers, they are supposed to be for persons who are attention-span-challenged. Fine by me. I guess. Sure… but I admit I lose patience when I see this blog after blog … After blog. Perhaps this relates to the common wisdom that to be a “success,” as in have “successful” stats, you must blog several times per week, preferably daily. My reaction? (Besides WTF?): You can forget any lasting value.

Maybe that 20th century Chicago columnist Johnny Deadline can be smart every day, but no one else can. As it happens, the competitive bloggers have proven, in black and white, based on their stats, that their readers will desert them in droves if their blog frequency falls off to (horrors!) once a week. My reaction: What the—! Who are these readers? And why would I “give a care” about them? So I can compete for stats? I’m no dog at a vending machine.

* * *
…What I find hard to wrap my head around is how people can leave a negative comment when they have only skimmed a piece, and have thereby badly misinterpreted things. If it is morally wrong to comment to censor a novel, without first carefully reading the novel, then it is also wrong to write in to censure a writer unless you first carefully read his piece.

This I believe: You have no right to injure the feelings of the writer, and to injure the community of readers, unless you are willing to take responsibility to read. To do otherwise is a vice. As you know, a “vice” is self-gratification at the expense of the community.

Essayist Scott Berkun takes a gentler view. Last week, for his June 16 essay-blog on Why you are not an Artist he added to the comments:
The fascinating thing so far in this post is how many people seem to have skimmed it. It’s very hard to defend myself against things I didn’t quite say : ) 
I see Scott added a smiley emoticon. Before I totally lose my sense of smiley face humor, tossing around words like vice, I had best leave today’s subject of fluffy Blogs to return to today’s other solid subject: Essays. Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to go from fluffy cotton candy to solid potatoes. Especially when I’m feeling uninterested in explaining essays these days. You see, I’ve recently overdosed on explanations. I discovered in a used bookstore, while passing through Kamloops, a decade’s worth of annuals of The Best American Essays. That’s a decade’s worth of introductions regarding: What is an Essay?

Here is a sentence by Joseph Epstein from his forward to the 1993 volume:
I prefer it when the essay takes a small, very particular subject and, through the force of the essayist’s artistically controlled maunderings, touches on unpredictably large general matters, makes hitherto unexpected connections, tells me things I hadn’t hitherto known, or reminds me of other things I had already known but never thought to formulate so well as has the essayist I am reading at the moment.

After spitting the cotton candy out of my teeth for such solid food, I have nothing left to say.

Sean Crawford
In Cyberspace
(Hello Lain!)
And in Calgary
June 2010
~Speaking of statistics, I am surprised that people are skipping from my home page to this page, but not my to my more recent Polite Blogs one. How strange.

~People who have a blog website are the "administrators" of the site. The host web server provides administrators with a spreadsheet, like a lined accountant's page, where page titles older than the food in my freezer can be seen at a glance. Any new comments to these old blogs-essays show up on the spreadsheet as titles in vivid colored ink, to be clicked on and read in full.

~Real writers, when it comes to old pieces, find satisfaction in ongoing royalties and comments.

~Mark Twain said, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who can’t read.”


  1. Hello Sean,
    I enjoyed the essay. I'm relatively new to the blogging world and decided that I'm not going to conform to the the typical blogger's style of writing. I will remain faithful to my writing style and content will be that which I find fascinating. I'm writing primarily for myself not for popularity and commercial success. Keep those essays coming!

  2. Note to other readers: I thanked Riley privately for commenting at the time he wrote here.

    Now, a few weeks later, I can see that he is, to my surprise, able to post informative stuff on a daily basis: a feat I thought could not be done.

    This is possible only because, as a fellow middle aged man, he has a lot of knowledge stored up.

  3. Update: I am pleased to have Riley's site bookmarked. About a year later, Feb 2012, he has gone to about once a week, and I am still faithfully reading him. He writes on "getting unstuck" to have a good life.