When the Flock Changed: David Foster Wallace & Maud Newton

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Maud Newton makes the suggestion that David Foster Wallace’s essays — more than Cheetos, beer, amusing cat videos, and Jolt Cola — are largely to blame for chatty Internet discourse. Newton suggests that Wallace’s “Tense Perfect” (a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage collected in Consider the Lobster as “Authority and American Usage”) is “as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade.” She tries pinning the mimetic transmission of Wallace’s syntax on “Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire,” but doesn’t offer a single example (save for Eggers’s “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” a citation so overbroad that it can equally apply to the notice about shooting anyone in search of a plot at the head of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Newton cites David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” as the “ur-text of this movement,” but fails to establish much beyond cannibalizing a thoughtful Keith Gessen essay from eleven years ago (as well as its AO Scott antecedent). She then concludes that “the idea of writing is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”

It’s too bad that Newton lacks the logos and the level head to heed her own advice, and that she can’t level with us about her bilious biases. Conflation is not persuasion, nor is cleaving to one’s syntactic prejudices a reliable way of responding to an argument. Newton’s essay comes off as the work of a careless and needlessly furious blogger who has been given an unanticipated platform, not someone who takes the art of writing (and thinking about writing) seriously. There are numerous problems with her argument, as sloppy and as derivative in its thinking as the self-congratulatory folderol Newton claims to have abandoned during an apparent halcyon intellectual period sometime after the age of 20, where she “was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions” in law school. (Those ethics took Newton a long way in 2008, when Newton was offered a paid junket trip to England by a publisher, and, by her own admission, accepted the quid pro quo “within a half-hour of receiving the offer.”)

Like any common and overworked lawyer massaging boilerplate from practice guides, much of Newton’s “argument” about Wallace’s regular guy schtick has been cribbed from this 2002 Languagehat post. Newton complains of the “I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach.” Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson complains that “[t]his sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.” Dodson, however, had the decency to be transparent about his fury, confining his gripes to the article in question. What’s especially striking is that Newton, cognizant that she is writing for The New York Times, adopts the self-same “regular gal schtick” for her piece. And it is with this simplistic stance that Newton reveals her reductionist stature as a thinker.

Instead of using specific examples to provide a helpful lexical lineage for her claims (citing, for example, the very blogs impaired with Wallace-inspired banter), Newton offers little more than unfounded and dimly ironic speculation that has nothing to do with Wallace:

I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified. That music blog we liked was really pretty much the only one that, um, you know, got it. Never before had “folks” been used so relentlessly and enthusiastically as a term of general address outside church suppers, chain restaurants and family reunions. It’s fascinating and dreadful in hindsight to realize how quickly these conventions took hold and how widely they spread. And! They have sort of mutated since to liberal and often sarcastic use of question marks? And exclamation points! “Oh, hi,” people say at the start of sentences on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr these days, both acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise at the presence of the readers who have turned up there.

Let’s do the work that Newton couldn’t be bothered to do. Because if you’re going to promulgate information about the methods and manner in which people use language, then it’s important to consider the whole larder.

One can spend a lifetime ruminating upon “uh” and “um,” which psychologists have recently suggested play roles as conversational managers. But what Newton is trying to peg here is speech disfluency — specifically, those fillers often emerging as one is deliberating over a thought. Fillers hardly originate with Wallace, nor are they confined to English. To offer one historical example, here’s some glorious dialogue from The City Wives’ Confederacy — a 1705 play written by Sir John Vanbrugh:

Cor. Let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, I say. Um, um, um, — Cupid’s — um, um, um, — Darts, um, um, um, — Beauty, — um, — Charms, — um, um, um, — Angel, — um, — Goddess, — um, [Kissing the letter.] um, um, um, — truest Lover, — um, um — eternal Constancy, — um, um, um, — Cruel, — um, um, um, — Racks, — um, um, um — Tortures, — um, um, — fifty Daggers, — um, um, um, — bleeding Heart, — um, um, — dead Man, — Very well, a mighty civil letter, I promise you; not one smutty word in it: I’ll go lock it up in my comb-box.

For full effect, try reading that passage aloud. What sounds seemingly annoying in textual form becomes positively poetic as you’re saying it. But Vanbrugh didn’t stop there. We find this exchange in Scene II:

Mon. Um — a guinea, you know, Flippanta, is —
Flip. A thousand times genteeler; you are certainly in the right on’t; it shall be as you say — two hundred and thirty guineas.
Mon. Ho — Well, if it must be guineas — Let’s see — two hundred guineas —
Flip. And thirty; two hundred and thirty.

Now imagine that some snotty journalist or critic had told Vanbrugh that he couldn’t use “um” or “you know” or “let’s see” in his dialogue because, if he had published these words, they might be codified as the central connectors in the theatrical lexicon. If Vanbrugh’s dialogue had been scrubbed, how then might we have known — in a time before movies, gramophones, and computers — how people talked? One can hardly imagine reading masterpieces like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Finnegans Wake in anything other than their unique patois. Therefore, should one be so needlessly tendentious when it comes to blogs?

Newton’s feckless fig isn’t really about what Wallace (or any blogger) has to say. It’s about how they say it. As anyone who has waded through academic papers knows, there are often brilliant kernels contained inside dense and impenetrable style. But a person of true and eclectic intellectual rigor wouldn’t hold the thinker accountable based solely on the syntax.

Since Newton is unable to establish a clear connection between Wallace and “the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax” (and unable to comprehend that many of these syntactical eccentricities have recirculated for centuries), we are therefore forced to conclude that Newton is needlessly hostile to any sentence that isn’t written in the plain and vanilla language that she holds so dear to her cold and humorless heart.

This is the position of a lexical reactionary, not just a Wallace hater. Because if Newton were genuinely interested in language or people or the often magical way that words are transmitted in our culture, she wouldn’t be so quick to condemn. She would actually do the legwork and use these findings to offer a persuasive argument instead of outsourcing it to her readership (“Visit some blogs…to see these tendencies writ large,” “The devices can be traced back to him, though…,”). Is that not persuasion? But Newton isn’t interested in listening to anything other than the sound of her own voice — the vitiated “plain question and plain answer” ideal plucked from Life on the Mississippi that, in Newton’s uncomprehending hands, becomes more inimical than imitable. She doesn’t understand that distinct writing can often be forged from imitation — as the many fresh talents who have mimicked Hemingway (Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson) can attest. And in telling New York Times readers that imitation and repetition are wrong or “dreadful in hindsight,” Newton reveals herself to be committed to the act of expressive conformity. The Newtonian ideal, rooted in misanthropic nihilism, leaves no room for prototypes or apprenticeship — even though, having shed the burden of “her own archives,” she cannot actually lodge a proper argument here. In short, Maud Newton has transformed into a cultural atavist who argues along the lines of Lee Siegel. You can respond to her argument, but only using the words and the terms that she has established. (And as Joe Winkler has argued, why should Wallace be judged by foreign standards?)

When contemplating the state of culture and language, it helps to view the reuse of expressive terminology through context. A helpful linguistic anthropology volume authored by Alessandro Duranti suggests that “Oh, hi!” has been in use — largely over the telephone or after an awkward social encounter — decades before Wallace published a single word. “Oh, hi!” is modeled on “Ah ciao!” “Oh” initially appeared before “hi” when the answerer awkwardly attempted to return a greeting without knowing the greeter’s name. So it makes sense that someone using Twitter or Tumblr, unaware of the sheer scale of readers, would start a post this way. (And to return to Gessen’s essay, this might very well reflect his humorous aside that “in the long run books are not written for the editors of prestigious magazines or the professors of fashionable theories.” In other words, speculating on a readership is best left to the crass and artless marketers.)

Newton is right to suggest that the intersection between writing and speech is what led to the early conversational feel of blogs, but she never considers the possibility that those who were sending their thoughts and feelings into the electronic ether truly had no idea who they were reaching. (On the “Oh, hi” question, she does concede midway through the piece that those who write this way may be simultaneously “acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise.” But observe the strange suspicion here. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It’s telling that Newton’s article offers no space for sincerity, that the Newtonian ideal involves directness without nuance or irony.) She assumes that most of the early bloggers were readers of Wallace and Eggers, rather than those who may very well have left the house and conversed with fun and interesting people. It doesn’t occur to Newton that, in using words like “folks,” bloggers were using the very voices they might employ in everyday conversation. And just as we’ve seen in the Vanbrugh play, the Internet’s early days (at least, what we’ve been able to preserve of them) offer us an unprecedented treasure trove of how certain phrases and words made their way into our vernacular. Much as digital cameras have ushered in an age that is the most photographed in human history, digital conversation has afforded us an equally vast and limitless tapestry.

