I've been reluctant to write-up my own thoughts on the LA Times Festival of Books LitBlog panel because write-ups of it seem quite pervasive. I also don't want to give Keen any more blog ink than he's worth. There are many obvious reasons to dismiss Keen as sensational and attention-grabbing at worst, ill-informed at best. I won't get into those because they are well documented here, here, here and here.
I do, however, feel that before I can even jump into these waters, I should state my agreement with most of the points all four bloggers make in Ed’s pull-quotes and Ed’s own points as well. All of these comments sum, in my mind, to this central thesis that I wholly agree with: if the work of litblogs is so offensive and amateur, why is print media so concerned with bashing it? Litblogs must be doing something right or they wouldn’t be the subject of endless consternation and debate.
I agree that readers of litblogs can tell the difference between good content and poor content. I believe that litblogs can be excellent places for well-argued literary discourse and I also believe they don’t have to be – there is nothing wrong with a litblog that doesn’t engage in heavy-hitting analysis, reviewing and cultural critique. It irks me that this is expected of the “best blogs” and also that these same blogs get shafted when this matter is discussed in public debate. I’m treading in n + 1 waters now, which I had not intended. I want to be clear that I’m under no illusion that my own blog serves as a place for critical thinking, literary discourse and the like. When I say this, I’m thinking of blogs such as Return of the Reluctant, The Elegant Variation, Conversational Reading, Maud Newton, The Millons and several others. When I speak of doing the most for books that blogs can do, I think of the work of Dan Wickett, of the Lit Blog Co-Op, The Literary Saloon, BookNinja, GalleyCat, BookSlut, Syntax of Things, and so many others that do not engage in longer discourse but who always add context and insight to the literary news they cover.
By contrast, I dabble. I’m interested. But I don’t feel it is my place to review a book in the way that other bloggers do so seriously and so successfully. That is their domain, mine lurks somewhere in the middle. I want to be a published writer that is someday reviewed by these serious litblog minds. That’s where my real passion lies. Perhaps that is the problem. Am I mucking up the waters, as Keen suggests, with “amateur” thoughts? Is Counterbalance, by its very nature as a litblog that doesn’t always hit hard and that sometimes includes my personal musings, wrecking the world of litblogs? Should I hang up my hat? I don’t think so.
I’ve made a personal – yes personal, not professional – choice to create a blog that is in the middle. That offers more cogently argued discourse when I’m interested in that, and more banterish talk of books when I’m interested in that. I cover author readings that many won’t be able to see. I think this is important. Do I write up these readings in a very serious and scholarly way? No. Why? Because I wouldn’t want to read that and so why would I write that? I cover books I love that seem to be getting no attention at all. I think this is extremely important. What I say about these books and how I say it is irrelevant if it brings more readers to the books and their authors. I cover poetry when many, it seems, run and hide at the mere mention. I think poets are a vital part of our society and their work has been diminished for years. Their work demands more attention – which is why I blog about it.
Finally, I’m so tired of everything being so goddamned serious. Between academia pushing MFA’s and PhD’s and literary discourse down our would-be writerly throats and the print media decrying the end of all rational thought because blogs are blogging several times a day in unedited, unfettered dangerous language they don’t understand - I find that the joy is missing. Dead. Was killed long ago by all this fronting and bellyaching and bantering. What happened to the pure joy of a good read? Of writing that good read? That’s what matters to me. I firmly believe that is also what matters to litbloggers of all stripes, regardless of how they choose to pursue these interests online or in print.
(And a bit about laughter. For the love of humanity, when did it get to be so offensive to be light-hearted and funny when discussing books? We would all do well to remember that there are other things going on in this world that are dead serious and that laughter might be our best hope at redemption.)
With these caveats in place, I’ll jump into the boiling water that I feel I shouldn’t jump into, but which I seem unable to side-step:
A few key points from the LitBlog panel keep coming up for me again and again. The money issue is perhaps the biggest, because on its face it seems so simple, so offensive. While it is offensive, it is not simple and I believe there are some points Keen makes that are worth examining.
On the subject of blogging and a litblogger's intent, Keen's exact quote was: "Like everyone else, I want to make a lot of money." This is not universally true and many litbloggers have said as much. Yet, as Keen kept trying to beat this dead horse, he said something that I can't quite get out of my head, which is that it isn't right that people working so hard to deliver free content should remain unpaid. While I wondered if he genuinely meant this (and I’m not sure that he did, it seemed more of an appeasement of sorts, to lessen his rancor), I did find myself agreeing with him a bit.
I did not start a litblog to get paid and certainly not to get rich. Yet, the more time I devote to the blog and the more hours a day I devote to writing at LAist (also unpaid), I DO wonder aloud what the hell I’m doing if I’m never going to get paid for it. My blogging is taking away from my paid work – significantly. Do I love it? Yes. Would I do it for free? Obviously. Would I rather find a paying blogging gig? Maybe. Probably. Yes. Toss me a book deal while you’re at it. The flip side though, is kind of ugly. Once you are paid to cover certain content, the waters of unfiltered, un-bought opinions (a feature so critical in the litblog world) become murky. Is there a middle ground? Possibly.
This money argument gets tripped up in several ways:
- Keen suggested at other points during the panel that we began these blogs to make money or further our own writerly agendas. This pisses everyone off and isn’t true. It speaks to the intent of what we do for free, separate from the free part. The intent is an important one and is the most irritating. Our passion for books and writing and literary discourse is what created this community of litblogs in the first place and to suggest otherwise is to make us seem like duplicitous pigs. So, we’re clear on intent. And by we, I mean bloggers, not Keen, who is clearly not clear on this point.
