Blogging: Good or EVIL?!

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This afternoon in Hamilton, two writer-professors met to debate whether blogging was “good or bad for literary culture.” Taking the “good” side was Columbia’s own Jenny Davidson, an English professor with a popular literary blog (watch out—it’s a wonderful but deadly place for bookish procrastinators).  On the “bad” side was Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, Director of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, and non-blogger.  Andrew Delbanco, Director of Columbia’s American Studies program, provided light moderation.

Like most events, the discussion was not nearly as black and white, or as contentious, as the title made it out to be—the two contenders were mostly talking on different wavelengths. Professor Davidson provided specific examples of the blogs she enjoys and the services they perform, and a personal perspective into how blogging, and internet technology in general, improves her literary life.  An avid reader of crime fiction, she can go online, mine a fellow enthusiast’s blog for information on obscure, small-press, high quality detective stories, and then order those books free of charge from BorrowDirect.

Professor Birkerts seemed to agree with his debate-mate’s points, but his own point was not so much about what blogs can do as what they can’t. For him, the central issue was “centrality,” and like the Empedoklean God, the blogosphere “is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.” “There’s no place to stand from which to assess it,” Birkerts said. What we lack in the world of blogs, he argued, is a council of gatekeepers who will impose hierarchies and coherent voices upon the chaos.

This sort of literary gatekeeping is exactly what happens at entities like the New York and London Reviews of Books and the New York Times Book Review, and Birkerts lamented their hypothetical destruction in the wake of plummeting print advertising revenues and emoticon-using, short-attention-spanned youngsters.  

But I wonder: if the NYRB died tomorrow, what would really be lost? An authoritative literary arbiter, a weighty judge of the best and worst books of the day? Surely another arbiter could be constructed online by the people who contribute so much of the content to these rarefied publications: folks with PhDs and the writers they deem worthy (who are often one and the same). Why can’t this group of professors and successful writers, presumably earning a living wage at their day jobs, band together and submit their thoughts about the important literary issues of the day? They may even find enough success that the revenue from their website would cover whatever income they miss from their print writing gigs, and allow them to contract young, aspiring book critics to boot—maybe they can even get the academy to subsidize their project.

What’s missing in my picture is the editors, and so the heart of the blogosphere matter, and the place where the two debaters had genuinely differing opinions, is editing. Birkerts, a widely published critic, is in favor of educated people putting other educated people’s massive review-essays through the intellectual wringer, through the first draft and the second draft and the first galleys and the second galleys. Professor Davidson, while a fan of the long-form book review, and a woman who has written some herself, had this to say: “I realize this puts me in the culture of instant gratification, but blogging is the enjoyable part. It lets you talk about one book without sinking all the resources that could be spent reading another book.” Spoken like a blogger, and a lover of literature.




  1. wonderful  

    well written

  2. derrida  

    the center is not the center.

    that's deep.

  3. who  

    organized this? Roosevelet Institution?

  4. come on  

    philolexian already debated "resolved: blogging is a bigger threat to our society than AIDS"

  5. hardcore

    this was a thoughtful, informative piece. Kudos, PBB, Kudos.

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