I am perhaps in a blogging slump, not a reading slump, though it can be hard to tell the difference. There have been a lot of comments recently about blogging as a dying form, a remnant (and how odd this characterization seems, after all the flak bloggers used to — and still do — get from some quarters) of a more leisurely and reflective internet era. Because his is one of the first blogs I started reading and remains one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking, Timothy Burke’s post about this has hit me the hardest. Why doesn’t he blog more often, he wonders? Among his reasons:
Readers swarm over everything now, stripping any writing down into a series of declarative flags that sort everyone into teams, affinities, objectives. There’s no appetite for difficult problems that can’t be solved or worked, or for testimonies that give us a window into a lived world. No pleasure in the prose itself, and thus none in the writing of it.
Like so many generalizations, especially those about social media and the internet, this one struck me as kind of true but also importantly not true, at least for “my” internet: I know for a fact that there are readers who do want that window, who do take pleasure in the prose and in writing it, who don’t want their world so emphatically (sometimes ruthlessly) divided into opposing teams. But he’s not wrong that things have changed out there (out here), or that the rapidity and the absolutism of a lot of online discourse makes it feel that “almost everyone is one day away from having someone paint a bullseye on them, deserving or otherwise.”
Tim is not talking about book blogging, though, and there (here) I don’t think as much has changed–or, that things have gotten so bad–though I do notice a slowing down, a fading out, not across the board but certainly among some of the folks whose blogs and comments used to be steady sources of stimulation and conversation. That seems natural, though I really miss some of them: people move on, priorities change, the intrinsic rewards of something that has never (for the kind of bloggers I follow, anyway) been tied to extrinsic rewards can fade. The times have changed, in some scary and upsetting ways, and as a result people’s anxiety is high and, amidst the hubbub, their attention is scarce and precious. Other things rightly take precedent. The ebbing of energy is contagious, too: when posting diminishes and commenting declines, and bookish people quite understandably back away from (or just get overwhelmed on) Twitter, it gets harder to imagine who you are talking to when you contemplate writing up a post yourself.
I have felt all of this myself recently, in varying degrees, and that is one reason my posts have been less frequent lately. Looking back over my archive, I also realize how much momentum for my own earlier writing came from the excitement of discovering this new form and then advocating for it as an alternative form of scholarly communication. (There are 74 posts tagged ‘blogging’ here–now 75!) For various reasons, that specific impetus has subsided. A few years ago I wrote a couple of posts trying to take stock of where the reforming zeal about academic blogging that launched so many individual blogs and also sites like The Valve had gone. It was already clear then, in 2015, that the big transformation many of the keenest participants had hoped for was not going to happen. As Aaron Bady said then, “While we were hoping the profession would grow to include blogs, the world decided to shrink the profession”: it’s not just the blogs of a lot of brilliant young scholars that we’ve lost but also their presence in the academy. For those of us still who are still part of that particular world, the question of the professional value of blogging remains a vexed and unpredictable one. It certainly proved to be of no value to my career institutionally–though just because I no longer feel like advocating for it doesn’t mean I don’t still believe it should be considered a valuable part of the scholarly publishing ecosystem.
Though right now I have lost interest in throwing posts against that particular wall to see if any of them stick, I haven’t lost my interest in the kind of blogging I actually started with in the first place, which was, after all, just writing–freely and in my own uninhibited voice–about books. Neither have a lot of the folks on my blogroll here or people whose blogs I follow through Feedly: they continue to be wonderful, if slightly diminished, sources of interesting, thoughtful, idiosyncratic bookish commentary. These blogs have never been about “hot takes” — the closest they come is sometimes weighing in on prize nominations or following the yearly Tournament of Books. If you got into blogging because you wanted to write about what you were reading, read about what other people were reading, and have a bit of discussion in both directions, I think (though my experience may not be representative, as it always depends on particulars) you might not feel things have changed all that much, at least in the spirit of the exercise. Twitter has changed how our conversations sometimes play out: some of the energy that once went into comments directly on posts has been diverted there, but except for the logistical challenge (Twitter is a very diffuse and fast-moving medium!), that doesn’t seem like a bad thing–except, I suppose, that it means the book talk intersects with the reasons people have for backing away from Twitter, which again becomes an obstacle.
I’m not really going anywhere in particular with this: I’m just thinking out loud in public, which is what having a blog lets me do! I also trusted (because it works every time I’m in a blogging slump) that if I actually started writing something, anything, here, things would start to turn around for me, because the process itself is a tonic. “It remains important to me to think: today, I might blog,” Tim says in his post, “And to think: I have a place to do it in.” This is very much still true for me. I do a lot of other writing (well, right now it doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s a subject for another post, especially with a sabbatical coming up) but this is the one place where I can write entirely on my own terms: no rules, no assignments, no editors, no second-guessing, no need to know what it will add up to or if I can pitch it or where I can include it on my annual report. I cherish that writing experience; when I don’t get around to doing it for a while, whether it’s because I’m too busy at work or too tired and distracted or because I think I don’t have anything to say–then I really miss it. Putting things in words is clarifying, and when I’m not under pressure, it’s also fun. Maybe blogs are now internet dinosaurs, but what matters to me (in this as in so many things) is not whether the form is trendy or innovative but what the form enables. Also, lately I’ve been feeling a bit prehistoric myself: maybe form and content are just syncing up!
As for the possibility of a reading slump, well, I have been reading quite a bit; I just haven’t been blogging about it, because (perhaps unsurprisingly) nothing since Lincoln in the Bardo has seemed worth much notice. I might do a ‘recent reading round-up’ type post next, just to clear the air, or I might wait and see how I do with The Fifth Season, which so far I am finding an odd balance of baffling (and thus off-putting) and gripping. Seasoned sci-fi readers assure me that if I press on, the estrangement will fade, the world-building will work its magic, and I will be on my way. We’ll see! In the meantime, at least I’ve reminded myself why I do this: because I like to.