Category Archives: The blogosphere

Bravo! for the new arbiters of art: us … and a commenters’ strike at The Guardian

Shawn Yu's Teaton Series

'Cavalier-Servant' -- Shawn Yu

Hello-and-goodbye, … unless, against long odds, you read on. Why so pessimistic? Though this is said to be the age of the image, people measuring attention spans have found that in ten seconds flat, an online video loses a fifth of its audience. How much less hope must there be for the seductive power of a mere text?

This new painting by Shawn Yu was still brightening my day on a part of my screen when I saw the report on video watching. It led me to marvel at how fast aesthetic attraction, not just dismissal, works on the net. Of how quickly we can recognise a certain je ne sais quoi in an artist’s work impossible to explain, even to ourselves, which guarantees that we will find that painter’s oeuvre consistently engaging – at the very least. As I’ve explained (see the second footnote here), it was a drawing Shawn made from a photograph of Bruce Chatwin that originally caught my eye as I was speed-skimming my way through images of that writer served up by search engines.

Every visit to Shawn’s site since has been rewarding. Lately, going there has been like popping into a magical gallery in which a wizard keeps putting up new paintings on the walls for an exhibition by a single artist, and on the same theme – in this case, kettles, teapots, jugs and coffee pots, of all things; some with and some without human companions. As someone who has always had trouble with collections of short stories, anthologies of poems, group shows by artists – or even a single artist displaying pieces on several themes in more than one style – the staggered presentation has felt so right that it might have been designed for me. Finding my way to it without any intermediary or other people’s interpretations of the pictures has only heightened the pleasure of looking at them.

I think Shawn is still a student but close to being hatched by his art school. There’s no saying whether he will or won’t stick with Surrealism. He does seem to me to have a very special feeling for that style. Some of his pictures have taken me back to standing in the Dali museum in Figuerres a few years ago, enjoying the expressions on the faces of other visitors as much as examining the exhibits. Like the great moustachioed one, Shawn’s blog shows that he can also be a fine realistic painter – impeccably accurate as an anatomist, just as Dali was. … But scrolling down his online exhibition, it has also occurred to me that Surrealism remains the only approach to depicting our world that captures the grain, the scent, the unending, stomach-churning topsy-turvyness of contemporary life.

Last week I was surprised to find – in another context – that Herbert Pothorn, a German architectural historian, thought that Surrealism had a precedent in a style that defined another age of uncertainty and chronic disruption:

The final phase of the Renaissance is known as Mannerism. In art history the term implies a highly personal mode of expression; it also indicates the adoption of the specific idiom or manner of a certain artist by others, or by a whole school. … [I]t also entails a love of exaggeration and artificiality, obtained by any means possible. Mannerism tends towards excess, towards distortion of perspective …It was the product of a spiritually uncertain age – an age caught between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, seeking for new certainties, and attempting to guide itself through all this insecurity with the help of fantasy […] Mannerist painting was … a forerunner of Surrealism, i.e. that trend or movement of ideas that aimed to re-establish the unconscious, freeing it from the tools and formulae of reason.

… Something paradoxical about the way we deal with people’s posts in the Blogosphere is that we’re as apt to dismiss some prematurely as we are to relentlessly monitor others for signs of behaviour we don’t approve of – scrutinising these post-writers’ beliefs and inconsistencies more often and minutely, from thousands of miles away, than we could have done from right next door in the past. Then there’s the fun of comparing our reactions with those of others – comparisons all the more exciting for our having no ties or obligations to our fellow blog watchers.

It seems as if lots of other visitors to the Guardian‘s site have been put off by that paper’s barbaric censorship policies; in particular, by its victimisation of Desmond Swords/Kevin Desmond (or HerMajesty here). You might imagine that the dramatic drop in the comments count for a weekly poetry blog there in recent weeks would have registered with the managers of that site as a protest against its suppression of free expression – and that they might have tried to make amends, or at least offer some form of apology. You might imagine that they’d have noticed that for several years, now, that blogger who refuses to accept being banned has been responsible for more lively debates and click count-boosting posts than anyone else. … You might imagine that they’d have noticed that without him, there is only word for the threads in that section: dull.

But no, they appear to be have decided to sit out what is virtually a commenters’ strike, and do nothing at all.

The reasons why so many of us are supporting Des are: (i) The Guardian’s site managers’ failure to understand that it is commenters, not their ‘above-the-line’ bloggers, who have made that spot on the web worth visiting – a fact that makes their obtuse and draconian censorship utterly counter-productive. (ii) He can be wonderfully witty and inventive in the way he undermines the stodgy, misguidedly technical and needlessly jargon-ridden introductions to the Poem-of-the-Week – by an author who has shown, when she posts in comments sections, that she is capable of being funny and lively, on occasion. [(iii) See addendum, below, which contains the most important part of the explanation.]

