Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Paul Theroux Loathes Blogs


Travel writer Paul Theroux in an interview at The Atlantic--pushing his new book--remarks:
I loathe blogs when I look at them. Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling. To me writing is a considered act. It's something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn't seem to have any literary merit at all. It's a chatty account of things that have happened to that particular person.
Ha! That's my blog, although surely there are blogs which do have "literary merit." Still, I'm a bit puzzled as to why blogs as he defines them should provoke such loathing. I rather like babbling and chatty accounts and of course that's what I have in mind for this post.

Daisy's post about the Facebook era still has me thinking round in circles and want to attempt to write more about that.

The picture comes from a National Park Service page, Mississippi River Facts. In case you've missed it big news in the USA is flooding along the Mississippi River. If you look at the right hand side of the map you'll notice the Ohio River. I live about three miles from the Ohio River and about twenty miles from where the Ohio begins at Pittsburgh. The Ohio River is no small river. With the record flooding it's a reminder that the Ohio is just a portion of the great Mississippi River Watershed.

It's wet here. I've got my rubber boots on. The paper today tells us to expect another two months of unusually wet weather. Yikes! In May the grass grows so fast, grass along with everything else. What I can mow now determines what areas I'm able to keep mown the rest of the summer. And there's always a crush because May is also the time for planting. The grass can't be mown when it's too wet, and the rain only makes the grass grow faster. And the ground can't be turned when it's too wet and seeds planted. When I go out to work it starts to rain and by the time it's not raining I'm inside doing something else. I'm not getting much done. Wet weather is part of my personal story right now, but I sure have it better than so many of my fellow Americans, some of them with homes under the water.

Theroux is right that such chatty excursions are outside the boundaries of literature. I'm not sure that blogs are an existential threat to literature, but there's no question media is changing and we are changing along with it.

When I started writing this blog I used a pseudonym. I was also visiting and writing at a social network called Tribe. Tribe was a pretty free-wheeling place at the time, lots of nudity, profanity and the like. Because it was popular with younger folks I was a bit concerned that some of my younger relatives might happen upon my goings on there. But ultimately with all the linking I did at Tribe it became clear to me that because I hadn't organized myself from the beginning for online anonymity the pseudonyms I was using online did little to make anonymous. Web searches clearly associated with my real name brought up links to stuff I put up under screen names, especially at Tribe for some reason.

After using Tribe for a while I discovered the Omidyar Network (ONet), which was sort of an online social network for dogooders. The charitable foundation called the Omidyar Network is alive and well, the social network has been defunct since 2007. The culture at ONet was for people to use their true names. While it's not 100% that's also the norm at Facebook. Anyhow I figured the easiest thing was just to accept that I wasn't anonymous online. There are, however, many good reasons why people publish anonymously online, not the least of which is some people are creepy.

Nowadays I participate at a forum where the convention is for people to participate using screen names. I hesitate to link to that forum because it isn't clear to me what the ripple effects not just to me, but to the users of the forum, might be to linking my pseudonym with my real name. Over at that forum for the last few weeks there's been a long thread on misogyny. The title of the thread seemed pretty generic, but I wondered if using the title links to the forum thread would come up high in search results. Of course they do, and in that search I discovered blog posts, anonymous of course, which were a sort of back channel to the thread.

Certain topics can be quite incendiary and misogyny is one of them. The thread has meandered between talking about misogyny and examples of misogyny, even if providing examples of was not explicitly the intent. Some of the talk was pretty bad but my default reaction was don't feed the trolls because some of the talk seemed pretty good. The problem with that approach was getting called out on the thread for not calling out the BS. I knew that there was some private discussion going on between members, even posting a few private messages myself. What I hadn't known before today was the commenting about the thread and nasty stuff about some of the posters on blogs. Jeez, people can be such dicks!

The xkcd comic pane Duty Calls with the line "Someone is wrong on the Internet" is so often passed around because we human beings seem easily obsessed with being right to the detriment of online comity. Sometimes people anonymously post online because it is unsafe for them to be exposed.

Drima at The Sudanese Thinker probably had danger in the back of his head when he started the blog five years ago. Probably more prosaic reasons along the lines of my not wanting young relatives to stumble upon my Tribe postings seemed more important. Recently Drima exposed his real name at Twitter and at his blog. He didn't offer a long explanation for why he did so, writing:
I have numerous personal reasons for and that I cannot explain adequately in a simple short blog post. Let’s just say the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and the changes sweeping the region now have inspired me and forced me to come to a simple conclusion.

