Thursday, May 22, 2008

THE SELF AS SUBJECT. There's already some mocking reaction to the Emily Gould NYT Magazine article on her life and blog times, and seen one way her story is eminently mockable. She describes her ascent from just another me-blogger to internet "celebrity" via Gawker, and the personal details that she couldn't keep from broadcasting throughout, and background on those details that she hadn't previously shared. Of course it's appalling narcissistic, and the fact that it's a cover story in the Times magazine might give any sensitive soul in a bad mood the impression that the world has gone mad.

But I wound up feeling sympathy for Gould. First, because writing's a hard dollar, and writers must get it how they can: if the Times (or the Voice) comes knocking, why would you turn away? Her own story was what she had to sell. I doubt they would have let her cover the Balkans.

I also sympathize because narcissism is an occupational hazard of writers, or maybe a precondition. It takes tremendous gall to publish anything, even on the easy terms of blogging. Few writers start out as an authority on anything except themselves, and often have to be pulled like mules toward another subject. Journalism is very often the writer's introduction to the world outside himself, and ideally the demands of the craft take over, leaving style and sensibility as the pleasing distinctions that make Jane's coverage different from John's.

But Gould's Gawker beat encouraged her to more overt forms of self-revelation:
Injecting a personal aside into a post that wasn’t otherwise about me not only kept things interesting for me, it was also a surefire way of evoking a chorus of assenting or dissenting opinions, turning the solitary work of writing posts into something that felt more social, almost like a conversation.
Not being familiar with her work, I can't say whether this tendency was good or bad for it there (it obviously wasn't good for her personally, as her panic attacks indicate), but I can say that some of the most entertaining writers of the web are not above this sort of thing, and in fact their writing benefits from it. Terry Teachout's journalistic credentials are impeccable, but he writes about himself a fair amount, and makes it resonant, about something bigger than himself, and even illuminative of the points he makes in his arts criticism.

So that, in and of itself, isn't such a bad thing. There's always someone underneath all the words, and if he isn't too overeager to come out and steal the show, he may play a useful part on the surface of the writing, maybe even the main role. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to get that right, and that may be (along with the punishing hours, lousy pay, and enforced solitude) why so many writers drink, take drugs, behave badly in public, and have troubled relationships and, well, panic attacks.

The difference between Teachout's writing and Gould's is large but not categorical. Any subject can be worthwhile, even yourself, so long as you don't forget that it's a subject. Time and craft will take care of the rest if you heed them. This is not meant as advice to Gould -- who, being vastly more successful than I, doesn't need it -- but as a reminder to myself, which I share because that's what this gig is all about: the occasional residue of observation and thought that might be worth someone else's attention.

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