I’m guessing but I think Nick Cohen is still just a little bit pissed at the less than rapturous reception his recent literary missive ‘What’s Left’ received outside Eustonista country.
Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve found myself in the vanguard of the Web 2.0 revolution.
You’re not the only one who’s surprised here, Nick.
The organisers of the 2007 Lulu Blooker Prize asked me to be one of the judges. I suspect they couldn’t find anyone else.
Ah, look. I’m not a stuck-up twat ‘cos I can do self-deprecating humour…
But wouldn’t be infinitely more amusing if it really were the case that he got the gig because they couldn’t find anyone else…
I’m glad they did because blooks carry the hopes of techno-Utopians that the net will unleash a new democratic age in which the snobberies and censorship of today’s elites are smashed by a tsunami of ‘user-generated content’.
Blooks? Is someone channelling Edward Lear?
Oh, sorry, a ‘blook‘ is a book that’s been serialised as a blog or a blog that’s been turned into a book, apparently, or to give a more precise definition, a ‘blook’ is yet another horrid neologism dreamed up by idiots with far too much time on their hands. The name was apparently coined by an American actor, Tony Pierce, in 2002 after conducting a competition amongst readers of his blog, thereby neatly combining the worst aspects of user interaction and Blue Peter. Still, I guess we should be thankful that the whole exercise does not appear to have entailed a premium rate phone poll, an omission for which Pierce is no doubt kicking himself in hindsight.
Still, I guess it beats waiting tables.
‘Blook’ is also, seemingly, a term coined in the 1990s to describe a manufactured object or piece of ephemera designed to look like a book, or group of books standing together – what we Brits have long referred to as an ‘ornament’ or, colloquially, as ‘that shoddy piece of tat your aunt bought at a car boot sale’.
In the best traditions of ‘Call My Bluff’ the presence of two definitions of ‘blook’ fair demands the provision of a third, and as every father knows ‘blook’ is the sound made by your, as yet unweaned, offspring immediately preceeding the act of depositing a posset down the front of your freshly laundered shirt…
…all which brings me back to Nick Cohen.
Citizen journalists, publishers and film-makers will replace newspaper editors, film and TV moguls and everyone with something to say will say it, at length.
Ah yes, the now familiar plaintive cry of the greater flustered media professional – you bastards are after my job, aren’t you?
I may be losing older readers, so I’d better slow down and explain.
Nick’s readers have been losing the will to live for some considerable time, so the concern is understandable.
‘Blook’ is an ugly merger of ‘blog’ and ‘book’, a book that began its life on the net, in other words. Lulu.com, the prize’s sponsor, is the literary equivalent of a video-sharing site. Just as anyone can post a film on YouTube, so anyone can send an electronic book to Lulu. There’s no editing. No sinister authority figure decides whether your work is any good or, indeed, if it makes sense. The blook sits in cyberspace until a reader decides to buy it. With cheap, just-in-time printing technology, Lulu can publish a copy at a competitive price and post it to the buyer.
In short, vanity publishing without the cash payment up front – see it is just like ‘Call My Bluff’… the bluffs are always far more amusing.
In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine predicted that the blockbuster books, movies and television shows of the 20th century would die. When hundreds of millions of people realised they could publish and read whatever they wanted in their own niches, there would be no need for the old cultural elites who arrogantly decided what products the mass market should consume.
This, as you’ll shortly see, Nick considers to be a bad thing, although should it go on spare us the prospect of any further sequels to/spin offs from American Pie then, on that basis, alone we should be giving Chris a medal for humanitarian endeavour.
Bob Young, the founder of Lulu, summed up the hopes of the evangelists for a user-generated culture when he said that while conventional publishers want 100 books that would each sell a million copies, he wants a million books that will each sell 100. He is proud to have presided over the tiny print runs of such niche classics as A-Step-by-Step Guide to Painting Model Horses With Pastels and Selling Retail Floor Covering – A Humanistic Approach.
As noted previously, the production of niche ‘classics’ such as those sited has long been the domain of the cash-up-front vanity publisher who, in the publishing world, has traditionally occupied their own niche… somewhere between a rat and cockroach.
Lulu’s business model may well result in a mass of publications of distinctly limited mass-market appeal but it does appear to have the distinct advantage over the traditional vanity publishing model of not reaming the author up front.