Yet above the line, week after week, she holds forth in her droning Voice of Authority – in a style of criticism I expect will come to be known as Early Debased – or Very Early and remarkably Debased (as someone said about a bell tower in a church in an English university town in the late nineteenth century that was referred to as the Meat Safe).

Why don’t people like her see what is happening to the presumption of literary authority? In my last post I mentioned keeping tabs on the staggering – and widening – gap between paid and unpaid critics’ assessments of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. On a trip to the page a few hours ago, I noticed that 579 of 660 readers of an exemplary review by ‘zashibis’ — who awarded the book a one-star rating — had marked it as helpful. Its opening establishes that zashibis is objective, and nurses no personal grudge against the much-fêted author:

Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years …

My impressions of the book from reading its first twenty five-odd pages have been confirmed, to the letter, by dozens of detailed descriptions of the rest of the mega-tome by lay assessors. ‘Taken in’ is exactly how I would have felt fifteen years ago, before there was an publishing extracts from new novels on its site – or offering instant access to hundreds of uncredentialled but obviously astute zashibises. I wouldn’t have been able to get a refund for the hefty price I’d have had to pay for Freedom, and I’d have had felt miserably and furiously isolated in my bafflement by the laurels the literary establishment had heaped on it.

Censors like the Guardian’s will have to take over the world to reverse the flood tide against pontificators who specialise in king- and queen-making in the arts. All hail, Canute!


Late addendum:

(iii) As Scott Adams recently said about his brilliant satirisation of corporate idiocy,

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy.
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)



Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Criticism, Poetry, The blogosphere, The Guardian

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’


Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Does comment moderation on newspaper sites make sense when no one is being libelled?

An early moderator: Savonarola (1452-1498) was known for book-burning and his hostility to the Renaissance

Readers of this blog are invited to consider three comments recently rescued from oblivion – to which they were consigned by censors at The Guardian. They are reproduced below. I hold no brief for or against the sentiments expressed in them, but would suggest weighing them against this question:

Censorship was invented with the printed book: does the death of print mean that it’s time for it, too, to disappear?

It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.
By [1515] the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.
[By the late 1500s] books had come to be seen as potential threats to political and moral as well as to doctrinal values. So Machiavelli, as well as Luther, became a totally banned author. Bawdy books jostled occultist ones on the list …
[I]n spite of growing repression it was possible for determined readers with money and some courage to secure much of what they wanted […] There were never enough censors to deal thoroughly with manuscripts submitted for publication.
Inquisitors – another overworked corps of repressors – rarely showed more interest in convincing unimportant suspects of their doctrinal errors than in swiftly and if necessary cruelly extorting blanket vows of obedience …

from The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Comments deleted by Guardian moderators in a single fortnight earlier this month, with links to the blogs where they were published fleetingly (… their gist is easy to grasp, so do not be distracted by references that will seem arcane to anyone who does not visit that site very often…):

This wickedly entertaining scrap of satire was written, like many of the commenter’s contributions, in the spirit of charivari. Those were once officially sanctioned ‘rites of excess’ all over Europe – so noisy that the Latin root for the word is caribaria, meaning ‘headache’. I’m quoting from the same book on Renaissance Europe with which this post begins. It mentions anarchic leaders of celebrations that released ‘the volatility which civility feared, even if some of its representatives enjoyed its licence’. Their names, ‘Abbot of Misrule’, ‘Bishop Meany’ ,‘Duke Kick-Ass’ and so on, could be screen names for the censored blogger, known elsewhere as Desmond Swords or Kevin Desmond.

His comments on the poem capture what many of us readers found regrettable – that although it is elegant, named for a famous piece of classical music and apparently written in its honour, it lacks any musicality. . . . Now, isn’t that a far less engaging way of saying what the censors snipped from here?