Screw anonymity.
With the events in Tunisia late last fall I began following events at Twitter. Andy Carvin (@acarvin) of PBS was curating tweets, he sort of vetted Tweets. I hadn't been following @SudaneseThinker at Twitter, but had read his blog over time. His tweets came up in Carvin's retweets and I promptly followed him at Twitter. Even though Drima is a pseudonym, I knew enough to have some confidence in him and his tweets. When he retweeted people's tweets, especially in re Egypt, it added to the authority of those tweets.

Dave Kenner at Foreign Policy Magazine recently posted an article Here's your reading list, Mr. President which consists mostly of a list of blogs about the Middle East. The premise of the post is that it's possible to get a realistic picture of political conversations going on in the region. Of course it would be great if the President of the United States sought to hear these views and so as not just to hear the inside Washington policy debate, but the larger point is any of us can be privy to it too.

The impetus for this blog was quite a simple idea of explaining to some of my friends why I was taking an interest in the life of a young Ugandan man. Quickly it became obvious that most of my friends had little interest in blogs, but plenty of Americans were turning attention to Africa often from quite stereotypical frames of reference. As a white middle-aged American the topic of "privilege" come up in many different contexts. It rankles me when it does, but on the other hand turning my attention towards Africa has demonstrated time and time again that there's potency in the construct of privilege.

Offline and online I was being asked about Darfur. In Pittsburgh there are some refugees from the North-South civil war in the Sudan. As I was also trying to find out more about Uganda it was hard for me to discuss Darfur without first making the North-South conflict part of the context. Very often I was sharply criticized for doing so. I'm a fairly incompetent activist in any case so pointing that out comes as no surprise to me. While Darfur was awful by anybody's standards opinions outside Sudan as to what to do sharply differed. Among people I like an admire, my views about US policy towards Sudan were often anathema. Being basically needy, I want very much for people to like me so Darfur was posed something of a dilemma for me.

I read and still read Alex De Waal's blog Making Sense of Sudan. It's really excellent. As far as online discussions about Darfur activism went, De Waal's analysis of the situation was an unpopular. I'm hardly an expert so I didn't spend much time trying to argue from a perspective which was already disparaged. Just in ordinary face to face conversations the sorts of perspectives that The Sudanese Thinker provided were more helpful than the academic perspectives at Making Sense of Sudan.

People wanted to talk about basic information like: Who are the Sudanese in our area? How close is the Sudan to Uganda and what are the relationships? Are Sudan and Somalia the same place? Who are the Somali-Bantu's in our community? The Italians, in Africa, you're kidding me! The tenor of such conversation might seems a little daft. Nobody really likes to be thought of as ignorant, but let's face it I like most Americans are ignorant about Africa. Much of the activism here around Darfur seemed to demand political commitment and such a demand rather pointed up a common ignorance of a large and populous continent.

Here's a post by Drima from early February 2007 entitled Sudan Arab or African? It's the sort of post probably of marginal interest to political scientists and political activists, I guess from an assumption"everybody knows that," but just the sort of post helpful to most of us who didn't know what we were supposed to. I can't remember once Drima writing anything to make it seem that not knowing something was tantamount to being stupid.

I do remember Drima talking about being a college student, hanging out with friends, getting a new CD, eating good food, being exhausted from studying from exams, all of the boring stuff Paul Theroux thinks has no place in literature. Perhaps blogs aren't literature because the boring stuff is important for lots of blogs.

As the events in Egypt unfolded on Twitter, I noted who the Sudanese Thinker was following and often followed those people. People were arrested, people died, sadly Egyptians still are being arrested and are dying. It's hard to have a very detached view of events when following people who know the people arrested and killed, post pictures of them and link to blogs by them.

It's so far fetched to think of Drima, whose real name is Ahmad, as a friend. Ha an Internet-friend, but there's real value in Internet friendships. I was moved when I read the post at his blog giving his name, Amir Ahmad, especially because he connected it to the experience of the the political events in Northern Africa, events which in a way I followed on Twitter along with him and others. I know saying revealing his name comes with some danger attached. I respect that saying his name publicly is to trump fear with love.

Amir Ahmad is writing a book, Islam: A Love Story – How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind, Broke My Heart, and Blogging Freed My Mystic Soul. It's sure to be carefully considered writing,as Theroux maintains literature ought to be. The irony is the book is at least in part about blogs. Ahmad writes:
Set in Sudan, Qatar, Malaysia, the United States and the new frontiers of the Arab and American political blogospheres, Islam: A Love Story is ultimately about my journey of spiritual awakening and why and how the internet will not only help reform the political landscape of the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also significantly shape the future of Islam as well.
It's sure to be carefully considered writing,as Theroux maintains literature ought to be. The irony is the book is at least in part about blogs. Ahmad writes:
Set in Sudan, Qatar, Malaysia, the United States and the new frontiers of the Arab and American political blogospheres, Islam: A Love Story is ultimately about my journey of spiritual awakening and why and how the internet will not only help reform the political landscape of the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also significantly shape the future of Islam as well.
I've babbled on about the author Paul Theroux, about the wet spring where I live, about flooding in the American Midwest, about brutishness on Internet forums, and about a blogger named Ahmad, also known as Drima. Is there a thread that connects? I think there is, and imagining a thread is probably why unlike Theroux I rather love blogs instead of loathing them as he does. Love them or hate them, blogs and Internet communications in general are changing how we view and experience the world. Those changes are neither all good, nor all bad.

