[7 June 2012]
Blogs have long given writers the chance to flaunt their talent. But even for the lucky ones who caught the eye of a publishing house, the path was never easy. In the past, bloggers have had to undergo a kind of conversion: before they risk unleashing them upon their established readers, mainstream publishers anxiously demand that bloggers alter their style, change their tone or revise their approach. But now, following a sea change in attitudes that needs explaining, publishers are more relaxed about using blogs as a direct source for publications.
An ancient concern might underlie the publishing industry’s anxiety about bloggers. Plato’s Phaedrus uses a myth to explain the dangers of the written word. Writing, so the story goes, was invented by the Egyptian thinker Theuth as an aide memoire for his own learning. But, Plato suggests, written words are easily separated from their author’s genuine understanding: taken up by other, less knowledgeable writers they give the mere “appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.” Within publishing the editorial process provides a barrier against this kind of ill-informed writing. But blogging, where writers can express themselves immediately, anonymously and unfiltered, seems to have the potential to produce texts that are inaccurate, misleading or otherwise inauthentic. The publisher’s skepticism regarding bloggers might simply boil down to this Platonic concern about the authenticity of their writing.
The clamoring for authenticity has not held back bloggers in every field. Many creative writers, for instance, have successfully moved from the blogosphere to the mainstream. The path taken by Diablo Cody is typical of this transition. Cody rode to stardom on the success of Juno. But shooting the 2007 picture was never the writer’s real aim, nor was the film’s screenplay ever really intended for production. In fact, Cody had penned Juno only as a sample designed to convince studios to film her blog.The Pussy Ranch.
Cody’s example clearly demonstrates that mainstream publishing has sometimes noticed bloggers, but it also shows the limited focus of its gaze. On the one hand, fiction is a somewhat exceptional field because it places very few demands upon a text’s accuracy; this means that Cody’s publishers could largely put aside their worries about the authenticity of the blogger’s work. On the other hand, Cody also went to extreme lengths to show that her talent as a writer was not limited to blogging. If mainstream publishers have taken note of bloggers, then it has only been in fields where authenticity is less crucial and only when a writer manages to first prove themselves beyond their blogs.
In more typically academic fields, where a text’s authenticity is of greater importance, publishers are even more reluctant to engage with bloggers. In philosophy, for example, a published text guarantees a high degree of quality and accuracy, and students and academics alike tend to eschew blogs in their favor. Because this attitude prevails, publishers in the field find it difficult to explore the work of bloggers.
But philosophy’s rejection of bloggers is unfortunate, because some of the discipline’s most interesting recent work has originated online. Academics like Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) and Graham Harman (Doctor Zamalek2, founders of the Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) movement, have used their blogs rather than their philosophy departments to develop their thought. Mark Fisher, the blogger behind k-punk, explains the unique sense of freedom that distinguishes the “informal space” of a blog from the straitjacket of an academic paper. For him this freer environment has a liberating effect upon the thought produced within it and forms an integral part of the radical, innovative advances of the OOO movement.
Most publishers still look skeptically upon blogging as little more than a first step towards ‘real’ writing (and thinking) or at most a supplement to an already published text, but a handful have identified the valuable philosophical work germinating online and bucked the trend by engaging with bloggers on their own terms. Zero Books, where Fisher is both an editor and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is there No Alternative?, was founded in 2009 and stands in the vanguard of this new approach. Unlike other publishers, Zero does not demand that writers prove themselves by producing fresh manuscripts written specifically for an offline audience. Instead, happy to look online for their material, many of Zero’s imprints draw directly upon a writer’s blog.
Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, for example, was the product of an exercise in “live-blogging”, where he discussed the progress of his book in real-time with his online readers. A more extreme example, also from Zero’s catalogue, is Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film. This book, as its subtitle indicates, simply reprints “1,200 tweets on film” and serves as a dramatic illustration of Zero’s faith in bloggers and the quality of their writing.
But it’s not only in philosophy where publishers are beginning to take blog writing more seriously. Spitalfields Life an exceptional example of a rapidly evolving species of local city blogs, is an anonymously written online project chronicling life in East London. The blog has attracted attention from the British Library and the Bishopsgate Institute, and both these organisations, eager to preserve the detailed documentary work, have begun converting, digitizing, and archiving its entries. Following suit, publishers have also shown a keen interest in “Spitalfields Life” and selections from the blog are set to appear in an imprint of the same name by Saltyard Books later this year.
