Willy Lit Fest Part 1: Being Frankie and Talking Blogs

Last weekend I ventured along to the Williamstown Literary Festival and checked out a couple of panels:  Let’s Be frankie, Literary Blogging and From the Quill to the Kindle. All in all, it was good stuff, and it was nice to experience a different part of Melbourne, one that’s more like a coastal town, with the sea breeze, fish n chips and hordes of seagulls, along with some good literary company.

Thuy Linh Nguyen has already written about her experiences going to two of these panels, and Lisa Dempster has expanded on some of the stuff covered in her blogging panel, which I’ll get to later. But first, Let’s Be frankie.

I was drawn to this one because, while I don’t mind the odd look through a frankie mag if I see one,  I really wanted to see Marieke Hardy and Benjamin Law. The former, still jetlagged from an extended holiday in volcano-wracked Iceland, I’ve long been a fan of, thanks to First Tuesday Bookclub, JJJ Breakfast, her blog and her numerous other writings.  The latter I recently became a fan of, upon reading his hilarious story about murdering cockroaches en masse in the latest Brow. And I’m really looking forward to his first book, The Family Law. PLUS he just did an interview with Virgule, the newish Voiceworks blog. Check it.

So with Susan Bird as chair, and plenty of  audience interlocution, their casual discussion covered all kinds of things, from freelancing to Twitter to Ben’s mum’s vagina.

Ben, who often writes somewhat ‘personal’ stuff about his partner, parents and siblings, mentioned that family is such an interesting subject for writing because it’s one of the basic social units, like a microcosm of society. It’s true, your family shapes who you are and how you relate to people. Plus everyone’s got one, so it’s always at least somewhat relatable.

They discussed how important it is to run your material past the people you’re writing about if you think there’s the slightest chance they might have issues with it. Plus, it really helps to flesh out your work and get a new perspective on it.

They went on to discuss that, sure it can be good to be honest and lay everything on the table when you write, but have you really thought about the consequences of putting what you’re writing out into the world? Have you considered your audience and the context and how it could be received? Some boundaries are important. Sure, external censorship is something to take a stand against, but it’s interesting to think about how important self-censorship can be, for good or ill. And all of this applies not just to stories, articles and essays, but to blog posts, status updates and even microblogging/tweets (hello Catherine Deveny). They also touched on the idea of ‘the illusion of intimacy’, which I’ll get to later.

Ben discussed the life of a freelancer. He always strives to find something interesting in any dull freelance gig he takes on, and noted how easy it is to get overloaded, because you always think every assignment is going to be your last. He also recommended that, when you’re writing, you should keep a template of ‘good writing’ close by (or perhaps at the back of your mind), so that you’ve got something to aim for, no matter how high you’re aiming.

Marieke mentioned how handy she found News Ltd. lawyers, as dull as they might sound, and how they kept her out of trouble 99% of the time when she wrote for the Green Guide. Still, she was a little surprised that the people she’s writing about actually read her columns and sometimes take offense. It was similar back when she was writing her blog. She saw it as a place to vent, and didn’t really consider any potential offense, defamation or other trouble she could face. It’s funny, I guess when you’re a lone blogger, most people aren’t going to bother taking you to court, whereas a huge organisation like The Age with a reputation, stakeholders and circulation necessitates the team of lawyers.

She also discussed how it’s easier writing about crap TV, because writing about programmes you love just turns into celebratory, masturbatory drivel. Finally, she compared her scriptwriting to her blogging, and discussed how writing for TV doesn’t get much personal response when the finished product finally emerges, whereas writing online has the benefit of immediacy and instant feedback.

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Speaking of writing online, the next day, satisfied but eager for more, I went along to the Literary Blogging panel, with Lisa Dempster and Angela Meyer (aka Ms LiteraryMinded), both of whom have blogs I follow and enjoy reading, so I was interested to hear their thoughts. There were plenty of questions from the small but engaged crowd and it gave me a lot to think about.

