Robert Silvers on a new kind of criticism

What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism …

… this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

In Conversation With Robert Silvers — New York Magazine.

That’s from a much longer review with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. It was published before the Boston bombings, but after a week in which we saw a lot of criticism of social media for its accuracy and ability to spread misinformation, it feel prescient. What kind of criticism could address social media, besides the kind of media/journalism fact-checking we have now? How would you define a body of work—is it based on one account, one publication, an series of events? Who decides what to include? As shorter forms of disconnected text become the dominant form of discourse, it’s an interesting problem.

Just stop and look at the jellyfish: On the instinct for broadcasting your life online

i_awaitFrom the Millions yesterday, Emily St. John Mandel writes about Mary MacLane, a lonely, would-be socialite from Montana whose 1902 book “I Await the Devil’s Coming” presaged the more narcissistic parts of the social media era. She points out that what makes MacLane’s self-obsessed writing particularly fascinating is her apparent self-awareness:

[S]he was extremely self-aware, and there are moments when she seems to recognize the corrosive potential of her self-absorption: “If I were not so unceasingly engrossed with my sense of misery and loneliness,” she wrote, “my mind would produce beautiful, wonderful logic. I am a genius — a genius — a genius.” It’s a startlingly candid admission: If I weren’t so engrossed with myself, I could accomplish greater things.

I don’t know about you, but who hasn’t had that feeling every time they log on to Twitter or Facebook. Maybe not the feeling that it’s self-obsession driving you to spend your time with fleeting updates, but a sense that if you just stopped to enjoy a moment with your own eyes instead of futzing with your iPhone you might take away something more meaningful.

jellyfishWhen I upgraded my iPhone last year, I gave Carter my old one. It’s deactivated; he can’t make calls or send texts, but he can still use it for games, music, etc. We were off for spring break this week, and went to Shedd Aquarium Thursday. He brought the phone with him, stopping every few feet to take a blurry picture of every single fish in every single tank. At one point I told him to put it away. “Just stop and look at the jellyfish with your own eyes.” He argued with me. I sounded like a nag, as I probably do in this post. It’s just that sometimes all the photos and updates make me tired, and I hope he gets a sense of where to draw the line.

Mandel summed up the way I feel about the whole business in her essay:

I’ve been a sporadic and somewhat ambivalent participant of late. Long periods of time go by when I post almost nothing of my own and only respond to other people’s updates, because what it comes down to, I think, is that either you have an instinct for broadcasting your life on the Internet, or you don’t. It’s not that I find my life uninteresting, it’s just that I’m not at all sure why anyone else would be interested, aside from my mom. I keep a sporadic diary, because I want to remember my life, but I have a hard time imagining why I’d want to display that life for public consumption. I deeply value my privacy.

The privacy bit may be a little hypocritical for me. The longer I’ve been online the more I’ve drawn inward, but I lean more toward the “why anyone else would be interested” part. And this is probably not the best thing to admit now that I make a living in social media,and gear up to go back to work after a week off.

When you have a digital hammer, every piece of writing looks like a nail

“Our stories don’t need soundtracks. Our interviews don’t need video ‘enhancements.’ We’re not in the movie business. The trick with new technologies and platforms is figuring out how they can help you—rather than tailoring your mission to match what they can do.”

That’s Lorin Stein from the Paris Review talking to Publisher’s Weekly about how literary magazines are adapting to digital, and I couldn’t agree more. One of the things that’s always bothered me when I read articles or hear talks about the fate of literature online is this insistence that writers and publishers have to turn into multimedia producers, because that’s just what people do on the web. People really seem to like YouTube, the theory goes, so we need to make our stories and essays look more like YouTube.

I’ve always compared this to DVDs stuffed with extras that no one watches, those director’s commentaries and “making of” shorts that are just tacked on because they had an extra gigabyte to burn on the disc. Sure, you can make beautiful things like Snow Fall out of literature and journalism online, but unless there’s a compelling reason to do it, one that adds to the telling of the story or advances a narrative, it’s just a waste of time for both the content producer (erstwhile writers and publishers) and consumers (what we used to call simply “readers”). There’s nothing wrong with adapting your tried and true publishing schedule or format to the web, but you don’t add value by pretending to be something you’re not.

Toward a Theory of Quitting Stuff on the Internet

Scott Smith has some thoughts about why he stopped posting to Tumblr:

With a presence on various platforms – here, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr – I’ve been wondering how to balance them all without publishing the same stuff in every space. In particular, I’ve been wrestling with the question of how to get myself to blog more. If you’re a writer, you tend to write because you have something in you that needs to be expressed. And writing it – as opposed to putting it in a song or delivering a monologue – is the best way to express it.

