Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Practice

Some responses to the earlier entries brought up the issue that many blogs (and indeed mine) utilize a very essayistic format, and so the contrast I set up between autonomous work and the stream of blogging isn’t so black and white. I partly agree with this, but I want to keep the focus on the blog qua blog; locating a blog entry as an essay via Google does not in any way distinguish a web site as a blog. What defines the blog is its day-by-day composition, and the effects that this composition has on the work produced.

This emphasis–on new material rather than revision of old, on small incremental pieces rather than self-contained monsters–affects how bloggers tend to write. Blog entries are by nature quickly written, quickly published, quickly forgotten. They are not posted in a “final” state, in that finality implies that it be remembered for posterity. Given the short horizon of the content, any revision after the initial posting will only be noticed by a fraction of the blog’s readers. When blogging, the question of “Is this exactly how I want it?” is less important than in writing a book; if it’s not, you can always try again after the entry has receded into the distance.

Revision makes itself known through future entries. This leads to the content redundancy that I mentioned earlier, where bloggers tend to overpost rather than underpost, but it allows for more dynamic restatements than if the original content were fixed in view.

Blog entries, then, never reach a final state. This is most likely what drives some bloggers to complain that blogging is a waste of their time: the lack of clear finished product. But ultimately it potentially provides virtue as well. In the absence of the finished product, in the absence of a primary authorial personality, there remains two things: one, the ever-becoming practice of writing, and second, the continuity of the practice.

As the entries blend together in a stream, what becomes visible is an unfinished, open stream of information. No matter how open-ended a book might be, how many questions it raises, at the end of the day you still close the book and archive it in your mind. Not so with a blog, which, as long as you keep reading it, will maintain its continuity of topic until those abstractions settle in your mind and are brought up again when you next read it. The gestalt is never fully formed, always open to revision. And unless bloggers have an endless stream of new ideas, they need to engage in revision of their own previous thought to keep posting.

A few authors have adopted the open-ended revision model in the past. Wittgenstein in his late work is an exploding polyphony of fallible interrogators and tentative responses. Stephen Dixon’s fiction examines a certain strain of modern American life from conflicting, mutating vantage points. Kim Deitch has built towering edifices out of small pieces of trash culture, and continues a career-long pullback that continually redesigns the architecture of all his previous work. [These are only the three that first spring to mind; there are surely great examples that I'm overlooking.] Even in these cases, the chunking of their work into discrete books and/or collections is initially deceptive, implying a closure that is not actually present. Blogging declares the closure to be void.

It does so by requiring frequent work. In the absence of continuous practice, blogs do die, and collapse into low-pagerank white dwarfs of content only to be found via lucky web searchers. It requires the author’s constant effort (and the readers’ responses) to remain viable. To declare a blog finished is to declare it dead. It is the open-ended form that defines blogging.

Now a personal word from me: I said that the blog medium wasn’t particularly germane to what I wrote, since I figured I’d write the same sort of thing regardless of the format. I was wrong. It was the unfinished-ness of the blog that allowed me to write in this way in the first place, and it has been quite productive. Egos fly around blog genres, as they do in any other publishing venture, but I find them easier to deal with. People aren’t resting on their laurels after having a finished piece published in magazine X or Y. Instead, the question we ask each other is this: are you blogging? Are you continuing towards the unreachable end point of your work, and keeping your work alive?

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