They both agreed that blogging can help you find your voice, build your style and help you grow as a unique writer. Lisa reckoned writing her book Neon Pilgrim was easier because she’d been blogging for so long. She didn’t have to struggle to find a writing voice; she already had that part mostly sorted.

They said that blogging is a discipline to stick to, and that you have to want to stick to it, then it builds its own momentum, just like other forms of writing I guess. But it’s unique in that it’s a good way to test ideas and see what others are thinking. You can admit that your ideas aren’t fully formed and open them up for discussion.

Angela says she still questions her role when she’s blogging: is she a reviewer? A cultural commentator? ‘Just a blogger’? Or, simply, a writer? It’s part of the necessary constant process of self-reflexivity.

And again, they touched on this idea of self-censorship. They wondered about ‘stepping on toes’, especially in such a tight community like that of Australian literary bloggers. You want to be honest, but there is always a degree of self-censorship. The question is where to draw the line. Personally, I want to be able to critique art, literature, media and the world around me, but at the same time, it can be damn hard to really call out perceived major flaws in something, or someone’s work, especially if they’re just starting out or you know them personally. So do you tone down your critique, not put up a review, or be bold, harsh but fair, and give an open opportunity for anyone to reply, refute and defend?

They also discussed this ‘illusion of intimacy’ idea that Ben and Marieke touched on. Sometimes these writers have been accused of being not just honest, but ‘oversharers’. But the fact is, people often don’t know about all the stuff that they’re not sharing. It can seem like they’re telling readers everything about their life and readers might feel that they know everything about them. But like all art, blogging is a constructed representation, and while you may be getting an honest picture and feel you know all about the author, you only know about them from what they give you. Three quarters of their life, or more, might not even be hinted at.

Is this ‘illusion’ a bad thing? Not really. Unless you want to go, warts and all, publishing the minutiae of your life, while alienating everyone you know and possibly facing legal action, it’s hard to have it otherwise. The boundary has to lie somewhere. In the end, of course, it has to be a personal decision. As long as you strive to be honest and fair in what you do reveal, and seriously consider what to publish and what to hold back, then it’s all good.

When asked about whether one should try to blend a large variety of topics in one blog , Lisa replied that cross-over is fine. The blog is your blog, so its topic is always going to be you and your interests. Other people have cross-over interests too, and if your blog is good enough, people will keep coming back for the stuff that they’re interested in, and won’t mind the odd uninteresting post.

There were a couple of other tidbits to think about:

  • A blog evolves over time and has its own narrative. So in a sense, a blog is a story.
  • Before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, people used online ‘handles’ more often. But now with such sites we’re commonly going by our real names online, or our real names are not so hidden anymore. Interesting point.
  • How is blogging perceived? How do you perceive it? Is it for your ‘best’ work? Does it really distract you from other writing? Or is it just a part of the broader spectrum of writing?
  • Finally, they mentioned two interesting things I’d never really heard of: blog tours, where someone hops along onto various blogs from all over the place, providing guest posts on each. Then there’s blog carnivals, where various bloggers all riff on a chosen topic, and they can engage with each others ideas on that topic.

Essentially, this panel built on what I already knew about blogging, gave me a lot to consider and gave me a good kick in the rear to blog more. All in all, blogging is experimental: it’s an experiment for each individual and also because the internet is a medium in flux, all of this stuff is still changing and being negotiated.

Speaking of emergent mediums: eBooks!

But that final panel will have to wait for Part 2, in the next day or two. This time I’m not going to go away for a week or so; I’m going to get some of that momentum happening with this blogging thing.

