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Just as Video Killed the Radio Star…

Yesterday I caught author and historian Simon Schama discussing his new essay collection Scribble Scribble, on WYC’s Leonard Lopate Show. During the interview, he bristled good naturedly at Lopate’s suggestion that the book, which is subtitled “Writing on Politics, Ice Cream and My Mother,” might be stream of consciousness in style, and lamented the fact that there was altogether too much of that sort of writing on line. Indeed, Schama said that blogs had “deformed” the essay into an “indiscriminate effusion of free association” predicated on the idea that if it’s interesting to me, it must be interesting to everybody. This, he said, is the absolute the opposite of the essay, which has a clear structure, “a dramaturgy” as clearly defined and carefully constructed as a great short story. Ah yes. I flashed back to my tenth grade English teacher who, on a weekly basis, would eviscerate what I thought was pretty terrific prose (Long sentences! Many adjectives! Big words galore!) until I learned to write an organized, effective essay. I can only imagine what she thinks of the blogosphere.

In any case, I’m not sure that I’d issue quite the blanket condemnation of bloggers everywhere. Given the numbers, I feel sure some are writing essays of the sort Schama might approve, but as cranky and school-marmish as Schama sounds, I could not help but agree. My inbox overflows with proposals for personal narratives that are heartfelt, horrifying and even heroic (struggles with cancer, devastating loss, political repression, etc.) but not especially well-constructed or well-suited to a broad readership. Whether this is a result of the deforming influence of the blog, I’m not sure, though blogs certainly aid and abet the notion that because every person has a story, he or she really ought to share it with the world. I do, however, realize that I am not exactly part of the solution. Much as I’d like to tut tut along with Schama, few of my own on-line ramblings on publishing would stand up to Mrs. Groveman’s red pen.

What say you? Just as video killed the radio star, has the blog killed the essay?

8 Responses to Just as Video Killed the Radio Star…

  1. josin says:

    I think a disproportionate number of people have always been under the delusion that they are, by nature, interesting to the world at large. If you need proof, attend a grade school “Career Day” presentation or think about how many times Great Uncle Stan has told the same story over and over and over with that same shine in his eye that says he thinks it’s riveting.

    It’s sort of an offshoot of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people can’t determine how interesting they are to someone other than their won self any better than they can how talented they are. Their focus is too close to what’s being judged.

    Day to day life is usually boring, but if you take a collection of years and hit the high points, then those high points make the story seem exciting by comparison. Therefore, the person telling the story thinks that translates into “exciting for everyone”. People retell their own stories through the filter of their own preferences and their own hobbies. Any time they had the chance to engage in those preferences and hobbies will be an enjoyable memory (unless attached to a disaster).

    People are also trained to believe that they matter, but too many forget the second half of the lesson which is “I matter as much as everyone else.” In their mind, if they matter, then they are important, and if they are important, then people should be listening to them. In some cases, the person is VERY important to society, because they fill a necessary need or serve as an officer of the law or fire department. However, many of those most important jobs are highly technical in way that doesn’t translate to narrative retelling.

    You can’t blame the rise of blogs (most of which are abandoned quickly, anyway) for a habit that humans have had for centuries. The only real difference is that Uncle Stan can now post to his zero follower count online rather than corner his distant relations on the front porch at the reunion.

  2. Ciara says:

    I think it’s sort of a silly comment really. Why can’t essays and blogs be two different forms of expression. Half the point of a blog is that absolutely anyone can write it and that you don’t need to have any qualifications for writing one. Not so with essays, at least not everyone can write a good one. I think of essays as the sort of thing I studied at university and there’s no point in comparing for example “The Theatre and it’s double” to a blog entry. Perhaps I’m just misunderstanding what an essay is supposed to be though.

  3. Kurt Hartwig says:

    There are also formalistic differences – a good blog will often tell a story or engage the reader, like this one, requesting input and conversation down here in the comments section. The blog is technologically driven (obvious, but it must be said) as much as the essay is – but the essay hails from a much, much earlier time and its form has largely settled.

