Tuesday, May 17, 2005

This is not an essay

The Baltimore Sun recently ran a piece about blogs by Victoria A. Brownworth that was so monumentally stupid I couldn't resist the temptation to take it apart.

The trouble begins in the first sentence:

The most popular and accessible literary form, the essay, is a succinct expression of a writer's opinion, written with concision and verve in relatively few words.

The most popular literary form? In whose universe? Amazon's current bestseller list shows but one book of essays (Freakonomics by Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner) in the top 100. Walk into a high street bookshop, and you will find huge amounts of shelf space given to the novel and its subgenres, with smaller but significant amounts devoted to biography and memoirs, history, science and so forth. If you're lucky, you might even find a corner dedicated to poetry. But I've never seen a bookshop with an Essays section, and have rarely bought a book of essays that I didn't have to order specially.

As for 'accessible,' I don't know what Brownworth means. If she means 'easy to understand,' then surely that depends upon the individual writer and the individual reader. Why should one genre be inherently more accessible than another?

'A succinct expression written in concision with relatively few words' -- isn't that one of those jokey style tips, like 'stamp out and abolish redundancy?'

Unfortunately, for the Internet generation, the blog is fast replacing the essay.

Brownworth's entire piece rests upon these two premises: first, that the essay is in decline, and secondly, that it's the bloggers' fault.

One might reasonably expect Brownworth to offer some evidence to support these claims. For example, she could explain why she thinks the essay is in decline. Have people stopped writing essays? Reading them? Publishing them? What proof does she have that people do any of these things less than they used to? Assuming that the decline really exists, can she prove that it has coincided with the rise of blogging? Can she show conclusively that it was caused by blogging and not by some other factor(s)?

One might reasonably expect her to answer these questions. But one would be disappointed.

But blogs are pretenders to the throne of true essay writing. They mimic the essay much as Eliza Doolittle mimicked the Queen's English before Professor Higgins got his hands on her.

This is typical of the ugly snobbery that permeates the article.

Eliza Doolittle was not 'mimicking' anything, madam; she was speaking a perfectly legitimate English dialect, which happened not to be the one spoken by those in power. It wasn't the Queen's English, but it wasn't trying to be. Likewise, if a blogger writes something that is not an essay, it does not necessarily mean that he tried to write an essay and failed.

Like Eliza, blogs are captivating in their earnest, rapid-fire approach. But they are rarely, even at their best, true essays.

For that matter, they are rarely villanelles, Icelandic sagas or chocolate-chip-cookie recipes. Brownworth's criticism is valid only if she can show that most bloggers intend to write essays.

Note also the qualifier 'true.' Even if some lucky blogger writes something that looks like an essay, it isn't a true essay. How do we know? Because Brownworth has her own definition of a 'true essay,' and it doesn't include blogs. Remember, folks:
No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge!

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729) made me fall in love with all an essay could do when I first read it in high school.

Well, that's super. But 'A Modest Proposal' isn't representative of all essays. This is a common trick: take an exceptionally good example from group A and an exceptionally bad example from group B, and proceed to 'prove' that A is better than B.

But actually, Brownworth doesn't even do that. She holds up a few examples of good essayists whom she believes the bloggers cannot equal; but incredibly, in the entire length of an article condemning blogs, she does not provide one single actual example from one single actual blog.

"Proposal" works as well today as it did three centuries ago, its ideas still relevant.

No, it doesn't. Its impact originally depended on shock. It's a victim of its own fame: most people today know what it says before they read it.

Do you remember last week's blog? Yesterday's?

Depends on the blog and the day. As it happens, I can't recall all the details of 'A Modest Proposal' at the moment; but I can remember Language Hat's fascinating post from a few weeks ago about the origin of the word 'divan.'

Are classic essays like Swift's still being written, or has the elegant thoughtfulness that is the essay's legacy been winnowed away by its rapacious bastard offspring, the blog?

She presents these as the only two possibilities, when in fact there are others: a classic case of bifurcation.

And will the Internet generation, suffused by the blogosphere, lose the ability to write essays altogether? (The plethora of essays for sale online to students portends they may.)

Those term-paper companies have been around since long before the days of the Internet; in his book Stolen Words, Thomas Mallon describes several that were thriving in the early 1980s.

