In defense of book blogging

Mabel, of Maple and a Quill, encountered a pretty savage shot across the bow aimed at book blogs and book bloggers this weekend, and fired back a salvo as polite as it is devastating in defense of what we do.  I’d talk at more length about why the critic she’s responding to—and a lot of critics like him—are clearly both badly informed about the breadth of the world of book blogging, and astoundingly chauvinist in the ways they think and talk about book bloggers (“knitting circles”?  Wow, and I thought no man was left alive who had been a member of a Victorian gentlemen’s club.  He must think those suffragettes are outrageous).  But honestly, Mabel has said it much more articulately and more stirringly than I think I can muster, so go give her essay a read.

Need more incentive?  This, I think, is the heart of her piece: “As one of the leeches of literature, I feel inspired to speak. I am no literary critic, but I am an intelligent, keen, earnest, curious, and certainly legitimate member of the literary conversation, and I daresay I live in a society that is both aggressive and gentle; both analytical and emotive; both critical and appreciative; both male and female. I do not write to tear apart literature, but to learn from it, and to share my tattered thoughts, which are very much a work in progress.”  Amen to that, Mabel—amen.

A meta-blog-post about blog posts

This curiosity may be of little interest to people not named James Rosenzweig, but I’ve been puzzling over something for months about the blog, and I thought that perhaps a few of my faithful readers/commenters (you know who you are!) might be willing to offer their thoughts?

The curiosity has to do with why some blog posts get a lot of hits and attention, and others don’t.  Every blog’s stats probably look something like mine—the home page has a ridiculously high number of hits (since that’s where most people click through to), and then each post has a small number of hits from people clicking through to it in particular.  Some types of posts are marginally more popular than others, but that’s not really my question.

My specific question has to do with this strangely popular blog post about The Age of Innocence.  It seemed simple enough when I wrote it—a few nice observations maybe, but nothing flashy.  That one blog post, written over two years ago now, remains one of my blog’s most popular posts almost every single week.  Second only to the home page in number of unique hits, its thousands of hits surpass the total hits for blog posts #3-#8 combined.  Now, I might have accepted this if it was one of my reviews—perhaps one of a famous novel, one that high schoolers would search out for book reports?  Or if maybe it was a post on a popular holiday…something that might come up frequently for casual searchers.  But instead, it’s that post—a little intermediary thing, one of a dozen or so posts about that particular novel, and somehow head-and-shoulders ahead of everything else.

By way of comparison, consider this post from early in One of Ours, and this post from later in One of Ours.  I’d call them about the same kind of work as that Age of Innocence post: reflections on characters (one even including a healthy quotation) from a novel by a well-known author.  I grant you, AoI is more popular than OoO, and Wharton more than Cather, but surely not by multiple orders of magnitude?  And yet until I linked to them here, each of those posts on Cather’s novel had garnered but one hit apiece in the 2+ years they’ve lived on my blog.

So I ask you—what is it about that odd little post on The Age of Innocence?  Did I inadvertently use a keyphrase everyone searches on Google?  (If so, what’s the phrase?)  Is it just really good reading?  Should I try to repeat the feat, or accept that I will never in my life write anything as broadly popular as this one curious little musing on Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska?  I hope someone has some thoughts, since I’ve gotten a whole lot of nowhere, thus far.

P.S. For those who say “it’s just that it’s a post on The Age of Innocence, and it’s a really well-known novel “, I give you this: a post on The Age of Innocence, as old as the wildly popular one, that up until today had a total of 3 hits.  Buridan’s ass may be able to tell the difference between them, but I’m having a heck of a time working it out.

First post of 2012: The blog’s new look

Welcome (back?) to Following Pulitzer, the blog that attempts to answer a variety of questions about literature, America, life in the context of these two things, and many other sundry topics.  If you’re a regular, you may notice (unless you’re not particularly affected by visual cues) that the blog looks different.  I’ve been holding off for months now—the blog “theme” I built FP in, back in 2009, was superseded by a hip new update early in 2011, and WordPress has been “nudging” me to make the update ever since.  I haven’t wanted to, being the kind of guy who doesn’t like change even when he is sure it’s a good idea, and I wasn’t sure this was a good idea.  But it’s 2012, and the arrival of the new year is time to take a few leaps personally.  I know, I know: it’s a bit pathetic to suggest that adopting a slightly different blog theme is some kind of important step in my journey of personal growth.  But I take what I can get.

I do like some new features: it’s MUCH easier now to see how to leave a comment (instead of a tiny link, it’s a big button), and I think the blog’s tags are much more visible now.  It seems to me that there’s a lot less wasted space on the margins, and the right sidebar looks a little less cluttered to me now.

I also am not happy with some changes—I feel like the expanded top sidebar (it’s not a “sidebar” if it’s on top, is it….what, is it a “topbar”?  I am almost painfully unhip about these things) is cluttered and I can’t fix that without a major reorganization of the blog’s page structure…although that structure, admittedly, was merely designed to fit the last theme’s oddities, and not based on some cool and careful logic on my part.  The text of the blog’s subtitle in the header is in a wretched font that is far too thin and I can’t alter it in any way other than its color.  Blech.  And at first, I was getting weird giant tildes in the middle of posts that obscured the text—word to the wise: if this is happening to you, update your browser to solve the problem.  If you’d rather not update your browser, and find the tildes irritating and troublesome, I feel your pain, but I’m afraid I can’t do anything about it.  It’s one of the vagaries of hypertext markup language with which a mortal cannot hope to contend.

If other weirdness arises from this (or if no weirdness arises and you think the new look is wicked—that’s “wicked!” in a cool way, and not malevolent as though originating from an ancient evil), let me know.  I will say, though, the old theme is gone.  I took a leap knowing there was no way back up.  So it’s this or one of WordPress’s even worse free themes.  I’m hoping this will do well enough to allow you and me to continue enjoying this little dialogue we have (it’s a bit one-sided, I know, but such are blogs).  Cheers to you all, and welcome to the new year.