So Newton’s blinkered prohibition of “folks” outside of some implied Midwestern setting is not only needlessly condescending, but it suggests that writing in one’s voice is rooted almost exclusively in mimicking trendy magazine articles rather than responding to conversational cadences. This isn’t a question of being liked or craving admiration and appeal. It’s about speaking in terms that keep the conversation, whether contentious or conciliatory, alive.

Internet culture was built in large part by smart people being trapped in soul-sucking jobs and desiring to connect with others. In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace identified television as “an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” The time has certainly come to unpack some of these arguments into something that includes the Internet’s complexities. But Newton isn’t sharp enough to build from Wallace’s points, even as she disagrees with him. She cannot, for example, consider the obvious truth that, in an era of Twitter and Google Plus, the watchers have become the watched. Rather than serving up a plainspoken exemplar within her essay that articulates an original point and lives up to her declared ideal (or puts her on the line, as Zadie Smith did in her Facebook essay when confessing “not being liked is as bad as it gets”), the great irony here is that Newton herself has soothed her readership using the very methods that Wallace (and Newton in failed ironic mode) condemned. Newton, by publishing her essay at The New York Times instead of her blog, craves the very admiration and approval she dismisses as toxic. She wants to be read, but she is not especially interested in practicing the very intellectual rigor she champions. Because if she were, she would be crystal-clear in establishing her terms. She cannot identify even one of the many critics “making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice.” Who are these mysterious Wallacites wandering in the woods? Do they have axes and are they killing bitter attorneys who can’t finish their novels (and have an infuriating need to report constantly on this)? Does Newton really think so little of Wallace readers or bloggers that she cannot consider the possibility that they may very well be influenced by other authors? She thus undermines her own argument.

Newton’s spectacular failure to consider these subtleties may have something to do with not steeping herself in Wallace’s complete catalog. The phrases “plus, worse,” “pleonasm,” and “What this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit'” come from the very essay (“Tense Perfect”) she commends as “one of his best and most charming essays,” yet not from the same paragraph. “Totally hosed” comes from the famous 2005 Kenyon commencement. In other words, the only four Wallace texts that Newton has consulted for her piece are three essays: “E Unibus Pluram” (1993), “Authority and American Usage” (1999), “Big Red Son” (1998), and the Kenyon address. It seems to me that if you’re going to do a David Foster Wallace takedown, you should rely on a good deal more than the usual greatest hits. That’s a bit like writing about the Beach Boys when you’ve only heard “Good Vibrations” once.

Newton’s piece is less about offering a new argument or repudiating an old one, and more about expressing an uninformed position on Wallace and linguistics. It’s about standing against the possibilities of language and ideas. It’s about dictating the terms of how one should think while disingenuously suggesting that the reader can think for herself.

That’s a skill set that comes quite naturally to an embittered tax attorney. But it’s somewhat amazing that such a misleading and superficial approach would be welcomed by the ostensible Paper of Record.

UPDATE: Some additional responses:

(1) The New Inquiry‘s Matt Pearce, who notes that “Newton’s criticism obscures the fact that she and Wallace have more in common on intellectual honesty and integrity and straightforwardness than her essay lets on.”

(2) Callie Miller, who writes, “Life is short, wars are being fought, loved ones are dying every day…must we really be so intense about our books?” That’s a very good question.

(3) Alexander Chee, who agrees more with Maud Newton than I do, writes that Wallace “was a writer whose work gave back a vision of the world that pierced the scrim of the fear we were all feeling. If we imitated him, or imitated each other imitating him, really, I think we did it because of how we all wanted to find our way through. But it became like a game of telephone, but with style, and what had once been able to clarify something soon obscured them.”

(4) Glenn Kenny, who worked at Premiere when “Big Red Son” came in, clarifies what Wallace meant by the “sort of almost actually” fillers that Newton bemoans: “Each one, as we see, serves a different function, or I should say, implies a different state of mind, and each state is competing with the other. By the point in the essay at which the description of Goldstein arrives, the reader ought to have sussed out that Wallace has some very substantial problems with both pornography and the industry that produces it. But he’s also been bracingly honest about the attraction that walks hand in hand with his repulsion, and when he’s not going at his subject with something resembling all-out disgust (as in the passages about Paul Little, a.k.a. Max Hardcore), there’s a bracing and troubled honesty at work here, as in all of Wallace’s essayistic work, a desire to get at moral truth without being, well, moralistic; and a constant ambivalence.”

(5) CulturePulp’s Mike Wallace writes: “But for Maud Newton to also join a parade of lesser writers staking out lit-cred for themselves by throwing the freshly dead Wallace under the bus — and then to passive-aggressively blame him for all sorts of not-his-fault jackassery — is for me to sort of politely tell Maud Newton to piss off.”

(6) Matt Kiebus: “If Ms. Newton wants to live in a world where people make arguments ‘straightforwardly, honestly, passionately and without regard to whether people will like you afterward,’ that’s her choice. And although I think she may need a fucking time machine to find the world she’s looking for, I still respect her opinion.”

(7) The Oncoming Hope: “Newton seems to conflate unserious language with Southern dialectical norms, which is all the more surprising given how many times she’s blogged about the liveliness of Southern Texan vernacular.”

(8) Weeks later, the Huffington Post‘s Omer Rosen begins a multi-part offering (with Casey Michael Henry) on David Foster Wallace’s appropriation.

The Evils of HTML Giant

Ladies and gentlemen, I have written a 10,000 word essay outlining, in intricate and long-winded form, every single evil that the blog HTML Giant has committed. The proprietors have molested several of my closest friends and have had sexual relationships with Lego dinosaurs. They have burned several editions of Joshua Cohen’s Witz and have had the hypocritical temerity to praise him as a genius. They have illegally downloaded Hollywood blockbusters from the Internet and have ripped off mattress tags. They have mugged Gordon Lish on three separate occasions. They have claimed that mouthwash is actually absinthe. They have floated checks, maxed out their credit cards, and cheated on taxes.

These charges against literature and humanity are outlined in detail within my 10,000 word essay, which I have also submitted to the Pulitzer Committee so that they may award me the appropriate cash sum for my unacknowledged genius. However, in order to read my 10,000 word essay, you will have to go to my premium blog:

The post is entitled “Bengal Tiger” and is sure to shock the literary community. And if you somehow get through to my super secret premium page and do not find a 10,000 word essay, then the problem is yours, not mine. The essay is very real. And the crimes of the HTML Giant gang are not to be considered lightly. Should you doubt my claims, then you are a sellout. A puppet. A fink. A maggot suckling upon the corporate publishing empire who I will stomp within the illusory comforts of my mind.

This has been a public service announcement. I really, really care about literature. And you must too.


Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland

This morning, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials would be revised in relation to bloggers. The new guidelines (PDF) specified that bloggers making any representation of a product must disclose the material connections they (the presumed endorsers) share with the advertisers. What this means is that, under the new guidelines, a blogger’s positive review of a product may qualify as an “endorsement” and that keeping a product after a review may qualify as “compensation.”

These guidelines, which will be effective as of December 1, 2009, require all bloggers to disclose any tangible connections. But as someone who reviews books for both print and online, I was struck by the inherent double standard. And I wasn’t the only one. As Michael Cader remarked in this morning’s Publishers Marketplace:

The main point of essence for book publishers (and book bloggers) is the determination that “bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media.” They state that “if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an ‘endorsement,'” due to either a relationship with the “advertiser” or the receipt of free merchandise in the seeking of a review, that connection must be disclosed.

ftcIn an attempt to better understand the what and the why of the FTC’s position, I contacted Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection by telephone, who was kind enough to devote thirty minutes of his time in a civil but heated conversation. (At one point, when I tried to get him to explicate further on the double standard, he declared, “You’re obviously astute enough to understand what I mean.”)

