Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

Sorry, but blogging is actually pretty cool (and literary too)

William Blake.

There’s an old saying that the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum.  (Just look at Congress.)  The same applies to writing.  For every successful masterpiece, there is an equally profitable pile of crap.  I read with bemusement this screed from one of my fellow Huffington Post contributors this morning in which, with a nod to Sideshow Bob, he engages in the ironic device of blogging to decry blogs.  Now, he is in high school and has a lot of living to do, so one can understand and forgive the sweeping judgement pronounced therein.  I don’t know him at all; we ranks of HuffPosters are vast and we don’t regularly (or ever) get together to knock back single malts.  He may be a rather smashing bloke in spite of the mildly condescending tone with which his post is composed.  But I can’t agree with his thesis that “uncontrolled publishing,” i.e. blogging, is destroying literature.  I’d say it’s forcing those of us who take writing seriously – which I’d suggest given my experience is a majority of bloggers, not the reverse – to up our game .  If one hopes to be noticed amidst the cacophony of background noise and Bieber fandom, one must aspire to be magnificent.  We might not achieve greatness every time, but the fact that we’re trying means something in itself.  And the blog gives us that opportunity to try.

My unmet cyber-colleague uses an allegory of William Blake physically carving poetry into the roof of a favourite drinking haunt to criticize the supposed ease with which words can be assembled and flung out into the world in the 21st Century; the argument being, seemingly, that without limitations to overcome with sheer force, writing can’t possibly be any good.  Blake, he says, had to craft his verse methodically and with care, paying attention to the shape of each syllable, every minute detail of meter and imagery.  I fail to understand how that level of dedication cannot still be achieved with the use of a keyboard instead of a chisel.  If anything, I’d argue that the delete key and the ability to revise easily has lowered our collective tolerance for sloppy mistakes, for ill-advised turns of phrase and general unprofessionalism (leading to the birth of that most pesky of trolls, the Grammar Nazi.)  If fixing a mistake is simple, then there’s less excuse for letting them slip through.  And ultimately, the most wonderful aspect of Internet browsing is that beautiful little red X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, close the window and move on to something else.  Uncontrolled publishing may allow a flood of mediocre writing into the ether, but it has no effect on freedom of choice.  To read, or not to read, remains our question.

Publishing is now, if it has ever been the reverse, less about quality and more about what will sell.  This is not a criticism; publishing is a business, staffed by people like you and I, working to feed their families.  If a barely coherent rant about shopping and shoes by a D-list reality television star moves X number of copies more than a brilliantly crafted treatise on deconstructionism of modernist attitudes in 1920’s France by an unknown doctoral candidate, well, Snooki gets the rack space.  It sucks, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.  That’s a problem originating with the audience, not the existence of blogs.  Until the world at large turns away from its fascination with the banal, publishers are obliged, in order to keep their business going, to cater to demand.  Basic economics unfortunately, and literature gets a solar plexus to the gut in the process.

Where blogs can turn the tide, though, is in their openness and accessibility.  You do not need to be famous or have an “in” with an agent or a major publishing house to invent a domain name and start writing and publishing.  I am reminded so often of The King’s Speech and the fundamental reason why that movie struck such a chord with people – not because of the performances or the direction or any one particular element of its filmic construction, but because of its theme, the universal desire to have a voice.  To be able to speak, even if no one, for the time being, is listening.  There are over 150 million blogs in the world, covering probably far more than 150 million different subjects.  Some are brilliant, and some are execrable wastes of time.  But they all began for the same reason – because someone wanted to use their voice.  If many of these voices produce sounds that are unpleasant to our ears, whether in what they are saying or how they are saying it, we have two choices:  we can either call them on it, or we can tune them out.  We don’t have to stew in our angst and complain that their mere existence is diminishing the written word.

