That Which We Call A Blog By Any Other Name …

LastRose2013… would be the same thing it always was, which is also the point about the rose in the original line, of course. Names are (more or less) arbitrary labels, sure, no problem. But they have connotations as well as denotations, effects and associations as well as literal referents.  And lately I’ve been wondering: how much does the label “blog” (still) influence people’s assumptions about the substance and value of online writing?

This is not a new question, of course. Remember Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa, who staunchly refused to call his series of Facebook “essays” a “blog”? As he explained in an interview, this is because

“I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

There’s much that could be said about this self-consciously ignorant generalization (I said some of it in my JVC essay on blogging, and I’ve said lots more on related topics in numerous other posts here on blogging.) The assumption that somehow by definition blog posts aren’t “very written” is particularly annoying. But for today let’s focus on his comment “I hate that particular syllable.” I don’t much like it either, insofar as it is not particularly euphonious, but disdaining it on those grounds has something of a “Wragg is in custody” feeling about it (“Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg!”). A “hideous name” is not, of course, actually a symptom of any particular coarseness — but is it possible that the ugly syllable “blog” has created for many people an Arnoldian disdain, as if it signals “an original short-coming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions” of literary form, such as those of the more mellifluous “essay”?

I have been thinking about this again because I had a good session recently with a colleague who wanted some tips on using WordPress. While we poked around my various sites, he commented that he’d been reading around in my blog archives. “There’s lots of good stuff here!” he said, a generous remark which I sincerely appreciated. I think there is too! But I couldn’t help but notice the faintly astonished tone in which he said it, as if he hadn’t expected to find much “good stuff” but had been pleasantly surprised. That’s all good, of course — better that way around than the other way, for sure! But what had set his expectations low in the first place? Could it be assumptions stemming from “that particular syllable”?

Now, it’s entirely possible that I heard something that wasn’t there, and more than anything I was genuinely happy (almost absurdly so!) to be conferring with someone who was taking an interest in what I’ve been doing and learning online all this time. If I projected my own lingering anxieties on him, though, it’s precisely because  so few of my colleagues have shown any similar interest. Some, in fact, have been openly derisive about the whole concept of blogging. A precious few have been engaged and supportive, but most have simply been indifferent (as far as I’ve ever been able to tell). It’s not that I expect everyone I work with to drop what they’re doing and read everything I write! But I’ve wondered why the perception that blogs are not worth reading persists to the extent that when I asked a couple of colleagues once if they read any at all (never mind mine), they both laughed before they said no. How much of that has to do with the word “blog” itself, do you suppose, and what they take it to signify? If we talked about “essays on our websites” instead of “posts on our blogs,” would that sound different enough that it might bring more people across the threshold who might then stay long enough to discover that, indeed, there is “good stuff” to be found?

Why does “blogging” have such negative connotations, anyway? When Paul started his blog on “The Big C” and couldn’t stop talking about it, I admit I was filled with self-conscious horror at how annoying and narcissistic it seemed: what if I sound that way when I mention my blog? (Which isn’t that often, honest! At least, I don’t think it is…) Even I turned against him! But all shared writing is, in its own way, a demand for attention, a claim that your voice is worth hearing. Blogging is just a form: why, in this case, do a lot of people still assume the form defines the content? Was Nunokawa right, not about blogs themselves, but about avoiding the label if he wanted his short pieces to be read differently — or at all?

I think most of us actual bloggers have made our peace with the admittedly ugly vocabulary associated with the online writing and discussions we have (though I bet most of us would happily vote to ban “blogosphere”). But do you think that a lot of non-bloggers (we need a term for them, the way wizards have “muggles” — maybe “Higginbottoms”?) still hear the word “blog” and think “shallow, hasty, and self-promoting”? I don’t suppose it really matters, not for us, anyway, since we’re doing what we want, whatever it’s called, but the prejudice against it continues to puzzle and sometimes provoke me.

And that, speaking of ugly vocabulary, is quite enough meta-blogging! Next up, I hope, will be a post  essay  review  column  discussion excursus  disquisition  confabulation on an actual book. I’m still reading The Stonehenge Letters; I’ve just started Mapp and Lucia; and I’ve downloaded The Duchess War — we’ll see which one I finish first.