2 Aug 2010, 12:22PM


Reading it aloud, one is struck by the lack of ..I mean abundence of rhythm and melody. Sweet cadence of a song singing softly, some sweet sibliant odour of it; roses on a tongue, oh sheer raw the passion one found on a playground in asphalt-city Islington, gang-turf where there be, to-be the poets of yesteryear moesying o’er thine ears like sweet the sound of lilacs and lavender lillies, breathing oh liddle foldero fee, bright spark Fiontan of moon-hawk, soon in June the losses felt what o’er thine seer like deep note of cherry, sits at table in Betterton Street, Forward Prize contendor in no way run bcuz of thine dayjob, liddle Fion, satyr and faun sporting in the water park at Brockley, Crouch End lido, Hampstead pond, dipping in prose the tenor of lemon and oranges, thine own banana in the spume blent, oh bright star no shoo-in, on talent alone thine ears and eyes make filidh trumpet of the goats at Syrius: stall not thine brilliance in this embodying essence of Schubert and his tinkly winkly music.
I really love this poem, because it captures the delicacy of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D956, in such a way as to make thick pple want to go out and buy it because it in no way perpetuates the idea that poets are frosty keepers-out of culture or owt like that, Ms.

I am going to buy the book immediately and demand Fiona is awarded the prize that will broadcast tot he world what a democratic, open, warm, welcoming space British Intelligensia Poetry is to pple like me, an unpublished dabbler networking online, making the right noises and wanting only to be myself; a bitter begrudging hater of all things not to do with me, as per erm, I dunno.

The next deleted post supplies an instance of woeful inconsistency by moderators. Even those who consider moderation essential surely see that the fastest way to lose respect is by not sticking to your own rules – deduced partly from precedent. Yet after a string of posts in the identical tone from the same commenter, the moderators gave this one the chop. Why?

For any student of human behaviour, the spontaneous remarks we all make in the Blogosphere give us an incomparable laboratory – for studying, for instance, the legitimacy of old and new ideas about temperament. This particular blogger, @ artfarmer — or, as he insists elsewhere, Mishari al Adwani — often supplies illustrations of the sort of temperament once described as splenetic, about which the Wikipedia says, in part: ‘The connection between spleen (the organ) and melancholy (the temperament) comes from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks. One of the humours (body fluid) was the black bile, secreted by the spleen organ and associated with melancholy. […]. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, women in bad humour were said to be afflicted by the spleen, or the vapours of the spleen.’


14 Aug 2010, 10:28PM

Yeah, right: falling on your knees and asking favours of an invisible friend is an unmistakable sign of spirituality and ivariably leads to good art.

Actually, it’s a sign of cowardice and gullibility, a gullibility encouraged by shrill, screeching hysterics who love the human race but hate people.

Crap poem, by the way. I’ll bet you went to Sri Lanka and pontificated on their misery, self-righteous bourgeois voyeur that you are. Pinter wrote this kind of rubbish, too, but least he was a good playwright.

Unlike those other two samples of deletions by Guardian moderators, this egregiously repetitious one can hardly be said to have been written in the most literate voice.

But isn’t its contribution to the debate on the burkha question exactly what you’d want to see on a forum The Guardian named Comment is free? Doesn’t the commenter’s case for reaching beyond our prejudices and cultural conditioning deserve airing? Elsewhere on the net, others are making closely similar points – on, for instance, where one poster reasonably suggests, ‘Maybe they can make the pope stop wearing that ridiculous hat.’?


16 Aug 2010, 8:55AM

@minervahere, @Parisa, criticisin Dawkins fanaticism don’t mean havin a strong opinion bout burkqas one way or another. I mean, havin a personal opinion meself.

I suspect from the listenin I been doin that yeah, if lotsa Muslim gals sez n really means it they love the privacy the garment gives em and the thrill o’ sharin their undraped selves only with their old man and this is kinda thrillin for em (I read some Orthodox Jewish gal explain all that someplace bout coverin up *their* selves), then why not jest believe em?

I mean look at India n Pakistan. Benazeeer Bhutto n Indeara Ganndi wuz real powerful. Powerful enuff to make some suicidil fanatic mad enuff to snuff em. Yet they opted to wrap themselves every — or many a — mornin, in a whole nine yards o’ drapes never givin any indication o’ hatin saris which I know would give me ma and jest about any gal I know a conniption fit and a half if I or anyone no matter how much they lurved us had the gall to insist on em wearin em. Would think I was advocatin foot bindin.

Theres Hindu n Muslim Indian gals today with 3 degrees from places like Harvard n Cambridge runnin multinational corporations who sometimes or always dresses in their trad dress. Yer only have to look at em to know yer caint walk as freely as a western gal can in a saree leave alone run for a cab in Podunk or Manhattin. So whos to say millions o’ Muslim gals don’t consider the constrictin of their black nun-ny garment like lockin em in the county jail but instead, kinda sexy – or purifyin in a way they wanna be pure? Why not jest believe em?