That Snooki is a (shudder) published author doesn’t depreciate Shakespeare or William Blake or even Aaron Sorkin for that matter.  These and other Muses remain figures to whom we can look up, and whose quality we can aspire to achieve, even if we will usually fall short.  Blogs give us the wonderful privilege of chance, instead of restricting even the opportunity to a select few.  Many will just suck and most bloggers will toil forever in utter obscurity, but there will be the gems.  You might come across someone’s memoir of a departed friend that moves you to tears in a way that Blake himself never has or never will.  You might read a mommy blogger’s tale of her daughter’s adventures in daycare and unlock the secret of the world.  The late Christopher Hitchens said famously, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”  Note he didn’t say “all cases.”  Even for the notoriously prickly Hitchens, the possibility of greatness remained.  Literature, or writing in general, must belong to the masses, for what is a masterpiece if it remains unread, or simply unwritten?  I don’t know much about William Blake, but I have a feeling that if he were alive today, he’d be a blogger.  I’m certainly proud to be one, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

An embarrassment of riches

There's gold in them thar cranial recesses.

Writing is one of the easiest things in the world not to do.  That’s the primary reason most people don’t do it, and why those of us who profess to be writers are always struggling to force the words out.  It’s doubly ironic in that no one is born a literary wunderkind, and like muscles, writing only improves the more you do it – so why do the distractions and excuses continue to mount?  It’s too nice a day outside.  The game’s on.  My partner is lonely.  I was in front of the computer at work for nine hours already.  The new trailer for Prometheus just turned up on YouTube.  I’m just not feeling it today.  I need chocolate.

Here’s the problem, I think.  When you go to the gym, if you can’t do 150 pushups in one attempt, no big deal.  You’re not going to wallow in the pit of failure and whine about how you’re never going to get to that magic number.  You might be satisfied with doing 60.  The next day you go back, and you do 70.  Then 80, then 100, slowly and methodically increasing your stamina until you reach your goal and strut around with pecs and guns like The Incredible Hulk.  And really, although you might feel a little inadequate next to the no neck wonder at the leg press who looks like he’s never eaten anything other than chicken breasts, raw eggs and protein shakes, you’re really only competing against your own physical limits.  And you always have a reassuring notion in the back of your mind that it is just a matter of persistence, that eventually your body will toughen up.

Doesn’t work the same way with writing.  When you write something you know is bad, it’s a bodyblow to your ego.  The pathetic cobbling-together of syllables in front of you might as well have been scrawled in crayon by a three-year-old, you hate it that much.  Off to another blog to find some inspiration.  Wow, that’s really good, I can’t write that well.  Everyone is so much better than I am.  Why can’t I show a penetrating insight into humanity like Jonathan Franzen or be as witty as Terry Pratchett or sound as intellectual as Christopher Hitchens, or even be as effortlessly funny as that 19-year-old girl who blogged about her missing underwear?  Hitchens in particular is incredibly intimidating with his line about how most people have a book inside them, and that’s where it should stay.  If you are looking externally for validation of your self-criticism, throw a stone, you’ll hit some piece of literature that will make you feel hopeless.

We like to mock those daily affirmation exercises where you are instructed to stand in front of a mirror and tell your reflection over and over again how special you truly are, no matter how silly you feel doing it.  I suggest that perhaps there is a writer’s equivalent that isn’t quite so Stuart Smalley.  Because the praise we get from others doesn’t ever seem to crack that veneer of insecurity that is always telling us that “no, we actually do suck.”  When I’m mired in that self-loathing spiral, I like to give some thought to some of the other ideas in the hopper that I would like eventually to put to paper.  As I’ve mentioned, I have a novel that I’m finishing.  I also have its partially-written sequel and, because I cannot tell the entire story in only two books, the eventual third installment.  I have a young adult book that is a reflection on a personal tragedy from my teenage years, of which I’ve penned a single chapter.  I have a premise and outlines for a thirteen-episode television series.  I have what I think is a killer idea for a high-concept screenplay which came to me in a dream a while back.  And I have this blog – this is my ninety-first post and I’ll likely pass 100 before the end of the month.  That’s not an insubstantial volume of work.  And there very well may be more lurking in the corners of my brain yet to be discovered, and I’m kind of excited to find out what they are.  That is enough to keep me going, to silence the voice of Pazuzu ever taunting me with visions of spectacular failure.  To throw the foul-mouthed bastard down the Georgetown steps.

With all due respect to the late Mr. Hitchens, if you think you have a book inside you, then write the damn thing.  Maybe you won’t get past the first page, maybe no one will ever read it but your significant other.  And you know what?  That’s perfectly fine.  It may be gold, it may be merely pyrite, but you won’t find out unless you dig it up.  Isn’t the promise alone worth getting out the shovel?