Dear Editor,

Sir Strothard posits that “Blogging will be to the detriment of literature. …the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.” [see "Flying Off the Presses"] While L. Rhodes seems to disagree with him for most of the time, “Balkanizing Print” seems to support his claims. I want to vehemently disagree with the conclusions of both Strothard and “Balkanizing Print.” I want disagree by way of Brendan Keogh, Lisanne Pajot, and Bruce Banner. The good will not die out, just as it didn’t die out with the rise of film, or the arrival of the newspaper, or the slow death of the letter. While I do not agree with Strothard, I understand his position. As a respected and talented critic of novels, he knows what makes a book worth reading. Looking for those same qualities in a blog is a futile search. I would say that if print magazines were as young as the internet is, he would have just the same dire predictions. Magazine articles could never cover a subject with the depth and nuance of a book devoted to the topic. And that is the mistake that I believe both Rhodes and Sir Strothard make: That depth is in any way less trivial than something like length. There is definitely a trend here, the continuous shortening of content from novels to magazines to blogposts to tweets. And with the sudden implosion of character count there is an equal and opposite explosion of the topics deemed worthy of notice. But why is depth suddenly the benchmark that all written content is measured by? A tweet about what I had for dinner is exactly as deep as it needs to be. And as “Unsettling the Shooter” shows, incredibly complex topics and stories get the kind of literary response that they deserve. Take the example of FilmCritHulk. An anonymous blogger who writes under a pseudonym in the persona of a fictional character has plenty to say about even a single movie. Going by length, he could fill up an entire year of magazines with just a handful of his articles. His more general topics like action in films span multiple posts not because they were written over time, but because they’re too large for the blogging software and human bladders to endure. If the noise of other blogs have somehow overwhelmed what he’s had to say, I’ve yet to see it.

Really, the bad has always been there. Bad writing was always written, clumsy stories were always made.  But before, they were never shared. Those jokes that fall flat were never hosted on servers thousands of miles away, stored for anyone to access. Your campfire stories didn’t have a global audience listening in, and the comments on your late night musings were restricted to the people in the room with you. Take Pete Wells’ review that was the subject of “The Style of the Web“. His response can be assumed as genuine, I’m sure if he had eaten at Guy’s kitchen while under different employ, he would have had an identical reaction. Moreso, his article prompted many longer responses full of depth and subtlety such as Rhodes’ own. How, exactly, is this an example of bad writing overwhelming the good? This single controversial piece has begotten more good writing than it ever would have before. In the time of newspaper and literature, there would just be a few scathing letters to the editor, and that’s it.

Perhaps that’s what you at Culture Ramp are getting at by asking me to write this in an email. That letters to the editor are somehow better because the public doesn’t see the seedy underbelly of responses and spam you’d find in a comments section. That it’s too much to wade through all the rough for sake of a single diamond that may or may not exist. But I ask how Strothard and Rhodes aren’t simply repeating the mistakes of [the] Times in the advent of the internet? How are both not just examples of rejecting the new because it fails to meet the standards used to measure the old? These questions aren’t rhetorical.  Being forced to write an email has encouraged me to put much more time and thought into what I say. I also don’t feel pressured for brevity like I do with the ephemeral comment field, subject to erasure from one mistaken click of the back button. But I’m left unsure whether forcing the messages to fit the medium is a wiser choice than finding the perfect medium for your messages.

Regards,
Cole Wardell

 

L. Rhodes responds:

Thank you for the thoughtful response. I’ll let most of your points stand—they are, after all, questions we’re grappling with on a daily basis at CR. In no small part, the site is an attempt to transform the possibilities of publishing on the Web by putting into practice many of the ideas we arrive at through analysis of the current state of communications technology and culture. To that end, we’ll continue to react to comments like the one made by Sir Strothard, trends like the one started by Mr. Wells, and letters like the one you’ve kindly submitted. Additionally, I’ve been soliciting advice from a number of people working in the field, and they’ve been very helpful in shaping the philosophy of the site. No doubt we’ll make bad decisions on occasion, but we’ll also be ready to adapt.

The only point I do want to address is the premise that “Balkanizing Print” substantiates Sir Strothard’s opinion of blogging. His complaint appears to have been that blogging crowded the marketplace of opinion by allowing the voices of amateur critics to reach the same audience (or greater) as that traditionally commanded by professional critics. While it’s true that the growth of Web publishing has shaken up the normal channels, I’m not terribly worried that amateur criticism will overwhelm and destroy professional criticism. If anything, the last years of development, both technological and cultural, has lent itself to sorting out the chaos of the Web.

Rather, the point I hoped to stress in “Balkanizing Print” and throughout “Press Publish” was that many of the stresses changing the nature of traditional periodical writing are stresses brought on not by a particular popular form, blogging, but rather by the nature of the Web. Some of those changes strike me as good—for example, the wake-up call it issued to the complacent newspaper industry of the last decades of the 20th century. Some threaten traditions that are worth preserving not because they’re old, but because they’re vital to an active culture we still want to preserve, such as the Fourth Estate. But as technology changes, so does that nature, and with it, the possibilities of how we communicate with our audiences and pay for those communiques. Taking stock of those changes as they happen puts us in a better position to embrace the new without necessarily dispensing with what was good in the old.

— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.