Saturday, July 14, 2007

Is blogging writing?

It may seem an odd question to address on a blog, to a blog readership, but it came up today, during the last session of our conference. Amanda gave a fantastic presentation about establishing an online presence, and brought up the issue of text conventions in online communication.

One of the participants asked whether acculturation in the world of online texts -- with their overt cues, like smilies and bracketed meta-comments *to show what I'm thinking* -- will dull students' senses such that they won't be able to handle the ambiguity and multiple levels of literature.

My boss, as he's so good at doing, reframed the question to show that it assumed a hierarchy of literacies. Being able to read literary prose is the highest and best literacy, and that's what we should therefore aspire to. Other literacies, including the composition and consumption of online text, are lesser or even transient; too much attention paid to them will tend to hamper students' acquisition of the most valuable skills, and worse, legitimize the flashy, cheap, and easy skills by treating them as relatively equal, to the detriment of the truly worthwhile skills.

My immediate thought was for the bloggers I read with the most interest and pleasure. Would they like to be lumped in with the smiley-laced, ungrammatical and indifferently-punctuated Xangas maintained by a certain demographic? Those people aren't even using the right text conventions for the medium they're in -- not e-mail or txting, but writing prose. The fact that he prose happens to be on a blog rather than in their journal or in a newspaper or magazine is immaterial. The lazy, poor bloggers aren't representative of blog text conventions, as anyone who has spent time with the form knows. We don't give students bad novels and tell them that learning to read and interpret them is essential to literacy; we give them the best. I don't teach students to write bad blogs; I send them to read the best and try to get them to emulate what they see.

Like any medium, blog writing can be rich or poor, deep or shallow, mature or infantile, advanced or rudimentary. I have no doubt that blogging every day -- along with reading more and better blogs, more regularly and with more interest -- has made me a better writer and has led me to think more creatively about texts in general. I agree with Amanda that online writing and reading must be thought of as a new form, rather than as a poor cousin or mutated monster sprung from real writing (whatever that is).

My boss, who's been in higher education since the 1980's, tells the story of the consternation caused among the professoriate by the advent of word processing. Long, bitter debates took place about whether students should be writing their papers on computers -- whether that even counted as real writing at all. Only pen across paper, with its enforced languid pace, or at most typing, should count. Because instant correction and cut-and-pasting while you write, it was assumed, were terrible things. They would destroy the system of drafts and laborious revisions which constituted the labor that created the only possibility of truly creative, reflective writing.

This debate mistook the characteristics of a method for the virtues of its product. Word processing did change the way students wrote, and it changed the kinds of prose they turned out, I have no doubt. I would write much differently without the opportunity for continuous rethinking. But how does that disqualify or devalue the writing produced by that process? Does it mean that I have lost something essential to prose literacy? I have lost something, but I have gained something I consider far more valuable: the ability to write more, because the writing process is less taxing and more intuitive. The change from oral culture to written culture meant a loss in the ability to create aphorisms and engage in feats of memorization that helped store and recall information. That's a loss. But I will take in trade, 10 times out of 10, what we gained in the evolution into written culture.

And similarly, while I might mourn the loss of the hegemony of literature over our reading habits, I will gladly take in trade the explosion of writing my students do without even realizing it, and the widely diverse high-quality sources of prose they can read every day, for months or years on end, becoming part of those writers' communities and responding in kind.


the secret knitter said...

Ooh, synchronicity (of a sort) with what I wrote about today... Eerie.

Blogs and bloggers catch a bad rap particularly from those with the most to lose by their emergence, namely print media. (But notice who keeps adding blogs and podcasts in an attempt to remain relevant.)

Obviously there are plenty of bad blogs, but the blogosphere has added a plurality of voices that would otherwise be unheard or possess an even tinier readership than they may have. How can that be a bad thing?

Plus, bloggers have to earn the credibility naturally afforded (but not necessarily deserved) to those who appear in newspapers or "official" publications. Film criticism seems one of the most obvious areas where online writers are doing more vital work than many of their print brethren, yet you often here the ink-stained folk characterizing such people by the worst of the worst (AICN commenters, for instance).

Without a doubt, I feel like I'm a better writer because of blogging on a daily basis (thanks in part to you). Blogging is a challenge to satisfy my desire to improve and to please the readers who generously take their time to read what I have to say.

Anyway, blogs and/or online writing is where it's at and where it's heading. The others can sneer all they want, but I don't see those of us on this side seeing a reduced role in the world or writers.

Paul C. said...

The biggest difference I see between blogging and the more traditional forms of writing is that blogging is potentially much more of a two-way form of communication. Whereas books and newspapers have clearly defined roles of "writer" and "reader," blogging blurs the lines between the two. In a strong blogging community, the creator of the post is less the writer than the initiator of the conversation, and the others in the community will use the comments section or even their own blogs to carry on the discussion. As such, blogging is closer to letter-writing or even oral communication than it is to books or magazines.

But this isn't a bad thing. In fact, I believe it encourages a more democratic exchange of ideas, one that isn't as dominated by traditional hierarchies of "authority." The trade off is that we have to become more savvy in separating the wheat from the chaff, but given the number of vital blogs that do exist, it's worth the effort. I'm reminded of the scene in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould in which Gould discusses how some of his most informative interviews have been with people discussing issues outside their fields of expertise. Why should only professionals' opinions be valid?

Eric Grubbs said...

My response is on my blog

Mr Atrocity said...

There seems to an almost willful misunderstanding of what blogs are by many of those entrenched in more traditional literary disciplines. To complain that writing a blog isn't "proper" writing because some blogs are practically illiterate is akin to complaining that anyone who uses a pen creatively cannot be an artist because the same device is used by anti-social types to scrawl their names on the interior of buses. The medium is not the same thing as the message.

I can't help but think that much of this stems from the use of "blog" as a verb. We no longer write a blog. If we could retire the verb "to blog" it would remove much of the differentiation between those whose words appear on paper and those whose words appear online, a distinction which seems designed as a mechanism to ensure that blogs are not seen as writing but as something other and inferior.