The recent rise in the blog writer’s stock is also not merely confined to book publishing. Growing openness in other published media has allowed many bloggers to make direct transitions into the music and film industries. In 2007, Cody tried and failed to secure a screenplay from her blog. By 2009, however, Julie Powell had succeeded where Cody failed, and oversaw the production of the first film based entirely upon a blog, Juliea Powell.
Julie & Julia takes its direction from Powell’s online documentary of her attempt to cook the entire contents of a Julia Child cookbook in a single year. The film is an important marker of the direction in which the industry is travelling and, with its critical and box office successes for Columbia, may well encourage other large-scale production companies to pay greater attention to bloggers.
Throughout mainstream publishing, in every medium underpinned by writing, bloggers are achieving a slow but steady infiltration. This reversal, unthinkable as little as ten years ago, reflects deep changes in attitude towards the written word by the common people. Publishing was once a far more insular affair, wherein proven writers circulated amongst trusted publishers. Today it has been forcibly opened to a varied wealth of talented bloggers.
Where are those fears about the authenticity of the blogger’s text that once dominated the publishing industry? Perhaps exemplary writers like Salam Pax (aka “The Baghdad Blogger”) —whose blog, Where is Raed? gave detailed, accurate eyewitness accounts of bombings in Baghdad – have shown that authentic blogging is not a contradiction in terms. Or perhaps today we are simply less hung up about authenticity (although it should be noted that, until the Guardian confirmed that he really was an architect living in Iraq, even Pax suffered speculations about the authenticity of his blog). One thing is clear: the clamoring for authenticity that began with Plato no longer forms such an obstacle to the blogger’s entry into the mainstream publishing.
But who is driving this change of attitude? Is the publishing industry steering the reading masses towards the acceptance of blog writers and their work? Or, conversely, is the groundswell in the blogger’s popularity amongst the average reader forcing publishers to take note?
Technological advances surrounding the blogging movement show that it is readers, and not publishers, that are leading the expansion of blog writing into the mainstream. Portable web-ready devices give readers access to blog writing in all the places where published content had traditionally thrived – albeit not in the e-format that is so prevalent today. Commuters now ease their journeys with iPads not newspapers or novels, switch on laptops, not televisions, when they get home, and constantly try to separate their teenage kids from their smartphones. These technological innovations clearly support the booming consumption of blog writing, but it seems unlikely that they could they ever actually force readers to accept bloggers.
Although the growing pervasiveness of technology increases their exposure to blog writing, it nevertheless leaves readers entirely free to choose whether or not they go on reading what is on offer. The same goes for the publisher’s attempts to influence readers through marketing strategies and advertising campaigns. These too remain external to a reader and rarely penetrate to the core of their preferences. It seems that without some initial choice on the reader’s part, some spark of complicity, publishers could never ensure their acceptance of blog writers.
If the choice to accept bloggers lies ultimately with readers themselves, then it seems that many have already decided in their favor. Fisher’s blog “k-punk”, for instance, was founded in 2003 and since then it has delivered his cultural criticism to a colossal 1.2 million unique readers. This blog’s popularity tracks closely to the widespread embrace of the medium as a whole: In 2010, more than 40 percent of Internet users in the UK identified themselves as blog readers.
Just as important as the growing number of readers is precisely where they have come from. Blog readership has expanded well beyond its initial geeky niche and now draws readers from the declining newspaper and magazine industries. This has sparked one of the strangest phenomena in modern journalism: broadsheet journalists who call themselves bloggers. Something similar took place in academia and Fisher explained how professional philosophers had taken to blogging because they found the environment liberating. Whether editors are trading on a kind of blogger chic, or they think their journalists are freer when blogging, or simply that they can pay them less in that guise – every major newspaper, from the Guardian to the New York Times, now has a huge in-house blog network.
The demographically varied readership that blogs receive suggests that most of today’s readers have wholeheartedly accepted bloggers. The movement has gathered such momentum that it’s seemingly irreversible, this acceptance has opened the publishing industry towards the blogosphere. No doubt concerns will live on regarding the obsolescence of values such as authenticity and historical accuracy that were once held to underpin publishing – and these are vital concerns—but when the pay-off is a more vibrant publishing scene driven by the emergence of exciting new writers, this is a risk many readers seem willing to take.