Sunday, January 6, 2013

What I Like About Blogging

I am a fogey. Being thirty five years old, I don't know whether I am an old fogey or a young fogey, but I am most definitely a fogey. I like old things because they're old. I distrust new things because they're new. I think life has become too fast, too loud, too convenient, and too crass.

So of course I have a very wary view of the internet. I feel deeply protective of the printed page, and hate to see it supplanted (even partly) by the glowing screen. I prefer the jingle of a shop door's bell to the click of a mouse. And so on.

But....I do like this blogging business, I have to admit.

I was quite embarrassed to set up a blog at first. Even the term "blog" seemed rather wince-inducing; like "waddler" or "networking" or "brunch". My original purpose in starting Irish Papist was quite specific and limited; to defend the Catholic Church in Ireland from those attacking it.

Since then, I have started blogging about all other sorts of things. My initial justification for this was the idea that (as Chesterton wrote) "nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true", and that my Catholic beliefs should pervade my entire worldview. If I blogged about everything, I might impress agnostics and atheists and waverers with a view of life that was both Catholic and catholic. "Hey", they might think, "orthodox Catholics might not be thin-lipped, life-hating fanatics after all."

I still hope that, of course. But I have to admit that I just enjoy blogging about all sorts of stuff. I like the whole format and phenomenon of blogs.

I like that I can write what the heck I like, whenever I like.

I like that anyone can read it, or not read it.

I like that there are no deadlines, restrictions of space, or style manual rules to follow.

Perhaps some of this is down to the fact that I trained as a journalist-- if "trained" is the right word.

After I left school, I did the Dublin Institute of Technology's degree in journalism, in Aungier Street. It was a terrible decision, one that I regret. (Show me a man with no regrets and I'll show you a liar or a sociopath.) I wish I had done a three-year arts degree instead.

It wasn't that it was a bad course. It was a very prestigious school of journalism, and many of my fellow students went on to become very well-known and successful journalists. (Was a "liberal agenda" drummed into us? Not really. Because it didn't really have to be. The assumptions of both staff and students were already so anti-traditional that I remember one lecturer-- something of a free spirit-- suggesting, rather rhetorically, that we may have all discarded the beliefs of Catholic Ireland too unthinkingly.)

But prestigious as the course was, it was wrong for me, because I was anything but journalist material. I thought it might be the way to go because I liked writing. Unfortunately, I hated using the telephone, chasing people for interviews, being confrontational, or indeed doing almost everything that a journalist has to do. I was cripplingly shy-- even more shy than I am today.

I didn't even like to read the newspapers or watch the news. (I still have to push myself to follow current affairs.) The whole thing was a terrible idea and I knew that journalism was not for me long before I graduated.

I want to emphasise my complete lack of potential as a journalist, just in case the reader suspects me of sour grapes when I complain about some of the things we were taught. The reason I didn't become a journalist (or even try to become one) is because I was utterly lousy at it.

But that doesn't mean I'm not entitled to an opinion on the whole tone and drift of the training we were given. In fact, I disliked almost everything about it.

We were taught above all else to strive for succinctness. The journalism lecturer would take our reports and blue-pencil every unnecessary word. He thought us the "inverted pyramid" approach to report-writing, whereby the most important facts are crammed into the first paragraph, in order to grab the reader's attention straight away, and to make the editor's job easier-- the paragraphs further down should be more dispensible.

All that is fairly harmless. It makes sense that news reports should be concise and straight to the point.

What I didn't like was that this attitude extended to feature writing, and indeed to writing in general.

Being snappy was good. Subordinate clauses were bad. Short sentences were good. Adjectives were bad. Attention-getting devices in the opening lines were good. But first lines that were generalizations were bad. You should never, ever, ever begin an article with a sentence like: "Recent years have shown an explosion of interest in the life of Sir Reginald Huffinpuff." You should, instead, write something like: "He was a knight of the realm who was twice arrested for shoplifting."

Well, I prefer an opening line that is a generalization. I don't want to feel button-holed or shouted at when I am reading. My favourite essayist, Chesterton, very often opens his essays with some leisurely and expansive generalization. (I just looked at some of his essays online, to substantiate this. The second essay I looked at begins thus: "There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men.")

This might seem like carping. After all, the journalism course was simply trying to equip its students for a career as working journalists. The facts of life are that journalists are expected to be punchy, and that newspaper and magazine readers are not old Anglo-Saxons listening to an epic poem over a tankard of mead, on a long winter's night.

But what if it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle? What if the media-- and not just the media, but advertising and drama and comics and business-- are being sucked into a whirpool of ever-shortening attention spans and ever more dramatic attempts to be noticed? Was it inevitable that we would find ourselves in today's culture of jump-cut editing, charity muggers, Twitter and shock tactic road safety ads? Or did we bring ourselves here?

I visited the Irish Jewish Museum recently. One of its display cases held an old, yellowing Irish Times letters page, in which the infamous Limerick boycott of Jewish businesses was discussed. The page was only a few decades old, but I was struck by the length of the letters-- they were much longer than any letters you would see on the Irish Times letters page today. When I look at newspaper reports and articles from several deacades ago, they too seem to be considerably longer than their equivalents today.

It wasn't just the cult of Hemingwayesque prose that I took exception to. It was also the tyranny of topicality-- the idea that a subject only becomes worth talking about if it links in to some anniversary, film release or other big event.

I have no idea why this idea is so prevalent. There seems no need for it at all. I can see the desirability of not writing about Christmas in the middle of June. I can see the tact in avoiding a column full of jokes on a day that a massive bomb has killed thirty people. Aside from that I have no idea why a writer should not feel free to pluck his topics from all time and space.

But my aim here was not to write a rant about journalism schools, or journalists. I can actually see the romance in the grizzled journo who can turn his pen to whatever subject he is given. I understand the excitement and cameraderie involved in having to make a deadline. I get the appeal of Fleet Street folklore and Fleet Street legends and all the rest of it.

No, I simply wanted to sing the praises of blogging. I think it is a glorious thing to have a format where you don't have to bother with all of these tiresome rules of terseness, topicality, neutrality, direct quotation, attribution and not wandering off the subject. I cherish this modern-day equivalent of getting up on a soap-box in Hyde Park and addressing whoever happens to be passing by. I prize the sheer amateurism of the thing.

The more things change, the more they get worse. Mostly. I think the advent of the blog is one possible exception.

1 comment:

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