Coates, Fitzgerald, and Blogging

I subscribed briefly to a site that offered hundreds of online classes on different topics, listening to the twenty-part courses in installments at work. I listened to one on utopian ideologies of the twentieth century and another on poetry, but the one with which I spent the most time was on writing essays. It was medium-useful, certainly more so than listening to political podcasts rehash the same topics for six hours each day. A low bar, but one it cleared nonetheless.

I remember a handful of tidbits, but not much else – though I’m sure I got more from it than just that. One was that the first line in an essay is the most important part. If the first sentence in this ‘essay’ is any indication, I didn’t take that one to heart. I also remember that the lecturer spoke dismissively – perhaps not disparagingly, exactly – of “blogging.” She stated that blog-posts do not qualify as essays. I might agree with her but maintain that blogging is its own perfectly valid craft. Her tone suggested something a bit different:

“The modern form of the essay may be seen daily in blogs, although not all blogs are essays—instead, many are no more than personal journals, rants, or fantasies without broader connections and appeals.”

I suppose that’s true, but I would leave the second clause out. A rectangle may be a square [but some are not]. She implied something more specific, though I may be reading too deeply between the lines. A rectangle may be a square [but if it’s not a square, I have no use for it]. In other words, blogging is valuable only when it crosses into essay writing. Aesthetically conservative art critics often find themselves nibbling on crow, egg on their faces, eating their words, back-peddling, etc when the world catches up to the target of their scorn. As a proud stick in the mud, I’m sympathetic, but only to a point. I’m not sure when exactly the course was minted – if it were 1998, I would be inclined to forgive. Clues of context suggest it was much closer to the present day.

I’m genuinely sad that writers of recent years miss the value of blogging. Obviously some blogs are “journals, rants, or fantasies.” Most are geared toward particular niches and many spill over into the “how to” category – parenting is a real growth industry for bloggers. Writers’ blogs tend to focus on craft or archive completed essays once-in-a-whenever. The ratio probably mirrors that of puff journalism to serious work, bad novels to literature, drivel to excellent nonfiction, criticism to navel-gazing. But serious bloggers are a gift of unparalleled value.

The collected essays of Saul Bellow amounted to about 500 pages over fifty years. Those of Paul Auster, a little closer to 600 over thirty years. James Baldwin’s essays come to around 850 pages over about twenty years; Joan Didion’s over 1000 in about forty. George Orwell’s essays – not including a handful of essay collections and nonfiction works like The Road to Wigan Pier – come out to over 1200, the bulk of which he wrote in fifteen years. My eyes widen when I think about the quantity of writing that some of my favorite essayists will leave behind after several decades of blogging in addition to their other published work. But the value of blogging has more to do with quality (what it actually is) than with quantity (how much more writing it unleashes).

Every now and again, a trove of unpublished letters (the Bellow letters, for example) find their way to press and the literary community shakes as under a clap of thunder. It’s difficult to imagine a parallel, but I try to consider an innovator in the field, publishing her letters and journals in weekly circulars. I then try to imagine how that would humanize the author, enhance critics’ understanding of her motives, illuminate her thoughts on people and politics. Fans would absolutely gush, but who in their right mind would dismiss such a treasure from Joan Didion, James Baldwin, George Orwell (though with him, we kind of got that), or Saul Bellow?

A friend pointed me to Helena Fitzgerald and her “Griefbacon” newsletter. Her weekly installments are essays in the truest sense, but on topics and with titles like “beer,” “stray cats,” “bugs,” and “french.” She doesn’t post essays when it’s convenient, but (at least since the beginning of 2018) chases every thought through its tangents, flips, perversions, and permutations to make something complete roughly every seven days. It’s an absolute joy, but they would likely never see publication without a blog-like platform. In thirty years when she has some acclaim or a few awards – she’s really really good – we will have dozens, hopefully hundreds, of archived pieces; we’ll know exactly what she thought of beer, stray cats, bugs, and french and what contemplation they prompted.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my favorite writers and the decade of his archived Atlantic blog is more properly a blog than that of Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald cranks out short, but complete essays. Coates is – was – a quintessential blogger, posting fragmented thoughts, open questions, meditations, reading lists, thoughts provoked by lengthy quotes, lengthy quotes with little context, diary entries, reflections on politics, and (yes) more complete essays.

Joan Didion wrote dismissively of published notebooks “patently for public consumption” in her essay on the pathologies of private note-taking, but there is a middle ground. Musicians take their practice from behind closed doors, into a quiet public spaces. Though it necessarily changes, the intent is not to perform but to continue practice. Even without an audience, the possibility that someone walks by sharpens senses and adds urgency that can never exist in private – a finality that makes one reckon with mistakes in a way that we rarely do in isolation. The best blogs are similar – great writers forcing their process into the open just a little. It’s never going to be an authentic look at what goes on behind closed doors, but it’s as close as we can get and rendering that process valuable to others is an unbelievable service.

Fitzgerald’s writing, sophisticated and beautiful though it already was, clearly evolves. She more readily dives into odd places and digressions as she writes more frequently in the unusual format. Coates’s blog literally chronicles interests and pursuits of a writer who, over ten years, climbs from total obscurity to a MacArthur Fellowship. What did he read and when? What did he think of it? How did it shade his world?

In his introduction to Sylvia Plath’s collected poems, Ted Hughes writes of his wife of seven years:

“To my knowledge, she never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.”

At their best, blogs are this “artisan-like attitude” applied to the essay. Poets finishing the poem, thinkers completing the thought, no matter how small the finished product. I expect the greatest essayists to be least bound to the form. Coates and Fitzgerald take each thought and push it as far as it can go. Not all fly into orbit, many just bounce down the sidewalk, but they appreciate less the act of creating an essay than the act of following it over to the curb to see where it landed. Lots of blogging is shit, but so are lots of books. So are lots of essays, even those which properly claim the form. Great blogging, however, is one of the few things that makes me genuinely thankful for the superfluity of the social media age in which I live. I don’t care what we call the writing, so long as it’s out there and I get to read it.