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Writing and Editing for Digital Media Assignment 1: Evaluating Web Writing

The litblog, short for literary blog, is a rising force, not just in the blogosphere and on the internet as a whole, but as part of a diverse multimedia landscape. They may be written by individuals or groups, but generally focus on literature, books, writing, publishing and associated events and issues. But beyond this, litblogs vary significantly in many ways: their intended audience, their writing style, design, layout, and what sort of literature they focus on. They offer a community hub for those enthusiastic about literature and a choice of alternative news, reviews and opinion from that of traditional media. They recognise their differentiation from traditional media outlets and embrace the online medium in myriad ways. As I will explore, litblogs range from the well-established to the emerging, but they all have their own strengths and weaknesses as individual websites.

LiteraryMinded is the online presence for Melbourne writer Angela Meyer, or Miss LiteraryMinded. It is one of the many blogs on the Crikey blog network and although the blog previously existed on Blogspot (it migrated to a WordPress platform when adopted by Crikey) it retains its individuality; beyond some links on the edges of the website, one could quite easily read the blog without ever reading about Crikey’s other content. Its focus is of course largely on Angela’ news, reviews, interviews and musings on literature, books, writing and publishing, with a particular emphasis on Melbourne and Australian events, authors and the like. True to the flexibility of the format, her blog often contains other styles of posts, such as book excerpts, poetry, competitions, ‘confessionals’ and periodically a ‘guest author’ post. She embraces the online medium in posts such as her ‘responsive interviews’, where she will email an author a series of questions in the form of a word, phrase, hyperlink, picture, audio file or YouTube video, and the author then responds, with the same multimedia freedom.

The main page, topped by the LiteraryMinded masthead, shows the ten most recent blog posts in their entirety. Beyond external ads, and ads for Crikey, the side panel contains numerous navigation tools: an About page link, links to her Twitter account and Shelfari page, her blogroll, recommended links and RSS feeds. Navigation to other parts of the website is fairly straightforward: there is an archive, a short list of categories and a list archived posts. Each post also has extensive tags, but these can strangely only be read once reading posts in the archives, not current posts. It seems to be only through the archives that one can browse by tags, which could be off-putting to some users. The Google search box is also somewhat out-of-the-way and tiny, but works well. Beyond the aforementioned external and social media links, community interaction is encouraged. Each post has the opportunity for readers to comment, and discuss with Angela and others readers.

Overall, the main page is well-designed and easy to navigate in a number of ways, but perhaps rather long and text-heavy to an unfamiliar reader. The writing for her posts is often long-form, divided into a number of different topics. The option to view a ‘summary’ or ‘list’ view of more of the most recent posts could be beneficial, containing just a headline, kicker (currently not used), categories and the under-utilised tags. As it stands though, readers can scan the page fairly easily, as while the text is rarely in very small chunks, there are descriptive headlines, bolded keywords, regular use of images and clear division between different topics.

In one recent post, ‘Queensland Poetry Festival special: Elizabeth Bachinsky’, the content is well-balanced and optimised for the web, although it is perhaps more concise and focussed than other posts. She uses an introduction (highlighted in blue), to provide context and link this post to other related posts in the series. She gives a brief outline of an author and a short interview/bio, interspersed with a picture, an embedded video and further related external links. The text is fairly well chunked and uses bold highlighting of key words to aid in scannable, easy-to-read text. The focus is on giving the reader all the information they may want on the topic, quickly but in an erudite fashion, utilising multimedia and linking freely. As a representative example of her posts, this is very well-optimised web content. She is not afraid of long-form writing, but generally understands the benefits of hyperlinking and multimedia content, presented in an easily scannable form.

3000 Books is one of the newer litblogs, started in 2007 and run by another Melbourne writer, Estelle Tang. Its main focus is book reviews: roughly one a week, but it also covers general and related literary news. It is based in a Blogspot platform and has a comparatively simple design. The main page is the seven most recent blog posts, again not summarised or in an immediately scannable form. While this may be an issue, it’s not so much of a problem as the posts tend to be quite short, and even those are chunked into small paragraphs. Those posts that aren’t short are single book reviews, identified by a single book cover photograph.