Cleland informed me that the FTC’s main criteria is the degree of relationship between the advertiser and the blogger.

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as “compensation.” You could after all sell the product on the streets.

But what about a situation like a film blogger going to a press screening? Or a theater blogger seeing a preview? After all, the blogger doesn’t actually hold onto a material good.

“The movie is not retainable,” answered Cleland. “Obviously it’s of some value. But I guess that my only answer is the extent that it is viewed as compensation as an individual who got to see a movie.”

But what’s the difference between an individual employed at a newspaper assigned to cover a beat and an individual blogger covering a beat of her own volition?

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

From Cleland’s standpoint, because the reviewer is an individual, the product becomes “compensation.”

“If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.”

But why shouldn’t a newspaper have to disclose about the many free books that it receives? According to Cleland, it was because a newspaper, as an institution, retains the ownership of a book. The newspaper then decides to assign the book to somebody on staff and therefore maintains the “ownership” of the book until the reviewer dispenses with it.

I presented many hypothetical scenarios in an effort to determine where Cleland stood. He didn’t see any particular problem with a book review appearing on a blog, but only if there wasn’t a corresponding Amazon Affiliates link or an advertisement for the book.

In cases where a publisher is advertising one book and the blogger is reviewing another book by the same publisher, Cleland replied, “I don’t know. I would reserve judgment on that. My initial reaction to it is that it doesn’t seem like a relationship.”

Wasn’t there a significant difference between a publisher sending a book for review and a publisher sending a book with a $50 check attached to it? Not according to Cleland. A book falls under “compensation” if it comes associated with an Amazon link or there is an advertisement for the book, or if the reviewer holds onto the book.

“You simply don’t agree, which is your right,” responded Cleland.

Disagreement was one thing. But if I failed to disclose, would I be fined by the FTC? Not exactly.

Cleland did concede that the FTC was still in the process of working out the kinks as it began to implement the guidelines.

“These are very complex situations that are going to have to looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there is a sufficient nexus, a sufficient compensation between the seller and the blogger, and so what we have done is to provide some guidance in this area. And some examples in this area where there’s an endorsement.”

Cleland elaborated: “I think that as we get more specific examples, ultimately we hope to put out some business guidance on specific examples. From an enforcement standpoint, there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers. Our goal is to the extent that we can educate on these issues. Looking at individual bloggers is not going to be an effective enforcement model.”

Cleland indicated that he would be looking primarily at the advertisers to determine how the relationships exist.

[UPDATE: One unanswered concern that has emerged in the reactions to this interview is the degree of disclosure that the FTC would require with these guidelines. Would the FTC be happy with a blanket policy or would it require a separate disclosure for each individual post? I must stress again that Cleland informed me that enforcement wouldn’t make sense if individual bloggers were targeted. The FTC intends to direct its energies to advertisers. Nevertheless, I’ve emailed Cleland to determine precisely where he stands on disclosure. And when I hear back from him, I will update this post accordingly.]

[UPDATE 2: Cleland hasn’t returned my email. But his response in this article in relation to Twitter (“There are ways to abbreviate a disclosure that fit within 140 characters”) suggest that bloggers will be required to disclose per post/tweet.]

[UPDATE 3: A commenter has suggested: Why not return or forward all the review copies that you receive directly to Mr. Cleland?]

[UPDATE 4: In an October 8, 2009 interview with Fast Company, Cleland has backpedaled somewhat, claiming that the $11,000 fine is not true and indicating that the FTC will be “focusing on the advertisers.” The problem is that page 61 of the proposed guidelines clearly states, “Endorsers also may be liable for statements made in the course of their endorsements.” And endorsers, as we have established in this interview, include bloggers. However, Cleland is right to point out that the guidelines do not point to a specific liability figure and that it would take a blogger openly defying a Cease & Desist Order to enact penalties. The Associated Press was the first to report the $11,000 fine per violation. Did somebody at the AP misreport the penalty information? Or was it misinterpreted?

Some investigation into FTC precedents would suggest that the AP reported these concerns correctly. Here are some precedents for the up to $11,000 fine per violation: non-compliance of wedding gown label disclosure, non-compliance of contact lens sellers, and an update to the federal register. On Monday, the FTC precedents establish heavy penalties for non-compliance, the the guidelines themselves specify penalties as endorsers, and Cleland insists that bloggers who review products are “endorsers.” On Wednesday, Cleland now claims that bloggers won’t be hit by penalties. The FTC needs to be extremely specific about this on paper, if it expects to allay these concerns. (Thanks to Sarah Weinman for reporting assistance on this update.)]


A Taxonomy of Book Bloggers (2009 Edition)

Since the book blogging world changes so frequently — with its first waves and second waves, its stormy internecine battles, and its endless capacity for argument over trivial subjects — I thought the time had come to identify the many different types presently occupying the online literary scene. I need not state my own expertise and qualifications on this topic. I have been a litblogger for six years and I possess such an uncontrolled ego that I have been engaged in some kind of skirmish with every known person writing about books on the Internet. (In fact, Maud Newton and I have been trying to fight a duel for the past eighteen months because we got into a heated conversation over some passage in a Rupert Thomson novel. Alas, our respective calendars have been overbooked with other literary activity.) And I don’t need to tell you how many book bloggers have been killed so that other book bloggers might obtain satisfaction. Let’s just say that corpses have been thrown into the East River.

writeapostBut it occurs to me now, after six years of brawls, gunshots, and angry tears, that these skirmishes have resulted in needless deaths and much in the way of hurt, and that some documentation must be duly presented before the book blogging community to avoid such tragedies in the future. So what follows is a brief (and by no means complete) breakdown of the types of book bloggers you are likely to encounter in the book blogging world.

* * *

The Bitter Ex-Newspaperman: The Bitter Ex-Newspaperman has either been recently fired from a newspaper books section or is about to be fired, and wants to understand the medium that has decimated his goddam livelihood. He is often cranky, but sometimes comes around to the format. Perhaps by turning to blogs, he might find some brief flicker of his former authority — which has been usurped by the new “authority” found at Technorati that he simply does not and cannot understand. The Bitter Ex-Newspapermen who blog longer often mellow out over the course of time and sometimes morph into one of the other types of book bloggers, often waving an elder statesman’s finger at “the way things used to be.”

The Caped Crusader: The Caped Crusader, who sometimes wears a spandex costume while typing, often writes needlessly angry posts about the evils of various newspapers, the inadequacies of the publishing industry, and can often be witnessed frightening rational people when discussing literary matters in a social setting. The caped crusader is often wrong and doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks. But he doesn’t let that stop him from writing indignant 2,000 word takedowns that are then picked up by other bloggers, where the circlejerk of words carries on as long as this “passionate” coal feeds these flames of resentment.

The Dedicated Troll: You aren’t going to find the Dedicated Troll at BEA, for most Dedicated Trolls are agoraphobic and too cowardly to show their faces in public. But you will find him frequenting the comments section of every major book blog, often leaving nasty and vituperative comments because he so desperately needs attention. Sometimes the Dedicated Troll may have his own blog. But more often than not, he doesn’t. After years of such activity, some Dedicated Trolls eventually confess privately that all they really wanted was a hug in the first place. But such candor comes only after the Dedicated Troll has alienated every person in the literary community.

The eBook Evangelist: The eBook Evangelist owns both a Kindle and a Sony eReader and is often seen throwing hardcovers into a public conflagration to celebrate the “forthcoming digital revolution.” Never mind that an independent third party might easily confuse such symbolic activities with a Nazi book burning. The eBook Evangelist is often so busy bitching with other evangelists about Amazon pricing and digital ubiquity that he often forgets to reveal his thoughts and feelings about what’s actually inside the books. The most frequent word you’ll find used on an eBook Evangelist’s blog is “clueless.” And yet despite the eBook Evangelist’s adamant protests, you’ll still find him patronizing and celebrating the likes of Amazon. An eBook Evangelist then is both an anarchist and a conformist, and contradictory ideological positions can often be found within the same paragraph.