Peter Freedman, one of the British organisers of the Blooker, is equally enthusiastic about the democratic potential of blooking. ‘Soon, a crusty editor sitting in Bloomsbury with a bow-tie won’t be able to decide whether you deserve to be published,’ he told me. ‘It’ll be up to you.’
Not sure where the business of democracy comes into the picture, except that the word seems to be developing a new and rather vague meaning of late, that of being something that lets lots of people do an unspecified something that they couldn’t easily do before, by which definition I suppose one could argue that the on-line porn industry has helped to democratise masturbation and reality television has democratised the freak show.
The point, as should be obvious, is that democracy is not necessarily a good thing of it itself – what matters most is what you do with it when you’ve got it.
Others are starting to wonder if user-generators won’t miss Bloomsbury and Fleet Street when they’re gone. In an article for the Guardian, political commentator Oliver Kamm argued that, far from democratising intelligent debate, the ‘citizen journalists’ of the political blogs were sallow dogmatists who screamed abuse from behind the coward’s cloak of anonymity at any writer who confronted their lame prejudices. ‘Blogs typically do not add to the stock of commentary,’ he wrote. ‘They are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions the traditional media provide.’
First Cohen and now Kamm. Anyone starting to see a pattern emerging here?
Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times and Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming The Cult of the Amateur, both argue that the web destroys culture because when editing goes and every opinion becomes equally valid, anyone who tries to distinguish between Shakespeare and a fool is dismissed as a bow-tied dinosaur.
Ah. So we every so ‘umble readers simply cannot be trusted to exercise a little discrimination and good judgement when it comes to the matter of whose opinions we do and don’t value?
Cohen seems to be suggesting that the great unwashed are somehow incapable of assessing the validity of opinions without the guiding hand and blue pencil of the professional mediarati to guide us…
…bollocks – or perhaps out of deference to the intellectual pretensions of Cohen and Kamm, I should say ‘yarbles’.
For all the professional commentariat complain bitterly of their rather ‘robust’ and ungentle handling by some bloggers and a few anonymous blog-trolls, it should be noted that there is nothing that pisses them off quite so much as those occasions on which their standard charge of amateurism contrives to explode in their face.
This latest spate of sniping from the hallowed ranks of the professional commentariat has, I will freely admit. prompted me to contemplate a pivotal question.
Just what, exactly, is it that journalists – or rather columnists, as there is little by way of real friction between most bloggers and other subspecies of the genus ‘Journalista’ – possess that bloggers do not, such that these columnists routinely operate from a presumption of their own professional and intellectual superiority?
The only answer that seems to fit, having pondered the subject, is that with payment for one’s opinions comes the hubristic belief that one’s ability to string together words in a more or less grammatically correct and pleasing manner automatically confers on oneself the status of being an ecumenical authority on any and all subjects to which one turns ones attention.
And therein lies the problem. Believing themselves to be experts in the art of writing, the professional columnist also – and frequently without merit – comes to believe themselves to be, also, experts in whatever subject it is they happen choose to write about on any given occasion, irrespective of whether they possess any real or substantive expertise in that specific field.
One should have a care to make a further distinction here. The sin of journalistic hubris is much less prevalent amongst specialist commentators who write, in the main, for a specialist and often technical audience, and who remain, therefore, fully aware that those they are addressing as at least their equals, if not betters, in terms of expertise. Rather it tend to the generalists, the jacks of all trades, who fall most often from their self-assumed state of journalistic grace by failing to appreciate that amongst their audience, whom they patronise as amateurs, there still lurks the expert, waiting patiently to trap the unwary.
Or, to be rather more succinct, Cohen, Kamm and – insert your preferred name(s) here – have forgotten the maxim that you can full some of the people all of time and all of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.
Cohen is a journalist.
Kamm’s day job is in the financial sector and his claim to professional status as an author rests on the occasion comment piece in the Times and having written a book for a right-wing think tank, the Social Affairs Unit, which in itself amounts to not much more than a form of vanity publishing.
But can either of them spot-weld a cracked sub-frame?
Who knows? Although one suspects not, in which case when it comes to repairing cars, both can be considered to be, at best, amateurs, in which case who are they to label others in the same manner.
A month spent reading the Blooker shortlist convinced me that Kamm, Appleyard and Keen were right in general, but not in detail. The 15 blooks that made it through to the judging stage weren’t niche products from no-hopers in the Painting Model Horses With Pastels tradition, but works that were meant to fulfil the hope that great – or at least good – writers could come from the net.
And what, exactly, is a ‘good’ writer? Such judgements are, at best, entirely subjective and rest in the eye of the beholder.
