Friday, September 29, 2006


Louis Proyect and his mate Dennis Perrin have been pondering the meaning of the different readership sizes that different blogs attract. Veteran redbaiter Marc Cooper has been taunting both men, accusing them of 'ranting in the mirror' because their blogs attract a readership considerably smaller than his. Rather than rising to the bait, Perrin has made some thoughtful observations about the mixed blessing that a large readership can sometimes be:

Sites like Daily Kos and Firedoglake have, on first glance, an impressive number of comments, suggesting that their correspondents are reaching The People. But when you actually read thru some of those threads, the majority are single-sentence Dem dittoheads who occasionally burst into flame should anyone show up to disagree with their host's sentiments, or worse, diss the Holy Clintons. These sites, and others like them across the spectrum, serve as echo chambers for those who need daily ideological reinforcement and related comforts of the hive mind. And this makes those sites absolute bores to read, since each post's conclusion is known before the opening sentence is finished. If that's what it takes to attract more than 50 readers, then come forward and fill up the front rows, 'cause I ain't gonna shout to the cheap seats.

Perrin makes the point that writing which enjoys a relatively small audience can sometimes have considerable impact:

For those curious, my weekly numbers, which double whenever I appear at Counterpunch or This Modern World (and nearly tripled during Israel's assault on Lebanon), are roughly the same as Partisan Review's monthly circulation circa 1938, when the likes of James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, Paul Goodman and Clement Greenberg published there. That's a readership I can definitely live with.

What ultimately matters, Perrin seems to be suggesting, is the quality of attention that readers bring to a blog, or any other publication:

Any audience is a good audience. Indeed, expressing yourself to a small, interested group of people is far more worthwhile than shouting party-line clichés and platitudes to an anonymous mass.

There's a related point that can be made about audience size. A blog like Daily Kos, which endlessly recycles breaking news stories, adding only a little feeble political spin and a few barbs at opponents, may enjoy a large daily readership, but little of its content will remain interesting in a week's time. By contrast, more dense, difficult, and politically challenging writing like the sort that Perrin's heroes in the early Partisan Review produced may still be worth reading decades into the future, even if it never enjoys a massive audience. A novelist like Mary McCarthy may never knock the publishing sensation of the moment - Wilbur Smith or Stephen King or JK Rowling - off the top of the bestseller list, but she may in time outsell them all, because her work has a far longer shelf life. People will be reading her novel The Group when those endless Harry Potter novels are being thrown out by municipal libraries. People of every country will still be reading Marx's Capital when Anthony Giddens' The Third Way has become a curiousity of intellectual history.

Bob Dylan said something along these lines towards the end of the marvellous interview he did for a recent issue of Rolling Stone:

"How many people can look at the Mona Lisa? You ever been there? I mean, maybe, like, three people can see it at once. And yet, how long has that painting been around? More people have seen that painting than have ever listened to, let's name somebody -- I don't want to say Alicia Keys -- say, Michael Jackson. More people have ever seen the Mona Lisa than ever listened to Michael Jackson. And only three people can see it at once. Talk about impact."

The blog post may one day be seen as a unique literary form, positioned somewhere between the essay and the old-fashioned art of the epistle. I don't think it's absurd to think that some of the best work being done by bloggers today can have a shelf-life longer than Harry Potter - certainly, I've got a file on my hard drive full of blog posts that managed to amuse, enlighten and challenge me, all in a space smaller than most essays demand.

Part of the appeal of blogging is the spontaneity and levity that the form can have, so I'm certainly not suggesting that bloggers should be sitting grimly in front of the keyboard trying to turn out masterpieces. My favourite blogs mix up serious writing with jokes and off-the-cuff rants, and I wouldn't want that to change. But I think that writers like Marc Cooper who insist on judging a blogger's worth by the number of visitors he or she attracts in a day are as shallow as the folks who hail JK Rowling as a great prose stylist just because she empties the shelves at Whitcoulls.


Blogger Louis Proyect said...

One minor connection. Cooper has no connection to Columbia, although ironically I do as a programmer. He makes his living as a journalist. His crap appears in the centrist Atlantic Monthly, to give you an idea of how far removed he is from a John Reed or a Wilfred Burchett.

1:38 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Ah - I think you mentioned something about having to avoid him regularly and I assumed he was at Columbia. Depressing bloke living off a faded lefty past by the sound of it. His discussions of Chavez are particularly objectionable.

3:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't Dylan look haggard!

7:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan is cruddy and disgusting. Please take him away.

12:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dylan's fans should be aware that they could catch typhus, AIDS and possibly even leprosy from their hero.

1:15 pm  
Anonymous W. Turkel and Nicolas Quiroga said...

October / 2006

We are interested in learning more about history blogs and in finding ways to promote them. To aid in this effort, we are circulating a small questionnaire and will make the results available in Tapera (in Spanish) and in Digital History Hacks (in English). If you wish to participate, please return the questionnaire to
Thank you very much.

William Turkel - Digital History Hacks - Digital History Hacks
Nicolás Quiroga – Tapera –

First post (mm/dd/Y):

1. Which history-related blogs do you visit most frequently? (1-5)
2. What factors do you think are involved in your choice of blogs to read? (For example: quality of information, writing, institution, author profile, rankings, entertainment value...)
3. What factors characterize your own blog? Which are most important?
4. Have you changed the objectives of your blog since you created it?

6:07 am  

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