The Literary Solipsist: He has a book coming out in a year. And that’s his sole reason for contacting you. He really doesn’t want to know you at all. You might even say that he doesn’t have much in the way of people skills. In some cases, the literary solipsist is a sociopath. But the Literary Solipsist genuinely believes that you should be honored to touch his cashmere topcoat in a public setting. He will brush you off at a function to talk to people who he deems more important and he will stomp on heads as his perceived stature grows. Then again, his ego might be so enormous that he’ll be perfectly happy if you polish his boots while employees from Graywolf happen to be watching. Because he can then videotape this act of obeisance with his Flip Mino and upload this to YouTube for others to dissect and write blog posts about.

The Sanctimonious Genre Booster: The Sanctimonious Genre Booster wants her genre to be understood, and that’s fine. But the “understanding” comes front-loaded with endless political correctness. Topics that were originally discussed in a thoughtful and necessary manner often veer down impractical rabbit holes, with words like “fail” attached to the end of a controversial noun. Specific authors in the genre community are often held up for derision and damnation. Never mind that these authors might actually have talent or that they’re a bit busy trying to write books.

The Social Braggart: You’ll often find this sad type at a literary cocktail party, standing alone in a corner and typing details that nobody really cares about into her smartphone. She’s the type who often reports who’s attending a party on Twitter. She believes herself to be an operator, but what she doesn’t know is that most people ridicule her behind her back. Which makes her more of a sad case who people tolerate, only because they hope she’ll get a life at some point down the line.

Where’s the Money? The “Where’s the Money?” blogger is mostly harmless. Just don’t expect much in the way of socialization. Here’s a typical conversation with a “Where’s the Money?” blogger.

A: Say, what’s that book you’re reading?
B: Where’s the money?
A: Where’s the Money? That’s an actual book?
B: I blog. Where’s the money? 3. Profit!
A: Well, I blog too. But there isn’t any money.
B: There’s got to be money. There’s got to be a revenue stream. Where’s the money?
A: Uh, can I buy you a drink?
B: Where’s the money?

And so forth.

Very often, the “Where’s the Money?” blogger can be weaned off of his relentless pursuit of cash and be made to understand that he has a dormant love of writing.

The Visceral Realist: The visceral realist has read The Savage Detectives at least twice, believes Roberto Bolano to be a genius, and secretly harbors the hope to punch out anyone who would read or dwell upon such “lesser” books as romance, science fiction, mystery, or other ghettoized genres. Unfortunately, the visceral realist is too cowardly and passive-aggressive to do so. The visceral realist is often quite humorless and has failed to understand that The Savage Detectives was, in a large sense, a warning against a certain type of literary obsessive. Some visceral realists set up online literary journals featuring 6,000-word essays about obscure Venezuelan writers that nobody reads.

Kindle Bloggers Become Amazon’s Bitches

This blog will not be distributed through Kindle. I cannot possibly give away so many of my rights for a mere 30% of the cut. To put this into perspective, even the Scribd General Terms of Use limits what you give up to “solely in order to publish and promote such User Content in connection with services offered or to be offered by Scribd.”

Not so with Amazon. Here’s the relevant section of the Digital Publication Distribution Agreement:

7. Rights Granted. You grant to us, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute Publications as described in this Agreement, such right to include, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce and store Publications on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Publications; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, and otherwise digitally make available all or any portion of Publications through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view, including on any Portable Device (as defined below); (c) permit customers to “store” Publications that they have purchased from us on Amazon’s servers (“Virtual Storage”) and to re-download such Publications from Virtual Storage from time to time; (d) display and distribute (i) your trademarks and logos in the form you provide them to us, including within Publications (with such modifications as are necessary to optimize their viewing on Portable Devices), and (ii) other limited portions of Publications, in each case on and through any Amazon Properties and solely for the purposes of marketing, soliciting and selling Publications; (e) use, reproduce, adapt, modify, and create derivative works of any metadata that you submit to us for the purpose of improving categorization, recommendations, personalization features and other features of any Amazon Properties; and (f) transmit, reproduce and otherwise use (or cause the reformatting, transmission, reproduction, and/or other use of) Publications as mere technological incidents to and for the limited purpose of technically enabling the foregoing (e.g., caching to enable display). In addition, you agree that Amazon may permit its affiliates and independent contractors, and its affiliates’ independent contractors, to exercise the rights that you grant to us in this Agreement. “Amazon Properties” means the website with the primary home page identified by the URL, together with any successor or replacement thereto (the “Amazon Site”), any software application that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content, and any other web site or any web page widget or other web page real estate or online point of presence, on any platform, that is owned by us or operated under license by us (such as ), branded or co-branded Amazon or with any brand we license for use, own or control, and any web site or online point of presence through which any Amazon sites or products available for sale thereon are syndicated, offered, merchandised, advertised or described. “Portable Device” means any device that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content via wireless telecommunications service, Wi-Fi, USB, or otherwise.

Not only do you give Amazon “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute” your blogging, but you also give this up to affiliates and independent contractors. So let’s say a major publisher decides to “independently contract” with Amazon. And they see a blog that they like. Well, guess what? They can take your content, publish it as a book, and collect the revenue without paying you a dime. Because Section 4 (“Royalties”) specifies that the blogger only gets paid for “Subscription and Single Issue sales revenues,” meaning any of the 30% revenue that you’re going to get with the Kindle. And I particularly love how Section 5 gives the blogger a mere six months to file a legal claim, which is “limited to a determination of the amount of monies” and not operational practices. You know, trivial concerns such as Amazon distributing your content to affiliates and independent contractors without the blogger’s consent.

I am extremely saddened to see so many of my fellow bloggers betray their interests. They have happily become corporate slaves, granting “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license” to their thoughtful essays and carefully written posts.

I sincerely hope that any authors (and the agents who represent them) who appear on blogs distributed through Kindle are fully aware of what they are giving up here. The rights for any writing you publish on a blog go to Amazon. That goes for guest blog posts, excerpts of chapters*, interview excerpts, you name it. Thanks to Section 7 of Kindle’s Digital Publication Distribution Agreement, you effectively become Amazon’s bitch.

Well, I’m sorry. But I can’t do that for the authors who have been kind enough to take the time out of their schedules to express their thoughts and feelings in both text and radio form on these pages. In addition to the reasons eloquently provided by Kat Meyer and Megan Sullivan
I cannot in good conscience sell us out.

All this could have been prevented had the bloggers who signed up for this taken the time to read and study Amazon’s draconian language. Presumably, they thought Amazon would play nice.

But if you think that Amazon is benevolent, consider my investigations from November 2007, which demonstrated that Amazon was placing blogs onto its Kindle Store without obtaining permission. Consider also Techcrunch’s recent investigation, in which Amazon can steal any blog without the blogger’s consent. Yet many people continue to place their faith in Amazon. Even after Amazon’s poor response in last month’s Amazonfail scandal.

* — There’s some additional discussion about this aspect of the DPDA in the comments that you will probably want to check out.

The Covenant

Some years ago, not long after Herb Caen’s death, I decided to make a series of pilgrimages to the San Francisco Public Library to dust my hands and wrangle microfilm. I had known Caen’s three dot columns for some time. Or, at least, I thought I had known. When Caen passed away, as others dwelt on his coinage of “beatnik” and “Baghdad by the bay,” I felt that it was my civic duty as a San Franciscan to begin at the beginning, which very few at the time had thought to do.

As it turned out, in the late 1930s, Caen had started off as a nightlife columnist, attending swank parties and banging out his observations. What’s rather amazing about this old school epoch is that the newspapers once hired about five or six guys to go around town like this. They’d drink a good deal at upscale hot spots and write columns about their social engagements late into the night as their heads crashed with the competing crassitude of too much gin. When scanning through the microfilm rolls for Caen’s words, I was stunned to see photographs of other dapper gentlemen next to other columns. And I suspect that, beyond the prohibitive cost of scanning and providing all this online, the newspapers may not want you to know that they once actually paid whole armies of columnists of this ilk. This was, in short, a newspaper in which plentiful voices were represented, even on a seemingly pedantic subject. Here was a cadre of niche-specific columnists gathered together under one umbrella. And with multiple newspapers in town, there was a healthy competitive spirit that encouraged the columnists to do better.

