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Just to set the stage, it's good to point out some of Andy Crouch's comments from his post of two days ago, titled, misleadingly, Beer Blogging, To What End? It is actually a rumination on the extent to which beer blogging is legitimate writing and whether it does a serious writer any good:
From the earliest days, I wasn’t quite sure of the purpose served by websites dedicated to a particular individual’s thoughts on a given subject. For one, as I thought about Twitter and beer, it often devolves into a very self-absorbed activity, focused on such inane, personal details as to interest only the tiniest sub-sections of an already infinitesimally small niche.... But for those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to a greater audience of listeners/viewers/attendees, only the frailest ego would require the faint massaging a handful of readers are able to provide.It goes along in this vein for some time. Having dispatched the non-professional writer who blogs, Andy then asks whether it's any good for the professional writer. Not much, he muses, having reflected on his own and Lew Bryson's example.
It actually depressed me quite a bit, this post, and not only because it was cynical and mean-spirited toward enthusiasts whose interest is in tasting beer, educating themselves, and writing and discussing it online. (The real and obvious answer to his disingenous title.) It's also because it seemed to be a post that used the guise of opening up a real discussion about the nature of amateurism, the state of paid writing, and the role of the internet to instead enforce old norms that profit the already-established writer tired of a bunch of wannabe upstarts roaming the perimeter just beyond the night guard. So let's leave Andy's post aside and have that discussion.
Amateurism and Paid Writing
Implicit in this discussion is the question: what's a professional writer? This used to be obvious because we understood what a professional publication was. It was a print document that contained the work of people paid to write and edit it. The internet has permanently altered that world, though, and there's no going back. Now most people who get published in those old print journals get paid very little--so much that many of us don't bother anymore. Many good and established writers--like Andy Crouch--publish online without a publisher or editor. And many print publications now host blogs that may or may not be edited. Once we used to be able to say that "good" writers were the ones who could make a living at it. That argument can be credibly made no longer.
Blogs proliferate, and most neither aim at nor achieve a level of writing and reporting that we would call "professional"--by any definition. But because the cost of delivering print has fallen to zero or near zero, the lines of control have vanished. Now lots of people start blogs for lots of reasons. Most are just to have fun. Bill at It's Pub Night draws a strict line in the sand--he posts a couple times a week and doesn't want it to take too much of his time. Patrick Emerson, who blogs mainly about economics, sidelines in beer because he loves beer and it serves as a useful frame for describing economic principles.
Some others do it because they have some involvement in the beer industry and want to have more. I haven't actually talked too much about this to Angelo at Brewpublic or Ezra at the New School, but both these guys put on events and do work for breweries, so their blogs are part of a portfolio of activities that revolve around the beer industry.
Then you have the writers. And, despite what Andy says, a lot of us have more than just a passing interest in posting our thoughts. About six months before my research grant ran out, I took a look at my options and decided that I'd like to try to target writing as a career choice--or at least move it to the foreground and other forms of income-generation to the background. In order to do this, I had to develop my "platform." Writers, you see, are now themselves commodities, not just the work they produce. To sell magazines and particularly books, publishers want to see a big name on the cover. They want to know before they publish you, how many readers do you have? To quantify this, you have your blog, which you might have to absurdly tart up with screamer quotes about "near poetry," your Twitter feed, your Facebook page. All of this is considered risk-reduction, because if a publisher is going to spend money putting ink to pulped tree, they want to know how many customers you can pre-deliver.
I suspect there are other reasons, too--perhaps even caddish reasons like getting free beer. We are humans and as the dismal scientists know well, we respond to incentives. As is and always will be: caveat emptor.
The last thing I'll add is a more general comment on blogs. They're pretty old now, and yet even after a decade people still seem to miss the point. Andy admits he doesn't really get blogs--and my sense is he reads them to the extent he needs to as a part of his job as a writer. Fair enough, but it means he's maybe not the most reliable source in assessing their use and value.
Although it's not easy to define "professional" anymore, blogs are not so murky. They are unfiltered personal opinion. Whether we're talking about an anonymous knitting blogger or Paul Krugman, the nature of the blog is personal. Krugman's blog is a lot different than his column. It's pricklier and funnier, shorter and more oblique, more casual and sometimes way more technical. It is a reflection of his mind. Blogs exist because humans have to talk. We talk about the things that interest us and, if there's no editor getting in our way, in the way we want to. Long ago I came to the conclusion that a "writer" had almost nothing to do with success. A writer is a person who can't help but write. Good or bad, it's a part of the way they navigate the world.
Bloggers blog for lots of different reasons, wholesome, corrupt, benign, and malign. But they blog because they can, because this technology enables us to. Alan McLeod, who is as helpless a blogger as I am, gets the last word on this. It captures the poignant essential nature of the thing, and when I read it, I realized why Andy's post depressed me. Because Andy doesn't seem to get this. So:
I like my blog. I like my blog maybe more than I like writing on it. I like the Xmas photo contest, the samples and the little lumps of money for the little ads. I'd like more of those ads, actually. But most of all I like my blog because it is my place.We blog because we can. A lot more can be said, but isn't that enough?