Friday 19 February 2010

Why Blog?

The Past

Over the last 27 years I've used many methods to broadcast work and communicate with writers. Here are some starting dates and comments

1983: Face-to-face workshopsThese seems as popular as ever, though competition from the WWW might have narrowed the variety of people who attend.
1983: PerformanceNorwich, Nottingham, Cambridge
1987: Printed MagazinesThese continue much as before - even the letters pages with their turn-around time of months don't seem too affected by the Web. But the current recession may take its toll on printed magazines.

Then I started using computers

1987: Usenet (rec.arts.poems)This continues on Google Groups. Then as now it's unmoderated, which limits its usefulness. It's been superceded by functionally similar Web Forums.
1989: E-mail-mediated workshopMore private but by today's standards not user-friendly.

Then the Web arrived. Web magazines are in abundance, but the better ones perform much the same role as their printed counterparts (cheaper for submitters though, and less money for editors). Other uses of the medium emerged

1993: Web sites Litrefs and, later, Love the PoetTicking over. Top pages in Jan 2010 were Metaphor and Simile (1649 hits), Translating Dante (884 hits), and Getting your poetry published (880 hits)
2001: WWW-mediated workshopModerated
2007: YouTubeI have a few poetry videos on YouTube
2007: FacebookI glance at this weekly for invitations and announcements. The communication there seems mostly phatic and ephemeral to me.

I've never used Twitter. I've never published podcasts on iTunes (though I considered it once), and I've only added a few sentences to Wikipedia.

The Present

In December 2009 I started a blog, just when Stephen Fry, Rob MacKenzie (Surroundings), and others were cutting back on web emissions. Why?

  • Interblogability - Other bloggers are more likely to find it than my web site, and they're more likely to respond. Since I've been duplicating articles on my blog and website I've noticed that it's the blog versions that get mentioned in Tweets, etc. I also find that having a blog makes visiting other blogs easier.
  • Freedom - Being a non-work-based facility there are fewer restrictions on the material I can post.
  • Web 2.0 features - Users have come to expect social networking features. Blogging software has improved lately, and supplies them.

Some people use blogging software because it's the only way they can put things online. Nowadays that's not restrictive - blogging software's developed into site-management sofware, so blogware can be used for magazine publications nowadays. That said, blogs remain by default time-sequence-based, and items disappear from sight (posts get compacted into months, and months into years), which is why I duplicate info on the WWW so that I can categorise and structure it. If something's worth saying, it's worth keeping - news that stays news. However, with tags, gadgets and sophisticated searches old posts needn't be lost, and blogs are providing other ways to do what structure provides for a traditional web site so I may eventually relegate my web site to being a back-up site.

Blogs come in so many shapes and sizes that it's hard to decide whether a page is a blog let alone a good blog. Here's a list of sites that I like and sites that are generally popular

  • Personal Blogs - Silliman's Blog (Blogger) is internationally popular, opinionated, informative, often mentioned in the other universe of print, and responsive to comments. It's confirmation that "blog" is a verb as well as a noun. The Truth About Lies (Blogger - Jim Murdoch) is another literary blog - essay-length posts with a podcast option. Less purely literary (but the writers' lives are so tied up with literature that it makes little difference) are Baroque in Hackney (Wordpress - Katy Evans-Bush; mentioned in "Time Out"!), George Szirtes (Blogger - a major poet, but also a good journal writer), TaniaWrites (Blogger - Tania Hershman; 91 followers, and pages of value to writers - The Short Review, UK prose mags, etc) and Venessa Gebbie (Blogger)
  • Magazines - Everyday Fiction prints a story a day. Readers can add comments, and there's a rating system plus Forums. Various print publications have blog offshoots - Magma, Harriet (WordPress? Poetry Foundation) and The Guardian come to mind.
  • Sites - Bookslut is often mentioned in best-of blogrolls. It combines topical and reference material with adverts, but lacks some typically bloggy features.

The Future

I started drafting this article a few weeks ago. Since then, Adrian Slater's written Literary Communications where he writes that "the blog and online magazine used to complement the offline publishing world - I get the feeling that they're both sinking a little together". Perhaps so.

