The Long Arm of the Blog

Are classic essays like Swift’s still being written, or has the elegant thoughtfulness that is the essay’s legacy been winnowed away by its rapacious bastard offspring, the blog? And will the Internet generation, suffused by the blogosphere, lose the ability to write essays altogether? (The plethora of essays for sale online to students portends they may.)

Blogging has replaced the real essay for most people under 30, just as the Internet has replaced the daily newspaper. Polls show more than 60 percent of online readers trust independent news sources like blogs over mainstream news sources. But while blogs provide immediacy, they also breed inaccuracy – from spelling and grammatical errors to errors of fact. An essay, despite the immediacy and passion with which it might have been written, has still been perused by an editor, a copy editor and a fact-checker before it saw print. (Even Swift had an editor.) A blog has been reviewed by no one, edited by no one – not even, in many cases, been proofread by the author.

Some bloggers, such as Andrew Sullivan and Richard Scheer, are former newsmen with real journalistic credentials. Others, like Matt Drudge, are more like Stowe’s Topsy – they just grew. Blogland isn’t like the world of mainstream journalism, and bloggers are not usually serious essayists like Sullivan or Scheer. Any dot-commer can blog – a serious journalist with years of experience like, say, myself, or the teenager down the block spewing political rants during breaks from Grand Theft Auto. The problem in the blogosphere is that the kid and I will be received with equal credibility. —Victoria A. BrownworthThe Long Arm of the Blog (

While Matt Drudge has often been lumped with bloggers, his site is a collection of links, with an occasional news/gossip exclusive. Drudge has shown what the democratization of journalism means for politics, but to compare him to an essayist is like comparing a ballet dancer to a polka dancer. Yes, both are dancers, but the set of skills involved are completely different. I can’t tell you how many times that an outsider’s attempt to analyze the blogosphere reminds me of the old story of the blind men and the elephant.

Citing the prevalence of online essay banks and the prevalence of bloggers in the same paragraph, and then implying that the two are somehow causally related is silly. Online essay banks were there long before the bloggers showed up.

For someone who strikes such a literate tone, I’m surprised Brownworth starts off with this example: “But blogs are pretenders to the throne of true essay writing. They mimic the essay much as Eliza Doolittle mimicked the Queen’s English before Professor Higgins got his hands on her.” Excuse me? While Eliza does show up at Higgins’s house asking for lessons, she doesn’t make any attempt to mimic the Queen’s English beforehand. It’s only Higgins who, intellectually smug and self-assured, gets it into his head that if only Eliza spoke more properly, he could pass her off as a duchess. “I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.”

If you consider what happens to Eliza after Higgins makes her too good for Covent Garden, and she gets tired of the ruse that lets her play the lady, I’m not so sure that Shaw’s Pygmalion is the literary example I would choose if I were trying to make a point about the superiority of essays to blogs.

Brownworth dismisses all the things that blogs do better than essays, so naturally when she evaluates blogs on the same set of criteria that have been historically developed for essays, she’s going to find bloggers come up short.

“Bloggers are more Web-cam style diarists than essayists,” she says. Okay. And the average essayist, if placed in front of a web cam, would produce a pretty boring video diary — if judged according to the criteria that are active in the webcam community.

As a writing teacher, I struggle to get students to plan ahead, to condense, to revise. So I can identify with Brownworth’s woes. But an experienced diaryblogger has a certain set of skills that a non-writer has never developed.

Brownworth, whose essay invokes Orwell to attack the achievements of bloggers, uses a bit of Orwellian rhetoric herself. Brownworth’s final warning, ” Blogland is a sprawl, fast encroaching on the fragile landscape of the finely wrought essay,” invokes the “urban sprawl” that encroaches on the “landscape” of pristine nature.

This presumes that the “finely wrought essay” is natural, while it is in fact the result of hundreds of years of conventions, aesthetic rules and personal judgments.

The essay is just as artificially constructed as the weblog. Yes, the essay has been around for hundreds of years, but its existence depends upon the existence of an intellectual aristocracy of educated men and women with the necessary leisure time to write back and forth to each other about subjects that they deem important, using rhetorical techniques and organizational patterns that they themselves deem effective.

The great Greek orators voiced similar complaints about a vulgar form of communication that they said killed spontaneity, and would permit anyone with a smattering of technical skill to masquerade as a great communicator.

The bastard art the Greek orators derided was called “writing”.

Link via metafilter.