Second Anniversary Musings

My first post here went up on January 18, 2007.

A two-year anniversary seems as good a time as any for some reflections on my experience of blogging so far. I’ve written fairly often already about blogging and my interest in it as an extension of my academic work, my pedagogy, and my desire to find common ground between academic criticism and ‘common’ readers. So what else is there to talk about?

Well, for one thing, I have found that writing this blog has made me very aware of the things I can’t (or at least don’t) talk about here–this is a feeling enhanced by my recent reading of the anthology Dropped Threads (from the cover: “A beautifully woven tapestry of perspectives on the silences women still keep”). Now, I’ve never been a convert to the highly confessional version of blogging, not just because it seems at once solipsistic and exhibitionist, from the writing side, and voyeuristic, from the reading side. And even if I were inclined to blog about myself in a more personal way, because I use my own name rather than a pseudonym, self-disclosure risks impinging unfairly on others’ privacy. Of course, there are no external inhibitors here, only my own sense of propriety and reserve. But maybe because the format of a blog makes it feel like writing in a diary, the gap between the (usually) calm, reasonable tone of my postings and my currently rather vexed and complicated life can sometimes be disconcerting. Blogging for me is another version of my calm public face. I certainly prize and respect self-control, but as the wise narrator of Middlemarch observes, “behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” It’s tempting, sometimes, to launch an anonymous blog in an attempt to tap into the same reservoir of kind, thoughtful people I’ve discovered are “out there” ready to contribute generously to conversations about books, to see what answers they might have to some questions about life. But don’t worry: I’m never going to turn Novel Readings into naval gazing. I’ve been reading too much Carlyle recently to be tempted into that kind of self-indulgence!

Even as an expression of my public or professional personality, my blogging has seemed to me lately to have become a bit bland. Not that it ever was particularly edgy! And by some, I know, my approach has always been dismissed as ‘middle-brow’ at best (that’s not, by the way, an epithet I’m altogether averse to). Still, in person, even at work, I think I’m a bit more acerbic and prickly, or funny and irreverent, than I have been here, where of late “a common greyness silvers everything.” Also, I’ve become more inclined to avoid topics on which I feel snarky and know I might generate some controversy (however small in scale). In some ways it is responsible to think twice about statements which, thanks to the wonders of electronic memory, you can’t ever really take back. I also believe reciprocal courtesy and avoidance of cheap ad hominem slurs should be the standards for blogging as much as for any kind of intellectual exchange. Still, one of the initial attractions of blogging was the freedom it offered to express my opinions without layers of qualifications or justifications (or footnotes). Though of course with tenure I have, officially, all the leeway I could want to say what I think, I do try to get along with my colleagues, and I have a responsibility to my students to present a variety of perspectives and to teach a range of material that is variously congenial to my own critical commitments and temperament. Being polite and responsible like this can sometimes feel intellectually dampening, that’s all, and for a while, I felt relatively uninhibited here, and so took a few more risks than usual. I don’t want to seek controversy or be contrarian just for the sake of it, but I don’t want my commitments to remain wholly implicit here: I’d like to define myself more sharply as a critic and make Novel Readings stand out more distinctly as a source for a more particular kind of commentary. We’ll see how that goes.

On another topic, since I started putting time in as a blogger I have inevitably asked questions about the value of doing this instead of doing other things that lead more directly to professional credit or advancement. In the next year or so I’d like to discuss some of the things I’ve learned or considered more formally with first our departmental and then our faculty administration. I’ve already proposed to our departmental committee on professional development that we move towards a ‘portfolio’ approach to to evaluating academic publications. Given how strongly worded the MLA’s recommendations on scholarly publishing were, it is a bit shocking to me how little impact they appear to have had so far on ordinary practice–or even on thinking about ordinary practice. I’m not claiming anything in particular for Novel Readings here, except insofar as exploring the world of academic blogging and electronic publication has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our entrenched assumptions about what ‘counts.’

Finally, blogging for this long starts to raise questions about the value of the archived material. I recently did some downloading and sorting of old posts, with an eye to drawing on them for some more formal writing projects. Doing so made me very aware of the sheer quantity of writing I have done here over the past two years (hundreds of pages worth, it turns out). The material varies widely in quality and depth, but I would like to do something to ensure that the more substantive posts are accessible in a useful way: one aspect of literary or academic blogging that has always bothered and puzzled me is that writing about books is not properly subject to quite the same time pressures as, say, writing about current events (or even, dare I say it, writing about pop culture). The blog format, though, persistently favours the new, always moving older posts down and then off the page as if somehow critical insights get dated like any other story. I’m going to work on setting up something like a ‘table of contents’ for the blog that will work better than the ‘labels’ function to direct visitors to what I think of as the “back-blog” of material here. There’s no reason in principle why despite the unbreakable convention of ‘latest first,’ a blog couldn’t work less like a newsfeed and more like a constantly expanding volume.

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