I can understand why blogs get abandoned. Budding authors are advised to start blogs so that agents notice them. Authors about to publish books are advised to promote the book in a blog. And some people start a blog like they would a diary as a New Year's resolution. Blogs that are started for these reasons aren't likely to last long. Other authors look upon their sites as providing an information service to the writing community, which may result in pressure to keep material up-to-date, to keep publishing (I've seen people apologise on their blogs for not posting recently. Why?). Some bloggers may feel that they're in competition with their peers and develop deadline anxiety. Eventually, some bloggers (especially when they see the access statistics) may wonder if all the effort's worthwhile: without income, purpose or loyal readership the effort's not sustainable.

I don't think I'll suffer from such pressures (if nothing else my web pages have longevity), but I'm unsure what role my blog will play. Perhaps this uncertainty is more wide-spread, and is a factor in some blogs' decline - is a blog a soapbox, personal journal, self-publishing on-the-cheap, a place to post drafts for comments, a discussion forum, a magazine, or a filing system for interesting URLs? Is it mostly static or mostly ephemeral? Of course, it can be any of these things, but sometimes while trying to do too much a site can lose focus and audience.

What you spend your time on depends on your post/read ratio, the amount of filtering you're prepared to do, the importance you attach to archiving and sorting your posts, whether you use smart-phones or computers, whether you combine poetry with socialising, etc. It also depends on what those you contact use.

I expect to use the blog for literary purposes - drafting articles, making topical announcements, and advertising items from other blogs. I'll post every week or so (I can post revised files from my website if I run out of ideas). I'll mention the blog in bios. I'll use the website to store static information for posterity, and I'll use Facebook for making announcements as well as making/receiving invitations. If you want to turn up to all the launches, sign the petitions, and be the first to hear about deaths, prize-winners, etc, then you need at least Facebook. If you're happy to let the dust settle first then you don't need Twitter.

Monday 15 February 2010

Transparency, Barthelme and Lahiri

I've been reading Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection "Unaccustomed Earth" recently, along with "Donald Barthelme" (by Lois Gordon) and "Reading Network Fiction" by David Ciccoricco. First I'll mention some general language features, then I'll compare the writers. In some aspects they're opposites though I like them both.


  • Knowledge of, and skill with, words isn't a sufficient condition for understanding the world. In itself it's not even a necessary condition. We learn by doing, by writing. Learning leads to new instruments, new worlds. The Word and World inform each other. For writers in particular, words are not passive mediators.
  • The Self isn't a separate layer either. It needs to be added into the mix. The "World -> Self (Author) -> Word" pipeline is misleading. There are eddies and backflows. Authors write in order to understand.
  • The Reader needs to be added into the mix. The "World -> Author -> Words -> Reader" pipeline is misleading. There are interactions between the elements. The words that are read by the reader are given meaning by a world the author might not share, or an opinion of the author that the author might reject.
  • When these elements interact there are terms of engagement: rules, conventions, games. People can
    • make-believe that a layer is transparent, that in an interaction between 2 elements, one dominates.
    • swap layers. Metaphors can be taken literally; puns can be a factory for producing new items; a single Word (or Interpretation) can generate many possible Worlds;
    • switch between layers. Done inappropriately it may make a character seem schitzoid, or it may lead to humour.

Transparency and Immersion

  • Is transparency good? - "It is by no means apparent that medial transparency is or should be the measure of a successful narrative ... often a message is conveyed only through the interplay between a story and the story-producing mechanism" (Ciccoricco, p.118)
  • Is immersion dependant on transparency? - "Common to the discourse of immersion theory is the notion that the realist novelist and the virtual reality environment designer pursue the same goal - the disappearance of the medium [but this] conflates immersion in representation (as in a Victorian novel) ... with immersion in simulation (as in a VR environment)" (Ciccoricco, p.119)
  • Are there other forms of immersion? - "Ryan identifies three forms that fall under a 'poetics of immersion': spatial, where the reader develops a sense of being at the scene of narrated events; temporal, where the reader is caught up in narrative suspense; and emotional" (Ciccoricco, p.121)


There isn't much word-play in his work. Certainly he doesn't smash the words into letters. The words are tokens that may switch meanings (often by their context changing) but they don't lose their internal integrity. His pieces have structural variety though he plays few games with narrative (his pieces don't always have a narrative to play with). There are few multi-framed stories, mobius-band pieces, or circular works.