I’ve always marveled at people with the ability to populate 3, 4, 5 different social networks consistently (Scott being one of them), because I’ve never been able to do it myself. I can barely sustain a Twitter account on most days. One of the reasons I wanted to try blogging here again was that I figured if I’m going to have the energy to write anything else I might as well do it here, the one place on the internet I’ve managed to keep running all these years. Like Scott says, I might as well do it in a place I control:

It just became too important to me to own as much of the work I was doing online as possible. I’ll still post regularly on Twitter because what it gives me is as great as what I feel I’m giving to it. Tumblr stopped delivering on its end of that bargain so I found another way to keep writing.

I’ve tried using Tumblr half a dozen times, and I think it’s fun and extremely easy to use. If I were starting a brand new blog I’d probably use it, but I always struggled with the problem of what I’d actually do there. Share links and photos? Isn’t that what Twitter is for? Write essays? Isn’t that what my blog is for? I couldn’t ever find a place for it, and a big reason is because I had this blog, which for better or worse, is the place where people can find me.

Starting out on a new network and building a following always felt like too much work. Worse, it felt like I was cheating on this place, not to mention feeling like I had nothing new to say. Maybe it’s a matter of precedent. I started writing online (or anywhere really) on this blog, and that set my expectations for how to *be* online. Maybe Tumblr is the baseline for the youngs now and blogging on WordPress feels weird. Whatever tools you use for expressing yourself online, you need to have a plan to make it worthwhile. And part of that plan is knowing when to pull the plug.

PS: I started to write this as a comment on Scott’s blog and then I was all, “Screw that man, let’s do this old school trackback style” and responded to him here. Blogging!

So, what do you do for a living?

From Alizah Salario, on how to answer that dreaded question when you’re just working a day job to pay the bills:

I take pause when people ask me what I do. I’ve held full time paying positions as a high school teacher, a journalist and at a financial services firm, but first and foremost I consider myself a writer. Yet I often don’t identify myself as such because I fear doing so would sound pretentious, as if I sit with my herbal tea in a bucolic setting and the koans of wisdom just pour out of me. (Okay, I am drinking herbal tea as I write this). But I also hesitate to call myself a writer because, though I make my living stringing together words in various syntactical and stylistic forms, it’s not quite that simple. I feel like a fraud, because to me “making a living” means having disposable income and putting money into savings. I have to hustle to pay the bills, and if I were to stop writing, nobody would be asking me to continue. A writer writer seems like someone the world can’t live without.

I had the hardest time with this question when I was a stay-at-home dad, even though it was a voluntary decision. I hesitated to answer, or mumbled something about helping out with my wife’s business, instead of just owning my life choices. Of course I wanted to say I was going to grad school and working on becoming a writer, but that seemed pretentious too. After I had to go back to my old IT job it was even worse, because I felt like I’d failed after putting so much time and energy into writing.

After a few months of being back at work, I went to a reading where I was talking to a friend of a friend. I told him about how I used to stay at home, then the whole sob story about going back to work when the economy crashed, etc, etc. A few minutes later his girlfriend walked up; she hadn’t heard the first part of the story, and asked me what I did for a living. When I finished explaining, the guy said I visibly slumped and sighed before I answered. It’s like I was embarrassed to admit I had a responsible (if boring) job. I couldn’t see it for the practical decision it was.

Writing has this weird, unpleasant tendency to make those of us drawn to it feel guilty if we don’t do it (or at least think about it) 24/7. Couple that with the American tendency to let our jobs define us, and that’s a lot of emotional baggage to carry around. The funny thing is that once I finally accepted my fate as someone who worked in IT to pay the bills and liked to write on the side, I ended up getting the job I have now, where I can legitimately call myself a “writer.” Maybe it’s fate; it was probably just persistence and dumb luck. But even now that I genuinely like what I do for a living, I still have trouble with that question. I’ve switched jobs and careers enough times now to know this one won’t be my last. It just happens to be what I do to pay the bills, for now.

The Pleasures of Not Making Lists in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionI finished reading “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” by Alan Jacobs last night. I’ve followed Alan on Twitter for a while and I chat with him about books and gadgets and sports from time to time, so I figured I owed him that much for tolerating me. But seriously, I did really want to read it because it’s about two of my favorite topics: reading, and thinking about reading.