You might say that these columnists were the bloggers of their time. And Caen, with his little snippets, certainly reflected the compact summation that Izzy Stone would later offer by mail and bloggers would later present through the roundup format (which has subsequently gravitated to Twitter, where the act of reader engagement becomes more explicit). But these columnists were different because there was an odd journalistic quality attached to these activities. You’d think that columns about running into dilettantes and drinking martinis would be somewhat superficial. But despite this emphasis on swank social tableaux, Caen always had a good eye for observation. He noted odd conversations and paid attention to the details around him. And he did this without belittling what could easily be belittled. (To compare this with the present epoch, we’re now expected to see a report of a party or an event from some snarky Gawker type. Easy targets are eyed and assessed. But what do we really learn about how this world works? Does Gawker really have the longer view in mind? Would it not be better if it dared to detail or if it dared to establish an off-the-record trust with which to convey the scene?) Because Caen was able to establish a trust with the social scene he was documenting, he was able to acquire details and, decades later, his columns remain immensely helpful. For instance, I learned from these old columns that there had been a chain of stores called the Martha Washington Candy Shop. (This was essentially the See’s Candies of its day.) The chain had inexplicably folded and there simply wasn’t any information about it on the Internet. So I began jotting down all of these details, compressing them into months and putting them all into a short-lived blog that I called Raising Caen.

Herb Caen, as we all know, became indelibly associated with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a revered figure (and many attempted to cajole or influence him) because of his details, and because of his voice. There hasn’t really been a Chronicle columnist on that level since. Unless you count Mark Morford (Steve Outing draws the line), who provides an often frenetic metrosexual voice to the Chron. Hiring Violet Blue was a step in the right direction. The vanilla newspaper simply had to come to terms with the fact that they were circulating in a sex-friendly metropolis. But here’s the thing about Morford and Blue. Neither of them are particularly good at using their voices to get at those important details about a location or an event. Blue does interview people from time to time, but opts for a predictable Q&A format. What if her editors pushed her to give us multiple sources or a description of a scene? What if an editor demanded that Blue provided those vital details that made Caen a draw? As for Morford, his problem is that he is so caught up with wild conceptual approaches and stunts that we often don’t get a sense of Morford either (a) in the thick of things or (b) engaging directly with the community. (The alternatives to this, of course, are the dutiful Matier and Ross, the bland and voiceless Debra J. Saunders, and dependable cultural columnists like Tim Goodman. But what has caused this schism between voice and journalist? Why must it be an either-or proposition?) The newspaper columnist, who once served as a vital chronicler and detailer, is now viewed as an apparent draw only in so much as she can present a perspective. The columnist, in turn, deals with the public through letters and emails.

But perspective, as important as it is, simply isn’t enough. What made Caen such a local household name was his ability to include his readership within his columns. If he found a particular morsel, he would always attribute the reader who included it. His readers therefore felt a level of engagement.

One must therefore ask why Roger Ebert, aside from his television work and his Pulitzer Prize, remains such a household name with the Chicago Sun-Times. It is because he also engages directly with his readers. Consider his blog. Read through the comments and you will find Ebert personally responding to comments in bold. Ebert, like Caen, knows that a columnist’s responsibility involves engaging with his readers. What has changed, however, is the manner in which that engagement is presented to the public. What was once a series of private exchanges now becomes open to public scrutiny and dissection. But by including the readers in the manner that he does, Ebert offers his readership a place for their own ideas. His site remains a draw. Trolls are discouraged and a spirit of civil disagreement is maintained because the readers know that Ebert may respond to their comments.

In the past several days, many have fawned over Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” as if Shirky’s obvious and belabored points about newspapers failing to seize the possibilities of the Internet were new. What Shirky fails to observe in his section on micropayments is that Paul Krugman was, in fact, a big draw for the New York Times. When Krugman was behind a paywall, there were ways of obtaining his column. An informed perspective seemed to matter. And this wasn’t all that dissimilar to the rampant Dave Barry piracy with which Shirky initiates his essay. For that matter, we must ask whether those who clipped out columns (and there were many who did this in the pre-Internet days) were any less piratical than those who pass along a link to an article by email or Twitter. The information, I suspect, has always wanted to be free, even before this notion became a hip catchphrase. It’s wanted to be free whether a second-hand newspaper swiped from a cafe or a printout of a microfilm decades later. The real question is whether the columnist is fulfilling a public need. And by “public need,” I am not necessarily referring to a mass market. (A recent Minnesota Post article pointed to small local papers still doing well. The number of adults reading small community newspapers actually increased from 81% in 2005 to 86% in 2008.) The real question is why newspapers have failed to provide an atmosphere in which tomorrow’s Dave Barry or Herb Caen might be allowed a voice.

Small wonder then that readers have turned to blogs as a substitute for this. Indeed, since expanding the word count of these posts, I have seen readers refer to my posts as “columns,” as if I am fulfilling some journalistic duty that I did not anticipate. I leave the comments open to everyone and permit anyone to take me to task, if they must. But some of the more heavily trafficked blogs have not, contrary to Caen or Ebert, respected the readership like this. Love or hate Boing Boing, one of its key appeals involves massive strings of comments attached to each post. But Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s egregious disemvoweling strikes me as anti-communal and disrespectful of the readership. This autocratic arrogance is not advancing the case for trust between columnist and reader. And it’s just as bad on other sites. There was a time when, if you want to leave a comment at one of the Gawker sites, you were expected to “audition” for it. (Thankfully, this control has been relaxed.) There is, in these sites, a fundamentally antidemocratic act of disengagement. The commenter must humble herself to the blogger, and not vice versa. All of this fails to acknowledge the fundamental democratic ripple floating from from the undulations spawned by any newspaper columnist.

Shirky is right to point out how the exclusive informational terrain of newspapers has transformed. A specific journalistic item can be disseminated in a 140 character tweet, and it’s no longer new news. CNN’s scrolling news ticker has likewise suggested that audiences want their news in capsule form. But the successful journalism at Talking Points Memo works because the investigative process is now a part of the relationship between journalist and reader. This approach now permits a journalist to carry out his work and to obtain helpful tips with which to pursue a story. The reader, again, is engaged with the process. And instead of print people and bloggers seeing this dramatic shift in the presentation of information as an opportunity to do better and to attract a greater readership, they have instead declared war on each other. The Washington Post‘s Kathleen Parker writes a vitriolic column bemoaning the “drive-by pundits” who are pointing to the deficiencies of present journalism. A South by Southwest panel labeled “New Think for Old Publishers” sees publishers who aren’t providing new information to a paying crowd, but demanding this information from the audience. Instead of the print people listening to the criticisms and learning from these developments, they ignore them and refuse to listen. And the bloggers, in turn, don’t always consider that there are virtues in long-form journalism. In many cases, they wish to tap-dance on the hospital bed of the dead tree patient succumbing to a terminal cancer. (Jeff Jarvis is by far the worst offender in this regard.)

And when Shirky declares

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

the idea-slinging optimist in me wants to muzzle the man. Nothing will work? Really? Is it possible that the medium itself doesn’t matter? Will the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s investigative work be any lesser because the newspaper is now only available online? (Indeed, the big question is whether or not the Post-Intelligencer becomes self-sustaining if the costs of print production are reduced. As Nicholas Carlson recently suggested, it would cost the New York Times twice as much to print and deliver the newspaper in one year than it would to send every subscriber a Kindle.) If the local papers in Minnesota are attracting more readers, might it not have something to do with this broken covenant between the reader and the journalist? Might it not have to do with the information itself? Have newspapers seen their subscription base dropped because they have failed to respect the readers? And have bloggers been hindered from teaming up along the lines of the 1930s nightlife columnists because this has become a zero sum game predicated on one’s authority and rank on Technorati? Are bloggers and newspapers guilty in not respecting the old covenant?

The New York Times‘s dreadful practice of referring to a “well-known consumerist blog” without citing the URL that first established the connection runs counter to this spirit of connectivity, and the demands of the covenant. Technology chipped away at the verdigrised armor that we all begrudgingly accepted before the Internet spawned what Parker refers to as “drive-by pundits.” And I suppose this is the fruit of Shirky’s “unthinkable” proposition: the idea that print and online journalists might join forces and a more effective economic model will emerge. Because a fusion of voice, the journalist-reader covenant, and investigative journalism will become a must-read central point for all concerned parties.