Different o’course if theres intelligence says theres a real n present risk o’ terrorists secretin ‘emselves inside a burqa so if I wuz Sarko or Carla whichever of em’s really runnin France Id wanna make sure I also included nuns habits n muu-muus pinned out with detachable supersized hoodies the same law thats outlawin them boorkqas. I mean wouldn’t you in the interests of equity n all.

Has it bin passed yet? That law? Probably an academick question unless yer real quick cos the thread’s closin and this has to be so long until the next time.


If anything proves the pointlessness of repressive moderation on the net, surely it’s that anyone can so easily rescue victims of censorship?


Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Editors, editing and infant mortality … (part 2)

[ Editors, editing and infant mortality (part 1) can be read here. ]


When Han Kan was summoned
to the imperial capital
it was suggested that he sit at the feet of
the illustrious senior court painter
to learn from him the refinements of the art.

‘No thank you,’ he replied,
‘I shall apprentice myself to the stables.’

And he installed himself and his brushes amid the dung and the flies,
and studied the horses – their bodies’ keen alertness –
eye-sparkle of one, another’s sensitive stance,
the way a third moved graceful in his build –

and painted at last the emperor’s favorite,
the charger named ‘Nightshining White,’

whose likeness after centuries still dazzles.


…and that’s my answer to this whinge in yesterday’s New York Times from a misnamed James Sunshine …:

‘…Your column [..] dealt with the standards of blogs, as though we all agreed on what a blog is and is not. I spent 45 years at The Providence Journal, and I still do not understand them. Nor do I like them.

Is a blog merely the private thoughts of the blogger, who has been given the privilege of saying what he happens to think at the moment without a qualified editor passing judgment on it for accuracy, taste, appropriateness and so on? …’

Don’t tell me what the dictionary says, even if it's the OED. The word twit means: someone (i) still insisting in 2010 that bloggers post nothing worthy of close reading or looking; (ii) rabbiting on about how the internet has killed serendipity; (iii) wailing that editors should be treated as protected species, under the delusion that they midwife more good literature than they stifle — in the womb.

First, serendipity … Yesterday I learnt that Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, sent someone in Rumania to this site to look at Shawn Yu’s drawing of Bruce Chatwin — first published here. From that search result, I discovered – oh of course I read Russian, and with my eyes shut, who doesn’t? – that the Yu portrait has been chosen for nothing less than the home page of the site dedicated to the great nomad by Jonathan Chatwin, who is strangely not a relation, according to The Bibliophilic Blogger.

When I stumbled on the Yandex query, I happened to have been wondering what new work Yu and Harold Francis Bell, another artist lauded in this spot, might have put up on their sites lately. Bell appears to be in mid-redesign on his site, unless he has put painting aside to concentrate on his perceptive female-focused sculpture – if his slide show moving like a glimmering Chopin sonata is any guide. Yu’s blog says that he has just graduated from art school. It offers a fine self-portrait as compelling as Lang-Lang playing Beethoven, and a powerful nude in charcoal.

So much for serendipitous looking. As for reading, editors were on my mind when I checked the always stimulating blog of the novelist Helen DeWitt , whose reportedly brilliant The Last Samurai I have only failed to read because someone bossy, too close for comfort, keeps demanding that I do.

A brave – and much too rare – writer, she had the temerity to suggest last month that scribes submitting work to editors serving as gate-keepers and assayers should have ready access to information about those editors’ qualifications. She actually asked, in public, a question that – before the internet — could only have been put by one semi-inebriated writer to another in the darkest corner of a watering hole, and promptly forgotten about, for the security of both their careers:

Unlike the size of an advance, an editor’s intellectual strengths do not fluctuate with the economy or the sales of a writer’s last book. It would help to know what they were. […] It would be even more helpful if […] writers who had worked with an editor wrote brief accounts of their perception of the experience. […] This sort of suggestion seems to provoke suspicion if not down right hostility: wanting this kind of information was one of the reasons my last agent, Bill Clegg, had second thoughts about working with me.

[After that, she was understandably even angrier, as she explains here, in a saga that nearly had my eyes rolling out of their sockets.]

The first of two recent discoveries of bad editorial decisions revealed, about Simone de Beauvoir‘s seminal work of sexual politics, that …

Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton, Sophia Tolstoy and others.

Too bad that those were missing from the edition I read, years ago. As it was clear even from the hacked English edition that prolixity was characteristic of de Beauvoir’s warp and weft, why not leave well alone?