His characters don't say funny things though they can be wistful and resigned. His humour is more to do with tonal mismatches and juxtapositions of the ridiculous or fantastic and the banal. There are other shifts too, "from myth or old-fashioned fairy-tale prose to modern psychologese, or from mock-epic diction to comic-book slang - or from the inflated platitudes of political, philosophical, or academic jargon to hip advertising lingo" (Gordon). "Typically his work moves in and out of reality, from the concrete to the abstract, from moral characterisation, the allegorical and mythic, to the most extreme manipulations of metaphor and description, and the creation of new grammar and words." (Gordon). Different aesthetics operate within the same work. To take an analogy from art, imagine looking at a painting of a landscape. On the horizon you see what looks like a yellow rectangle. You wonder if it's a building or a lorry, but it could be a yellow rectangle, there to contrast with the shape and colour of the setting sun. In places the canvas has been left bare.

He foregrounds language rather than words. At times language becomes opaque, the category difference between "apple" and an apple dissolving. Words are his "real toads" in imaginary gardens. He "literalizes the metaphors of life as war and love as soap opera. His focus is not so much the precariousness of what is traditionally considered reality or fantasy, but [..] the way in which our lives are saturated and ultimately defined by the media" (Gordon). And yet, themes show through the flattened significance of signs - fatherhood, sad marriages (he had 4 marriages), the futility of war (he arrived in Korea on the last day of war).

Here's the start of "The Indian Uprising" - We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No.'

Given the problems with identifying the place and era, I suspect spatial and temporal immersion is unlikely, though there's hope on the emotional front.

Gordon writes that later in the story "A key line, which occurs after three pages, establishes at least three different perspectives: "but it is you I want now, here in the midst of this Uprising .... It is when I am with you that I am happiest. ... 'Call off your braves'" This alerts us to the fact that (1) although up until now we thought the war real and indeed the subject of the story, (2) the lovers in fact may not only be witnessing or participating in the flming of of war, most importantly, (3) everything we have read up until now ... may simply be the speaker's reactions (in film terms) to his frustration ... only in his mind, ... he can only respond to experience as an actor on a [Hollywood] set"

Reading a Barthelme piece one has to decide to be an active reader or give up. The diction and genre of a section may not match the content. Lovers may be locked inside a discourse more suited to weather forecasting or art criticism. Readers need to keep their perspectives open and normalise at their peril - his pieces are not "really about" something else.


I think her language aspires to transparency, and I think the plotting does too. But sometimes cracks show

  • In the title story of the collection a daughter greets her father after an absense of several months. "He had not lost weight and the hair on his head was plentiful, more so, she feared, than her own after Akash's birth, when it had fallen out in clumps ... her bathtub was still filled with shampoos that promised to stimulate scalp growth, plump the shafts. Her father looked well rested, another quality Ruma did not possess these days. She'd taken to applying concealer below her eyes ..." (p.12).
    The character is having thoughts at moments convenient for the author who's hoping to bury an info-dump by interleaving the information. The spell of immersion is broken by the distant clatter of a keyboard.
  • Narration and plotting isn't crucial to her style; mechanisms tend to be kludgey or repeated. In the title story for example, we have a visiting parent (a topic she's covered elsewhere). College life and families are never far away. The idea of the child's garden seemed a little odd - a MacGuffin as much as a grandfatherly indulgence. The use of the postcard at the end works symbolically (the child wanting it to "grow") but would the child really have taken the postcard?

For me the transparency doesn't lead to immersion because there's too little interest generated (or maybe too few types of interest). Branches in the plot can be anticipated, following well-trodden paths, and they're well separated, giving time to guess what will happen next. Emotionally I'm told what to feel. I'm more spatially than temporally engaged - objects and interiors are carefully described and India/US differences are attended to. Big journeys mean big changes - any deviation from that pattern tends to carry significance.