The main gist of the book was how about to enjoy reading again when you feel you can barely manage to run your eyes across a 300-word blog post anymore, and how to really savor the experience when you do. And one way to do this goes against most of my instincts when it comes to reading books: Stop making lists. Don’t make a list of books you want to read, and don’t make a list of books you’ve finished. Otherwise you focus more on the experience of having read versus the act of reading itself.

I used to keep lists of books I read for years, until I had kids and started seeing the numbers get smaller and smaller. It bummed me out, so I deleted them and haven’t done it since. I still get stressed out when I feel like I’ve been stuck on a book, but I feel like it’s helped, and I’m much more likely now to take on a huge book I really want to read instead of worrying it will take too long to finish.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying I liked the book, and it led to one of my favorite lines I’ve read in a while:

I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan. After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us.

I don’t know about that “unbidden, unanticipated” part, at least with my kids, but that’s a nice way to make a case for reading on a whim.

Lessons from 12 Years of Blogging

Anil Dash wrote something last month about how much the web has changed since the early aughts, when all the coolest geeks had their own blog and no one knew a thing about “social media.” It made me wistful for the old days, and now that it’s a new year I feel like giving this old thing another try.

I started this site 12 years ago. That’s longer than my marriage, longer than any job I’ve held, longer than I’ve lived anywhere since I was a kid. Even though I stopped and started blogging here too many times to count, that’s a long time. I feel like that counts for something on the web and I ought to give it some love.

I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with it, but I’m thinking it’ll be some combination of old fashioned blogging with the longer personal essays I’ve been doing for a couple years. My interest in blogging waned when I started using Twitter, but I’ve always felt something missing when I wanted to write a few paragraphs about something and be done with it. So here we are.

To get started, I moved everything from my own WordPress install to WordPress.com because I figured it was time to get out of the business of running my own blog software (more on that later). I spent the weekend fixing broken links and restoring images that didn’t make it in the transfer, and it gave me a chance to read through a lot of my old stuff and think about what this little project has meant to me. Here are some general observations:

  • All told I moved 1,042 posts with 631 tags over 12 years of archives. For a long time I’ve kept most of that stuff private/unpublished because I only wanted to show off my capital W “Writing,” but I figure if I’m going to give this thing a chance again I should just own it and put everything back online. So enjoy all those old political rants and pictures of my dog.
  • Looking back, a lot of what I used to post here is probably stuff I would just post on Twitter or Facebook today. I wonder if I would’ve ever started a blog if I’d had those tools back then.
  • The first things I put on this site were little anecdotes and essays my friends wrote. I envisioned it as some kind of online magazine, and even after I started posting mostly my own stuff, they kept sending me links and pictures because they didn’t have anywhere else to post them online. Now that everybody’s mom can post videos about 20 different ways from a cell phone, it’s weird to think that it used to take quite a bit of technical knowhow to put a couple pictures online.
  • Flickr really was awesome back in the day.
  • And remember what a big deal moblogging used to be?
  • I have a group of 5-6 friends from college who used to read what I posted every day, leave comments and generally make fun of me. It was really fun, and those comment threads make me laugh even today. I guess people do that kind of thing on Facebook now, but it’s not the same. I miss it.
  • I’m now on my sixth different technology for running this site, and I have to say it’s astounding how simple and easy it is to run a blog today. I started in 2001 making web pages in Microsoft Frontpage, then I moved it to the first version of Blogger that generated HTML pages and FTPed them to a server. After that I used an early version of Movable Type that made you run your own SQL scripts to set it up, then I used the self-hosted WordPress from its beginnings up until now. You kids have it too easy today.
  • Speaking of all that moving, I’m amazed I never lost any of that old stuff in the process. The oldest posts on this site are the same ones I pushed out of Frontpage in 2001. Yay me for planning well.
  • And when I was working on setting up the new site this weekend, I told Debbie I don’t think it matters what the finished product looks like. I just like puttering around on a website for a hobby, like some people enjoy gardening or playing a musical instrument. It’s a combination of writing + mid-level computer geekery that’s right in my wheelhouse.

A final technical note: When I first registered the “wood-tang.com” domain, I didn’t really think about how that worked as a web address. I just did it that way because that’s how I used to write my stupid nickname. Over the years I learned it’s kinda lame to have a dash in a URL and it’s bothered me ever since. I bought the “woodtang.com” domain a couple years ago and didn’t know what to do with it, but when I moved the site I figured out how to make it work. If I mapped the domains and set all my nameservers correctly, everything should point here, sans dash, no matter how you type the address. Technology!

So I’m excited. Can you feel it? I’ll see you later this week. Or not.