Wednesday, February 06, 2019

On the death of book blogging (nothing unhappy)

The Indie Book Blog Is Dead says The Vulture, a commerical culturesite I may or may not have seen before – they all look and sound the same – focusing on another commercial culturesite that looks and sounds pretty much the same but one I had definitely seen before though had never considered to be a book blog, which has been sold to another commercial culturesite, signalling, apparently, the end of indie book blogs, a distinguishing phrase that stood out – independent of what, I wondered; any feeling for literature?

The article prompted a bemused shrug from Anthony as he celebrated ten years of Time's Flow Stemmed, a brilliant and cutting response from Juliana of The Blank Garden and, most recently, Flowerville's reflections on why she continues to blog after all these years. I've written about the form a couple of times in The beginning of something and A blog comes to one in the dark, so I repeat myself now only to observe that such repetition indicates why book blogging maintains itself in a state of precarity: it offers an infinite and apparently meaningless freedom. It is like the novel in this sense and, like a novelist who embraces genre, the blogger can constrain themself by mimicking the culturesites with enthusiasm for new publications, offering consumer reports, prizechat and local agitations about diversity, but the longer one pursues such writing, the more nagging questions or feelings present themselves and demand to be explored.

"I understand less than I thought I knew about literature at the time" says Anthony looking back at his first post, echoing my own experience. In the early days especially I was contemptuous of the prevailing literary scene and impatient for it to change direction, until I realised I needed to do that myself. Pursuing questions about the strange familiarity of literature – pursuing one's ignorance! – is not to be found on respectable platforms, so no wonder The Vulture chooses to mention only those bloggers who have moved on, as if blogging is only an unpaid internship on more familiar career path; profitability is the guiding light. Meanwhile, the book blogger looks into the night sky to find a billion guiding lights engulfed in darkness.

Lately, I've been reading for the third time in thirty years VS Naipaul's novel The Enigma of Arrival and learning, perhaps for the first time, the lesson Naipaul learns himself: that a writer's true subject is often hidden in plain sight and takes a certain amount of luck or misfortune to recognise (a lesson curiously similar to Proust's, a very different writer). Naipaul's recognition came in middle age when he rented a cottage on a manor estate near Stonehenge to recover from years of travel journalism. What at first seemed like bucolic peace in ancient and eternal landscape peopled by succeeding generations of the same families, turned out to be as precarious as the one he'd left behind: the farm workers he gets to know as neighbours lose their jobs, their marriages, their homes, their lives, and the landscape changes according to the demands of the farming economy. The manor itself, a symbol of empire and class hierarchy, loses its aura of permanence and authority. It leads him to reflect on his own beginnings, coming to England from Trinidad as an 18-year-old with ambitions to be a writer in the home of the authors he grew up admiring, but failing to write about the chaos of postwar London, in particular his fellow transients in the austere lodging house in which he lived, in favour of the elevated subjects he believed necessary to a literary career. It's an exceptionally moving and disconcerting book, not least because it is a deeply felt essay on his own life and work rather than what it asserts on the cover. Perhaps Naipaul needed to call it a novel to protect himself from the misfortune of the discovery that his true subject was not other people, countries and cultures but the search for his own true subject.

In the surprise and discomfort of this discovery, the novel maintains itself in a state of precarity, and explains why in Sir Vidia's Shadow Paul Theroux is entirely correct in wrongly declaring The Enigma of Arrival to be the novel that marks the end of Naipaul's career as an important novelist ("a ponderous agglomeration of the dullest rural incidents") as it goes against the generic grain. If this is the case, the same could be said for Theroux's My Secret History, which stands as his own best novel, and why subsequent, ostensibly similar novels like Naipaul's A Way in the World and Theroux's My Other Life are so disappointing.

My own luck or misfortune has been to discover that I am intellectually not up to exploring the questions that have presented themselves to me, so I am happily stuck with the amateur hobbyism of blogging about extraordinary books like The Imperative to Write and the profoundly irrationalist literary apocalypse of Maurice Blanchot. But then I wonder how much it has to do with intellect than with luck or misfortune.

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