When Maureen Dowd fixates on Michelle Obama’s biceps, she is breaking the covenant. When Lee Siegel impersonates a reader and leaves a comment in a desperate effort to feed his own hubris, he is breaking the covenant (indeed, so much so that he should not be invited to be part of the process). When Jeff Jarvis or a clueless publisher lets ego get in the way of listening to what somebody else has to say, they are breaking the covenant. The readers are intelligent and they want to be engaged. They want others to synthesize the information so that they, in turn, can synthesize it. They look to any columnist or journalist or blogger and they want to be engaged and challenged. They want voice and they want to be a part of the process.

The nice thing about the covenant is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the journalist has to capitulate to the readership. The journalist can be as subjective or as wild as she needs to be. The only part of the deal is this: The journalist must listen. Particularly to the points of view that seem unseemly.

Amazon Profiting Incommensurately Off Bloggers?

As I pointed out more than a year ago, Amazon has been offering monthly blog subscriptions to Kindle readers, but, in some cases, it hasn’t been paying the bloggers a reasonable cut of the revenue. And as my investigation revealed, in some cases, Amazon didn’t even bother to ask permission from the bloggers. While the monthly subscription cost has gone down to 99 cents per month, as Rebecca Skloot discovered on Twitter this afternoon, Maud Newton’s site is now for sale on the Kindle. (Maud has since revealed that a nonexclusive contract she signed with Newstex gives them the right to distribute her content through the Kindle.)

But there’s a big question here. If Amazon makes 99 cents per subscription, how much of this goes to the bloggers?

I am now in the early stage of a major investigation to determine, once again, if the bloggers listed on the Kindle store are collecting any commensurate revenue or granting their permission to Amazon to have their blogs distributed. And I will be updating this site with my findings. If your blog is listed on the Kindle Store, please contact me so that we can begin to hold Amazon accountable for seizing content generously offered for free and selling it to others on the open market.

There are currently 1,280 blogs listed at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Responding to Dixon: August 14

Darby: About these protean layouts of yours, I recognize the compulsions of a fellow neurotic. Really, sir, it’s the words that count more than anything else. And it seems to me that you’re tinkering around with the look because you’re too damn concerned with the more important component of blogging: the words. You’ve even gone so far to hide them with that preposterously large graphic at the top. Minimalist, my ass. You’re avoiding your duty. To write something on the blog every so often, to keep things fun, to tell us what is on your mind. Do I have to go out to Ohio and kick your ass? Stop this right now. Write. Simply write. You have my vote of confidence. But what of your own? Don’t give a damn about the audience. Write. And write again. Let us see what you’re writing. We don’t give a damn about your layout. We care about your words. Write. Leave the visual trickery to those who are truly frightened. Write.


Is Thomas Hawk a First-Rate Jerk?

Thomas Hawk is at it again. But this time, he’s determined to smear a man’s reputation based on his own decidedly subjective account.

For those who haven’t followed Hawk’s blog, Hawk is a San Francisco photographer who campaigns against institutions wishing to ban photography. If a building or a museum won’t let him shoot a photo, he blogs about it. He uploads photos of those who wouldn’t let him snap shots, and fires back shots with impunity.

He’s been doing this for some time. Sifting through Hawk’s blog, Hawk’s unalienable right to take photos are often more frequent than the photos.

Now Hawk’s target is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Or rather a man named Blint. Hawk was taking photos under an open photographic policy. There was an altercation. He was kicked out. It’s clobbering time. Hawk initially called Simon Blint, its Director of Visual Relations, “a first rate asshole” and published a photo of Blint. He later replaced “asshole” with “jerk.”

As someone who has had to persuade a few folks with chips on their shoulders that my podcasting equipment isn’t intended for terrorist purposes, I can sympathize with Hawk to some extent. While most proprietors I’ve encountered in my podcasting adventures have been friendly and permitted me to conduct an interview (some of them becoming so fascinated with the conversation that they’ve asked for the URL), there have been a few petulant managers who have remained hostile to the idea of a room or a table being used for unanticipated purposes. They have made unreasonable efforts to eject me. But I have not named these names. After all, maybe the manager was having a bad day. Maybe the manager has been screamed at by somebody else and the manager is taking this out on me. At the end of the day, I figure that the podcasts will trump these inconveniences. But in a few cases, reason (and bountiful tips) has won out, and I’ve returned to the establishment for another interview.

What troubles me about the Hawk contretemps is how Hawk and his acolytes are so willing to crucify Blint when Hawk hasn’t once suggested that his own conduct may have been one of the reasons that things escalated this far. Unlike monologuist Mike Daisey, who showed real class in trying to contact the individuals who walked out of his show and poured water on his notes, Hawk hasn’t even tried to open up a broader debate by directly contacting SFMOMA. To give you some sense of the outcry, a commenter at the SFist writes, “If Blint read this SFist article, he just soiled his pants and will be out of a job by Monday,” taking apparent glee in this shitstorm.

This is not a case where the offense comes from a third party. This is a situation in which we have only Hawk’s word to go by. But what of Blint himself? It’s not as if Blint has a high-traffic Web page or runs a major newspaper outlet in which he can respond to Hawk’s charges. Does he even have an online presence? Is this really a fair battle? Many have remarked upon this incident, but nobody has thought to contact Blint to get his side of the story.

If Blint had a history of banning photographers from SFMOMA when the museum keeps an open policy towards photography, then I might be one of the first people in line to criticize his actions. If there was video of the exchange presenting unimpeachable evidence that Blint was out of line, then I’d be more inclined to cite this as another example of free speech being muzzled in a post-9/11 age. But this is only one incident, perhaps poorly handled by both men. And the broader debate about artistic expression has been lost in the skirmish.

Hawk’s blunt words about Blint seem unreasonable to me. It makes the blog medium look bad. Hawk is unwilling to suggest that he may have been wrong, and his undiplomatic efforts here suggest that he is more interested in being a half-baked martyr than an activist. Hawk was just as autocratic in his grievances as Blint was in kicking Hawk out of the museum. And it makes bloggers look like the first-rate assholes that the mainstream media continues to portray them as. In an age when Jason Fortuny humiliates people by invading their privacy, there are vital questions that must be asked.

Message Back to R. McCrum: We’ll Keep on Bloggin’

Syntax of Things: “Did I miss the seminar or not read the pamphlet that listed the qualifications of responsible book reviewing? Damn, I’ll have to Google around for it. Then again, it could be that it’s written in invisible ink on the back of the hand that feeds everyone this crap and calls it a gourmet meal. Highly responsible for what? Here at Syntax of Things, we are highly responsible and possibly, in the eyes of outgoing literary editors for major newspapers, highly contemptible for reading books published by a former quality-control manager for a car-parts manufacturer. AND ENJOYING THEM, TELLING YOU ABOUT THEM, AND BRINGING RUIN TO THE SACRED EMPIRES.”


Sven Birkerts and the Frightening Fitzroya

Being wrong is wonderful! It’s a bit like accidentally walking into a fitzroya and suddenly realizing that there’s this large evergreen that you didn’t know about. Suddenly, you’re forced to alter your existence to account for the fitzroya. And when you ponder the fitzroya a bit — as Darwin did, dutifully naming it in honor of the HMS Beagle’s captain — you begin asking a few questions. How did the tree get there? Why does it have such a mammoth diameter? And how can all this be used in tandem with other shards of understanding?

I suspect that Sven Birkerts is a man terrified of the fitzroya.

On Friday afternoon, I entered a Columbia University classroom. Birkerts had come into town for a debate with Jenny Davidson, moderated by Andrew Delbanco, styled Blogging: Good or Bad for Literary Culture? “I can’t tell if we’re positioned at odds,” whispered Birkerts to Davidson before the proceedings started, a foreshadowing of the stalemate to come.

The audience was composed of approximately twenty-five nimble-minded students, many of whom offered interesting inquiries. I felt a tad displaced wearing my The Brain That Wouldn’t Die t-shirt, but sitting in the front row with this sartorial choice seemed the right thing to do. As one of the “reputedly intelligent” figures mentioned in Birkerts’s 2007 Boston Globe article, I thought I’d see what this reputedly intelligent man had to say. After all, our man Sven had called the litblogosphere “too fluid in its nature ever to focus on widely diverging cultural energies” and railed against us being “predatory on print.” (Never mind that Birkerts, as a literary critic, is likewise predatory on print whenever he writes an essay concerning books.)

