Sunday, August 26, 2012

He who blogs and runs away

He settled Hoti's business--let it be!--
       Properly based Oun--
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
       Dead from the waist down.

A few years back, there was a blog I read every day. Then I noticed that the author of the blog was posting infrequently after years of posting almost every day. Then he wasn't posting at all, and some random blog entry was at the head of the page every time I clicked on it. And then the blog was gone, shut down, and I wondered why he stopped writing it.

So, having followed that same pattern myself -- less frequent posting followed by hardly any posting at all -- I should do what I wished that other guy had done, and write a post explaining why I'm no longer blogging here (though the archives will hopefully remain up as long as Blogger does). Except I'm not sure I can explain it, and to the extent I can explain it, it's not all that interesting. It comes down to the reason most people stop blogging: they use up the ideas they're aching to write about, and then blogging becomes work. A personal blog is not work, and once you can't generate ideas for it, you have to ask yourself if you should keep trying, or find something else to do in your spare time. I think I should try to do the latter, partly because I think I might be able to write better that way.

 (I should strongly emphasize that this post is only about this blog, Something Old, Nothing New. This has nothing to do with professional work, only personal after-hours blogging.)

Looking back on my work at this blog, I don't think I used up all my ideas right off the bat, although many of the posts I still find valuable are the early ones, where I was talking about things I'd thought of but hadn't heard mentioned much, in print or online. ("Bad sitcoms with good writing," where I awkwardly tried to argue for a different definition of a well-written TV show, is one.) The most valuable thing about blogging is that it allows you to find pieces written from narrow but highly-focused expertise: I would never be able to write a book on all of movie history or comics history or theatre history, but I was able to write a bit about the things that a book would have to skip over in a couple of paragraphs.

Everyone has their own idea of where a blog goes right and wrong, and my own opinions on this blog's strengths and weaknesses aren't necessarily the correct ones. However, I think the blog was strongest when most enthusiastic, worse when trying to evaluate something from a sense of duty, and worst when being negative. It's not that negativism is always bad. Some of my favorite writers are at their best showing you what's bad and what could have been better. But maybe because this is a fan blog, created mostly to talk about the things that excited me, I sometimes sounded ridiculous and petty when trying to do negative criticism. My "things that suck" series of posts is embarrassing; half the time I'd be beating up on something for flaws that don't even matter, and the other half I'd be bashing something that clearly does not deserve it. For example, I don't care for Harvey comics, but comics that employed Ernie Colón and Warren Kremer don't "suck," and I understand that now.

 The worst thing about online criticism is that it's helped revive a certain kind of snarky, superior judgment that was once more common in print; it's a tone that suggests that the work in question is so obviously beneath the critic that he doesn't even owe it the courtesy of taking an interest in what it's doing. I'm better at discussing everything as if it's interesting, even the bad stuff. At least the "Why I Hate Family Guy" post, which is probably the most-read post I ever wrote, was passionate rather than snarky. I don't even hate that show any more (I don't like it, but I don't hate it) but at least the tone of the post is not dismissive. I no longer care for dismissiveness.

The thing I liked best about this blog was that I was sometimes able to analyze something in a way that made sense - if that makes sense. Maybe because I was turned down for the PH.D program in English, I tended to avoid an academic style in my writing. (I think I went to the opposite extreme and used language that was too simplistic; I sometimes feel like my first inclination is to write like the captions in a corporate children's picture book). I think it doesn't matter if something was intended by an artist, as long as it's there. But I don't enjoy reading something that doesn't take any of the circumstances behind the work into account, or reads things in that aren't consistent with the shape or form of the work. The question I try to ask myself is: if a work has a certain effect on me, why does it have that effect? Where does it come from? What am I responding to and how can I explain that? Sometimes I can explain it, sometimes I can't, but I think at least some of what I've said can be justified by the works themselves, and I'm glad about that.

On the other hand, I wished I could have found a more dynamic writing style for this blog. Right from the beginning I worried that the format would make it seem too much like a lecture. I decided I couldn't really help it, so I chose to keep going, pick the things I wanted to write about, and then say what I had been thinking about them. Because of the mix of fact and opinion - the facts I had read about various subjects (and I read a lot about some of them) combined with my own opinions - it could sometimes seem like I was speaking from authority when I really wasn't. I know a few readers felt I was too inclined to sound like everything was the definitive history of everything, when it wasn't. In some cases, that helped: to write anything that hasn't already been written about some of these things, you have to be willing to extrapolate. Someone once told me that a post I did was very accurate about what went on in the room when that project was being developed; I never would have gotten that close to the truth if I hadn't been willing to do some educated guessing. (If there are interviews with the people involved, you have to do even more guessing to reconcile them and figure out what was going on.) But educated guessing is still guessing. If I had had a more poetic or fanciful writing style, that would have been more appropriate for some of the posts. I could never quite shake off that tone of being the guy who tells everything he's ever read or thought on a particular topic.

