Monday, June 16, 2014

Why some good writers are bad bloggers (and other things that bother me)

If you'll indulge me for the moment, there are times when I simply can't resist quoting myself quoting someone else. And so I'll hearken back to a situation from a few years ago, during which I quoted Tom Wolfe from The Right Stuff - it was a situation "that would have made the Fool Killer lower his club and shake his head and walk away, frustrated by the magnitude of the opportunity.”  Then, as now, I write about the blogosphere; then, as now, it's the Catholic blogosphere.

I could simply direct you to that link and leave it at that; there's not a lot more that can be added to what I wrote back then, and I did a pretty good job then, if I do say so myself.  But there are a couple new things that I think should be pointed out; besides, this way I get to add another piece to the blog.

Today's immediate inspiration comes from a a piece I read last week at LifeSiteNews, and a follow-up at the blog of the chairman of the Latin Mass Society.  I won't go into any details aside from these links, because I think they tell the story pretty well (at least from the point of view I want to discuss today); that way, if you're not interested in the particulars, you can stick around for the generalities.  And if that don't suit you, I'm sure you'll find something else here in a day or two that's more interesting.  I'll do my best.

There are three points to be had from the above, and I'll try to keep them short:

  1. There are some people who just shouldn't blog.  They're too thin-skinned, too snarky, or simply unable to converse in what used to be called polite society.  It doesn't really take too much effort to remember that every word written on the Internet is available forever, and if you want to be taken seriously as an advocate for a particular position, you might want to keep that in mind.  Otherwise, you not only discredit your own abilities, you undermine the credibility of your intellect by antagonizing readers who might otherwise profit from your writing.*

    *Now, I'm not saying I haven't made mistakes in the past, said or written intemperate words, or in general made a fool of myself.  Of course I have, as I suspect all of you out there have.  But I'd like to think that I've matured since then, that I've improved my writing style, and that I've learned the valuable lesson of thinking before writing.

  2. You may well be wondering if this discussion really matters.  Isn't this just a local fight, one that attracts the attention of maybe one-tenth of one-quarter of one percent of Catholics?  My friend Terry, who blogs at the excellent site Abbey-Roads, is one of the most gifted bloggers out there; his ability to cut to the deep is profound.  Anyway, Terry points out often that most Catholics aren't even aware of the issues that have aroused such venom, and therefore aren't we giving it a bit too much attention?

    He may well be right, but I'd suggest in response that history is written by the winners.  It is true that most Catholics don't follow such things, but in this sense the Church is more like a political party than anything else.  Look at the GOP primary in Virginia last week - Eric Cantor, the U.S. House Majority Leader, was defeated by a sizeable margin, partly because primary turnouts are low, and partly because those who do vote are the ones who are most invested in what's going on.  At the end of the day, the country is ruled to a great extent not by the wishes of the masses, but by the convictions of those who cared enough to get involved, and were rewarded by getting the chance to set policy.

    It's much the same in the Church.  Ultimately, it will be a small number of people who determine policy, not only at the highest level, but at the lowest - the parishes, the dioceses, the schools.  They are the ones who get involved, who understand the issues, who read (and write) the blogs and say their pieces.  They may be disproportionate to the larger body of the Church, but in the end their influence, rightly or wrongly, will be far greater.

    And that's why this internal struggle matters, because it's being conducted among the people who reach a lot of people and have a lot to say about how the future shapes up.  If I'm wrong, I trust Terry will be able to provide a more than adequate rebuttal, but I don't think I am.

  3. Which brings me to the part that may disappoint me the most: these bloggers who can't resist acting up - whether on their blogs or through other social media - are capable of better than that.  If there's one thing that I pride myself on with my blogs, it's that I generally put out a polished product.  Without sounding too conceded, I like to think I have a way with words, one that I put on display every time I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.  With rare exceptions, what I've written both here and at It's About TV is, I think, as good as about 95% of what you read anywhere else online.  I could be overestimating that a bit, and I hasten to add that percentage doesn't apply to the content or thought displayed therein, just the style employed.

    But there are few things that irritate me more than wasted potential.  Whether I'm writing on Facebook, or commenting on someone else's blog, or doing anything that can be seen and read by more than just me - I always try to keep in mind the old adage about asking yourself whether or not you'd be comfortable seeing what you'd just written on the front page of The New York Times.*  Hell, I even proof emails three or four times before I'm comfortable with them.  Once I marked up a letter a friend of mine sent me; I didn't send it back to her, because that would have ended the friendship, but I did correct a couple of things so I wouldn't notice them if I read the letter again.

    *Not a particularly high standard to live up to nowadays, I realize, but remember - I said it was an old adage.

What all three of these things amount to, and I realize I might be a bit redundant here, is to ask the question what it means to be a writer.  Are you a craftsman of your art, a wordsmith who works with the language the way other artists deal in clay or oils?  Are you proud of your craft, even when it's a one- or two-sentence product on Facebook?  Or are you just a hack?

Assuming you're not a hack, but instead a professional writer, one who perhaps even makes a living from what you write, then why would you ever put out something less than that?  And if you're what I'd call a "professional blogger"; that is, someone with a far higher readership than what I'm used to, one whose site features advertising, is seen as a source of information for others of a similar interest, perhaps even someone recognized as an expert and appearing from time to time in other media - then why would you cheapen that reputation by producing hack writing in public?  Why?

The fact is, there are some good writers out there who are bad bloggers, and I don't think that's a secret to anyone who spends any time in the blogosphere.  They're capable of writing with exceptional wit, clarity and grace, but too often they use their talents in a manner which could be described as malignant - as if they had Pulitzer-level writing ability, but wasted it by writing porn novels.  Their idea of evangelization too often consists of encouraging dissent in the same way that one would by poking a stick in a tiger's cage.  They are the Skip Bayless of Catholic writing.*  In their haste to be first with a story, they print first, source later; and they spend a fair amount of time either retracting what they've written, or apologizing for it.

*Particularly the part of Bayless that's described as hyperbolic, boring and excessive.

Unfortunately, it's for all these people that the adage "act in haste, repent in leisure" was written.  Do they remember, or were they ever taught, about how when one writes an angry letter, they should sleep on it before mailing it?  I know that the digital era makes instant responses far too easy, and it's never been so easy to press "send" before teaching the mind to "think first."  Do they really get a charge out of antagonizing others, to the extent that they do more harm than good?  Are they in this to support a cause, to teach others, or simply to draw attention to themselves?  Which wunna dese?

I readily admit I don't have the answers to these questions.  Most of the time, it's a waste of energy to even consider them.  But every once in a while it gets to me - not just the content, not just the stand that someone takes on an issue, but the abrogation of the responsibility that someone has to use their talent in the right manner and for the maximum benefit.  And while I could let off with a rip job of my own - and, believe me, I'm fully capable of it, sinner that I am - I figure, why bother?  Why name names?  Why pick fights that aren't my own?  Why, above all, give them more importance than they merit?

I'd rather keep it general.  If you're reading this, if you're an aficionado of writing, or if you just like to see things kept civil, then I hope you'll agree with me, and keep holding others - me included - to that standard.

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