Does one make one’s judgements on the quality of the prose, the narrative or even the worth and interest engendered by the central idea or premise? In my time I’ve read, or rather tried to read, novels that were beautifully written in an aesthetic sense, and completely unfinishable due to the absurdity of the narrative or the abject lack of even a moderately interesting idea to sustain the story.
By the same token I’ve read books that the literary snoberati would consider to be little more than dreadful potboilers but which I’ve found myself unable to put down because whatever their aesthetic failings, they deliver a damn good story or even just an interesting idea that keeps one hooked right to the end of book just to find out precisely how it develops.
‘Popular’ and ‘good’ are often far from being the same thing as should be self-evident from a simple viewing of the current bestsellers list at any major bookstore.
Skip past the ubiquitous final Harry Potter novel and one finds that Amazon UK lists this as its current number three:
The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion and Peace with Your Man
And if the title leaves you in any doubt, then read the synopsis
At 30, Laura Doyle, like millions of women, was miserable in her marriage, but she couldn’t put her finger on the cause. ‘I was lonely and I was exhausted from trying to do everything myself. When I learned to stop controlling and criticising my husband and practised receiving graciously, something magical happened. The union I had always dreamed of appeared. The man who had wooed me was back,’ writes Doyle. In “The Surrendered Wife”, Laura Doyle presents a radical and controversial approach to relationships: women can enjoy great sex, harmony and the intimacy they crave when they stop controlling their partner. Surrendering, she says, is the simplest principle for a great marriage and thousands of women swear by it. Covering both the emotional and practical aspects of marriage, it teaches women valuable lessons including how to respect the man they married, how to resist the temptation to bicker and how to trust their man. But most importantly, it shows how you can fall in love with your man all over again. With marriages and relationships fast becoming the first casualty of modern life, “The Surrendered Wife” could be the key to ‘happy ever after’
There will now be a short recess while I go off and find a bucket…
…I’m back but only to note that further down the list Amazon display a wonderful sense of the ironic – or perhaps bulemic – by offering ‘James Martin – Desserts’ at number nine and Paul McKenna’s ‘I Can Make You Thin’ at eighteen.
What was that about the importance of editors, Nick?
I can’t speak for the other judges, but to me, the supposedly radical medium of the future seemed as parasitic on traditional publishing as political bloggers are on traditional newspapers. We had the escapades of an American who moves to France, which was Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence redone for a US audience; Breakup Babe; a well-written piece of chick-lit whose author admitted her debt to Bridget Jones’s Diary; and Monster Island, a seventh-rate horror novel, which ripped off every zombie movie ever made. (The author’s only original touch was pitting his zombies against a fantasy army of assault-rifle-bearing, 14-year-old Somali schoolgirls.)
One can only presume from this that’s its been quite some time since Cohen last graced the interior of a branch of WH Smith and perused their fine selection of literary offerings else he might well have been moved to the observation that if these novels comprise the best of a poor selection that is derivative of better known works, it is only because mainstream publishers have already cherry-picked the slightly better, but no less derivative specimens for their own publishing catalogues. Although I would agree that the schoolgirl Somali Rambo thing is a novel touch and will no doubt ensure that the author will shortly receive a well deserved call about the film rights from Troma – once they succeed in figuring out how to get around the slight impediment offered by the bourka in slotting in their usual naked shower scene into the plot.
And yet… buried underneath the dreadful and the derivative was a rough diamond: My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell. It tells the reader what it’s like to be a grunt fighting in the Sunni Triangle with more power and authority than the best embedded reporter in the world could manage. My War has been a cult hit in America – just before he died, Kurt Vonnegut sent Buzzell a fan letter – and it would never have been written if blogging had not been invented.
One rather suspects that Cohen and Vonnegut see somewhat different things in Buzzell’s book not least in light of Vonnegu’s comment in this interview:
Based on what you’ve read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bush’s policies and the impending war in Iraq?
KV: That they are nonsense.
Let alone that Cohen would fully appreciate the delicious quality of this remark:
What targets would you consider fair game for a satirist today?
Still Cohen continues unabashed…
In theory, Buzzell could have kept a diary, gone home and turned it into a book. In practice, he wouldn’t have had the self-confidence. His blog gave him strength because it attracted praise from hundreds of readers in the eight weeks before the authorities stopped him posting from a cyber cafe at the US base in Mosul. Their encouragement made him realise he could make it as an author.
