A Brief Self-Referential Digression

I apologize for my lengthy radio silence, but when you’ve been on the go from 10:00am to 7:30pm, as I was today, and then have to come home and do homework and research, there’s not a lot of time for blogging. That said, I was moved to comment about a post on the Paris Review blog which to me makes a spurious argument. The writer, Sarah Bakewell (who, her bio explains, has written a biography of Montaigne) argues that blogging is a form of essayistic writing, and then traces a potted history of the essay which drops the names of many of the key literary figures of the recent western canon, but doesn’t entirely explain what Hazlitt and Lamb, interesting though they are, have to do with the blog.

The reason for this is simple, I think, and that’s because comparing “the blog” and “the essay” is comparing apples and oranges, or perhaps more accurately apples and the Platonic ideal of the taste of apples (I think?). “The blog” is a medium; “the essay” is a genre. In the 21st century, essays might well be published on blogs, but so might journal entries or hard reporting or political rants or requests for donations to a given non-profit. I can’t identify any particular stylistic or generic traits embodied by every single subdomain of wordpress.com, for instance, and I’ll bet that if you think about what you read online every day you couldn’t either. The New York Times‘ blogs are different from your friends’ study abroad blogs, which are different still from blogs about fashion or popular culture; I’ll bet that very few of us read on a regular basis blog posts which we could actually compare to the work of (to take one of these figures whose essays I’ve actually read) Charles Lamb. This is not to say that these blogs don’t exist, but rather that they exist amidst a wide variety of other blogs belonging to other generic categories, just as the essays Lamb or Montaigne wrote existed amidst various other parts of the world of publishing and literary dissemination in their eras.

When I first started writing a public blog in high school, I thought of myself as an essayist. I wrote about what happened in my life and what I was thinking about in ways which didn’t quite fall into the chronological here’s-what-I-did-today paradigm. But as I read real essays and realized that what I did was a great deal more self-absorbed and inward-focused than is usual for a genre which seems actually to be not only much more constructed and planned than my streams-of-consciousness, but also much more focused on the author’s relationship to the external world, I realized that what I write may be interior monologue, but it’s not really Montaignean essay at all. The use of the first person (if the essayist chooses to use the first person) does not necessarily mean that the ego, or whatever the right psychoanalytic term is, will loom large in the written piece. Rather, it seems to me as if it functions more as an entry point into an externalized set of circumstances or ideas, one with which the reader can follow along. What I write, more often than not, isn’t that; there’s too much “me” in it—though, to be sure, that “me” has receded as my style and indeed my sense of self has evolved. And, furthermore, in the most literal sense of “essay”—its root in essayer—what you read in this space does tend to represent my attempts to articulate ideas, trying them out before I would, say, let them inform the theoretical side of my academic work, or give them to a reporter for a quote in a news article. The way I understand my own blog (and again, I’d distinguish this from “blog” in general, which is still a medium capable of containing many understandings) is perhaps as a self-works-in-progress lunch talk series: regular updates of evolving intellectual identity, and requests for feedback (though I don’t, I’m sorry to say, provide sandwiches or even Diet Cokes). But though authorial voice of course looms centrally in the work of real essayists, it doesn’t rest entirely upon the ego. As we all learned in high-school English, the author’s voice is separable from the real person who lived and died; to put it into college-level terminology, biography is distinct from literary criticism. In my own writing style, however, I think I’m a little less willing to make that distinction, and I guess that’s what makes me not-an-essayist.

So, I suppose, I’ll settle for “historian-in-training.” Perhaps contrary to Bakewell’s argument, not all of we bloggers will be Montaignes or Lambs, but we can all (as can anyone, blogger or not) cultivate our own gardens and act in accordance with their own inclinations. And with that, it’s time for another radio silence. I have some 19th-century intellectual history to write.

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