Diligent Indolence


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Photo by Christopher Chan

I can never entirely make up my mind whether it’s the Internet having a series of identity crises or just me. The blogosphere—that merry menagerie of stampeding independent minds—seems bent on making highly incompatible claims about its present capacities and future possibilities. It lives in constant oscillation between self-analysis and self-promotion, between an idea of itself as a smart-ass replacement for obsolete “old media” and an idea of itself as an emergent form of communication and expression, concerned less with the obsolescence of anything than with the improvement of itself.

I read one ode to bloggy self-definition, and I think, awesome, this might just work. People are ready to hold themselves accountable (or to allow their commenters to hold them accountable) in a way never before possible, to try to make something out of the opportunities of blogging that is really new, not just more “interactive” and more “democratic” than journalism. These bloggers believe that the instantaneity of blogging means that we can reconceptualize errant trains of thought at warp speed; someone points out the flaw in our logic or the fatal exception to our rule, and we can revise, reformulate, rearticulate, or even just annotate our way to a better, more complete idea of what we’re talking about. We can even find out the dimensions of our ignorance, and allow ourselves to be steered toward whole shelves of writers and cabinets of ideas we never knew existed.

Then I read a prideful rejection of “mainstream,” “old media” or (confusingly now that most things are eventually digitized) “print” journalism—favorite targets: The New York Times Book Review, anything an academic writes, and one dour critic named J. Wood—and I think, jeez, how many babies are flying out the window on our way to a better, bloggier, bathwater-free world. It’s not recognition we’re hooting for; it’s fewer professional critics. A lot of professional criticism is dreck, we note not too circumspectly, and a lot of it is about the same books, we further note quite correctly, so this elaborate system that produces all this repetitive dreck really isn’t doing its job, which we assume to be the production of vigorous analyses of life-altering books. The abject failure of print-based journalism tout court is an unmistakable sign that the times have changed, and these fancy-pants aren’t meeting their readers’ needs any longer. Economic hardship is a manifest judgment of obsolescence and inadequacy; shuttered doors means outdated values.

Cultural Darwinism aside, it is, I think, a teensy bit presumptuous to think that the economic collapse of print journalism (particularly in the book review sections) is causally connected to an absolute failure or insufficiency of its ideas and ideals—hierarchical editing structures and professional employees with specialized educational backgrounds—to adapt to changing demands and new possibilities for criticism. The economic side of newspaper and magazine publishing is the sum of so many more factors than blogging ever faces that it is really pretty thick to come to any kind of conclusion about the relative appeal of old media criticism versus blogging/amateur criticism based on the economic fates of newspapers or print-based journalism. Nothing about blogging is vindicated by the closing of a single newspaper.

It is easy, of course, to think so, and the rapid expansion of the blogosphere makes it quite tempting to believe that blogging, or amateur criticism, is successful because it is well adapted to the interests and ideas of whatever people are out there who read passionately. We assume that an upward trend on our Sitemeters or Google Analytics means that we’re doing something right; more comments that we’ve struck a chord. Yet with this watery faith in “success” comes a raft of harmful ideas and presumptions that are found all too often in tales of blog triumphalism.

Particularly distressing is a certain note of bedrock faith that the blogosphere is great because its absolute openness allows the cream to float to the top, or at least enough of the cream that a quick skim will draw off a fair bit that is of excellent quality. The idea is that because so much of the activity involved in blogging—reading, linking, writing, commenting, and, most importantly to the blogger, subscribing or returning—is voluntary (we’re all effectively volunteer critics), then what we have is a sort of pristine marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas will also be the best-sellers. I don’t see how this can be the case, however; the lit-blog’s bread-and-butter is not the idea, but the annotated link. It’s not a question of who has the best ideas, but who has aggregated the best sources that (often) determines a blog’s success. Exceptions, of course, exist, and there are some tremendously popular blogs which do not spend much effort collecting troves of interesting literary miscellanea, and which are almost entirely devoted to long or longish, idea-rich essays. I don’t wish to argue, however, that link-heavy blogs are not intellectual or don’t contain ideas, but merely that the factors which influence their success turn the idea of a marketplace of ideas into something more resembling a retail store.

But more generally, there is an idea that if we’re succeeding, then anything we’re not doing isn’t strictly necessary; if our audience is growing, then they only want those things we’re doing and no others, or at least they don’t want those other things very much. Speaking more directly, they can’t be expecting specialization—they’re not after the kind of authority that comes from that dead letter, the professional critic. Yet an audience that responds to our passion for books, that ignites with our scattered insights, is not necessarily one that disdains the ideals of professional criticism, and very well may be one that is still quite interested in criticism that is very dependent on specialized knowledge and even on hierarchical editing and publishing.

Once we remove the cultural Darwinism belief that newspaper book sections are failing because people don’t think professional criticism is important anymore or that they are rejecting the “filters” of established media, then we have to address whether we ought to be defining ourselves—and defining amateur criticism—in a way that isn’t just the scrappy underdog to the New York Establishment or James Wood or “old media.” Amateurism henceforth must be a good deal more than catch-as-catch-can, cream-rising-to-the-top, quick-on-the-draw enthusiasm, set off against the stagnant, cumbersome, top-down, heavily institutional specter of print journalism. We require a new paradigm for this brave new world; opposition isn’t enough.

I would like to offer a phrase drawn from one of John Keats’s letters as a guiding light in this redefinition:

I had an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner – Let him on a certain day read a certain page of full Poesy or distilled Prose, and let him wander upon it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it: until it becomes stale – But when will it do so? Never – When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting-post towards all ‘the two-and-thirty Palaces.’ How happy is such a voyage of concentration, what delicious diligent Indolence!

The whole letter (to John Hamilton Reynolds, Feb. 19, 1818) is wonderful—among Keats’s best, I think. Keats goes on to admit that he hasn’t actually been reading anything, and that this luminous passage (and some dazzling philosophical imagery later in the poem) is basically a plumped-up excuse for his laziness—a fact which makes this letter perhaps even more appropriate a model of blogging.

But those two words which end this excerpt—“diligent Indolence!”—are what I wish to underline. It is important to get the sense of what Keats means by this term in the context of the rest of the letter, but here I will truncate it a bit and suggest that its application to blogging lies in the brilliant opportunities that amateurism opens to a writer and a lover of literature. We of course want to read a lot of literature, and we should—Keats speaks to a “sparing touch of noble Books,” but quantity is not so much the issue. Nor is speed—although “indolence” suggests a certain amount of maundering and loafing, Keats is also quite famous for the quickness of his reactions to literature—“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” has a sense of immediacy, as if Keats, incomparably moved, got up from the reading table only to sit right down again to write.

What is vital about Keats’s phrase is of course its paradoxical quality; to be diligently indolent means to be both hard at work and doing nothing. Yet its sense is also immediately obvious, and I think it captures the possibilities inherent in amateur criticism at its best: the earnest frivolousness of writing and thinking hard for the sheer fun of seeing your words spark into the keyboard, yet demanding that those words be ones that you would absolutely want to read if they were someone else’s. Not really under any obligation, all obligations are self-imposed, and this in itself is the greatest challenge: the word-by-word wrestling match with sound and sense is just a proxy for the slippery struggle to find the right holds on oneself, to build up the fragile intertwining structures of self-discipline and self-interest.

The fires of the amateur’s enthusiasm are worth stoking; and the heat that they give is not false. Yet they also ought to be more than flashes, and they must absolutely be more than the inverse reflections of the newspaper’s dying embers.

Visit Andrew Seal’s literary blog Blographia Literaria