January 6th, 2007 09:29 EST
The Ugly Blogger - Hot Copy #13
Bloggers play an ever-increasing role in journalism. That`s a pretty bland and bald statement. But it will do for starters. We need to take a look at journalism itself. It isn`t as helpful a collective noun as it used to be. Every discipline has its own journalism. Every economic sector, every school of thought.
I was a journalist for a long time. Otherwise wouldn`t have any credibility with students and young journalists. Nowadays I write fiction and poetry, and in that capacity I read a great many literary blogs. I`m a little leery of that term, literary blog, because a lot of what I read is hardly literate, much less literary. But the term has its uses. Some of these blogs report on the publishing industry. Some of them advise fellow writers. Some do both. Still others report on resources and trends. Some are useful, some are full of it. Some are accurate, some are misleading and harmful.
They haven`t gone through a copy desk of educated, literate editors. if there are mistakes, they`re not likely to be caught. All that stands between them and their readers is the blogger`s conscience. In some cases that`s more than enough. In other cases it doesn`t seem to exist.
There have always been polemicists, some of them without conscience, so I`m not going to waste any time on them. There have always been blatherers and ideologues. Tom Paine and Patrick Henry were ideologues. They were also conscientious, literate and idealistic.
I see a trend among the bloggers that I find profoundly disturbing. And because blogs now play a major role in journalism, in the way a society perceives itself, I want to discuss this with you. It`s the trend towards snottiness, snideness, sarcasm, meanness, hostility. Those ugly aspects of the human persona have always been with us. I can`t count the times as an that I asked a writer to constrain his uglier instincts and act more grown up. I can`t count the times that I`ve had to point out to a writer that these attributes belong to adolescence. Very few writers who indulged in this sort of thing were ever grateful to me. They thought I was watering down their inspired prose. They thought I was namby-pamby. When I was a young editor I tended to return their contempt, but as I grew older I realized that we`re all struggling with our baser instincts.
I`m not talking about vulgarity, mind you. There`s this idea of the family newspaper in which vulgarity has no place. That`s all well and good, but it doesn`t carry much weight with your average tabloid, which sells newspaper by pushing the envelope, and even The New York Times finds way to admit that vulgarity plays a role in our lives. You find it in fiction and in poetry, and it has its uses.
But I`m talking about nastiness. Cheap, ignorant nastiness dressed up as literature or reportage about literature. It`s a hell of a lot easier to be smart-alecky than it is to say something enlightening. It gets attention, it makes you feel better, and it also makes you a jerk. A big jerk. I see a lot of blogging about getting real, wising up, facing reality, and I almost always find that the writers don`t bear much close scrutiny, because, essentially, they`re smart-ass jerks who aren`t worth reading. And a great many of them have literary pretensions.
There`s a big difference between cutting to the chase, being terse, succinct, sharp, and being a wise-ass fool. Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway knew how to get from there to here fast. They knew how to be terse and dead-bang on target. I don`t know if this snideness, this jerkwater underbelly of current writing, got started in colleges when in the 1950s they began to extoll the virtues of Ernest Hemingway over longer-winded writers, like William Faulkner. I won`t even propose that as a theory. But if there should happen to be some truth in it, well, then I think what may have happened is that some writers just may have thought it was chic to cut people down.
Maybe we just live in an age where ordinary civility has become a rare commodity. Maybe society has presented us with so many challenges and disappointments that our nerves have become frayed. But the sheer number of rants, smarmy, know-it-all riffs and hoity-toity put-downs that are appearing on the web is pretty impressive.
One of the worst offenders in publishing journalism is the writer who purports to tell his colleagues how stupid they are in their ridiculous efforts to get published and how they need to wise up and inhabit the real world. I can hardly count the number of mean-spirited bloggers I`ve seen indulge this sort of ugliness under the guise of offering helpful advice. And not just the writers, but the small presses as well. Take a look at their submission guidelines and you`ll see what I mean. Sometimes they`re polite, succinct and helpful. But more often they`re full of gratuitous nastiness purporting to be real-world advice. My own feeling about such publishers is that they ought to get over themselves. Nobody ever promised them it would be any more easy to publish than it is to write.