Regrettably, the work of David Foster Wallace has never lit the smallest flame under me — because I like the man who emerges in accounts of people who knew him, and have always been impressed by the huge numbers of discerning readers among his fans. Surely those admirers deserve not to have had to wait fourteen years to read this detailed, posthumous profile of him by David Lipsky that, we are now told, was spiked by editors in 1996, the year DFW’s Infinite Jest was published to wide acclaim:

[A]fter Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, staying as a guest in his house, driving and flying with him across the Midwest and interrogating him on increasingly personal subjects […] Rolling Stone killed the assignment, apparently concluding that its readers would not be interested in the author of a dense, challenging, wildly satiric, at times profoundly sad and gruesome 1,079-page novel after all.

Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46, devastating his loved ones and confounding a generation of readers and writers. The reputation of “Infinite Jest” still grows. Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device.

In this age of the Blogosphere, thank goodness, Lipsky could have put his rejected conversations with Wallace online in seconds and let us judge their merits ourselves.

By all means let’s have editors for the refinement of a small proportion of the finest of fine literary creations. Let them be like curators of museums guarding cultural treasures, or perhaps personal hair choppers-and-fluffers who travel with celebrities.

As for the rest of us … Every week, I seem to come across a new, unmediated, wonderful blog, delving into some subject I have always longed to know more about. I follow a few of these regularly. One-Way Street, for instance, which is mostly about architecture, has had some sharp posts on contemporary fiction, and last week offered the deftest evisceration by far – through excellent links — of the feeble responses of the Israeli government, and foreign public intellectuals defending it, to the outcry about the petrifying, unconscionable raid on the Mavi Marmara.


Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Is blogging together being like Iceland?

[… before I get to the topic, … a note for this blog’s Annals of Outrageous Hypocrisy. It’s the usual suspect, I’m afraid, Guardian News and Media (GNM). Any number of us who have commented on blogs on The Guardian’s website in recent years have seen our posts deleted when they support — or simply mention — bloggers disagreeing with the paper’s moderation decisions or policies. I last saw this happen only weeks ago. . . But hark! comrades, here is The Guardian – as quoted by Noam Cohen in The New York Timesonce again posing as the great liberator and friend of free speech:

… Last month, a British judge ruled that material obtained by Guardian journalists about a multinational corporation had to be kept secret. […] That is, The Guardian was forbidden to report that it had been gagged.

… When, thanks to his Twitter-ing, The Guardian’s editor got the gag order untied, he exulted:

But last week’s events show that a variety of Internet projects, including Twitter, are making it harder for the traditional gatekeepers to control of the flow of information.
Certainly, The Guardian was in full celebratory mode last week. “Twitter’s detractors are used to sneering that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters,” Mr. Rusbridger wrote about his initial tweet. “My 104 characters did just fine.”

Hmm …and now that you know what, er…. heavy-handed moderation …. feels like yourself, Alan Rusbridger, how about telling us that you understand how we feel about your minions’ restraints on our free speech? How about apologising for routinely dishing out through your moderators the kind of censorship and silencing you apparently can’t take yourself?]

de•lin•quent (dĭ-lĭng’kwənt, -lĭn’-)

adj. 1. Failing to do what law or duty requires.
2. Overdue in payment: a delinquent account.

[Latin dēlinquēns, dēlinquent-, present participle of dēlinquere, to offend : dē-, de- + linquere, to leave, abandon; see leikw- in Indo-European roots.]

… Yes, I know. . . I know. The long gap between posts – if nothing else – proves that nearly all shades of that word apply to the writer of this blog. But whereas most people wander from their accustomed haunts when the days are long and the weather balmy, some of us put off going away until the wind picks up, the thermostat plummets, and we can maximise our chances of surreal experiences. I’ve been busy haggling over steamer trunks, mules and camels, and calculating how many tents I’ll need.

I’ve been recalled to duty at this site by @ISA, also known as Philip Hall, who has just launched an experiment in collaborative blogging. If Phil had consulted me beforehand about timing – never mind that there’s no reason why he should have done — I’d have explained that I couldn’t accept either his invitation or his ‘all hands on deck’ summons over at Ars Notoria, or certainly not in the immediate future.

I wish the new site every success. Its launch has dovetailed tidily with reflections over the last few days on what I’ve learnt from running acciaccature — one year old next month, when I might not have access to a computer or even a net-capable mobile telephone. Moments before I had Phil’s birth announcement, and looking for attractive trunk-lining, I came across this paragraph in an excellent travelogue by Rebecca Solnit in last October’s issue of Harper’s Magazine:

Iceland is the only part of Europe that never begat monarchs or a hereditary aristocracy […] Iceland’s national parliament, or Althing—the word for “assembly” being, in Icelandic, thing—was formed in 930 a.d., about sixty years after the first settlers came over from Norway. They met at a site whose name, Thingvellir, “the plain of the thing,” still commemorates this ancient annual gathering, which was a combined parliamentary session, court review, and country fair.