Well, that's just the kind of person I am, and after all, that's what a personal blog is - a reflection of who you are. I'm not, as this blog probably makes clear, very good at writing about my own personal feelings, but your personality emerges even if you never give a single detail from your own life. This blog seems like the work of someone who's prone to getting excited about, and doing lots of research on, things that are relatively minor, while sometimes losing sight of the bigger picture of life and art. My favorite poem is Robert Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral," about a man who spent his entire life researching a few trivialities of Latin grammar. The poem can be read as a warning -- don't waste your life on such things; don't say you'll live it up when you've finished your work, because you might die before you finish. But it can also be read as praise for the people who look at these trivialities, since it's implied that without people like the anonymous grammarian, we might never have had the Renaissance. 

My evaluation of myself is a little closer to the second, more positive view of the Grammarian. In this sense: I think I've occasionally managed to say things that haven't been said very often, even at the risk of being focused on trivial things. Archie Comics is an example. I wouldn't demand any prizes for being able to look at an old Archie comic and figure out who wrote it, but hardly anyone anywhere had mentioned Frank Doyle, let alone identified any of his uncredited scripts, and the general idea was that Archie comics were all written in the same style. Now there is slightly more awareness of a few of the key figures at that company and the individual styles there. I wasn't the main contributor to that awareness, and it's not the most important thing in the world, but it's like a small article of Latin grammar: helping to call attention to the little things can feel surprisingly good at times.

Now, when you focus a lot on small things, and combine that with a slightly contrarian take on -- not everything, but some things -- you run the risk of focusing too much on things that don't really matter. That's the downside of the Grammarian's life. One reason why I don't think I would make a good episodic TV reviewer, and why I so admire the people who do it well, is that it requires confident judgment and a genuine enthusiasm for the new. Enthusiasm for the new is the quality I envy in a lot of people I know, because I think that the new stuff is really what matters most. Not that new stuff is the best, though (as I've said before) it seems like a new-is-best attitude is becoming more prevalent even as older stuff is more easily available. But new stuff is what makes art go. When great new works stop being created, as in opera, the form becomes decadent and resorts to desperate tricks and gimmicks to make the older works seem "relevant." So while it's great to call attention to the great old work, the most valuable thing a critic can do is build enthusiasm for the great new work. That just doesn't seem to be my thing.

I sometimes have a delayed reaction to new work, catching up with it a while after it comes out. Other times I'll get more enthusiastic about a new work I can't really recommend as a whole, just because it has something that interests me, while not being able to muster up much enthusiasm about something perfectly solid. A lot of television, film and other work falls into that latter category for me, now and always. But it's a particularly tough time to enthuse about television, because so much of the work falls into one of two categories: quality shows that wear their quality and their themes on their sleeve, and don't really have a lot of layers to peel (there's not much depth to some of the HBO things that keep indicating, in every scene, what they're supposed to be about), and populist shows that are poorly-made or bland. My heart seems to lie with things that are too cheesy to be high art, yet have too much artistry and power to be dismissed as mere cheese. But those are hard to come by at the moment, except maybe in the better reality shows. And it's probably true that that kind of thing is easier to spot in hindsight anyway: if I had been alive in the '50s, I doubt I would have noticed that the best American movies were being made by the likes of Ray and Sirk. If you ask me ten years from now what the best shows of the 2011 were, I think I'll have a better answer.

(When it comes to TV, I also find - and have said before - that I focus on the three-camera studio audience sitcom to the point of monomania, though more on Twitter than on the blog. I do it because, honestly, I think it's one of the few things where I have a unique perspective: there aren't many people online who are that big a fan of that format, or as unenthused by the one-camera, no-laugh-track format. But I should think it's really irritating to hear a particular point repeated too often, and that's one of the basic problems of blogging and tweeting. If you have a point to make, you almost have to repeat it over and over, if only because you're not guaranteed a large audience for any one of the individual statements. But it's bloody repetitive and creates the feeling that I won't let go of the subject, I realize that.)