    There are innumerable similarities (blogs and essays would overlap pretty heavily on a Venn diagram, I expect), but they’re aiming for different things.

    To complain about it strikes me as a waste of breath, much as Laura Miller’s article on Salon bemoaning how the new caste of author-entrepreneurs will never generate another Harper Lee.

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    Blogs have to be written to draw me in and make me feel as though I’m a part of the issue the blogger is writing about. Part of the problem with so many blogs is that they turn into mini-essays that focus on me-me-me. Even the funniest, most well-written blog will fail to appeal to me if I have that sense of self-focus by the author. I recently read what appeared to be a series of blogs (published), and the book was written well; however, the author’s self-focus soon turned me off, and I was done by the third chapter.

    I don’t blog very frequently (just starting out, really), but I try to be entertaining and write about what I know writers of my particular genre (romance) struggle with the most – e.g., making “Mr. Right,” summoning up the courage to write the dreaded s-e-x scenes, etc. I can get the hang of blogging, but it can be a real time suck. ☺

  5. I’ve seen quite a few formal essays on blogs; they do exist, and they stand out (and look a bit odd sometimes) when compared to the style and format of most blog posts. The trouble, I think, is that some people don’t realize or care which type of writing is appropriate for which kind of forum. Blogs are, for many people, personal, informal, and fun, and while grammar and the like should always be considered, few people want to put the same amount of research and careful writing into a blog post as an academic essay. However, one should still know how to write formally, because it is important in school, business, and to a certain extent, in queries (which are a form of business communication, although formatted a bit differently as one is trying to sell a creative product).

    It’s not bad that blog posts are not formal essays. It’s silly to expect them to be. But it is important for everyone to know how to write appropriately depending on context and situation.

  6. Katie Mills says:

    Just wanted to say, this place looks great you guys! So much fresher and more modern and really reprentativetative (I know there’s a full word in there somewhere) of a great agency! good job!

  7. I read this post and kept thinking about it… so, days later, here is my response :)

    Maybe one of the differences between blogging and a personal essay is an editor. Either another person, or the internal editor that ideally also exists in our own heads. However it works, that editor needs to help the material move from blurting to processing the experience.

    And then I’d like to present a piece that probably blurs the lines of blog and personal essay – it’s from the Sandbox blog at Slate, a collection of milblogs – http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/2011/04/this-space-is-iraq-this-space-is-my-memories.html (warning, graphic descriptions)

    I don’t know exactly what to call the piece, except for freaking amazing. I can’t shake it at all.

  8. Re: “Mrs. Groveman’s red pen” – I had a high school teacher who wrote on one of my essays: “You are sometimes profound, often pompous, but rarely or never conclusive.” It feels so personal, so mean, even to this day. I would like to believe there is a backhanded compliment in there somewhere, but I don’t think so.

    She was also the first adult to say 3 things I’d never heard an adult say before: The ’67 riots were the reason we were an all-white high school, mere miles from an all-black high school; she referred to big cars as “bathtubs”; and she said teenagers think about sex all the time. How did she know????

    I digress. My take on blogs is that they are a bare-bones version of a website – how do you update a blog? Just say whatever’s on your mind, and/or upload a pic, and you’re done! In this Matryoshka Doll Theory of Cyberspace, Facebook is a bare-bones version of a blog, and Twitter is a bare-bones version of Facebook. Or (just for fun):

    Inter (Web (Blo (Twitter) gs) Sites) Net

    I think blogs have the potential to improve our essay-writing skills – In The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, she says, write 3 pages every morning – and then after a month or so, go back and read what you wrote. If there are some phenomenal essays to be written, I definitely think a blogger’s encounter with a few month’s (or even a year’s) worth of their own blog posts, will point the way to Schama’s vaunted “dramaturgy.”

    P.S. Thanks Maril for the link to This Space is Iraq.

    Now, to my taxes…

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