Aha, I thought, re-reading that – a nation founded in the spirit of collaborative blogging, which Phil’s charter demonstrates to perfection. I dearly hope that Ars Notoria can avoid the obvious pitfalls of all such idealistic enterprises, never depicted more splendidly than by Orwell’s hypocritical, self-righteous oinks ‘more equal’ than the other beasts in Animal Farm.

About Icelandic government, though, what Solnit mentions as its most glaring flaw puzzled me at first. That, it seems, is cowardice – lily-livered citizen-governors – on which she quotes Svanur Kristjánsson, an Icelandic professor of political science:

“You can run into your prime minister at the store,” he said. “You know the minister, the president—you can make an appointment with the president.” But at the same time, there is “an incredible lack of civic courage” within the governing class, “a lack of people standing up and telling the truth,”

The idea seemed less surprising after I remembered the striking ratio in this very spot between the swarms of clicks, indicating reader interest, and the low comment count, for posts critical of The Guardian — taking it to task not just for silencing dissenting voices but far, far worse.

Whether or not Icelandic cowardice has any application at Ars Notoria – I’d guess none, if it turns out to be just a friendly chat forum, or one where bloggers with strange hobbies embrace fellow-hobbyists — countries could supply the best fast metaphors for what collaborative blogs should and shouldn’t aim at being.

Since most of the bloggers I know and love best are almost militantly independent, I suspect that we’re most like nations made up of hardy and idiosyncratic mountain peoples when we attempt to blog together. Think of Switzerland, a country of only seven and a half million inhabitants splintered into twenty-six cantons speaking either wholly different languages or different dialects of the same language, and operating something like fractal micro-Switzerlands with their own laws.

Well, … perhaps not Switzerland, as after the 19th century its tribes, acting collectively, seem to have acquired a mysterious gift for attracting peace to themselves – or certainly for keeping out of international disputes.

Afghanistan would be its opposite, since that’s a mountainous nation that you might suppose to have a magical knack for magnetising conflict.

Collaborative blogging – in my experiences to date, starting with Desmond Swords’ heroic blogger-nation, Lit-Lovers’ Forum, in 2007 – is rather more like Afghanistan.

When I can help with Ars Notoria (and if Phil’s invitation still stands) I almost certainly will – though that won’t be for several weeks. Why the note of hesitation? Since Phil has some connection never quite spelt out with administrators at The Guardian, I confess that I’ve been wondering whether we aren’t being invited to act, unpaid, as laboratory mice for an experiment in moderation-free blogging whose most constructive and productive features will simply be copied by that newspaper.

I have trouble completely believing my suggestion myself – since Phil, unlike GNM, is as far as possible from a hypocrite or, as the subject has been mentioned, coward. I’m more deeply in his debt than anyone else’s for posting notices of this site’s existence in other places, and he has been unstinting with every form of encouragement. But for family-related reasons he has openly explained, he feels bound by respect and affection to certain editors at that newspaper.

I don’t envy him his complicated tight rope act, supporting both us and them. If I’m right in my guess … and I could be wholly mistaken … and if the policy-makers and online publishing strategists at The Guardian make the apology they owe a few of us for outrageous mistreatment; if they can be modest enough to ask for our help in trying out new kinds of blogging platforms; if they compensate us in some way for our effort, I’ll sign on. Who would doubt that that’s the right way forward for any newspaper serious about thriving in the ethersphere?


Filed under Censorship, The blogosphere, The Guardian

We few, we happy few … bloggers vs. The Guardian (which has a lesson to learn from computer geeks)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Dear Comrades
, including those of you who once blogged with me on the books site of The Guardian – whether or not we’re still on speaking terms,

…The signs point to a victory over Goliath. . . Yes, we few, we happy band of bloggers … have won, by refusing to let that newspaper shut us up — behaving just like Tony Benn resisting the BBC’s attempt to silence him in this riveting clip @Hazlitt posted here.

The incontrovertible proof of our triumph? That the moderators on that site can no longer openly ban us.

Because they couldn’t ban for instance, me, in the last half of August, they stooped to imitating Richard Nixon’s Dirty Tricks Department – remember Watergate? — to keep me out.

Why? Because we have taught the Guardian’s managers that a banned blogger quickly becomes a cause célèbre – not least because this site, with one or two others, initiated a tradition of publishing any comments censored by the newspaper’s trigger-happy moderators. (see Salvage Operation, part 1 and part 2.)