It should be self-evident by now that I find the idea of one form of writing deemed inferior solely on the basis of appearing in a different medium — whether it be a blog, a hypertext novel, or what not — to be an utterly ridiculous tautology. Sven Birkerts, I’m afraid to report, is a man who specializes in tautologies. This is not to suggest that he isn’t a smart man. Nor is he entirely against blogs. But he is certainly a weary man, a self-described “gradually graying book reviewer with several decades in the trenches.”

He opened his remarks by reading thoughts from a slightly crumpled piece of paper, hoping that in tossing around cerebral softballs, he could perform some off-the-cuff binomial expansion. Here were some of his phrases:

“A whole new paradigm of transmission.”

“We bring forward a technology. It begins to fashion and inform us.”

“Like the car, it has conditioned us and bent us to its shape.”

“The size an scope of an idea. Within the book, ideas formed in certain ways. Exigencies on the thinking life.”

“Notions of authority and gatekeeping and accountability.”

“The technology intricately bound to our mentality. All of the premises associated that will change.”

“One specific development within a very large, vastly distributed tendency fueled by the possibilities of the Internet.”

“Eroding the notion of the single subjective author as the locus of authority.”

“Organization now lateral and associative based on the link.”

“Loss of centralized top-down structure.”

And so on. Birkerts was much better speaking off the cuff. But one sees within this shaky torrent of phrases the main problem with Birkerts’s position. His complaints are centered exclusively around his own perceptive hang-ups. He did not cite any specific examples to justify his line of thinking. I pointed out to him that his gripes were primarily perceptive and conceptual, and he seemed to agree. Birkerts’s position was further parroted by Delbanco, who expressed a mild sense of terror at participating in a Slate roundtable because this involved sending his thoughts off into the ether. He was, however, slightly more open-minded than Birkerts. Slightly. Delbanco’s terror also equated to being unfamiliar with the form. It struck me that writers over a century ago must have had the same fear of the Remington typewriter that these guys have of the Internet today.

By far, the most reasonable participant was Davidson, who advocated blogging, but pointed out that blogging could not directly replace newspaper criticism. She pointed to both the constraints of word count within newspapers, and simultaneously observed that there were certain advantages of concision within the short-format blog post. She pointed to Caleb Crain’s behind-the-scenes approach to blogging, Colleen Mondor‘s well-rounded perspective, and numerous other blogs. She pointed to certain advantages to the blog form, including the ability to quote more of a textual example — something that newspapers were increasingly not in the habit of doing. I did hope that Davidson would be a little more contrarian about blogging. But unlike Birkerts, she had solid examples for her position. Birkerts, by contrast, essentially parroted the same stolid points over and over again, sounding very much like a broken 78.

I do not believe Birkerts to be an entirely inflexible intellect. He did address my line of questioning, which, in Birkerts’s defense, involved excessively effusive delivery on my part. But he did appear quite bored to be sitting in a Columbia classroom. When I came up to him afterwards, he wanted to get the hell away from me as quickly as possible. But I gave him my card.

It has become evident that the biggest problem with this “debate” is the surfeit of stubborn souls unwilling to consider the alternative form, whether it’s the blogger who refuses to consider the virtues of editing or thinking through his post a bit or the print advocate so terrified of anarchic fun that he cannot find it within himself to trust his instinct from time to time. I’d like to think that this can be bridged. But in the meantime, where does this leave the wondrous fitzroya?

(For another take on the talk, go here.)

Tony Pierce Moves to the LA Times

Now this is a very interesting move, and I hope that Mr. Pierce will be granted some major technical flexibility to dramatically reconfiguring all of the blogs. The main problem with the Los Angeles Times‘s web design is that is very counter-intuitive to the reader. Furthermore, content has a tendency to disappear. (The situation is so bad that Ed Park and Sarah Weinman’s excellent columns for the LATBR aren’t even archived.) I hope Pierce will be able to communicate these evident problems to top brass and finally get the damn situation rectified. He certainly has some solid ideas about current media culture. (via Callie)

The Entirely Unsuitable Guide to Book Blogs

Being something of an involved party on the subject, I’ve finally had a chance to read Rebecca Gillieron and Catheryn Kilgarriff’s The Bookaholics’ Guide to Book Blogs. I’m wondering why such a poorly researched and slipshod book was permitted to come out. (My answer might have something to do with Gillieron and Kilgarriff being the publishers of Marion Boyars, the press that generated this book.) Certainly, litblogs and their ilk deserve this kind of treatment, perhaps not in book form. But Gillieron and Kilgarriff are not the ones to do it.

They identify the motivation behind book blogs as enthusiasm, but that’s as obvious as saying that your motivation for driving into a gas station is to fill up. They choose not to investigate why this enthusiasm exists, much less consider the possibility that enthusiasm only goes so far. They also fail to consider that there are often moments in which blogging is not guided by enthusiasm, that many of us take hiatuses when we cannot offer content that is lively or purposeful, that we sometimes blog when we shouldn’t. Speaking in all candor for myself, many of the posts here arose from a remarkably dull job I once held in a law firm in which it was necessary for me to pretend to be someone who I was not. So I proceeded to amp up a part of me into a twisted persona named “Dr. Mabuse,” who still shows up on these pages out of habit, in an effort to stay sane, giddy, and alive. (I am now far more myself since I went full-time freelance: poorer but happier.) Thus, there is much more here than being one of the “individuals who have no grist or motive other than a love of books and a desire to share their finds with others.”

Why fame or ego should even be a consideration in blogging is a mystery I likewise cannot fathom. I certainly didn’t set into this business for any glory. Bookbloggers simply are. Some of us cannot help but follow the natural rhythm of what we enjoy doing. There isn’t a simpler answer. I’ve achieved a modest notoriety for this site — and even this may be overstating my trifling impact — that I’m often perplexed by. Since moving to New York, I’ve had total strangers come up to me in the street and say, “I’ve just listened to your Jonathan Safran Foer podcast,” which they then point to on their iPods. I’ve received a pair of underwear from a secret admirer in the mail. I’ve been called an egotistical asshole, a hero, a Buddhist (at least twelve times!), a “troubled young man,” and many other things, both pleasant and minatory. I remain baffled that so many people purport to know me based on my words, when they haven’t even had a conversation with me longer than five minutes. Is it egotistical for me to dwell upon this? Well, I suppose so. But I am merely trying to point out that blogging and writing are just what I do and that deriving some great import about who I am misses the point of what this site is about.

There are too many factual errors and oversights in this book for me to take this book seriously. It was certainly news to me to learn that Ron Hogan and Sarah Weinman were married. It is exceedingly frustrating to see Colleen’s quote once again misattributed to me, when it was rectified here and clarified in a correction in the Los Angeles Times. It is quite disgraceful to see someone like Maud Newton get little more than a few sentences.

Simple fact-checking along these lines could have been easily resolved by sending a few emails or making a few phone calls or carefully reading these sites. But Gillieron and Kilgarriff appear incapable of even the most basic journalism. So I have to wonder if their book, containing numerous prevarications and other mistruths, is really worthy of serious consideration. Since every conversation about blogs inevitably ends up back at the same three talking points, was a book along these lines really necessary?

Blogging is Hardly Stalingrad, But the Point is Taken

Jessica Coen: “Eventually, the constant criticism (coming at me and from me), combined with the isolation of working alone from home, began to take its toll. I’ve never been a particularly chipper girl, but my psyche darkened considerably, and the change was obvious. My language got harsher; my tone, less playful. I felt permanently on the defensive and, as a result, fell into a bizarre combat mentality. My headquarters: my tiny apartment, from which I would emerge only to secure provisions from my neighborhood deli.”

Do Today’s Blogs Owe Much to Izzy Stone?

Neiman Watchdog: “Although Stone worked for decades vigorously tweaking authority as a daily journalist, editorial writer and essayist, it was in 1953 that he created the perfect outlet for his extraordinary mind, starting I.F. Stone’s Weekly, easily the scrappiest and most influential four-page newsletter ever sent through the U.S. mail. When Stone shut it down in 1971, the Weekly had 70,000 subscribers. In many ways, the Weekly was a blog before its time. In format, it was a combination of articles, essays and annotated excerpts from original documents and other people’s reporting — just like a blog. In content, it was a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting. Like so many of today’s top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society.”