6 comments:

DaisyDeadhead said...

He needs to read the blogs with literary pretensions, not just his kids' nanny, or the guys on his bowling league, or who/whatever it is he is reading...

On a happier and less snobbish note, I loved "Chicago Loop" a whole lot!

DaisyDeadhead said...

BTW, that was a misogynist novel, so that ties into your comment.

Some of us think certain novelists project their rape-fantasies onto their characters (not just Theroux, thinking also of Mailer) and get away with it, just like Polanski or Bertolucci can make a rapist movie and it is welcomed as art ... what does it say that the rape and dismembering of half the population is considered entertainment in our culture? To ask the question backwards, starting from Theroux: why does rape and dismembering have more "literary merit" than "babbling"? Did, ohhhh, MEN and MALE CULTURE decide that? (Is this why Marcel Proust is still being argued about?)

The fact that Theroux believes he is all high-minded, while simultaneously believing his account of rape and murder (which I really did enjoy, as I said) is more meritorious than some mommy-blogger, well, that answers your misogyny question too. Women just aren't as bloody EXCITING as the rape and pillage wrought by GUYS!!!

PS: Another friend, Judy Christopher, just passed away. Again, no contact in years, then we played Farmville for the past year. It really got to me, the same way Ben's death did. :(

I think we are going to have to accept that just as others' ongoing presence in our life is a new thing (with Facebook) -- so is adjusting to the constant of death.

word verification-- dedizes. HAHA!

DaisyDeadhead said...

Theroux novel: simple mommy blogger starts writing properly-literary but highly-stylized violent and dirty stories. Meets up with an obsessed fan-reader, and the games begin!

Okay sorry, couldn't resist.

http://www.amazon.com/Chicago-loop-Paul-Theroux/dp/2221067266

John Powers said...

Daisy I appreciate you stopping by. I won't read "Chicago Loop." There's something bad about my avoidance of troubling stories, the main bad thing is how it contributes to a lack of compassion.

I run away when I see stories of harm to children for example. My running away ironically seems premised on liking kids, but constantly running away contributes to a sort of ignorance-is-bliss stupidity.

I do know that I've got a limited capacity for stories of violence, so there's a balance to be struck. I avoid most movies, and novels with heavy violent themes, even when highly recommended, almost certainly aren't something I can sustain attention for.

But on the other hand the casual and rampant misogyny I do encounter, especially online, has really been troubling me lately. I'm not good at "calling out" and anyway not sure "calling out" really does much good; even seeming to have perverse effects too often. But I can't stand it, the misogyny drives me nuts.

The Dunbar number says that people are able to sustain about 150 close social relationships. What's new about online social networking is how it makes friends of friends more visible to us, so our visible networks are much larger than we really can tend. Not so different from being in retail an aspect of that kind of work that isn't always understood. I mean if you're not in retail comments like: "I hate the public." sound so awful, but easy to understand if you are in it.

Retail also gives a clue about the upside to this world of visible friends of friends. Acting cheerful, even when we don't feel like it, has visible positive results.

A really long way around in response to your comments. I'm sorry that your friend Judy has passed. I'm trying to say that I sort of understand your point. Finding out about deaths online does feel different and it seems part of the whole strangeness of coping with a world where friends of friends are more visible.

I know there are real downsides to the new networked reality we're living in. There are upsides too.

What I'm trying to figure out is how to encourage the upsides; especially in the context of responding to misogyny online. Ha, and I know I need some help with that because I seem to be doing it wrong. Really how we as people maintain so much causal hatred is astounding. That can't be good for us.

My sense is that the new visibility of friends of friends make it possible to spread virtue as well as vice. The bloggers that I pay attention to are ones who seem to be playing for the better angels of our nature. Sometimes the writing is very literate, but even when not so much there's a dignity to it that Theroux willfully mocks. LOL sometimes I enjoy his writing, but he seems such an asshat I hate to admit that to anyone.

Anyhow for now a well-known author can own their product and imagine the public as an anonymous mass, that sort of logic doesn't really fit with all the rest of us.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Check this out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/opinion/29franzen.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

Linked by my ex-husband, of all people, on Facebook. :D

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