It would have been hard for The Guardian to ban me outright. Far from attacking or abusing anyone in my only two attempts at posting there as @wordnerd7 since last winter, I wrote a comment praising a piece on the newspaper’s site.

Before I tidy all that out of sight — and to ensure that the newspaper’s editors will never be able to dismiss the incidents as paranoid and imaginary — I’m summarising the sequence of happenings in this spot. On August 22, I had an automated message informing me that a comment warmly supporting an article by Aaron Akinyemi on the books blog had been siphoned off into ‘pre-moderation’. While I waited, mystified and with misgivings, I pasted in a draft of that comment on this site. On August 26, four days after it disappeared into the bowels of the online Guardian, it reappeared heavily edited – with links to two articles on this site agreeing with Aaron’s argument lopped off. Sentences of mine were slyly inserted under the screen name ‘@wordnerd’ – and not ‘@wordnerd7’, as they should have been. At the bottom of the butchered comment, a remark addressed to ‘@nuges’ was added to my words – a remark never made by me.

When I saw that on August 27, I immediately wrote a new comment, protesting about the censoring, blatant distortion and additions to my original comment — asking the Guardian’s moderators for an explanation. This attempt at posting also vanished into pre-moderation, never to be seen again. I put an exact replica of that post here.

Another wait. Then, on August 28, a comment of which I never wrote a single line appeared in the Akinyemi thread under ‘@wordnerd’. The post attributed to me amounts to a simple-minded and crass statement about racial differences at the furthest extreme from my own beliefs (……………as anyone interested will discover in reading these threads: Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? and A bit more on heroes: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2)

Just to be perfectly clear about what must be obvious, The Guardian has never answered my question about why the first post was censored and doctored – and it prevented my enquiry from ever appearing on its site. (I have a copy of the second pre-moderation notice.)

So that’s what I mean by ‘dirty tricks’, and I’m creating this careful record of the incidents for anyone else who might encounter the same behaviour by the authorities responsible for that site.

Now this, mark you, is a newspaper that has a whole segment of its website labelled Liberty Central, advertising the image it likes to project – and can sometimes justify, in other spheres – as a friend of freedom and the oppressed.

As I pointed out at the time, it’s clear that The Guardian is severely rattled by bloggers questioning its authority with substantive objections. There is other – constructive and heartening — proof of our arrows finding their mark. Over the last few weeks, there have been several articles on the Guardian’s books blog objecting to the commercialisation of book publishing – for instance, this one about promotional author-videos and another about Margaret Atwood.

They make a striking contrast with the prevailing opinion of the editors on that site two years ago, when they ran piece after piece endorsing book publishing’s increasing dominance by marketing executives (at the expense of literary quality) – starting with one titled Selling Yourself as a Writer. As recently as last November, strong – but politely worded — objections to that unbridled philistinism were deleted by Guardian moderators.

An entry in this blog spelling out those objections in detail seems to have been heeded: Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

In effectively banning me in late August, though, the authorities concerned appeared to have had a fit of acute irrationality – spiced with malice.

Arbitrary and punishing authoritarianism is out of temper with the times, dear Guardian. We know how difficult it must be for Old Media to adjust to online publishing, which needs new rules for all sorts of processes and procedures, including the correction of errors, as I demonstrated last month.

Look to the technocrats who gave us these magnificent new communication tools to see how you should be making every facet of your modus operandi more egalitarian. Power structures are flattening out. You don’t seem to have noticed, but they aren’t shaped like pyramids any more. Last March, Scott Rosenberg, who has just published a history of blogging, Say Everything, received a grant of $335,000 from the American Knight Foundation to explore a system for correcting errors in the media that mimics the cheerfully collaborative spirit in which coders of open-source software have debugged each other’s work for decades.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive about the mistakes they make when these are pointed out by readers, in Rosenberg’s vision, newspapers and other media will respond with a collegial graciousness. As he has explained, about his test site:

We’re a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed.


Q: Why should I bother?

A: Because you know that good public information is the lifeblood of democracy. And that journalists are human beings who sometimes make mistakes. And that they work for institutions that don’t always respond to criticism. Instead of posting an angry rant on your blog or just shrugging your shoulders, MediaBugs will give you and those journalists a chance to have civil exchanges about the inevitable errors and problems that crop up in their work.

… As for my fellow-bloggers, with whom I began. Make sure that you have your own blog. I’d have been beside myself if I’d had no way to expose the behaviour of the Guardian’s moderators over the last two weeks. Get your own site, and think hard about commenting on newspaper articles there, not on the newspapers’ sites – to ensure that you will always own the words you write, and can make up your own rules about what you can and can’t say.