By which token we can, perhaps, shortly expect to see Paul Staines and Iain Dale topping the best sellers lists on Amazon…
…or perhaps not.
No. Don’t even go there…
Without wishing to seem down on Buzzell – I’ve read neither his blog or his book – what the praise his blog received from its readers demonstrates is only that he had an audience. Whether his work is any good, and by what criteria one arrives at such a judgement is anyone’s guess, and entirely immaterial to the publishing industry who, like any other business, will take profitability over quality any day.
How else does Jeffrey Archer get his books published?
Buzzell’s small justification for Web 2.0 holds true for others. Anonymity may give free rein to spluttering buffoons to write without being held to account for their words, but it also allows police officers and NHS doctors to describe the faults of the public sector without fear of their bosses firing them. The medium’s unlimited space allows millions to drone on in blogs that no one but their friends will read, but the same lack of constraint allows professors to bring their knowledge to a general audience without adhering to the stultifying styles of academia.
Its interesting, here, to see quite the extent to which Cohen fails to understand the mechanics of accountability as they apply to blogs.
With scarcely time to draw breath he breezes effortless from ‘[a]nonymity may give free rein to spluttering buffoons to write without being held to account for their words’ to ‘[t]he medium’s unlimited space allows millions to drone on in blogs that no one but their friends will read’ without showing any sign that he appreciates the connection between the two.
Bloggers are routinely held to account for their words – that’s part of what the facility that permits readers to post comments is for, which makes Cohen’s remarks all the more ironic as neither he, nor Kamm, permits comments on their own blogs.
Tell me again, just who is unaccountable here?
One begins to tire of repeating this, but it remains true nonetheless. Bloggers stand and fall on their personal reputation and credibility. We may well not have editors and sub-editors to watch over us, but we also don’t have a marketing department to sell our intellectual wares.
We have go out and find our own audience- how about you Nick?
In journalism as in publishing, fine writers and commentators have broken through from the blogs to the mainstream and it is good to see them succeeding. But, dear God, there are too few of them, far too few: tiny islands of talent in a roaring, foam-flecked sea.
Since when did any creative medium not find itself subject to questions about its ‘signal to noise’ ratio?
There are many more aspiring authors than there is the capacity (and profitability) in the publishing market to sustain them, so far as commercial publishing companies are concerned, much as one finds no shortage of aspiring actors waiting tables in Los Angeles and aspiring singers taking part in local karaoke contests, all of them hoping that they’ll be the one to catch a break. Some make it, many more don’t.
That’s the way it is and has always been and the Internet changes things only in terms of altering exactly who it is gets to decide who gets the break by lessening the power of the ‘middleman’.
The advent of blogging and social networking hasn’t made people any more or less opinionated, or any more or less talented for that matter, All the internet does is remove the bottleneck by which, in the main, corporate interests have been able to control what we see and hear, whose writing we get to read, whose songs we listen to, whose opinions and ideas we’re exposed to, this being control of the means of distribution and access.
The decision as to whether or not my writing and my opinions – or those of any other blogger – are considered to be good, bad or indifferent rests in the same place it always has, with the people who happen across my blog, read what I have to say and decide for themselves whether they think its worth reading. The only difference the internet makes is that it gives me a chance to reach a much bigger audience that is possible from a table in my local pub.
As is evident from that last paragraph, Cohen, like so many other critics of blogging, labours under the basic misapprehension that bloggers are little else but aspirant professional authors, journalists and commentators and that the only true measure of quality rests, therefore, in whether or not a blogger succeeds in ‘crossing the floor’ and joining the mainstream.
In truth, the vast majority of bloggers harbour no such ambitions – not that it wouldn’t be nice to get paid for doing this as it would make for much more comfortable and relaxed existence than the day job – but joining the ranks of the paid commentariat is not the be all and end all of blogging nor it a benchmark against which one can assess the relative quality of different bloggers. Oliver Kamm has, for example, has crossed the divide to some extent despite the fact that many, if not most, bloggers consider him to be so far up his own arse that he can easily lick the back of his tonsils.
As the final word on this, I’d like to refer you, first, back to Kurt Vonnegut’s remarks on suitable targets for satirists and then share with you this sequence of comments from Pickled Politics, back in December.
To set the scene for you, these comments appeared under a post by Sunny about Dave Hill’s book, ‘Adoption’, which Dave contrived to plug (repeatedly) on Comment Is Free in a manner that was both deeply ironic and would have put the most mendicant of chat show guests to shame.
