26 February 2008


The day after St. Valentine’s, I went down to Macy’s and bought myself some heart-shaped boxes of high-quality chocolate at half-price. Sure, that’s pathetic – pathetically delicious!

You see that I have, on occasion, a fairly high embarrassment threshold. But I finally read Sarah Boxer’s “Blogs” article in the February 14 issue of the New York Review of Books, and color me as red as a heart-shaped box from blushing with embarrassment, mostly for her, though anyone who read this article without having read any actual blogs – and bear in mind that the NY Review, though my favorite magazine, has a back page filled with passionate, vibrant, laughing and deeply intellectual lovers of life looking for a mate with the starting age of 60, so perhaps its readers are not really immersed in the blogosphere, however familiar they might be by now with most other computer-related functions – may well conclude that I, a blogger, am the one who should be embarrassed, given Boxer’s clear implication that we are a surly, savage lot of brutes, with our pre- (or is it post-?) verbal “emoticons” (which I see in e-mails frequently, but only rarely in blogs), and our weird lingo, which she carefully explicates for the uninitiated – i.e., “snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment” – like thieves’ lingo in some eighteenth-century novel of London lowlife. Don’t I feel a bit of a flash cove!

Normally I would avoid joking about the average age of NY Review readers, as I slouch towards that Bethlehem myself, but I had the feeling that the generational divide, in attitude if not chronology, is crucial to Boxer’s approach. Throughout I felt as if I were reading one of those MSM (back before they called it that, and let me explain, Boxer-style: MSM is mainstream media; i.e., think the NY Times or Newsweek or the major networks) cover-stories trying to explain hippies to their readers, who are by definition the real and substantial people (“Do these so-called ‘hippies,’ with their long hair and strange lingo – ‘outasight,’ for example, means something so far out of sight that it’s what they call ‘groovy’ – really have something to say to people who bathe? Perhaps, in some sense, they do. . . .”). Or maybe they were trying to explain beatniks. Or the Aesthetic Movement, or anything else seen as new and strange, and associated with the young, that ruthless tide rising towards and undermining our decent and traditional and serious shores.

Links in particular, and the practice of writing a brief commentary on a link, seem to throw her. I don’t know why. What are the Midrashim but a series of comments on an existing document written by someone else? She herself quotes Mark Liberman (of a blog called Language Log) comparing the conversational tone of blogs with the opening of Plato’s Republic. It wasn’t the blogosphere that created this referential, commentative style; it was the style that created the blogosphere. As for the obscure or forgotten references to people, places, and things, that hasn’t really been an insurmountable barrier to readers of diaries and letter collections, or indeed of older or foreign novels. Links are just more convenient footnotes. And if Boxer reads further in that same issue, she’ll find that the always interesting Charles Rosen has an article on Montaigne, every page of whose essays is sprinkled with quotations from the classics, sometimes wrenched out of context or shape – in other words, he’s linking, sometimes casually and sometimes calculatedly, to a vast body of knowledge that exists outside of the text he’s compiling. That’s not essentially different from the blogosphere. So how can Boxer claim that “the whole culture of linking – composing on the fly, grabbing and posting whatever you like, making weird, unexplained connections and references – doesn’t sit happily in a book.” Sure sounds like Tristram Shandy to me, among other books, and it sits on my shelves pretty comfortably as a book.

“Blogging at its freest is like going to a masked ball. You can say all the spiteful, infantile things you wouldn’t dream of saying if you were in print or face to face with another human being.” Well, actually, it is exactly like being in print, except for this: such is the nature of pixels over paper that a blog will be available longer. She makes an interesting assumption that, given freedom of speech and topic, one would inevitably reach for the spiteful and infantile rather than the poetic or sublime; I don’t know what sort of conversations they have over at the NY Review, but most daily conversations are fairly mundane, and most people will shoot down anyone who tries to talk too fancy; such is the human need for power and control. Yes, there are many commenters out there who are spiteful and infantile. You can find lots of them on Fox News or right-wing radio. If these trolls show up on blogs, most bloggers boot them. Nothing says you have to allow anonymous comments, or that you can’t delete someone who crosses the line, wherever individual bloggers draw it.