The side panel features a quick description of the site and author, what she’s currently reading, archive of previous posts, RSS feed, blogroll/recommendations and a very extensive list of tags used on the website. The site is very uncluttered-looking, with lots of white space (or yellow and pink space, in this case). She uses labels for most posts and this, paired with the search box at the top, make the site fairly easy to navigate. The use of general post categories could be beneficial though, as there is no way to sort between review posts and other types of posts. Additionally, although she utilises linking fairly extensively, she does not frequently link to other reviews or additional information on the books she reviews. More use of multimedia content beyond the occasional picture could also be beneficial to the site, but perhaps suits the intended bookish audience that may not mind reading mostly text. Speaking of audience, the blog of course has the option for comments.

As an example of a typical post, a recent review post ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned / Wells Tower’, contains a picture of the book, a link to a related review of hers and the review text. While other posts contain more extensive linking, it shows that she divides her posts into two general categories: miscellaneous news and reviews, with the latter being fairly similar in form to a print review, without utilising any of the potential of the online medium. This isn’t too much of a problem though, as she never lets her paragraphs or posts get too long-winded.

Overall, 3000 Books is somewhat plain and simple, but clean in presentation and reasonably easy to navigate. However, the non-review posts are not clearly headlined or tagged. But for a standalone website, it links quite extensively to others in the blogosphere, the writing and publishing community and broadly online. A very solid website, but some improvements could be made.

The Bookslut blog is part of the broader Bookslut website, a monthly web magazine and one of the older and more well-established of the litblogs. It was started in Texas in 2002 by Jessa Crispin, and while she is still the editor-in-chief, the website features a host of staff writers, columnists and occasional reviewers. The blog, however, is largely maintained by Jessa and Michael Schaub.

While the main website is updated monthly with features, columns and reviews, the blog is updated daily and accessible by one link on the homepage. Each post contains the date for a headline and a handful of short paragraphs of literary news, usually linking to a number of other related literary websites.

For such a well-established website and blog, it seems to be hesitant to emerge into the world of Web 2.0. The posts do not have space for comments, although there is a link to email the contributing author. But this lessens the strong sense of community this website could foster. Tags and categories are not used, so searching on a particular topic is left to the search bar. However, this seems to only search for things posted in the webzine, not the blog. I could find no sign of anything resembling an RSS feed for the blog either. Posts older than a week or so seem to disappear at the bottom of the page, with no apparent archive of old posts. A Google search revealed such an archive, but I could find no link to this myself. Finally, there are no pictures or any other multimedia in the blog posts. I would point out most of these issues if I were to suggest improvements, but for a dedicated reader, the site works well enough. As this is an old site for dedicated literary types, this probably partly explains the lack of all these features.

On the plus side, the blog posts are short and punchy enough to be easily scannable. They rarely go beyond a paragraph or two and are usually well-written and witty, which is an achievement for such short posts. It’s just a shame that any posts older than a week are hard to find. As it is, the blog may as well be just the one page, changing daily. Having said that, their content would be useful and interesting to their intended literary audience.

As I have explored, litblogs are as varied as any other website. All of them, from the most well-established to the freshest, have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s important for them to remember their audience, keep their content interesting, accessible and navigable and to remain up-to-date with online developments. If they do, literary aficionados will continue to happily frequent their websites, and they can stand as examples for web users in general of what makes good web content.

References

3000 Books. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website 3000books.blogspot.com

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned / Wells Tower. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via 3000 Books website 3000books.blogspot.com/2009/08/everything-ravaged-everything-burned.html

Bookslut. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website bookslut.com

Bookslut Blog. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website bookslut.com/blog/

LiteraryMinded. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via website blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded

Queensland Poetry Festival special: Elizabeth Bachinsky. (2009). Accessed August 29 2009 via LiteraryMinded website: blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2009/08/20/queensland-poetry-festival-special-elizabeth-bachinsky/