Unity — on 19th December, 2006 at 2:43 pm
Having published a book, you’re obligated to mention it at least once in every single post you write…
Err… no… sorry, Dave. For a moment there I was confusing you with Oliver Kamm.
Amir Kamm — on 19th December, 2006 at 3:12 pm
My book is almost a logical fallacy itself, for it exemplifies the anthropomorphic fallacy that one may attribute personality – in this case a wicked and grasping avarice – to an abstraction, namely the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky.
What can one make, for example, of the assertion, with its preposterous identification of public opinion with unthinking militarism, that Chomsky is a pro-totalitarian, mendacious totalitarian-toady. I can assure Chomsky that the 20% in the US and Great Britain who supported Operation Iraqi Freedom are not automata and were perfectly capable of stating an overwhelming justification for going to war: we didn’t wish to see an aggressive and expansionist tyranny succeed in acquiring its non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately for world peace, our side ignored the evidence and destroyed Iraq.
The ultimate vacuity of this blog is displayed, however, in its offensively facile apologetics for the incidents that, more than anything else, have destroyed Noam Chomsky’s reputation for fair-minded and disinterested political commentary. I, on the other hand, am a first-rate banker who has travelled a well-worn political path from the Kolakowskian left to the heterogeneous coalition devoted to the defence of liberal democratic values and anti-totalitarian processes.
Oliver Ham — on 19th December, 2006 at 4:23 pm
I resent your jejune mockery and totalitarian-esque elisions. Chomsky is the master of the bold historical declamation to which there is a lot less than meets the eye. No responsible blogger, even in this stream-of-consciousness format, could risk his reputation with such judgements as, “Lembit Opik has a big willy.”
Chomsky adopts a similar practice with recent events too. Extraordinarily, he claims that Seymour Butts in 2003 mounted an inquiry into the BBC because the corporation wasn’t compliant enough in reporting the size of Ron Jeremy’s shlong. Why this should be is a matter of some wonderment, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a large proportion of Chomsky’s audience comprises those of college age.
Leon — on 19th December, 2006 at 4:28 pm
I await Oliver Spam’s contributions with interest…
Oliver Spam — on 19th December, 2006 at 4:40 pm
It’s Spam here. You could have plausibly, though not necessarily correctly, argued a prudential case against the inclusion of Ron Jeremy’s willy. You could have argued, against the evidence of the erosion of the policy of containment, that coercive inspections and diplomatic pressure might have tempered a humongous shlong and enhanced the prospects for penile reform. But to depict Mr. Jeremy as the victim of pro-totalitarian anti-pornographic forces is to place a casuistical stress on a doctrine of nakedness that real progressives – statesmen such as Tony Blair and Lembit Opik – have understood as a defence of quietism and reaction.
Oliver Pram — on 19th December, 2006 at 5:03 pm
It’s Pram here. Chomsky next turns to decrying the society he lives in. He depicts the United States as a haven for ubiquitous and influential willies. The trouble is, he once again cites no data and considers no countervailing cocks. The US does indeed strike the outside observer as unusual in its extensive range of shlongs and shlorts, but the crucial question for a democratic polity is not its citizens’ beliefs in willy size and eschatology but whether those beliefs are separated from pro-totalitarian and anti-progressive forces. The subtlety of this question is not considered in Chomsky’s ex cathedra assertion that “we could move back to a pre-Larry Holmes era.”
Dave Hill — on 19th December, 2006 at 5:11 pm
I have a new novel out, by the way. Most of the words in it are small.
Dave Bill — on 19th December, 2006 at 5:18 pm
It’s Bill here. Do you have a chapter on Chomsky? In which you defend Jacksonian ideals of anti-totalitarianism and anti-totalizing-totalitarianism?
Dave Hill — on 19th December, 2006 at 5:44 pm
I did, but they censored it. Typical.
Dave Bill — on 19th December, 2006 at 6:09 pm
Ha ha ha ha ha! 🙂
Well, for that, I’ll definitely purchase a copy.
Oliver Kamm – an apology — on 20th December, 2006 at 2:22 pm
Hello, Kamm here. I’ve been informed by my solicitors, who I will plug, that I need to apologise to my readers regarding the coverage of Neil Clark’s apology to me after I sued him. You may recall I said he should apologise to me for making me apologise to him. Further, I’m an apology for a blogger.
Res Ipsa Loquitur