Bloggers and editing

Someone asked me about how much time I spend editing posts for The Story’s Story, and I answered simply: more time than I should but less time than I need. I don’t think this blog is a typo-strewn, incoherent mess, but I’m also not the New Yorker: I don’t have a squadron of typing-catching wombats at my disposal to savor every word. It’s me, sometimes friends who I can press into proofreading service (sometimes through plying with beer, tea, or other favors), and sometimes readers (who send me e-mails or leave comments with typo warnings; thanks!).

This is the part where I say something like, “I do the best I can,” and it’s true: but there’s a point of diminishing returns when dealing with one’s own work. Someone else who’s familiar with the piece needs to read it, which applies to fiction writing too: with the possible exceptions of Nabokov and Joyce, everyone needs an editor. If you look at Melville’s manuscripts, you’ll find someone who really, desperately needs a copy editor. I’m neither Nabokov nor Joyce nor Melville; I’m just a guy who writes and imagines that what he produces is of sufficient interest to others that it belongs on the Internet where it might be of some use to someone, somewhere. At least as measured by traffic, that appears to be true, despite typo problems that I can’t solve using reasonable amounts of time, energy, money, and concentration.

How bloggers are made:

“A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist.”

That’s Louis Menand, in “Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald’s war on Midcult.” Bloggers come from somewhere similar but adjacent—like the relationship between Vancouver and Seattle—though too few have well-developed senses of curiosity and skepticism.

The rest of the article is boring and historical, but one reason to read the New Yorker is that one never knows when a fabulous sentence worth stealing will appear. The article about Timothy Ferris, for example, says of his dwelling: “There was, inevitably, a framed arty photograph of a naked woman.” He sounds capitally tedious. That word, “inevitably:” it’s perfect. We get the author’s skepticism. We know exactly the kind of person Ferris is (and, I wonder: the kind of person I am?). The skepticism of the word “arty” is perfect; so is picking “naked,” which makes one sound merely revealed and pornographic, over “nude,” which glistens with the sheen of art instead of the sheen of Playboy magazine. The sentence is so good I stole a variant on it for a novel (no one notices if you steal in small proportions, except for James Wood, and if I’m at the point where James Wood notices such theft, I’ll consider myself lucky). In fact, speaking of Wood, there’s a section of How Fiction Works where he speaks of “a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’:”

‘He was a gentlemen with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’ [Ford Maddox] Ford comments: ‘that gentlemen is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’

Ford is right. Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were; and – a corollary of this – the reader can get as much from small, short-lived, even rather flat characters as from large, round, towering heroes and heroines.

Yes, yes, yes, yes: I worry so much about making sure characters are gotten in now, but it’s never quite right, is it? I can imagine Rebecca Mead, who wrote about Ferris, or Menand above, sweating over those sentences, wondering: are they right? Do you put a comma between “framed” and “arty?” Is “outsized” the right word? The comma question could go either way. “Outsized” could be “severe,” like a storm warning. But those sentences still feel so wonderfully, deliciously right, even embedded in articles that otherwise let one flip to the next, searching, as a surfer will flit from blog to blog.

I've been writing academic

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on my (second) publishable paper, this one on the contrasting temperaments in Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. They share many superficial characteristics: both tell the stories of decadent Americans in Europe shortly after World Wars; both feature protagonists who do not have major or pressing financial responsibilities; both feature a period of time in Paris punctuated by a trip to Spain that ends up back in Paris; both include characters lacking specific, tangible objectives that propel their travels. Thirty years after The Sun Also Rises, The Dud Avocado continues the tradition of having Americans wander through Europe, but the attitude it takes is predominantly comic, in contrast to the tragic temperament its predecessors shows.

I think it’s an interesting paper—but authors are inclined to think as fondly of their papers as parents are of their children—but writing it sucks up most of the time I’d otherwise use to blog. Blogging and academic writing are usually complements, not substitutes, but in this case the increasing price of blogging relative to paper writing makes me do less of it.

For now.

On blogging altruistically or narcissistically and why Facebook is simply easier

The New York Times has an article light on data and big on conjecture claiming “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter.” A sample: “Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers.” This Hacker News comment describes the blogging situation well:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Most of the great blogs that I visit are all done altruistically. They are well maintained, post useful information, and very rarely waste my time. They also require a huge amount of effort on the part of the blogger because they really have to do work to gather and present interesting and useful information for their readers.

What a lot of the press has referred to as blogging is “narcissistic.” Instead of coming up with interesting information and vetting it for their readers they mostly just spew whatever thoughts they had that day onto the page. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort, but the signal to noise ratio is also very low.

It’s really hard to write stuff that will be interesting to people who don’t know you and have no real connection to you. I know because I’ve been writing The Story’s Story for three years and change. Over that time, it became obvious that producing at least one meaningful post a week is difficult. If writing in such a way that other people actually want to read your work weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t have nearly as many professional writers as we do.

If your goal is mostly to bask in the relative adulation of others, you can probably do it more efficiently (and narcissistically) via Facebook. Look at the large number of girls who post bikini or MySpace shots and wait for the comments to roll in (note: they are doing this rationally). If your goal is mostly to communicate something substantive, you’re going to find that it’s not five or ten times harder than posting a 140-character message on FB or Twitter—it’s 50 or 100 times harder. Twitter is easier than “A list of N things” and “A list of N things” is easier than a blog post and a blog post is easier than an essay.

People who want to be real writers (or filmmakers or whatever) in the sense that people with no current relationship of any kind will find their work useful will probably still blog or use other equivalents. But most of those who think they want to be real writers will probably find out precisely how hard it is to come up with useful and interesting stuff regularly. Then they’ll quit, and the people who remain will be the ones who have the energy and skill to keep it up and write things people want to read.

I’m not against Twitter, but a while ago I posted this: “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.” The first part of that sentence can fit on Twitter, but the second part clarifies and reinforces the first.

Furthermore, real life can get in the way of substantive posts. At the moment, I’m recovering from the reading for my M.A. oral exam, which was Friday (I passed). As a result, I haven’t written a lot of deep, detailed posts about books over the last month. I haven’t written that many in general this year because the thing that used to primarily be my hobby—writing about books—has now been professionalized in the form of graduate school. So the energy that used to go into those posts is now more often going into my papers. Writing academic articles “counts” towards my career and toward eventually getting people to pay me money. Writing blog posts doesn’t. I don’t think the two are pure complements or pure substitutes, and I doubt I will ever stop writing a blog altogether because blogs are an excellent for ideas too short or underdeveloped for an article but still worth developing.

Plus, did I mention that good posts are hard to write? I think so, but I’ll mention it again here because I don’t think most people really appreciate that. Perhaps it’s best they don’t: if they did, they’d probably be less inclined to start a blog in the first place. The people who keep it up and keep doing it well have a mysterious habit of finding ways to get paid for it, either by writing books of their own or by finding an organizational umbrella (think of Megan McArdle or Matt Yglesias).

The number of people out there who have the inner drive to keep writing in the absence of external gratification is probably relatively small. I’ve made tens of dollars from “The Story’s Story.” The number of groupies who’ve flocked to me as a result of writing this blog is not notably large. Perhaps not surprisingly, most people will gravitate towards something easier, and I don’t think I’m writing this solely to raise my own status or show people how hard core or nice I am. I think I’m mostly writing it because it’s true.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies' stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies’ stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

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