‘A pistol shot in the middle of a concert’

Over at the New Humanist Stephen Howe looks at two bloggers’ transition to the printed page.

And into this febrile environment come two preposterous new books – Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence of Murder and Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism – both of which think they have found out who is responsible for our current predicament. They are both diatribes – Seymour’s from the British far left, Goldberg’s from America’s ultra-right – directed at the same target: the follies, errors, pretensions and crimes of liberalism. Or rather, of liberals, for neither Jonah Goldberg nor Richard Seymour really tries to show that the large, heterogeneous assembly of individuals they abuse is actually united by anything much at all, and certainly not by a shared philosophy or ideology that could aptly be labelled an ‘ism’. Indeed for both authors the word ‘liberal’ in their titles really means something more like ‘a bunch of people I can’t stand who are somewhere vaguely to the left (for Goldberg) or right (for Seymour) of me’.

I’ve noticed before that the nodding dogs of Lenny’s Tomb and the dittoheads of Rush Limbaugh seem united in a hatred for liberalism.

But I would like to get round to reading Seymour’s book at some point – I am interested in what critique he comes up with of the ‘pro-war left’. Howe has ‘sympathy for Seymour’s basic stance’ and shares ‘some of his fury at the shifty apologetics for massacre – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and too many more places – which have come from various supposedly liberal or leftish writers.’


He hits some of the chosen marks bang on: but since the target is so big, his shooting so copious and so rapid, his quarrying of sources so relentless but so often reliant on selective and out-of-context quotation, that is no very impressive achievement… [P]recisely because Seymour has (in my view) a better case than Goldberg, the overstatements, distortions, factual errors and not least near-endless repetitions in his book are all the more infuriating.

Howe then goes on to these writers’ presence on the net:

Almost all Seymour’s previous writing appears on his well-known blog Lenin’s Tomb, while Goldberg, as well as much pontificating on other media, indulges his blogorrhea on the National Review Online and Bloggingheads.TV. Their shared apparent inability ever to use ten words where a hundred will do, to ask themselves whether their thoughts will be worth rereading next week or next year, or even whether what they wrote today is consistent with yesterday’s screed: all these are endemic and maybe fairly harmless failings in the blogosphere. Books, though, are supposed to be a bit different. People pay real money and give up precious shelf-space for them. They are supposed to have some enduring value, however slight. At the very least, writers shifting genres need to think about necessary changes in the way they write, and discover the mysteries of self-editing.

Can’t argue with that and no amount of ironic 1950s propaganda posters is going to be a substitute for content. But then, we get: ‘Might we not indeed go further and implement a general prohibition on bloggers writing books?’

This is obviously tongue in cheek and it seems that Lenny and Goldberg have given the rest of us a bad name. The blogging medium is prone to restless self-examination and Howe provokes the question: can bloggers write?

Norm as ever keeps it short and straight:

(1) Some writers are bloggers. (2) Two bad books by bloggers does not a law establish. (3) Some bloggers write well even on their blogs. (4) There are people capable of operating in more than one mode.

I think that bloggers are more likely to be better writers, since they have to write every day (or nearly every day). Even if you aren’t working on a novel or a story, you’re still flexing the muscle and so the positive effect of practice kicks in.

It’s not like print media has high standards. Sometimes I go on the Guardian website and experience a great, weary internal sigh at the sheer weight of the density and dullness in the op-eds. There are people on this publication who simply cannot construct a decent sentence or paragraph. I could find better writing on the blogosphere – but then I could find better writing scrawled on the walls of abandoned silos.

And the Guardian is the best paper. It’s my paper. What must the Mail and the Telegraph be like?

Blogging also has a disciplinary effect. There’s a reason bloggers tend to ‘write in short punchy sentences’ and ‘limit each paragraph to the analysis of a single idea’. If you’re using WordPress there’s a wordcount just below the edit box, and most people will try not to get into four figures. Admittedly, this does not seem to be the case with the bloggers discussed above.

I don’t think that blogging is just advocacy. Marx began as a novelist. Orwell straddled fiction and polemic with ease. Nick Cohen said that he wanted What’s Left to read like a novel, Martin Amis writes in the same style in his non fiction as in his fiction. Blinded by the Right, by David Brock, is a gripping story of ruin and rebirth. I don’t need to mention the amount of writers and artists drawn into political argument. In Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Christopher Hitchens writes: ‘It need not be… that politics in the novel is ‘a pistol shot in the middle of a concert”. The boundaries are breaking down.

There is space in political writing to develop skills and style, and often the better you write, the more force an argument carries. Language does not need to be sacrificed for resonance. Do it right and language is resonance.

David T also says that ‘Blogging is communal.’ It’s not. No form of writing is communal except committee reports. Sure we get comments, but print writers get tons of letters and email. If a book is a long, intimate conversation with the reader, then a blog post is like a shouted argument with a stranger in a crowded bar.

But we still love our readers, for which ‘[t]he secret of successful blogging is to develop a personal, sometimes confessional relationship’.



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