The Blogger Chronicles, Part One: Origins and Politics

This is the first in a series of articles about blogging.  Meet Tom of A Common Reader, Ellen of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Two, Melody of Redeeming Qualities, and Tony of Tony’s Book World.

Roman woman writingIn 1994, Justin Hall, a Swarthmore student, created the first blog, a web diary (links.net).

By 2004, blogging was so mainstream that Merriam-Webster Dictionary named “blog” the word of the year.

In 2014, it makes sense to analyze the influence of blogs.

The blog may be an outgrowth of a postmodern trend of equating self-expression with art and pop with literary culture.  If  the diaries of my grandmother on the prairie are judged equal to the letters of Willa Cather, no wonder the proliferation of blogs:  everybody finds an audience online, whether at blogs or social media.

In 2006, Nielsen, a market research company,  reported that it tracked 36 million blogs around the world.  In 2012, it tracked over 181 million blogs.

There are vast numbers of book bloggers, of varying talents, reviewing everything from chick lit to literary fiction to history to cookbooks to science books to science fiction.

If, like me, you romantically imagined that the book bloggers were postmodernist rebels, artists, slam poets, and musicians who wrote online as a political gesture to support the premise that personal writing is as valuable as traditionally published work, you will be disappointed.

Of the ten bloggers (eleven counting myself) who completed a questionnaire I sent out about the pros and cons of blogging, not one of us is a postmodernist rebel.  We range in age from the 20s to 80s.  Six are over 50, three are under 50, and one did not report his/her age.  Eight  are women and three men.  Two are English, eight American, and one Canadian.

Our common ground is love of books.   All believe writing about books in this hectic culture of book review publications going bust is important.  Perhaps it is political, perhaps it is not.

Tom Cunliffe, the author of the book review blog, A Common Reader, in the UK, does not consider his blog “really” political, but focuses partly on European books in translation that few professional reviewers or bloggers tackle.  In the U.S. and UK, only three percent of the books published are books in translation, and even fewer are reviewed.

Tom loves “self-publishing, the tekkie stuff, the putting down of my thoughts, the fact that someone actually reads my stuff, the sheer look of the site.”

“But it can be very demanding of time and resources.  No time to follow up comments properly – I am very bad at this.”

In this age of shrinking print media and a dwindling number of professional book reviews published, he asserts that he has seen the difference blogs make.

I find that my posts are often right at the top of the Google lists when searching for a book, so blogs do matter.  Newspapers have all cut book review space in recent years and most publicists recognise the value of a blog.  I also copy my reviews to Amazon where I am UK reviewer #28 so they seem to want me to review their books.

Ellen Moody, scholar, adjunct professor and author of the book, Trollope on the Net, agrees that blogs are an influential genre.  At her three blogs, Ellen and Jim Have A Blog Two, Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, and Under the Sign of Sylvia Two, she writes about literature, movies, BBC adaptations of novels, opera, plays, her personal life, and politics.   Active in Yahoo literature discussion groups since the ’90s, she started her first blog in 2000 because she wanted  to branch out and write at greater length about literature and other topics than she could at listservs.  The first blog fizzled out, but a few years later she and her husband, Jim, created the successful Ellen and Jim Have A Blog.

Ellen says,

The idea of a diary I would be sharing with others appealed as I thought I would really keep it going and keep it nice if others were to see it.

Are blogs political?  She says one of her blogs is specifically political.  “I comment on political issues of the day: I do it for the others too if the topic warrants it. All art is propaganda Orwell said and he was right.”

She agrees that it may be political in providing a platform “for many who might not get into traditional hard copy print. What people can read has increased 100 fold — that’s why books and published magazines and newspapers are hurting so badly.”

At her blog Under the Sign of Sylvia Two, she kept a very moving diary last year about her husband’s last months dying from cancer.  She also analyzes “the politics of cancer” and the way the medical profession profits from painful treatments and surgeries that did not, in Jim’s case, help.

Politics did not motivate Melody, who began writing her blog, Redeeming Qualities,  about late 19th- and early 20th-century best-sellers  in “spring 2007, after I recounted the plot of one book to, like, three people over the course of a week. I wanted to tell people about what I was reading, but no one I knew wanted to listen.”

Many books she writes about are out of print, but all are available free at Project Gutenberg.   She has written about such obscure novels as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Lady of Quality (most of you will know Burnett as author of The Secret Garden), Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Samuel Hopkins Adams’ Wanted:  A Husband, and Carolyn Wells’ Patty Fairfield series.

As to whether her blog is political, it may be in a sense.

Not exactly — all the authors I write about are dead — but in a different sense, yes? I think it’s important that the classics aren’t the only books we bring with us from past eras, and I feel pretty good about taking stuff that’s almost invisible to people and making it more visible.

She says the pros and cons are

Two sides of the same coin: getting to say things without having had to identify a listener first/seeing how many of the people who visit my blog don’t bother commenting. Having it be a completely open-ended hobby that makes no demands/not having anything pushing me to post as often as I’d like.

Tony of Tony’s Book World, a blog about contemporary literature, does not think blogging “is a political act necessarily, since people with all political views have them.”

But he takes his responsibility very seriously. He does not read at random.  He reviews literary fiction.

I read both critics and bloggers.  I use extreme care in choosing my next book, and usually by reading several reviews and blogs, I can determine if this is something I want to read or not.  Professional critics I like are the Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post.

Tony’s  favorite blog, the Complete Review, is the only other blog from which “I automatically take their recommendations.”

He respects many bloggers, but

If a blogger likes everything, that’s not very helpful.  The negative reviews give me the best idea of the quality of a reviewer or a blog.

TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR PART TWO OF THE BLOGGER CHRONICLES.

4 thoughts on “The Blogger Chronicles, Part One: Origins and Politics

  1. Tony, I agree with you about the word blog and have even written about that somewhere.

    Luisa, thank you! I have so much material that you, Tony, and everybody else I interviewed will probably see your thoughts here in multiple articles!

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