Anyway, you can't force yourself to be enthusiastic about anything, and in some cases, a lack of fandom can produce better writing, or allow something to be approached from a different angle. I sometimes do my better work when I'm trying to illuminate a point, rather than trying to say that this show is great or terrible. Still, I love enthusiasm; it is, let us say, the thing I'm most enthusiastic about. And that's part of why I think I should stop writing Something Old, Nothing New. Because I think some of the enthusiasm has gone out of my approach to the stuff I love, and not writing about it might help me to get it back. Sometimes you like something so much that you want to tell everyone that you like it, and why you like it. And the great thing about the internet is that it made it easier for us to do that, without joining fan clubs or, god forbid, meeting other fans in person (if there are any). But it also requires you to explain why you like something, maybe sometimes defend it against people who don't like it. 

This isn't new; that's been a part of my experience since I've been online (it'll soon be 20 years that I've been posting stuff online, and wow, that seems like a long time). But I find lately that I'm watching things I love through other people's eyes, trying to feel how it might seem to someone else - a potential reader, the theoretical modern viewer, anyone - not to me. I find myself looking for the flaws, trying to think of how to explain why the piece works in spite of those flaws. That's all wrong. If the flaws matter to you, that's one thing, but if the piece works for you, if it makes you laugh, then are they really flaws at all? Well, yes, they are flaws if you're discussing them. In evaluating something, you have to weigh the good with the bad and explain why it works for you. But that's why discussing something can feel like picking it apart. There are times when I haven't been able to approach something with the same open-wide enthusiasm after blogging about it, not because of anything anyone said in response, but just because I examined it too closely. Maybe the universities were right, and we were meant to study only the things we don't really like.

Maybe because of the impulse to pick things apart and figure out how I'm going to talk about them, I find myself having less of an attention span, experiencing old movies and shows in a technical, piecemeal sort of way. I think if I don't blog about them, don't tweet about them, just keep them as pleasures for myself and anyone who happens to be unlucky enough to be around in person, I can get back to experiencing these old works the way I did when I was younger: not as "old" works, not as representatives of a time and place, but just things that show me a different way of looking at the world, or have a resonance that goes beyond a simple description of their genre tricks. Unexpected depth, maybe that's the term. Depth can be found in the strangest places, but one can sometimes be self-conscious about saying so, and eventually, one devolves into a self-parody. The A-Team does have more depth than Boardwalk Empire, but saying so at length is not really of much use to anyone. If you're deeply moved by some Bob Merrill Broadway song, it almost does the song a disservice to subject it to paragraphs of analysis to find out why. Sometimes this works, and I'm quite proud of, for example, my shot-for-shot analysis of why that goofy dance scene from Bye Bye Birdie has always seemed so powerful and thrilling to me. But I don't think that's necessary for everything, and sometimes it's counter-productive. The effect something has on you does not become less powerful if you can somehow prove that it was a great work of art.

So my solution is to try and get back into the experience of the stuff I like, concentrate a bit more on experiencing it and a bit less on explaining it. And a lot less on basically irrelevant things like how many other people like it or whether kids today are less interested in old stuff than kids of the '80s, or whatever else. There comes a point where if your enthusiasm is being swallowed up by the analysis, the analysis has to go, and blogging has to give way to other, more immediate forms of shared experience - like organizing screenings. (Back in college I screened VHS copies of some of my favorite Warner Brothers and Tex Avery cartoons. The screenings could have been better done; they ran too long; but that kind of local, direct way of sharing the experience is still probably more useful than asking people to check out something on YouTube. And I love YouTube; I just know that you still need to get people into rooms to watch things or discuss them.) And as enthusiasm rekindles, I think writing improves.

I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on Something Old, Nothing New since 2004. Like many bloggers, I learned a lot from people who commented and emailed. I became smarter about certain things, less naive about others. With one good comment, I could discover that what I thought I knew about something wasn't necessarily the only way to look at it, and that was wonderful to find. And in 2005, when I was articling as a lawyer, writing this blog in the evenings was incredible training in the discipline of writing every day in a style that non-lawyers could understand. When I'm asked how to get into journalism, one of the more useful pieces of advice I can give is to blog - it just trains you to write fast and clear, to take reader response into account. I don't know if the term "blogging" will even survive the decade, but the act of writing every day in a personal space, for people who can see it and may not necessarily know you, will always be with us, and that's a good thing. I'm certainly glad I did it.