As I mentioned a week or so back, I’ve been reading a bunch of comics criticism recently. One essay I looked at was by Marc Singer. (I don’t know Marc personally, though we have some mutual acquaintances making it feel really weird for me to refer to him as “Singer”, which is why he appears here under his given name.) Anyway, the post I linked to is a pretty fabulous discussion of what went wrong, and what could have gone right, with Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis. It’s extremely entertaining, and is more or less grist for my thesis that writing about super-hero comics tends to be better than writing about art comics.
That isn’t exactly what I was going to talk about here, though. Instead, I wanted to comment on the end of Marc’s post, which is basically his farewell to blogging. I’ll quote it at some length.
One of the nicer things about comics blogging is that you don’t really have to do it every day; as long as Tom or Dirk links to your post, it doesn’t matter how badly you’ve let your readership atrophy. But that can be a trap, too. Comics blogs offer a guaranteed (if tiny) audience and absolutely no standards other than the ones you and your chosen peers set for yourselves. Not exactly a recipe for great writing, which makes the great writing it has produced that much more remarkable. But once you fall out of the habit for a while it begins to look a bit too cozy, a bit too comfortable.
The problem is not the subject matter, even when a subject disappoints as deeply as Final Crisis does, severing that last tether to the weekly conversation. The problem is the medium itself. If blogging is daily it is also ephemeral, yet the ephemera cling to life with embarrassing persistence; even the best-kept archives reek with the overripe tang of long-forgotten controversies that never mattered in the first place. (Paul O’Brien thinks comics are boring! Micah Ian Wright lied to me! How could CrossGen fail?) Not long after I started this blog I made an effort, haltingly at first, to purge it of such ephemera, to write only pieces I thought I could be proud of later. I’m still proud of many of them, but the consequence was a blog that rarely updated and still took more effort than a blog should take.
Some folks are able to turn their blogs into part of their professional development or, better yet, make blogging a profession unto itself. More power to them. Writing this blog has been incredibly valuable, as a laboratory for developing ideas and as a motivation to push my style in directions it otherwise wouldn’t have taken. But after a while it’s time to apply all that work to formats and venues that aren’t measured chiefly by their frequency. No matter how much time and energy I sank into it, blogging has always been a hobby for me. Time spent blogging is time not spent writing for some other format that demands better work and offers something more durable in return.
Obviously, Marc is a lot more positive about blogging than Gary Groth. But the two do share general attitudes in common, I think. Both argue that blogging is less rich than print (Gary says “shallow” if I remember correctly; Marc uses the less pejorative “ephemeral”.) Blogging, they say, is caught up in petty controversies and rushed judgments; print is more thoughtful and more durable. If you’re serious about writing about comics, more or less, you should probably write a book (or at least write for a magazine).
I sneered fairly vigorously at Gary, largely because he didn’t know what he was talking about. Marc, on the other hand, does know what he’s talking about. I still think he’s basically wrong in his evaluation of blogging, but he’s not being unfair or outright ignorant. Which means that to respond to him I can’t just sneer. I actually have to try to defend blogging.
So here goes. The main thing, maybe, that separates me from both Gary and Marc is that I don’t necessarily think that writing about comics in any venue is actually serious or durable or especially worthwhile from any objective perspective. Indeed, it’s a rare, rare, rare book that can be said to matter in the sense that the world would be a measurably better (or a worse) place if said book had not been written. Needless to say, most of those rare books involve theology or politics, not commentaries on sequential pictographs.
Now, that’s not to say that writing books is worthless. There are other perspectives than the objective one, and you don’t have to measure a work of art (which is basically what a work of criticism is) by its utility. You can measure it, for example, by the love that was put into it, or by the small group of people who are touched by it. Or you can measure it by its insight, or its formal competence, or its poetry, or what have you. But none of these criteria, it seems to me, necessarily privilege books over the Internet.
Now, it’s true that you can do some things in a book that you can’t do in a blog. They’re different genres of writing. If you want to write a lengthy study, and want to engage with an academic audience — for career reasons or just because that’s what interests you — it’s probably best to publish a book. I understand that. One of my regrets for this piece is that, while I read a lot of academic writing to put it together, few of those academics are going to read what I have to say and respond to it. It’s just in the wrong place to become part of the discourse. Which is unfortunate, but, you know, that’s the tradeoff I get for not finishing my Ph.D.
But because academics aren’t paying attention to it, does that mean that a piece of writing is more ephemeral, or less durable, or less good? I just don’t see it. I mean, yes, blogs deal with passing controversies and issues of the day. So did Shakespeare. So did Shaw. So did Swift. So did St. Paul, for that matter. That’s what writers do; they deal with issues of the day because, you know, your day is where you live. You don’t reside in some universal Platonic n-space, where you can write about only matters of broad import and forget the rest. I mean, Alexander Pope’s writing is almost entirely made up of petty sneers at literary rivals who have long since ceased to matter to anyone except those graduate students reading Alexander Pope’s poetry. Does that mean that Alexander Pope’s poetry is inferior to, say, a determinedly non-political poet like, say, Mark Strand? Not necessarily; it just means you have to read different footnotes.
I mean, if Marc didn’t want to get into blog troll battles, that’s certainly his right; there’s no reason to engage in such things if they don’t interest you. But, on the other hand, I don’t think it’s right to say that such controversies are less worthwhile than writing about the end of Final Crisis in some absolute sense. Four hundred years from now, are you sure anybody is going to recognize Grant Morrison’s name any more than they’re going to recognize Paul O’Brien’s or Colley Cibber’s? Write for yourself and the audience you’ve got, because that’s the *only* one you’ve got. Certainly, folks like Derek Walcott think that they’re writing for generations to come — which is one among many reasons why Derek Wolcott’s writing sucks so thoroughly and so consistently.
Another way people often denigrate blogging, I think, is by suggesting that it’s not as concentrated, or thoughtful, or ambitious as writing a book. Again, it’s true that ambitious blogs don’t look like ambitious books, but I don’t think the difference is necessarily one of quality or thoughtfulness per se. As a blogger, I’m currently in the process of writing at length about every single issue of the Marston/Peter Wonder Woman run. Economically, that’s simply not something you could do in print. Similarly, a collaborative work of criticism like Tom Spurgeon’s massive series of holiday interviews on comics of the decade would be much, much more difficult to organize in a print magazine than online.
The point here is that there are a lot of projects that are feasible in the blogosphere that aren’t possible in books, just as there are things possible in books that aren’t really doable online. It’s not, at least for me, a question of honing my skills in blogging so some day I can get down to the real work of writing books. Rather, blogging’s like any other artistic endeavor. You put in the genius and the time and the effort and the love that you’ve got, and that’s exactly what you get out of it. If Marc, or anyone, has other passions or other interests, or if the particular demands and concerns of blogging don’t line up with your own, then, of course, he or they should go do something else. There’s no shame in that. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s any particular shame either in staying with the blogosphere and what it has to offer. I know that, at least for me, blogging has been an incredibly rewarding experience — a chance to work with other writers I admire; to write and publish any number of pieces I’m proud of; to interact with a sometimes receptive and sometimes critical audience. I have gotten a couple of gigs out of it, too, but that’s really just been an added bonus. Whether I ever write a book or not, blogging has very much been its own reward.
Update: Corrected various embarrassing errors — proving the superiority or inferiority of blogs, depending on how you look at it.