Blogs as Literature?

Recently, the editors of the New York Times posed an interesting question on their blog, Paper Cuts. Are blogs literature? The question was posed in response to the latest book by the Portuguese novelist José Saramago’s entitled The Notebook, a collection of blog posts he created from September 2008 to August 2009, encouraged by his family and friends. According to the Times, The Notebook is mostly a collection of mini essays, shorter than most journalism articles. By the end of their blog post, the editors answer their own question by stating that no, blogs are not literature. They base their conclusion on a belief that most blog posts are “too topical” and “too fleeting” to count as literature. Their write-up concludes by stating Jose gave up on blogging after about a year because he started a new novel and wanted to dedicate all of his time to that.

A lot of the blogs I have come across offer interviews with other writers, blurbs about various readings, and responses to magazine and journal articles, and of course, politics. But are there any well-known writers out there that use a blog to post sweeping, riveting narrative essays or short stories? Are there poets out there that post finished work on a blog? I have always hesitated to do so because I am more interested in sending that work off to journals, and some editors will not touch a poem if it has appeared anywhere else, including on a blog.

But as blogging continues to grow in popularity, will how we blog change? Will writers use this particular medium to post drafts, revisions, and finished products of a longer work? Will they gather various blog posts and publish them as a collection that will be considered “literature?” The experiment did not work for José Saramago, but could it work for another writer one day?

9 thoughts on “Blogs as Literature?

  1. Kurtis the Red says:

    Interesting view on blogging. I’m new to WordPress specifically, but I have posted on an online forum like this before, albeit blogs, facebook, a traditional forum or whatnot. I find that blogs can be a very useful tool during the creative process. For example in my experience, I have posted drafts or part of a larger work and asked for feedback.
    Blogs are open to the world, even if the selection is only a fraction of the people out there, I can get multiple views and multiple opinions of my work. It’s not a perfect solution, but an elegant one to see if an idea is worth pursuing
    Blogs as literature? I’m not sure myself. True enough that most blogs follow the lines of a journal or diary. But haven’t journals and diaries eventually been published?
    Loved the post.

    • Brian Fanelli says:

      Kurtis, I am glad you liked the post, and thank you so much for responding. I think as time goes on we could see blogs and forums act as a virtual writing workshop. A lot of creative writing M.F.A. programs already operate that way.

      Yes, a lot of journals by famous authors have been published, but I think there is a difference between sitting down and journaling and blogging. I find that when I sit down to write, it is more reflective. However, perhaps blogs will ultimately become the new form of journaling. I guess we’ll have to see!

  2. Art says:

    The big problem with the New York Times piece is that the author does not define what he means by literature, nor does he offer a broad enough definition of a blog. “Part journalism, part journal” does not cover all of the blogs I frequently read, many of which offer fully developed, freestanding essays. My simple response to the question of whether or not a blog can be literature is: why not? I have read plenty of essays on blogs that are certainly of the same quality as printed works deemed worthy enough for the hallow label “literature.” I, for one, use my blog to post philosophical essays that are more than just “fleeting” thoughts. I spend at least a week on each piece of writing, sometimes more. I do not aspire to produce “literature,” but I am also not a news source or a diarist. I am glad to see that the editors at Creative Nonfiction are keeping an open mind and welcoming blog submissions. Literature is defined by what it is in practice, not theory.

    • Brian Fanelli says:

      Thank you for the response, Art. I do think there are a lot of blog posts that are well-planned and well-written, yours included. That said, there are plenty that fall into the journaling category and countless posts written in response to politics or other very topical issues. I also wonder why some bloggers don’t send their essays out to print journals instead.

      • Art says:

        As Kent says below, the “ongoing conversation” quality of blogs is probably one reason why many do not attempt to publish their essays in journals. Speaking for myself, the work I post on my blog (though fully developed) is not intended for publication; it’s intended for conversation (and I will be the first to point out its lack of validity in that regard). I do have essays planned that are certainly more suited for journal submission and that will not appear on my blog. But a blog is a good place to test the waters, so to speak. I agree that it might prove a great venue for workshopping or journaling.