I’ve run across lots of blog-fear lately. Sometimes it just takes the mild form of assuming that all blogging is ranting; other times, as in Boxer’s article, it’s the presentation of bloggers as some weird secret band of thugs, uninhibited by decency or convention, with something like the air of dash and danger of a band of brigands in Byron. There is plenty of unprincipled, cruel, and, worst of all, ungrammatical stuff flowing out through blogs, but that’s the way of the world: the same thing happened right after Gutenberg put his Bibles on the market. Blogging is just a means of distribution, and once a society gets a new means of distribution, first it broadcasts its sacred scriptures (the Bible, or the scientific information for the exchange of which the Internet was originally devised) and then comes the flood of porn and politics, usually combined. It’s just that we’ve had time to adjust to the printing press, and figure out what to select and save, and corporations have figured out how to control it and make money off it. I’m sure we’re all deeply surprised to discover that control and hierarchy turn out to be at the heart of blog-fear. Now anyone can put his or her own stuff out there, without intervention, and new forms of democratic expression are always cause for concern, because democracy is not a natural human view (which is not to condemn it – on the contrary, I laud the artificial). But it’s an unnerving prospect, being the corrupt Pope when Martin Luther self-publishes his 95 theses.

Eventually, like the Soviet Union, Boxer’s theory about “bloggy writing itself” collapses from its own internal contradictions. She mentions opera blogs, so for once I’m actually familiar with the blogs she’s talking about, which hardly helps her case. “For opera, to take another example, you have Parterre Box, which is kind of campy, or Sieglinde’s Diaries and My Favorite Intermissions, written by frequent Met-goers, or Opera Chic, a Milan-based blog focused on La Scala. . . ". Milan is stylish enough to make the cut, but please note her standard-issue New-York-centered view of reality; I assume the Wellsungs didn’t make the cut because of their unfortunate tendency to write about Chicago, and don’t you even think about going west, young man. But the beauty of blogging is that anyone can and does write about his or her local opera company, and anyone else can read it. As far as “bloggy writing” goes, I’ve been enjoying for years the opera blogs she mentions (and others as well), but even if I had just discovered them this afternoon, it would be immediately obvious that their very distinct styles and points of view can only undercut any notion that there is some sort of specific blog style. She also doesn’t mention one of the most prominent music bloggers, Alex Ross, possibly because, as music critic of The New Yorker and author of a well-regarded book on twentieth century music, he counts as a real person and his unfortunate slumming in blogtown is the sort of thing one is too tasteful to acknowledge; or possibly it’s because his success as a blog writer completely undercuts her notion that regular journalists, or those affiliated with magazines, companies, and newspapers, somehow can’t blog correctly. “When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that’s no way to blog.” You mean I’ve been doing it wrong all along? Damn! Here I’ve been worrying about sentence structure and word choice, just as if I were a real person. If that’s the sort of blog Boxer enjoys, that’s her prerogative, but I don’t see that her preference makes it a universal rule.

There’s a strange passage when she discusses a blogger (also unfamiliar to me) called El Guapo, who writes as a youngish Guatemalan-American living in DC, whom she was trying to identify for inclusion in her anthology of blog writing. She “desperately wanted [his entries] to be a memoir.” But “in a book, you can get in trouble for writing under false pretenses or writing a false memoir (right James Frey?). In a blog you can’t.” She then contradicts this point with the anecdote about Lee Siegel creating an alias and attacking critics on his own blog (google it if you’re curious; I don’t want to bother with him – see how handy the whole google thing is?). Well, writing possible fiction about the colorful times of a young Guatemalan-American in our nation’s capital is not at all the same thing as selling as fact an invented story, one which undercuts most accepted theories of rehabilitation, and that’s not the same thing as going undercover to praise yourself. Lots of people out there think a story that really happened is somehow superior to one that was invented, but I expected the NY Review to have a more sophisticated grasp of narrative theory. Pretending your story is real is the oldest trick in fiction, and I know because I read the strange yet true fact in this curious old manuscript secreted within a cupboard of this boarding house into which I just moved, due to peculiar circumstances, which, for particular reasons, I must conceal. Does it matter to the reader, really? The opening of this entry, about buying discount Valentine’s chocolates for myself (see how I’m tying that in? You thought I was being random, didn’t you, instead of carefully selective): are you sure it really happened? Did it really happen as I described it (maybe I bought more, or less, or just thought about the purchase)? Is the story less amusing, or less revealing of me, if I didn't actually buy the chocolates? Narration is inherently choice, and choosing by its nature distorts; and whether the distortion is intended, great, or small, is where the skill comes in, even for bloggers, because it’s all narration, and only the means of distribution has changed.