Withhold your clicks from their sites, if necessary, and put your weight behind the thrilling new democracy that the new communication technologies have brought us. And do not doubt for a second that our words are being read where it matters.

. . . We few, we happy few, we band of bloggers;
For we today who save our clicks for freedom
Shall e’er be comrades; be we ne’er so vile
Our band shall speed the media revolution:
And Grauniad moderators in their cups
Shall cry themselves a river they were so foul,
And took for monkeys commenters loyal and fair
Who looked for thanks and justice, all in vain.


Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian, Visual art & artists

Platform 9¾ at the media junction

[ with apologies to H. Potter and J.K. Rowling]

It’s been hot where I am, for most of the last week – blisteringly, sinfully, mind-numbingly hot. But is only weather to blame for the last thread here and its cousin on @ISA’s site seeming not merely Dali-esque but downright fantastic?

As I swelter, I’m up to no more than sharing three jottings related to those posts – what an old friend calls ‘perspective pills’:

1. The ideal of the Fourth Estate – especially as the exclusive preserve of print newspapers — is virtually dead.

I’ve discovered that that’s a forgone conclusion for the über word nerd William Safire (well, he does have an army of paid researchers doing his digging – and yes, they make me jealous). Mea culpa, for brandishing that once-noble phrase in an earlier post. Safire’s Political Dictionary says in the entry for ‘fourth estate’:

The press, a dated phrase now often used in sarcasm.
The phrase was used to put the press on an equal footing with the greatest powers in a nation; in the twentieth century it was taken up by many editors in descriptions of the importance of journalism. The phrase lost its vividness as the other ‘estates’ [clergy, nobility, commoners] faded from memory, and now has a musty connotation. In current use ‘the press’ usually carries with it the aura of ‘freedom of the press’ enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, while critics of the press usually label it with a sneer, ‘the media,’ originally popularised as an advertising term.

Safire and his researcher-moles have settled not on Burke — who usually gets the credit — but William Hazlitt (who might or mightn’t be related to our @Hazlitt on this site) as the coiner of the term. In an 1821 essay, the great contrarian and stylist described one William Cobbett — a pamphleteer with the heart and mind of a first-rate blogger — as follows:

His blows are as hard, and he himself is as impenetrable. One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers, and he ‘fillips the ear of the public with a three-man beetle.’ He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist; ‘lays waste’ a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country.

2. No one seriously young has the faintest idea of why ‘Fourth Estate’ once made ink-stained hearts beat faster.

From a passing mention of a blogger making a splash in Manhattan – where you once went if bent on getting rich-and-famous in Old Media, and now do better even if you’re already thriving in New Media, according to the (of course wholly unbiased) New York Times:

“I would never get my company involved in a print product,” she said over a Prince song. “That is just a very expensive way of soothing your own ego and feeling important. I can’t see any value in that.”

3. Some stunning parallels – down to the precise words — between today’s shift in media power and the mid-20th-century transition from radio to TV

… in an exemplary, clear-eyed and whinge-free column by Terry Teachout. Confirming that Mary Dejevsky was wrong to laugh at American newspapers for losing money in digital media experiments ten years ago, he writes in ‘The New Media Crisis of 1949’:

Network TV lost vast amounts of money in its early years. It was only because the existing ­radio networks were willing to subsidize TV that it survived—leaving CBS and NBC at the top of the heap in the ’50s and ’60s, just as they had been in the ’30s and ’40s. The old media of today have a similar chance to prosper tomorrow if they can survive the heavy financial losses that they’re incurring while they develop workable new-media business models.

In that watershed year:

At year’s end, a survey of 400 TV owners in Washington, D.C., told the tale: Adult attendance at movies was down 72%, while 36.7% of TV owners attended fewer baseball games. Meanwhile, the average amount of time that these Washingtonians spent listening to radio each day had plummeted from three hours and 42 minutes to less than half an hour.
“Maybe we old people can’t adapt successfully to video,” said Jim Jordan, the star of “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

His conclusion:

Established radio performers […] flourished well into the ’60s. Everyone else— […] — vanished into the dumpster of entertainment history. The same fate awaits contemporary old-media figures unwilling to grapple with the challenge of the new media, no matter how popular they may be today.

… When I was sixteen, rows of ink on newsprint smelt as sweet as fields of lavender; a lilac bush in full bloom — or my vase of freesias on a hot day, like this one. Enough with the soppy sentiment, I tell myself: out with the old; in with the new.


Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian