22 April 2008
Blogs vs books, from a writer’s point of view
Who needs books, anyway? One interesting kind of response to my previous post about the “experiment” of giving away my book Trigger Happy for free was to point to the financial success of many bloggers, and to say that this was the way forward. Writers should, essentially, forget about the “outdated” model of writing a whole “book” and then figuring out how to sell it. Instant web publishing is what people want: it’s groovy and immediate, edgy, now. In that case, though, what happens to the quality of writing overall?
Any facile comparison of “quality” across different media is asking for a kicking. But I’m going to do it anyway. It seems to me that blogs are the perfect medium for discussing highly topical matters in, say, technology or politics. There are many blogs that I admire and read regularly, and they often provide brilliant demolitions of official narratives, or superior analysis to that offered by complacent and/or flat-out dishonest “professionals” in the corporate media, or just better jokes. That said, I would take everything I read in the blogosphere last year, load it onto a cheap thumbdrive, and happily swap it, in an instant, for a single copy of Denis Johnson’s mind-bendingly magnificent Tree of Smoke. For me, there’s just no contest.
Why should this be so? Is there any reason why some future Denis Johnson couldn’t publish a masterpiece serially on the internet? I think, actually, there might be. There are factors inherent to the different media that militate against such a possibility, even if they are not cast-iron reasons. It boils down to a combination of:
1 The technology of the medium,
2 The social structure of production in the medium, and
3 The perceived durability of the medium.
Well, I’m someone who writes books, journalism and blogs. ((The last mainly at unspeak.net rather than here, at least so far.)) So let me explain how it works for me in each of those formats.
When I write a book, the timescale is months or years. I pile up words in chapters, revise and cut them, then send them to friends to have them mercilessly ripped apart and gleefully stamped on, then I have a tantrum, then realize my friends were right, and revise and cut the chapters again. Then they get sent to a full-time editor, after which there will be more revisions or reorderings or additions. A copy-editor will also go through the entire text with a fine-tooth comb to point out that I use the word “thus” too often, ((Thanks Iain.)) and a house lawyer may also have her say, ((In case I accidentally libel any woozy torture-loving “public intellectuals”.)) after which there will be more revisions. I will then read the entire thing again in proof, on paper, and make the final revisions and corrections before going to press. After that, the book will stay in collections such as the British Library with my name on it for a long time — effectively, from my point of view, for ever. If I’ve made any really embarrassing mistake, I can only correct it in the next printing — if there ever is one.
When I write a long book review or feature, the timescale is hours or days. ((Sometimes longer: this obituary for Jean Baudrillard took two weeks.)) With a pre-commissioned length, I over-write by 50% or 100% and then go through numerous revisions, cutting as I go, to reach the agreed word-count. After it gets sent to the paper as .txt, I might get a phone call or an email from the editor or sub-editor with one or two queries, allowing me to clarify a nonsensically muddled sentence or correct a spelling that I got wrong in two different ways; or I might hear nothing until it appears in the paper a few days later. If I’ve made any really embarrassing mistake, it can be corrected by the paper’s ombudsman in the Corrections & Clarifications column, but not everyone who reads the original article will see the correction, and the correction won’t show up with the article in a Lexis-Nexis search. ((Although the Guardian is very good about updating web versions of articles with notes about subsequent corrections.))
When I write a blog post, the timescale is minutes or hours. Coffee goes into my mouth and is transmuted into excessive typing speed in my fingers. I make a couple of revisions, but since there is no constraint on length I don’t cut as much while revising. No one else sees it until I smack the “publish” button and start obsessively checking my traffic. If I’ve made any really embarrassing mistake, someone will point it out, with more or less hostility or sarcasm, in comments, and if I like I can update the original post with a revision, leaving the error in strikethrough, so that all future readers will instantly see the correction. To me, the point of a blog post is not to try to nail something perfectly, but to provoke an interesting discussion. It’s shooting from the hip.
It follows from the above that I take the most care with my writing for books: there is essentially only one chance to get it right, and the sheer number of other eyes on the text as it goes through the process provides a lot of constructive challenge. I take slightly less care with journalism, and (as you can no doubt tell by now) much less with blogging.
Now, here I speak only from my personal experience, and I don’t claim it’s the same for everybody. Perhaps there are bloggers who lavish as much attention on drafting a blog post as I do on drafting a book chapter. Certainly there are book authors who evidently don’t try any harder in their books than they do in their journalism, which is not very hard to begin with. ((I’d love to provide names here, but it might be impolitic. You’re welcome to drink from my Guardian book-review firehose.)) And of course there are entire books made out of blog posts, edited lightly if at all. So the distinctions are fluid.
They have been fluid historically, too. Legend has it that Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in only twenty-six days, in order to pay off gambling debts. And plenty of writers over the ages had to survive through the hackwork of pamphleteering or dashed-off serials. The great counterexample to my argument, often cited by champions of web publishing, is Dickens, who published serially in magazines for decades, and didn’t change much for the bound volumes (with the famous exception of his revision of the ending to Great Expectations). On the other hand, Hardy revised his serially published novels extensively for the print editions of The Mayor of Casterbridge or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, considering them to represent the definitive versions.
I think that at least potentially (and demonstrably for many authors), the prospect of the writing appearing in book form makes a writer try her very best, because of this confluence of timescale, technology and social context. The very permanence of the physical book format has for centuries pushed writers to raise their game. The prospect today of blogging elbowing out other forms of writing is comparable to the prospect of an 18th century known to us only through its pamphlets, and none of the great long-form satires and novels. That would still keep a few houndstooth-jacketed academics in business, but would anyone else really care?
Very possibly, the book as we know it might well turn out to have been a contingent historical phenomenon, based on a particular technology, that lasted only half a millennium. If so, we might regret it. Conversations between bloggers last hours or days, but conversations between books can last for centuries.