Galle photo by Seemster
Read a post critical of the blogging panel in Galle and I’d have to say, in many ways, that I agree. The panel was too short, machangy, and didn’t stick to the topic. It was, however, a first outing and I think it went OK. To address those concerns, however, this is what I think of the topic – Can Blogging Be Taken Seriously? Globally, yes; but in the sense that I can tell my achchi it’s what I do, no. As an angle for debate I think you can break serious down into 1) Is it serious in some abstract sense 2) Is it serious in that people take it seriously and 3) is it as serious as ‘literature’. On the abstract level I think blogging is as serious as any form of language. Any communication can be serious (or not). I don’t think there is a medium that has the power to make words inherently silly. Shakespeare on toilet paper is still Shakespeare. On the social level, people globally do take blogs seriously. Every US politician running for President has one (since Howard Dean), many companies (Sun, Google) have and they are covered (sometimes fawningly) in the mainstream media. Blogs have also had a huge impact during inherently serious times (tsunami, Burmese insurrection). Serious also involves money, and I know of many full-time bloggers in the US and abroad. Now is blogging as serious as ‘literature’? That’s a tough one.
What Is Literature
Frankly, I don’t know. My definition would be books, preferably heavy. The Wikipedia definition is
Literature is a body of (usually) written works related by subject-matter, by language or place of origin, or by dominant cultural standards. Literally translated, the word means “acquaintance with letters” (from Latin littera letter). In Western culture the most basic literary types include poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction.
By that very loose definition, blogs are obviously literature, though not necessarily serious. Blogs are defined by subject matter, language, place and they have their own set of cultural standards. And they obviously use letters. I was looking through the definition moreso and I also found a sub of literature called ‘essay‘, which seems to cover blogs pretty well.
An essay is a piece of writing, usually from an author’s personal point of view. Essays are non-fictional but often subjective; while expository, they can also include narrative. Essays can be literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.
Notable essayists are legion. They include Virginia Woolf, Voltaire, Adrienne Rich, Alamgir Hashmi, Joan Didion, Jean Baudrillard, Benjamin Disraeli, Susan Sontag, Natalia Ginzburg, Sara Suleri, Annie Dillard, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Charles Lamb, Leo Tolstoy, William Hazlitt, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Walter Bagehot, Maurice Maeterlinck, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, John D’Agata, Gore Vidal, Marguerite Yourcenar, J.M. Coetzee, Gaston Waringhien and E.B. White.
Do I think those are serious people and that their writings were serious? Yes. So are essayists serious? IMHO, yes. Are blogs essays? Yes. I don’t see any meaningful reason to exclude them from that category. It’s like saying that rap isn’t poetry. There may be cultural, social and class reasons not to attach that label, but for an impartial alien observer, rap is rhyming words (and most poems are historically oral anyways) and blogs are personal narratives. So I would posit that blogs are a form of essay. Does that make them necessarily serious? No.
Serious is kinda a bullshit word. Serious as what? Serious as cancer? Does serious mean boring? Respectable? Respectable to who? As a benchmark, being a literary festival, I guess we can take books. Of the people there, prolly the most serious writers were Vikram Seth and William Dalrymple. I spelt that wrong, eh. And Simon Winchester. By serious I mean the unit of the sets [people that write large books] and [people I know]. Now, reading a book like these guyses is an inherently different experience than reading a blog post. The only way I could describe it is that it is much more high resolution.
I work mainly in print now, and the main gap I see between the net and old media is resolution. I think Innis would classify this as ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ media. Loosely, heavy media (like stone) moves slowly through space, but moves very well through time. Light media (like papyrus, speech, paper) moves fast through space but disappears through time. Now the spectrum has shifted and I think that books can be classed as heavy media (in comparison to electronic). Heavy and Light are also equivalent to ‘Time-Biased’ and ‘Space-Biased’. Hence is topic, the Bias Of Communications.
Anyways, old media (like print) is Time-Biased in that you sit with it for a while, and you get a very rich experience. Vikram Seth’s book ‘A Suitable Boy’ is a brick with like three generations of Indians stuffed in there. If you read it you emerge feeling like you know a whole extended family. Dalrymple’s stuff is extensively interviewed, researched, and you find stuff in there that you can’t find on a casual Google. There is a weight to the work.
A blog post, however, is Space-Biased in that it can be read almost anywhere (unlike a book) and is communicated almost instantly (no print time), but it does have less weight. You can read the blogs of Indian people, but it does not have the same depth and inticrate structure of ‘A Suitable Boy’. Plus, most people scan, skip and hop around blog posts, so you never get that coherent, controlled experience. Blog posts are a mile wide, but an inch deep.
I think Innis’s terms are a useful way of thinking of any new media, btw. Low resolution images on the web can be accessed fast, but there is still a heavy wonder to high resolution prints and art. MP3s can be mailed around and transported in pockets, but hearing a vinyl record on vacuum tubes (or a live concert) is still aurally mind-blowing. Light/heavy, light/heavy.
Now, along those lines, I can comfortably say that Blogs are a ‘light’ medium whereas books are ‘heavy’. I mean, literally. Does this mean that low-res blogs are a bit less serious than books? If you equate ‘serious’ with ‘heavy’, then yes. If you define serious in terms of communicating human pathos and experience, then no. Essays (which I think blogs are) can be deathly serious. Meh. I haven’t written anything like that in a while. Feels like taking a satisfying dump. And that last sentence, perhaps, is why blogs aren’t serious at all.