        My initial problem expressed above has more to do with the fact that no strong grounds are provided to exclude writing produced on blogs from being literature. If those whom we have in place to make decisions on what gets stamped as literature (e.g., the editors at Creative Nonfiction) decide to accept writing produced on blogs as literature, then this practice should modify any opposing theoretical notion of literature.

        I am also of the mind that art, literature, and the like are qualified by the aesthetic responses of an audience. These responses, I believe, are not confined to particular media. I cannot assert, for instance, that someone viewing the Mona Lisa online will have a less significant aesthetic response than someone viewing the actual painting. Just as good writing will still be good no matter the medium.

        That said, I am maintaining the importance of critics and editorial boards to determine what is “good writing” and “good art.” To preserve standards of excellence, I do think it is important to stick to the existing procedures in terms of publishing.

        To summarize: blogs can be literature, but they are not necessarily so.

  3. Kent says:

    Thanks to Art and “A Better Whirlpool” for the link to this post, and thanks, Brian, for the interesting topic. I am not a wide-read connesieur of blogs, but it seems like the primary concern here is the medium, not the content. In other words, does the blog form itself– regardless of what is written/posted within it– count as literature? Certainly the oppopsite or inverse is true– there is plenty of material that gets published on paper or in e-books that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) count as literature. And yet no one thinks to question it, because it has been solidly set down by a professional publishing house in ink (actual, digital, or otherwise) and sold for a profit. In contrast, blogs function at a more casual level even than self-published books, and survive on a “promise” basis rather than a “result” basis— a blog must necessarily begin with an initial post, but after that it’s strictly a matter of fate and fancy as to whether more posts will appear, whereas when you buy/borrow/steal a book, the complete work is already in your hands.

    So a major facet of the blogs/literature debate would seem to necessarily be the medium with its “honor system” for content. (Indeed, someone could post a truly outstanding piece of literary writing one week, and then post a lolcatz video the next. Should that second post void the literary validity of the first?) More importantly, if the blogger loses interest or shifts his/her topical focus, does that retroactively affect the quality or longevity of what was previously written/posted? Because the blogosphere is such a fleeting medium, does that lack of permanence constitute a failure as literature? (As far as historians know, the ancient Picts in Scotland had a rich literary culture, but because the artifacts of their written language consist today of only a few eroded rune stones, we know next to nothing of the content of their literature.)

    Finally, as for genres, the personal essay (a short nonfiction piece containing a recognizeable authorial voice or presence) is a universally acknowledged literary genre dating back to Montaigne. And not all brief writings need to be nonfiction or essays either. Most of Charles Dickens’ novels were first published in serial form in the popular magazines of the time; since most literary journals today would seem to balk at that kind of regular fragmenting of a single long text, perhaps a blog would be the perfect initial testing ground? Or the same for standalone short stories with a constant central character or conceit, a la Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine. But as mentioned earlier, the problem with any such posting of “finished” work on a blog poses the problem of later professional republication for profit. I strongly believe that an author posting a piece of writing on a self-created/self-sustained nonprofit blog should not count as a “previous publication” when it comes to submitting the piece to a professional literary journal or publishing house.

    So it seems that literature, ultimately, is the combination of inner quality (the work must be worthy) and medium (the form must do it justice).

    • Brian Fanelli says:

      Kent, thank you so much for taking the time to read my post and for responding. I did not want to knock the content that appears on some blogs, but, as you pointed out at the end of the post, there is an issue with the notion of publishing credits and blogs. I agree with you that authors should never count their own blog posts as publishing credits, especially since the work has not really been vetted prior to being posted. One of the reasons other writers and academics especially are concerned with journal publications is because of the fact your work goes to first readers and then higher editors, so it is vetted and judged. I think the older I get and the more I move forward with my career, I am very concious of where my work appears, and how it appears.

      • Kent says:

        Agreed. There’s also the interesting “ongoing conversation” nature of blogs as made possible by the response forum– i.e. this. As far as I know, there are no other literary forms that offer the possibility of this sort of instant response/dialogue between the readers and writer. It’s a kind of phone-call / workshop / book club discussion / letter to the editor / fanmail / roundtable forum all in one, and obviously the higher the literary qualities and merits of the original piece of writing, the higher the caliber of the responses (at least hypothetically or ideally).

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