11 thoughts on “That Which We Call A Blog By Any Other Name …

  1. Bill from PA November 18, 2014 / 11:35 pm

    Interesting that you should post this on the same day that I read a review of a newly published collection of Tim Parks essays, which is really a collection of blog posts. I think I should be reluctant to leave a comment on an essay, which sounds too self-contained to invite superfluous additions, but feel comfortable appending my ramblings to a blog post.

    I look forward to your comments on Mapp and Lucia. I’ve only read Queen Lucia, which I quite enjoyed, and keep meaning to return to the series. Looking through the “Categories”, I don’t see any earlier posts about Benson among the good stuff in your blog archive.


  2. Ludwig Richter November 18, 2014 / 11:42 pm

    I find this post (or article or whatever-you-want-to-call-it) to be thought-provoking, partly because your experience and concerns seem so different than mine. I originally started my blog about the same time that I begin my teaching career. I wanted a way of thinking about my experience and interests, and I adopted a pseudonym because I didn’t want my colleagues and students to know about what was rolling through my mind. After seven years of teaching at the same school, not one of my dozens of colleagues and hundreds of students know about what I’ve been writing. A few family members and non-school friends know about it, but that’s about it.

    Now that I’ve contracted a blinding eye disease (proliferative vitreoretinopathy) my blog has become something else for me. As a medium, it has a great many possibilities. D.G. Meyers, Robert Paul Wolff, Stanley Fish and you have written more than “good stuff.” But if other people want to use their blogs to post recipes or document their travels, that’s fine by me. Maybe the word “blog” has unacademic connotations for some academics, but do younger professors tend to be more accepting of the medium? I wonder.


  3. Theresa November 19, 2014 / 10:56 am

    I love reading blogs, and in particular, blogs about literature! I have learned so much more from reading other folks’ viewpoints on the books and authors I love, and have been introduced to many authors I would have never considered otherwise had I not received that encouragement through the blogging world.

    As a homeschooling mom we have encountered much criticism and (dare I say it?) educational snobbery and downright arrogance… and we just kept on doing what we were doing. Over the years our efforts have paid off so much more than we ever thought they would as our kids made their way through college at the top of their classes – but much more importantly than that, earned themselves places in the working world, making contributions at work and in their community (and performing perfectly adequately socially!) (Those that were most vehement and upfront with their open criticisms of our educational choices are pretty quiet these days : )

    All of life is a learning experience. It is unfortunate that there are always some that find the time to scorn those who choose to learn in a different way from someone else, whether it be ‘traditionally’ (as a former President of Smith College will assert– she grew up on an Australian sheep farm ‘doing school’ at home on Friday afternoons : ), or in other ways, (such as through reading blogs, lol!) (see? even homeschooling moms are up on the internet ‘language’!)

    It was actually my college-student daughter who encouraged me to start blogging (in a ‘come on Mom, get with it’) kind of way. Although for me, blogging is more of an outlet and a way to put my thoughts coherently together about the books I read, I have found to my great satisfaction that reading book review blogs (including this one!) has widened my world and my thinking, and therefore is of great value to me. (and I apologize for advance for introducing the thoughts on homeschooling since I realize it is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but at present it is the example I have the most experience with : )


  4. Stefanie November 19, 2014 / 12:58 pm

    I don’t think blogs are derided as much as they used to be at least in some places. But, yes, there is still a general consensus about them that they are not serious, that it’s something 16-year-old girls do, that the writing is terrible and bloggers as a class are dimwitted. Or, more and more, that they are only good for marketing. If you were a serious writer you’d be using your blog to market your book Random House just published. If you were serious you wouldn’t be writing for free. Of course we know none of this is true. As for the word blog, it’s ugliness and all the things attached to it do make it hard for me to say. I rarely talk about my blog to people in my daily life which is kind of disturbing now I think about it. It is almost like I have a split personality. Perhaps if I began calling myself an online essayist? But then that sounds pretentious!


  5. Jo VanEvery November 19, 2014 / 5:23 pm

    In one sense a blog is just a type of publication. Just as you can have different kinds of books, you can have different kinds of blogs. Do these people not read books because they came across a poorly written one (or hundred)? Of course not.

    I guess there is an assumption that with other modes of publishing, there is some external thing that tells the reader “this is high quality stuff”. With a lot of online publishing, especially blogging, the writer needs to establish their own reputation for quality. And readers make their own judgements. I suspect many readers make their own judgements about other kinds of publishing, too, and that writers would do well to consider what kinds of readers they want, and what they need to do to establish a reputation that makes readers want to read their other publications.