Much of this kind of writing is a refusal to grow up. The writers are still stuck back in the school yard wishing they had stood up to the bully, wishing they had said something they didn`t have the mother wit to say at the time. It`s bad writing. It`s a bad lifestyle. And it contributes nothing to the common good.
We used to reply on the copy editors to spare us this kind of n`yah-n`yah silliness, but those little Google bots pick up all the ugliness and pass it along to us unsparingly and unconscionably. We`re our own copy editors now. And the bloggers are their own editors. I won`t say we`re all the worse for it, but I will say the blue-meanie virus is going around and it sure ain`t pretty. Maybe it`s the price we have to pay to get around the censors and the gatekeepers.
But that battle isn`t won yet either. The mega-corporations are still trying to bribe Congress to give them a lock on the Internet and countries like China are censoring the Internet. And even if the corporations manage to wring the freedom out of the Internet for the almighty dollar I don`t think they`re going to wring the pure meanness out of the bloggers. Meanness doesn`t bother the corporations, lost opportunities to make a buck do.
Do I have a remedy? Or am I just spitting in the wind? Well, yeah, I do have a remedy. Blogging is a big part of the future of journalism. We can`t even foresee where it`s heading, but we know it`s influencing elections, we know it`s influencing the way the networks are presenting the news, and we know it`s influencing the decisions newspapers and magazines make every day. So what we can do as journalists is resolve to make a lifelong commitment to be more and more literate, to have respect for our readers and viewers, to have respect for the facts, for the complexity of things, for the monumental task it is of presenting a fair picture of events.
We can say to ourselves that the Internet has not given us a license to be dirty little stinkers. It has not given us a license to be half-literature, although there is admittedly nothing we can do to keep the illiterate stinkers out of the worldwide web. We can resolve treat our readers with humane decency.
Remember that the snide blogger, the mean-spirited, self-serving hack has no respect whatsoever for you or for himself. Just look around the web and ask yourselves how often you`re seeing the kind of blogger you`d want conversing with your loved ones, your friends. Why ask yourself this? Because you should be writing as if you`re writing for loved ones and friends, people you care about. If you`re not, then who are you writing for? Enemies? People who would admire you for your snottiness, for your simplemindedness? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourselves as journalists? Do you care about your readers? Do you wish them well? Do you want to help them? Do you want them to prosper? Or are you just trying to impress some imaginary person who will tell you how wonderful you are, what a great writer you are, how you ought to be rich?
I`ll tell you one that`s abundantly clear to me. The bloggers I`m talking about, the ones who are so smart-alecky towards their peers, they don`t want to help anybody but themselves. And oddly enough they`re not helping themselves much either, because nobody really loves a smart ass. And nobody really loves somebody who is so down on people that he has no tolerance for foibles, no sympathy for dreams, no empathy with the less informed.
So in many ways the average blogger in the average area of expertise can teach you how not to write. The minute you spot a rant, or sarcasm or snideness, say to yourself, Well, here`s a list of don`ts that I ought to check out.
You can have a lot of fun as a writer. Check out James Joyce, for example. Without the fun being at somebody`s expense. Yes, there are characters who deserve derision. Check out Charles Dickens, for example. But your readers are not among them. A writer who reminds you of the high school bully or the blonde with the circle pin who never would admit you into her circle of ditzes, that`s a writer to avoid like the plague, and unfortunately for us the web is full of such writers. But a writer who reminds you of Saturday`s hero who stood up for the studious non-athlete, or the pretty blonde who did admit the homely girl into her circle, that`s a writer to read and be grateful for. And I`d be grateful if I saw a few more such writers in the field of literary journalism where the ugliness has been getting pretty ripe.
Ugly tone is not the only problem I see among bloggers. There is all too often a knack for saying a lot less than meets the eye. I think this is because bloggers are influenced by television anchors, who can spend an awful lot of time marking time, and adverting. They tend to promise a lot more than they deliver.