Bloggers Like to Gloat, Link to Themselves, Eat Small Children

According to the most shrill of the Critical Lumpians (see Ed’s post below), we’re just a bunch of self-linking, traffic-craving, nose-picking, basement-dwelling maggots. Well, I’m proud to be a maggot and I’m damn sure aiming to make a few bucks off it.*

*Not really.

Aside to Ed: Sorry for piping in just to post a link to my own blog. I’ll make it up to you with a free Totebag!

Blogging Entrepreneur in Action

tomvu.jpgI’m Jason Calacanis! Come to my seminar! Look at the choices I have today! Would you like to have choices like this, someday? I became a multimillionaire from blogging. They kept saying, “Jason Calacanis, you’re a crazy nut. Here you are a smug white boy. Look at all the people out there! They’re smarter than you, and they’re not even rich! Who are you to try?” And you know what? I had to keep telling all these people, “You a loser! Get out of my way! I make it on Technorati somehow!” If you want to rise to the top of the blogs, come to my seminar, let me share with you the three little words that can change anybody’s life. I have a beautiful mansion, luxury cars, yachts, and dozens of babes as my arm candy. Come to my seminar and I’ll tell you how you can get all these things through blogging!

Newspapers Shifting to Paid Content Model?

From MarketWatch:

By putting a price on the Reader, The Times creates another stream of revenue, albeit a small one, to add to what it’s generating from subscriptions to its Times Select service, and sales of archived articles. Piece by piece, these services add up — but not to a lot. And they don’t answer the bigger question for the newspaper industry, how to survive the threat of the meme, “Information wants to be free on the Internet.”

Just today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Lazarus opined that, “It’s time for newspapers to stop giving away the store. We as an industry need to start charging for … use of our products online.” He said such a move needs to be industry-wide, and that, “This is approaching a life-or-death struggle for newspapers, and an antitrust exemption may be the only way that the industry can make the transition to a digital future.”

I think Lazarus is wrong (and I’m also very troubled by his call for an antitrust exemption). I can’t think of a way for newspapers to become more irrelevant and blogs to make more of an impact than the newspapers removing free access articles from their websites. Blogs have often been described as parasitic in the way that many of them rely upon newspapers for links and commentary. Fair enough. But here’s the flip side: blogs also draw more attention to an article and, thus, a newspaper’s reputation for quality journalism.

But let’s say newspapers abandon their free content. Well, online audiences, looking for free content, go elsewhere: to blogs that are conducting in-depth interviews, essays and ancillary journalism. (Without that newspaper content to draw from, blogs may resort to conducting journalism of their own. In fact, many already are.) The advertisers, seeing this bandwidth shift, turn to the blogs for their revenue. (In fact, as reported this morning, we’re beginning to see early signs of this.) The blogs, all competing for this revenue, then proceed to up their game. And it’s just like the early days of newspapers, with multiple newspapers were competing for a city’s reading attention. Except the competitive model has now shifted to a micro-level, with individuals or collectives conducting this new journalism. Perhaps former journalists, many of them downsized because of recent newspaper firings, will initiate blogs of their own and, like the two Glenns (Reynolds and Greenwald), attract mass audiences.

And let’s say these new journo-bloggers team up and generate enough revenue to hire copy editors and fact checkers. Well, then, you’ve got a virtual newsroom on your hands. And it’s all free. And with email and comments enabled, you’re talking about an instantaneous model with 24/7 reporting that newspapers can’t compete with. Why can’t they compete? Well, it’s all about access. Sure, readers can and will contact newspapers to tip reporters. But if they can’t access all the content and follow the stories, they’ll go to another free conduit in which a story is easily trackable — a particularly easy thing to do with blog categories enabled. They’ll do this because they’ll know that their voices will be heard and responded to and possibly included within the course of a story. They’ll do this because the journo-bloggers won’t view themselves as gatekeepers. The journo-bloggers will see their readers as peers with which to exchange and verify information.

Sure, there will be a period in which the experts and the cranks will have to be sorted out. And it’s very possible that cranks might prove popular. Hell, one can easily argue that they already are.

Of course, the easier thing for newspapers to do is to hire bloggers and start thinking about fusion of print and online journalism, adopting these virtual newsrooms themselves. (Even mid-sized newspapers like the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News are thinking along these lines.) But I don’t think this will be easy. Because there’s a vast difference between $745.5 million in online advertising and $13.2 billion in print advertising (both figures from Q4 2006, cited in Editor & Publisher). That’s a stunning shortfall that a collection of newspapers, each with a staff of 200 or so, can’t support.

But a collection of blogs, each with a staff of 3 or 4? I’m thinking they might get by on that amount.

Whatever happens, I don’t think either newspapers and bloggers are going away. I think we’re going to see a lot of newspapers go extinct in the next five years (with some major surprises), particularly the ones which insist upon paid content only. I also don’t think journalism is going away either. It’s just going to change. A lot.

Why Vox is Worthless to Any Thinking Blogger

Maxine Clarke: “I concluded that Vox must be going for the ‘young’ market — free (unlike Typepad), easy to use, high-level modules that don’t allow much personal variation on a basic theme, and don’t let the blogger remotely near the html code (total contrast with Blogger’s ‘let it all hang out’ approach). This impression is to some extent confirmed by the latest upgrades: you can now customise your banner design, and, with a complete straight face, Vox provides a question of the day for those inconvenient occasions when ‘you don’t know what to blog about’.”

Blogging Worse Than Masturbation in the Eyes of the Church?

The Restored Church of God: “Should teenagers and others in the Church express themselves to the world through blogs? Because of the obvious dangers; the clear biblical principles that apply; the fact that it gives one a voice; that it is almost always idle words; that teens often do not think before they do; that it is acting out of boredom; and it is filled with appearances of evil—blogging is simply not to be done in the Church. It should be clear that it is unnecessary and in fact dangerous on many levels.”

Pointless Tests on a Moment’s Notice

In response to this nonsense, which suggests that bloggers who are “used to cranking out pointless rants on a moment’s notice” are worse than “highschoolers [sic]” “well-practiced at responding to their teacher’s inane writing prompts,” I note the following:

I took the GRE test twice last year and scored a perfect 6.0 each time on the written essay section. It was some of the laziest, half-assed writing I’ve ever done.

In short, Greta and Dave Munger can bite me.

(via Scott)

Just When I Was About to Dig Up Some Guest Bloggers…

Wall Street Journal: “Yet for the sliver of people whose livelihood depends on the blog — whether they are conservative, liberal or don’t care — stepping away from the keyboard can be difficult. Unlike other jobs, where co-workers can fill in for an absent employee, blogs are usually a one-person show. A blogger’s personality carries the site. When the host isn’t there, readers tend to stray.”

Bloggers Triumph Over Mainstream Media on Mere Hunch


Using deductive prowess, several bloggers determined that Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph, “The Battle of Iwo Jima,” may have been staged by Rosenthal. The bloggers once again triumphed over the mainstream media by Googling the words “Joe Rosenthal staged” and turning up this Fortune City page, which offered nothing more than conjecture on the subject. The Google search result took 0.06 seconds.

“If someone is thinking about it, then someone is hiding the truth,” said the blogger behind Little Green Gerbils, who speculated upon Rosenthal’s photograph at his day job when his boss wasn’t looking.

“Jay Rosenthal is a godless heathen and should be strung up in public before the weekend,” noted Michelle Milkme. “Never mind that he’s in his eighties. Vigilante justice applies even to those past their prime.”

The bloggers, who had abstained from ice cream to facilitate their anger, reportedly experienced higher blood pressure which coincided with their levels of outrage. The fever and hypertension spread to their readers, who offered more fury and amateur speculation in thousands of comments.

“What the maintream media doesn’t realize is that we too use Photoshop,” said Milkme. “I don’t quite understand all the filters and tools the way a professional art director does, but I do know how to crop a photo and save it as a new filename that I can upload to my site. So do most bloggers. The mainstream media will now think twice about messing with us. We have cropping and uploading skills!”