    Which ties into some thoughts I haven’t yet been able to articulate very clearly about the ways in which there is an assumption in some circles (especially academic) that one’s writing should be found and that if a reader needs guiding towards it (esp by the author) that it is somehow less worthy of being read than if they found it through their own searches. This is codswallop, of course.


  6. Jo VanEvery November 20, 2014 / 4:13 pm

    It also occurs to me that some people are remarkably lacking in confidence about their own ability to judge the quality of work. Or somehow feel that they can’t stop reading once they’ve started if it’s not what they really wanted. Or something.

    I get the importance of and role for more traditional publications. And of “markers” of quality like reputable publishers. But all reputable publishers were new once. They BUILT a reputation.

    Most of us who read blogs and other online writing, develop a sense of the ones we want to keep coming back to, the ones we aren’t interested in clicking on even if we are told something interesting is published there, and the ones we know sometimes have things we like. Maybe we just trust our own judgement more or something.


  7. litlove November 23, 2014 / 2:09 pm

    In the past, I have been unlucky – or more probably unskilled – at finding good quality blogs that are new to me. I feel I’m fortunate in knowing a clutch of bloggers who are wonderful at what they do: intelligent, insightful and they write well. However, I’m not sure we can deny that there are an ocean of blogs out there (and I’m talking just about book blogs) that don’t do much more than express a simple value judgement about what they read.

    The thing is, I feel a seismic change coming about in what we think of as ‘quality’. I know a lot of UK publishers don’t like sending me review copies because they consider my blog too intellectual to sell books. Plus, thanks to self-published e-books, there is a groundswell of dislike for ‘gatekeepers’ of any kind, and a lot of argument that what we, back in the day, would have called quality literature is pretentious and dull and not what people ‘want’ to read. Ah me, so many arguments that I don’t want to get into. But I do think that the digital revolution and changing attitudes towards the academic institutions mean that there’s a lot of emotion around this issue and very little judgement. Not least because judgement is becoming a dirty word in some circles. My intention is just to keep blogging and doing what I do and to see how the dust settles in five years or so…..


    • Rohan Maitzen November 25, 2014 / 2:42 pm

      “Too intellectual to sell books” should be our new slogan! I almost never get approached by publicists (which is fine by me) — maybe that’s why.


  8. Min November 24, 2014 / 11:45 am

    I think that blogging in general has a poor reputation. Even the most cursory trip around the, er, world of blogging (!;-)) demonstrates clearly why that is the case: poorly-written (at best), devoid of depth/interesting content and frequently self-indulgent, the majority of these are the outpourings of people who neither think nor write for a living. This is especially true of a lot of ‘book bloggers’ (as horrid a term as ‘bl***sp***’), as LitLove rightly and succinctly points out. And I also agree – sadly – with her observation ‘judgement is becoming a dirty word in some circles’. It is going the same way as ‘discrimination’.
    What you write, Rohan, are essays in the true sense of the term. As someone who lives in near-total isolation, I am grateful to you and a handful of other online acquaintances for the insights you provide, the reflections you prompt and the for sheer pleasure of (trying to!) answer some of the questions you raise. As Ludwig Richter says of your blog, there’s a great deal of ‘good stuff’ …
    I stopped blogging because my life became rather too grim to report upon, and I have no wish to pander to the misery-consumers online any more than I do to those I encounter in real life.


    • Rohan Maitzen November 25, 2014 / 2:39 pm

      I’m sorry about the grimness, Min!

      I have always thought that the biggest challenge of online reading is filtering. You are no doubt right that there’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t much good: happily I almost never see it and never run out of good stuff to read thanks to the many good bloggers / writers / essayists I follow.


  9. Grad November 25, 2014 / 12:55 pm

    I loved this post…um…essay…er…articulation…well – you know. If I’m correct the word “blog” (unattractive as it is) comes from the original “weblog” – which doesn’t sound much better but which was more or less what it sounded like – a log or sort of diary. There are “sites” (see how I cleverly avoided that “b” word) that are filled with “very good stuff” and there are sites that are not. I try to frequent the former. Which, by the way, I must do more often here. You really do have some good stuff here. Write on!


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