Style is another problem. They tend to be overheated, and so find yourself staggering through all the hot verbiage looking for a point, a new fact, something to enlighten you, and all too often you stagger in vain. Bloggers often seem to have trouble getting to the point, and that`s often because there is no point except them. They want to be noticed. It can make you pretty mad, because the search engine has led you to believe you might just be edified by the blog, and instead you find a lot of trashy verbal exhibitionism. It`s sort of like a nightclub performance. The emcee comes on to warm you up for the star attraction, but in retrospect you find you enjoyed the emcee more than the star. That`s because he had a purpose, but the star didn`t. He just wanted your adulation, on the cheap.
This will all sort itself out eventually. There`s nothing new about time-wasting blather. After all, politicians and preachers do it all the time. But for now, it`s annoying. And you can do something about it by simply making sure you don`t do it. Get to the point on your blog. Spell right. Don`t rely wholly on spell checks, because they`re not up-to-date and with-it. But you can build up their powers on your own, and you should. Don`t go in for verbal acrobatics. Don`t try to impress anyone. Just say something worth saying. Have a heart, have some respect for your reader. Try to give him something for the time he has invested in you. And don`t go on the attack. Save your anger for your shrink or the gym. Be civil. Be trustworthy. Who trusts a smart ass?
Web traffic strikes many bloggers as ephemeral, like e-mail, and some of them hide their irresponsibility behind this ephemeral myth. But it is a myth. The worldwide web is filled with lies and distortions. Just study the web sites of the religious fanatics, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, it doesn`t matter. As long as they`re stirring up fear and hatred, they don`t care about truth or enlightenment.
When I was a reporter and an editor for newspapers I tried mightily to keep in mind that what I reported, what I wrote would enter the newspaper`s library and might eventually be used by others, might be taken as fact, or what the great French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, called a received idea. He was so worried about this phenomenon of received ideas that he wrote a dictionary of received ideas. It should be updated every year. In fact, Snopes` Urban Legends web site tries to do exactly this, and you`d be surprised how many stories make the rounds of the web that have been exposed by Snopes as rumors, lies and half-truths.
Bloggers have a responsibility, because what they blog becomes a kind of archival file. But many of them refuse to accept this responsibility. For example, early last year when I was writing about fundamentalists on my own blog I said that a great medieval civilization based in Cordoba, Spain, the Umayyad caliphate, had been overthrown by Berber fundamentalists from North Africa who had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar ostensibly to help the caliphate against its enemies. This is a fairly obscure historical fact. It`s well known to Arabists, of course, but it`s certainly not as familiar to us as, say, the Spanish conquest of the Americas. What if I had lied about this fact? What if I distorted it? Somebody reading my blog, and perhaps trusting me, might take it in as one of Flaubert`s received ideas. It might enter the canon and do a considerable amount of damage. I have no credentials as an Arabist, although I am quite well read in the field.
We`re essentially trying to manage our society on the basis of received ideas. We`ve now lost more than 3,000 American lives and many, many more Iraqi lives on the basis of received ideas that would not have stood up to scrutiny if our press and our Congress had done their jobs. But they didn`t do their jobs, and bloodshed resulted. Saddam Hussein had not sought nuclear materials in Africa for more than a decade, but the received idea, the idea our own Secretary of State, Colin Powell, propounded to the United Nations, was that Saddam had recently sought nuclear materials. A republic such as ours can`t survive when its major decisions are based on received ideas. But blogs worldwide are full of them, and that means they`re full of it.
Don`t be influenced by a handsome web design or by the credentials of the blogger. Politicians often have great credentials, and they just as often lie and tell half-truths. All a credential means is that someone is supposed to know what he`s talking about, supposed to tell the truth about his chosen area of expertise. But it doesn`t mean he does tell the truth. It doesn`t mean he has any respect for you. And in the end, that`s what it`s about respect.
Well, that`s a lot said about bad blogs. There are plenty of good ones. For a fine example, take a look at McSweeneys.net. It`s clean, elegant and funny.