Over the past few months, as I’ve let people know about this blog, a few of my older friends have expressed unease – they don’t get what blogging is for. One wonders why I don’t just write a journal and keep it to myself. Another struggles with a sense of disapproval that he can’t quite put his finger on.
When I moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago, I started writing an annual letter home, which I’d photocopy and mail to friends and family. A quaint process it seems now, but not so obviously antiquated back then at the turn of the century. Not everybody liked it. Rumours reached me of two separate recipients refusing to read it. One, I was informed (whether reliably or not, I couldn’t say), used to toss it in the bin unread. The other annually rejected his wife’s offers to read bits of it aloud (I like to imagine him sticking his fingers in his ears and humming). I half understood these reactions. I assumed they were rooted in a feeling that a duplicated letter is somehow fraudulent. What friends write to each other should be personal and spontaneous.
In an essay on the wonderful letters of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Paulin writes about this expectation: “Are letters not written… as throwaway, disposable, flimsy unique holographs which aim to flower once and once only in the recipient’s reading and then disappear immediately? The merest suspicion that the writer is aiming beyond the addressee… freezes a letter’s immediacy and destroys its spirit” (Tom Paulin, Writing to the Moment, Faber 1996, p. 216).
Perhaps the discomfort with blogging is related to this. Perhaps it’s an expression of the more general sense that the proper barriers between the private and the public spheres have been eroded. In Malcolm Bradbury’s 1972 novel The History Man, the radical sociologist Howard Kirk is writing a book called The Defeat of Privacy which anticipates this trend. He says, “It’s about the fact that there are no more private selves, no more private corners in society… There are no concealments any longer, no mysterious dark places of the soul. We’re all there in front of the entire audience of the universe in a state of exposure.” What seemed radical thinking in the 1970s – utopian or nightmarish according to your point of view – now sounds like an ordinary day in the world of Facebook and Twitter.
In fact, with lots of people updating their status hourly, the weekly composing of a blog post seems, in comparison, positively sedate, even old-fashioned. The technology would have been unimaginable to an Elizabethan pamphleteer or an eighteenth century essayist, but the impulse to develop a thought in public would surely have been recognised. I grew up, before the invention of the internet, with people who were forever firing off letters to the local newspaper, or the town council, or haranguing whoever would listen on whatever seemed important to them at the time.
I’m not unsympathetic to the anti-blog arguments, starting with the fact that there are probably more people writing them than reading them. On the other hand, here are five things a blog won’t do:
Trap you in a corner at a party.
Interrupt your evening with a loud ringing noise.
Stop you from sleeping on the train.
Drive you from the dinner table in tears.