Monday 1 August 2016

In the Pulpit

Here's a piece I wrote for the 'Pulpit' page of the current issue of Literary Review, banging the drum for blogging. I've had a paid (yes, paid) subscription to Literary Review for years - it's by far the best mag of its kind - and it's a joy to be writing for it. And, on this occasion, to namecheck a few ornaments of the literary blogscape...

In Praise of Blogging

I am a blogger. This is something I hesitate to admit in polite society, where the response is likely to be a thinly disguised sneer. However, I’m sure I can safely ‘come out’ to the open-minded readers of Literary Review and proclaim, loud and clear, the joys of blogging.

I never intended to be a blogger. The name alone is enough to put anyone off – ‘blog’ is an ugly word – and besides, I’ve always been about as tech-savvy as an aardvark. Then one of my oldest and closest friends started a blog and the scales fell from my eyes. I realised that, in the right hands, a blog, which I’d lazily assumed to be an outlet for opinionated egos or a medium for look-at-me wittering, could actually be a thing of beauty, a repository of interesting and original thought, of humour and pleasure, of amiable interchange among friends.

I became a frequent contributor to my friend’s blog, then a co-blogger and stand-in. Finally, when the blog founder gave signs of losing interest, I decided to take the plunge and start my own. I was having too much fun to stop now. It’s very easy to set up a blog (if it hadn’t been, I’d never have managed it). Indeed it’s so easy that I was up and running before I’d given enough thought to my blog’s name. Hence I remain self-lumbered with ‘Nigeness’, modified now by the less blokey and more descriptive (I hope) ‘A Hedonic Resource’.

My blog has been running for eight years and I still enjoy writing it and being part of a particular corner of the blogscape, a loose community of the more-or-less like-minded whose interests revolve around books, pictures, music, the natural world, walking, church-crawling, drink and whatever oddities might catch our eye. But what I have particularly enjoyed is making new discoveries that otherwise might never have come my way.

In the literary field, my blog journey has led me to discover (or in some cases rediscover) several writers who are unfashionable, neglected or in danger of being forgotten, such as Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children), Stanley Elkin, Charles Portis (whose Masters of Atlantis is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read), Flannery O’Connor, the inimitable Ivy Compton-Burnett and the poet Richard Wilbur. While much of the literary blogscape is devoted to discussing the new and fashionable, there is ample space where the sole concern is quality, regardless of the currents of contemporary 'relevance'.

Many of the names I’ve come upon are American (and some of them are big in America but oddly little known over here). I owe my discovery of them to some very distinguished American literary blogs – each of them a living riposte to those who might sneer at American culture. One example is Anecdotal Evidence, a blog about ‘the intersection of books and life’ written by the formidably well-read Patrick Kurp, whose tastes range all the way from Fulke Greville to A J Liebling and whose well-argued enthusiasms are infectious. First Known When Lost (yes, a quotation from Edward Thomas) is a series of fine mini-anthologies edited by Stephen Pentz, each on a different theme, all beautifully illustrated and linked by Pentz’s humane and thoughtful commentary. The invaluable Books, Inq., run by Frank Wilson, a former literary editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a kind of clearing house for all that is best on the literary blogscape, linking to a dazzling array of quality blogs and websites. Another giant of the American blogging scene is the indefatigable researcher Dave Lull, one-time Wisconsin librarian, who (in the words of Frank Wilson) provides the blog community with ‘a vast array of lovely links we might never otherwise see’.

Blogging at its best is essentially an extension of the essay form: brief and provisional, feeling its way through a subject, written with care but relaxed and not over-polished. One difference is that a blog post is published instantly and by the author; it takes its place in a conversation (with luck) and the blogger establishes his place in a community of taste and thought (ditto). This has its risks, but there is something deeply satisfying about it. Another difference is that the technology enables a blog post to open out in ways not possible with the printed essay: for instance, through hyperlinks embedded in the text, or through pictures, video and audio. And it can evolve into quite mind-boggling forms: take a look at Anatomy of Norbiton – a blog elaborating fantastically on the ‘ideal city’ and the ‘failed life’. A favourite game among literary bloggers is to speculate about which writers from the past might have taken to blogging – Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Chesterton, Orwell…

The blog world is vastly wider and richer than I ever imagined. And talking of wider worlds brings me to the homegrown ‘culture blog’ The Dabbler, of which I was a founding editor. This blog and its crack team of contributors touched on all the arts and more, and was especially notable for the superb music posts contributed by ‘Mahlerman’. These greatly expanded my knowledge and enjoyment of music – as they would anyone’s, I think – and they can still be found on the Dabbler archive. The Dabbler itself, however, has migrated to Facebook.

Much else that used to be in blog form has also made the transition into other social media. Could it be that the ‘death of the blog’, which seems to have been predicted ever since blogging began, is now happening? I doubt it; I think it’s more that those who were using the blog form to pick fights, project their egos or drone on about their everyday lives are migrating to media better equipped for such purposes: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the rest (neophilia is a strong driving force here). This might, one hopes, leave the blogscape open for those who blog because the form is a perfect fit with what they want to do, and who are impervious to the whims of technology. If blogging is unfashionable, so much the better, I say. So many of the best things, like so many of the best books and writers, are.


  1. By chance, this much more incisive piece on the demise of blogging turned up on The Dabbler today -

  2. Lovely stuff, Nige. Amen to all that.

    The Dabbler has been a victim if its own virtues, in a way. We set the standards high, but found no way to monetise that wouldn't ruin what made it worthwhile - even to cover the costs, never mind the time involved.

    However, glorious things have come out of it. The core of the community is still in communication on Facebook, as you mention, and we've even managed to find a way to make a business out of the many things we learned about online writing and reading.

    I wouldn't be at all surprised if The Dabbler makes a return to traditional blogging in the medium term - perhaps using some new platform that avoids some of the technical problems we accumulated.

    But in the meantime, Nigeness and Dabbler fans should keep an eye on the blogs of Freddie's Flowers and Pooky - both Dabble-based organs - and plenty more to come, with any luck.

  3. Well, I'm glad you're still blogging, however unfashionable it has become. Carry On Up The Blogspot, Nige!

  4. Don't worry, Mary - the more unfashionable it gets the more I'll like it...