Perhaps the oddest bit of this odd article comes at the end: “. . . I marveled many times at the large number of bloggers obsessed with masked superheroes . . . Finally, I think I get the superhero fixation. . . .” First, I haven’t really come across many blogs or bloggers obsessed with superheroes. Second, I nonetheless have no doubt there are many of them, because it’s exactly the sort of subculture (like opera, locavore living, baseball, and so forth) that elicits strong feeling and interest and therefore the need for expression. Third, our culture generally has become sort of obsessed with superheroes the past few years – just ask Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, or any number of other young (mostly male) writers, or check any list of forthcoming summer films for the recent past. Fourth: Finally? Finally she gets the superhero fixation? Let me put it this way: masked superheroes are mysterious, often misunderstood, yet good and heroic; they are big, handsome men with wall-to-wall muscle and no shame in or fear of their bodies (those tight suits leave nothing to the imagination!); men envy them, women want them, or vice versa; those around them do not realize who they really are, in their true and secret powerful selves; their intervention always turns out well, and on the side of uncomplicated truth and justice. I realize I was once an adolescent boy and Ms Boxer presumably was not, but does it really require a deep sympathetic imagination to get the appeal? I’m convinced one of the reasons I wasn’t obsessed with superheroes when I was a boy was because I thought it was too naked a reflection of my anxieties.

But I think the real point of her ending is the stereotype that superhero fans (and by insinuation bloggers) are arrested adolescents, who might be physically living, if you can call it that, in Mom and Dad’s basement, but emotionally dwell in Cloud-cuckoo-land, and these are the strange, dreamy infantile types playing with dangerous big boy toys. I guess that’s meant to be her big finish. Here’s a better one: She seems to think the barbarians are at the gates. The real situation is that, like the walls of Jericho, the gates have come tumbling down.


DJA said...

I realize I was once an adolescent boy and Ms Boxer presumably was not, but does it really require a deep sympathetic imagination to get the appeal?

She's, um, heard of a young woman called Miley Cyrus, right? I understand she appears on a television programme or some such like, as an adolescent girl with a so-called "secret identity"?

Civic Center said...

Every time I find myself in a gathering of "real" journalists, my estimation of humanity tends to drop considerably. Their usual sense of entitlement mixed with a narrowness of vision tends not to be a very pretty picture. Give me those barbarian bloggers any day of the week.

Brilliant essay, by the way. Was it fueled by a sugar rush induced by half-price chocolates from Macy's, by any chance, or have they already vanished from this earth?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

DJA, Thanks for the links (aren't they swell?)to Ms. Cyrus, and thanks for providing the feminine equivalent of the masked hero thing. One of the weird aspects of the superhero ending to Boxer's article is that it's a very gendered obsession (meaning that although there are women who share it they're seen as doing a guy thing) but she didn't really deal with the implications there, so I wasn't sure what exactly she was saying about the gender of bloggers, and thought it wasn't worth bothering with at that point. But given the generally pretty clueless, out-of-touch tone of her article, I'm not sure she does know who Miley Cyrus is. I would think the average NY Review reader would be the sort to have an interest in language, publishing, and world events generally, so I was baffled as well as amused at the careful explanations of phrases or phenomenon that have been around for a while. You'd think some of these readers would also know either students, children or grandchildren, or just some of the kids generally, who could fill them in on all that crazy texting and blogging and e-mailing and whatnot.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, Oh, the half-priced chocolates disappear shortly after I tear the heart open, but there still are some for sale down at Macy's -- the Joseph Schmidts are all gone, but they still have Frango, which are delicious. And it's now 70% off! You can bet I'm heading right down there the day after Easter for some half-price bunny action.

Henry Holland said...

Since I decided last week to blog on a regular basis, this is pretty timely.

You know I've expressed admiration for your writing before, so I say this with love:

Paragraph breaks are your friend.


^^ Hahaha, emoticons, what will those wacky kids think of next?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps she was thinking of El Guapo's Ghost:


Jack Wright
Boston, Mass.
Home of the World Champion Boston Red Sox

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Gee, Henry, I count ten paragraph breaks. Don't be greedy! Paragraph breaks may well be your friend, but clearly they're not mine, since they flee at the sight of me. Actually, I probably would have thrown a few more in there, since you are not the first to mention paragraph breaks (though I hope you'll be the last), but it was one of those weeks where I realized that if I didn't post the entry, wash the dishes, and do a couple of other things after work on Tuesday I wasn't going to get another chance until Saturday morning. So I was running out of time, once again. To some extent I've just accepted that long sentences and long paragraphs and long entries are the way I express myself. . .

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Jack, Thanks for the URL on Guapo. It seems rather odd that she didn't provide that information -- the NYReview wouldn't discuss a book without mentioning the publisher or the full title. Very sloppy.
I was hoping to get to see the World Champion Sox in Fenway this spring, but sadly for me it is not to be.