Clear as ink

Lahiri's reliable. Like a lawyer she presents paragraphs of facts when making a point, hoping to convince by sheer volume of evidence. You'll know what's important because you'll be told and shown- "Why?" In her son's small face she saw the disappointment she also felt. "Daddy's coming back tonight", she said, trying to change the subject. "Should we make a cake?" (p.57).

Barthelme's more hit-and-miss, but that in the nature of the game he plays. He too cares about getting the words right (he re-wrote pieces even after publication), but he doesn't polish his prose so that you can always see right through it. Language becomes a character in his stories: moody, stubborn, playful - not transparent, not a cardboard cut-out.

I'm not asking for everything to be a symbol, or for stories to be difficult, or for writers to exhibit ability in several styles (I like Proust's work). But I think Barthelme plays his game better than she plays hers. I'm just glad I'm not a judge having to assess two such entries.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Eliot and Cinema

The following letter published in a recent issue of Acumen was a response to an article by William Oxley. It seems to me and others that "The Waste Land" uses ArtHouse cinematic techniques - cross-cutting, panning, juxtaposition, etc - yet Eliot saw little else but newsreels, Cowboy films and Slapstick. I suppose nowadays "The Simpsons", "24", "Flashforward", "The Office" and in particular pop videos provide a similar education.

In Acumen 65 William Oxley wondered about Eliot and the development of cinema. I can see several connections. During the early 1900s silent movies were already using cross-cutting, rapid point-of-view changes, and flashes of symbolism. Talkies gave directors an easy option - to tell rather than show. On the show-tell spectrum films range from Koyaanisqatsi through Distant Voices, Still Lives to The Shawshank Redemption's voice-over, but most films are well towards the "tell" end of the spectrum. Eisenstein's montage became Art-House, a distraction from the plot. Mainstream movies lost their visual roots, growing up only by leaving home.

Meanwhile, poetry experienced no corresponding technological revolution. If anything, it fed cross-culturally on the cinematic techniques that Talkies left behind - Imagist cross-cuts, etc. David Trotter concludes that Eliot's "understanding of film technique was thoroughly up-to-date, and a good deal more sophisticated than that shown by cinephile writers such as Franz Kafka" but he seemed worried about the mass-media aspects of the medium - "The essay in memory of Marie Lloyd published as the last of the Dial London Letters in December 1922 [was] unremittingly hostile to cinema".

Eliot alluded to cinema in a Waste Land manuscript and (like many contemporaries) adopted some of its techniques, supplemented by Tiresiasian voice-overs, low-life content (borrowed or stolen from French poetry, but also perhaps from newsreel footage) and literary learning, trying to shore things up as the moving image began to take over from the word. Eliot led admirers to the compromised land where they'd come and go amongst the paratactic ruins, making follies of them. Few followed the singular Eliot towards belief though. Instead, a confessional, self-doubting, psychotherapist generation turned back, dumping the 'Show not Tell' mantra in favour of 'Find Your Voice'. But poetry shouldn't be reduced to Pictionary, nor is it an Encounter Group where writers can find themselves and grow up at the expense of poetry. Too often nowadays, poems try to please all the tutors by not only showing and telling, but confessing too - annotated slide-shows where an anecdote concludes with a telling, self-revealing couplet.

The Waste Land appeared in 1922. In the decades before, Cubism had already distorted representation then Dada and Abstract art had finished the job off ("Writing is fifty years behind painting", wrote Brion Gysin). One can also find precursors of Eliot's decentred style further back - "The governing principle of much Persian poetry is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre" (Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 25).

I don't think Eliot can be blamed for Jori Graham let alone lang-po or Flarf. Other forces were more committed to the dethronement of language and logic (absurdist theatre, minimalist and abstract art, etc). The factors that influenced Eliot affected many other poets too, even those who disliked Eliot's particular blend. If he's responsible at all, it's only because writers reacted against his conservatism and that of mainstream, commercialised cinema. His later work (like Einstein's) seems rather a cul-de-sac to me as many of his now forgotten imitators discovered.

"T. S. Eliot and Cinema", David Trotter ("Modernism/modernity" 13.2 (2006) 237-265)