Thursday, July 26, 2007

More generalizations about blogs and narcissism

Edward Champion's recent LA Times article "Blogging: a crash course on introspection" is probably the most muddled commentary on blogging I've encountered in the past year.

His thesis is that "confessional" writing has been "spurred by cyberspace," with narcissistic bloggers baring their most intimate secrets with shameless abandon, pandering to "our voyeuristic culture." Champion wonders "why so many writers want (or need) to expose themselves."

The number of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations Champion manages to compress into the opening paragraphs of the article is truly dazzling. If only he'd taken the time to consult an undergraduate-level textbook on modern literature, he might have also gotten some of his terminology right.

The "confessional" writers were a movement of poets (primarily) who in the 1950s and 1960s began treating an autobiographical "I" as the primary subject of the work, delving with stark frankness into emotional and sexual experiences in a way that violated previous taboos about what constituted proper poetic material.

Champion conflates confessional material with introspection, though they are not the same thing at all. T.S. Eliot, for example, was a deeply introspective poet, but he avoided personal revelations in his own work. I've heard it argued that Anne Sexton, one of the leading confessional poets, was herself not terribly introspective.

The article also seems to equate "confessional" with "narcissistic" and (though Champion doesn't use the word himself) "exhibitionist." However, the "I" of the confessional poets was, more often than not, something other than the "real" I, an invented self or persona that enabled the writer to explore a wider range of themes than his or her personal experience permitted.

What this article contends this all has to do with blogging remains a mystery. Supposedly, writers like Ginsberg and Plath and Lowell are off in the afterlife kicking themselves for having died before the Internet came along and gave them limitless opportunity to indulge in their narcissism and expose themselves to an online audience. Supposedly, a new generation of confessional writers has emerged, again "spurred by cyberspace."

If that is indeed the point of the piece, Champion selects an odd assortment of writers to prove it. His examples -- Amy DeZella, Jane Ganahl, Jonathan Ames, Josh Kornbluth and others -- are professional journalists and performers who were already working with personal materials publicly, before moving to the Internet. In their interviews, they all seem fairly discontent with their online experiences, probably because their presentational styles are better suited to print or stage than to the blogosphere.

If there really were a new confessional school of writing in the process of emerging online, I'd be interested. But Champion hasn't found one.


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