- Moving away from intent, we can pick up and examine the “free” bit. Yes, we would do it for free, because we are. Or were. Or partly are. Some do it wholly for free (me), some have been able to secure paid work from their initially free blogging and some have gone on to secure fully paid work. Some, even, have gone on to get paid work in reputable print publications – something that no doubt chaps Keen’s hide, even though he is loathe to admit it or even acknowledge it. (Which again leads me to wonder if he really is all that concerned about litbloggers getting paid because if he were, he’d be applauding these successes.) I doubt that the intent of litbloggers was to get paid. Yet, for many, it has become a nice addition to all the hours of free labor, audio-editing, author-interviewing, etc. How can litbloggers be blamed for this success? They can’t. Especially when it is the “traditional media” which is often paying them. Something Keen did not care to discuss.
- The money debate is further complicated by the fact that the paid “experts” Keen deems as the only trustworthy voices have often been found quite guilty of slack journalism and worse. It is offensive for Keen to assume that because most litbloggers are unpaid (and in Keen’s world, unpaid equals amateur, regardless of merit), they lack both integrity and the ability to write truthful, error-free arguments that contribute to the greater literary discourse.
- Inherent in all this is the ugly idea that if you are unedited and unpaid, you sling false rumors about and are unable to write cogent arguments, etc.
- BUT, one thing I fear we are loathe to consider is: if we were paid, would our posts be better? (Setting aside completely the concept of opinions being bought, that’s not what I mean here.) I’ll use myself as an example. I have my own consulting business and I work from home. This makes it easy to blog for both here and LAist without sneaking around at my corporate job to do it. But what this means for someone who bills hourly, is that I’m billing a lot less these days. Not only am I not being paid to blog, I’m earning less at my day job because I blog. But this is my point: I notice that sometimes I rush my posts, because I’m eager to get something up before I tackle a big deadline for my day job. What if I didn’t have the day job? What if I was paid only to post? Would my spelling errors be found sooner? Would my arguments be more cogently argued if I had more time to construct them? In my case, yes. There would be less “error” in my work in that sense. However, when Keen says “errors”, he seems to mean something else entirely. He means erroneous reporting. Even, he intimates, intentionally erroneous and inflammatory reporting – which is clearly NOT our intention. This is the pivot for me – the point on which he seems to make sense but then is woefully wrong and takes it to extremes.
- Yet, we are all human and are prone to flare-ups – in blog and in print as many “expert”, “paid” journalists have demonstrated recently. It seems insubstantial to pin this blame solely on litbloggers.
- I will admit though, that if I were paid, I could do even more. More book reviews, more author interviews, more reading coverage, possibly even travel to other book festivals and report back. I would LOVE to do that. Yet, I have to weigh my love of doing this with the fact that I have a mortgage to pay. While I don’t believe Keen gives a damn about my mortgage, I do think there was a teeny nugget of validity to what he was saying about it being a good goal to eventually get paid. Yet, it was hard to see it because it was couched in so much bellyaching about our initial intent and not being expert – making it seem as if litbloggers are destroying culture and ruining book sections.
It was at this point that I wanted to run up and hug Ron Hogan for saying that the “print media is doing a pretty good job of destroying book reviewing on their own.” Because that’s true. But it’s not directly related to this idea of getting paid. Or that getting paid somehow means your opinions and your writing is better than those who are unpaid. We’ve all seen this is not the case. We know this. Our readers know this. Keen, on the other hand, not only does not know it, but he seems set on never knowing it. He repeatedly said things like “I’m sure there are good litblogs out there.” These statements make it clear that he had not done any research before slapping the “amateur” tag on all of us.
One other point Keen made that I think is worth a quick mention and that doesn’t seem to be covered elsewhere: the notion that litbloggers are merely smart marketers in sheep’s clothing. That all of our efforts are thinly veiled attempts to make the right contacts to get published or to somehow parlay our blogging into paid work. On the one hand, he advocates that we get paid for our work. On the other, he slams us for being money-hungry marketers. Seems more an apt description of himself, which would be an open barb (the only real arrow I’ll throw), except for the fact that he admitted as much during the panel discussion: “I’m a smart marketer.” Indeed.
Other inflammatory things were said, most of which is recounted elsewhere. I could belabor the point further (but haven’t I already?), yet I won’t.
I was pre-disposed to dislike Keen and I did (dislike him, that is). I was pre-disposed to take issue with everything he said and I didn’t. While I believe his sum total of accuracy about litblogs is 3%, that 3% got me thinking. His remarks, no doubt meant to incite this very type of post and I loathe that I’ve become a part of his own money-making scheme, have made me more vigilant about posting good stuff, about really dedicating the time to take it all to the next level. Good for blog readers, for writers, for poets. The downside of such renewed dedication? Less hourly work completed to pay the bills, which is getting down to the very heartbeat of the matter. We respond so angrily to Keen’s type of litblog bashing because we blog at our own peril, with nothing but the best intentions. That kind of sacrifice in service of literature and arts cannot – simply should not – be bashed by anyone. Ever.
And while I feel a creepy sense of dread, not unlike, I suspect, the worry Jerry McGuire felt upon writing his sports agent manifesto (see how base we can get with our literary references if forced to rebel?), I must now get back to the things that matter: Short Story Month, works in translation, a new volume of poetry…
Update: So glad to see the NYT piece that is related. Less glad to see that many of the uninformed remain uninformed. I've also been thinking about the future, rather than rehashing the past, so I'll be eager to eventually read Keen's book so we can properly discuss what might be vs. what has been.