Blogging has replaced the real essay for most people under 30, just as the Internet has replaced the daily newspaper. Polls show more than 60 percent of online readers trust independent news sources like blogs over mainstream news sources. But while blogs provide immediacy, they also breed inaccuracy - from spelling and grammatical errors to errors of fact. An essay, despite the immediacy and passion with which it might have been written, has still been perused by an editor, a copy editor and a fact-checker before it saw print. (Even Swift had an editor.) A blog has been reviewed by no one, edited by no one - not even, in many cases, been proofread by the author.

I could pick apart her reasoning here, but the important point is that the whole paragraph is a red herring. Brownworth is meant to be discussing whether blogging has killed the essay, not whether blogging makes reliable journalism. She follows the herring's scent for the next few paragraphs.

Any dot-commer can blog - a serious journalist with years of experience like, say, myself, or the teenager down the block spewing political rants during breaks from Grand Theft Auto. The problem in the blogosphere is that the kid and I will be received with equal credibility.

No comment.

Immersed in Blogland, one cannot escape the keen sense that the line between fact and fiction - blurred so delicately and purposefully by the founders of the New Journalism, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson - has been muddied irreparably and with no concern that it ever be redrawn.

First of all, Hunter Thompson never did anything delicately. Secondly, it would have been helpful if Brownworth had included an example of this 'muddying' so I could figure out what on earth she was talking about. As it stands, this statement seems to be a complete non sequitur.

George Orwell, reporter and essayist, provides a most compelling admonishment for bloggers. His 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," asserted that with writing comes responsibility; that sloppy, self-congratulatory arguments damage the language as much as poor usage does; that how we use language - and to what political or social end - is essential to maintaining its integrity. Blogging claims to do this, but with no actual filter, can it?

Orwell's essay (which I think Brownworth has misrepresented, but you can judge for yourself) has nothing to do with Brownworth's topic; she seems to have dragged it in to be literary. What I find remarkable, though, is that a paragraph about good English should be so sloppily written. In the sentence 'Blogging claims to do this,' the pronoun 'this' has no clear antecedent; and how can 'blogging' claim anything, anyway?

There follows some irrelevant rambling about Edward Said, and then:

Many blogs attempt the same thing, particularly on the Middle Eastern crises that Said writes about so powerfully, but the solipsistic approach of these blogs often diminishes and even negates their arguments.

Which blogs? How are their arguments diminished? Once again, Brownworth gives no examples; she expects us to take her word for it (after all, she's 'a serious journalist with years of experience'). Note also the same sweeping generalisation used earlier: because Edward Said is better than some bloggers, all essayists must be better than all bloggers.

Length simply doesn't replace clarity when it comes to an essay; as a longtime editor told me when I was a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News, "If you can't say it in 850 words, you can't say it."

Not only is this a straw man, it has dropped in from the sky on a little straw parachute. Nobody with any sense has ever claimed that length can replace clarity. Furthermore, this statement has absolutely no relationship to the statements that have gone before. I am beginning to wonder whether Brownworth herself has an editor.

There follows similar irrelevant rambling about Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Lethem.

There are those who will argue that the kind of essays written by Orwell, Said and Oates are apples unable to be compared with the oranges proffered by even the most talented bloggers.

If I read this correctly, Brownworth thinks the old phrase 'comparing apples with oranges' means that oranges are inherently inferior to apples, and thus that comparison is unfair. It doesn't; it means that apples and oranges are so fundamentally different that there is no basis for comparison.

But it's not so much comparability that's at issue; rather it is the excising of careful, well-thought-out prose, replaced with writing that is often mere political musing and cultural journaling (and not of the Samuel Pepys variety).

From that snooty parenthesis we can deduce that Brownworth wouldn't know Pepys if he felt her up in St Dunstan's church.

There's more, but it consists of variations on the themes already presented.

All of the blogs that I read regularly are better written and reasoned than Brownworth's article. I'm actually quite shocked that she was paid to write this self-congratulatory, logic-free drivel.

I suspect Brownworth's real fear (as evidenced by that spiteful crack about the hypothetical teenager) is not some supposed loss of the art of essay-writing, but the loss of her own power. With the spread of blogging, journalists -- even 'serious journalists with years of experience' -- no longer exercise the control over public discourse that they once did. Brownworth is right in thinking that she can no longer rely on a newspaper column for 'credibility'; she and 'the kid' will both be heard, and the audience will be able to accept or reject them based purely on what they have to say and how they say it.

If this is the best Brownworth can do, I don't blame her for being worried.


At 11:13 pm, Blogger Dave Justus said...

A masterful fisking!

At 11:42 pm, Anonymous tsykoduk said...

Nice article!


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