A big thank you to my readers

Yesterday marked the biggest day ever for this blog in terms of views, coming at the end of the biggest week ever, and the biggest month ever (despite February’s only being 28 days long)—for the first time in Following Pulitzer’s history, we hit over 1,000 page views in a month.  Many of you I know are just passing Googlers looking for help with your homework (much luck to you, since I can’t imagine we’ll be helpful) or folks looking for a good poem (you’ve come to the right place), but there’s a core there of people I know from a lot of different corners of my life: I don’t know what motivates you all to keep looking in back here, especially as I’ve been stuck on the same novel for months (I swear, I’m picking up the pace once I graduate! This is a life goal I am going to achieve.).  But I appreciate that you show up here and read what I’ve written, and maybe think about it a little, and occasionally even leave some thoughts of your own.  I hope the increased readership means that I’m getting better at putting things up here that resonate for you, and I’ll keep at it.  Anyway, most of all I just wanted to tell you I’m glad you stopped by, and even though the next ten days will be grad school hell, I promise there will be a poem late on Friday, and if I can give you any more than that, I will.  Cheers to you all, and welcome to March, entering like the lion that you are.

A beginning of a year

I use the indefinite article with care. There are many kinds of years, after all, and this January 1st business is not the only beginning, nor is 2011 the only year, in my life. It may not even be the most important. For 18 years, now, my “work” years have been school cycles—either college or high school—years that begin in late August or somewhere in September with the anticipation of new classes, new challenges, new readings, along with the comfort of the very (and increasingly) familiar. January, in these contexts, begins a new phase or maybe merely returns to a life frozen in place. I now expect that this cycle (or one like it) may continue for most of my lifetime, though the future is (as always) seen through a glass, darkly. Another kind of year, for me, is a liturgical year that begins in either late November or early December with the first Sunday of Advent—a season of anticipation and patient hope. It is a year that proceeds wholly unaffected by January 1st; a year whose rhythms antedate the Gregorian calendar; a year divided to call attention to the various experiences of and encounters with a reality that is in some ways separate from the comings and goings of my everyday life, and in other ways is remarkably immanent in who I am and what I do. Yet another kind of year is the year that begins for each of us on a different day, and for me on the twenty-eighth of September—the year that marks another revolution of the Earth since conscious arrival as an independent human being, the years that (subjectively) pass more quickly now than before, the years that are starting to bring me closer to those who have preceded me and make me feel the increasing distance from those newly come to these strange shores. January 1st is yet another day to see that turning, but it is not an unusually good day to see my life in that perspective.

I say the above things for a few reasons. In part it is because these are the kinds of things I think about, and a blog is a place to write such things. And in part it is me starting to acknowledge that this blog is going to change if it is going to live. Not entirely—I still have my ridiculous Pulitzer aims, and I intend to see them through (even if, as now seems likely, the work may last much of this decade). But I’ve tried too hard to divorce the blog from my life—to operate under the assumption that I either talk about Pulitzer novels, or nothing at all—and that way of thinking is too barren. I read a lot of books (many of which have not won any awards), I think a lot of things about them, and my larger ideas about things like art and beauty and meaning have to do with even more sides of my personality than are encompassed by the books I read.

So, as I return from a quarter where I didn’t blog at all, I’m saying that I should have been blogging. I’ve been reading some interesting novels, and thinking about reading and readers in interesting ways, and I wish I had been sharing that here. I think at the very least it would have been more interesting/relevant/accessible to most of you than me posting my latest thoughts about Laughing Boy (though I will be posting more of those soon!), and I think it would make for interesting comparisons. This quarter, I’m taking a seminar on printed texts (part of the Textual Studies graduate curriculum at the U.W.) and I think it will give rise to some thoughts. I’m intending to share more of those. Sometimes it will be obvious how it connects to the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m going to take that obligation more broadly from now on.

I’ll still be posting the same kinds of comments on those Pulitzer winners, though, with the same consistently idiosyncratic reviews. Poetry Fridays, in one form or another, ought to remain with us. But other things may change. I will say (because I think it needs saying) that the blog will not become a mere outcropping of my whole life. Many things that interest me will not be here (politics, for example), so those of you who don’t share all my opinions about the world needn’t worry. This will more or less still be about me having a fully-awake encounter with literature, and what it says more broadly about who we are as people and where we’ve come from—and it will continue to derive its primary momentum from my interest in seeing what the Pulitzer winners do to me, and how I think they reveal (or conceal) America. I don’t know how frequently I’ll blog, but I know I’ll be doing it much more regularly than I have in months, and I hope a few of you will still be along for the ride: I’ll try to keep it interesting!

At the risk of overcrowding an already crowded sidebar…

…I’ve added a couple of things.  First of all, I’m not sure what a normal # of visitors / # of comments ratio is, but I feel like a lot of folks aren’t even really aware of the comments–the text for the link to the comments page is small but I don’t know enough about the page layout to alter that.  So I’ve added a “recent comments” section to the sidebar, hoping to encourage folks to engage in a little more conversation…although I certainly recognize that forgotten ’20s fiction isn’t exactly barn-burning stuff, I’d love it if we interacted a bit more.

And my social conscience was awakened a bit when I realized there was something built into WordPress that would allow blog visitors to support charities.  You can see it at the bottom of the sidebar.  Basically, if you follow the link, you’re asked to do silly things (click on little boxes, send someone an e-card, etc.) which basically just expose you to advertising for Colgate toothpaste, etc.  You get credit for doing this, and more credit if you post what you did on Facebook or Twitter.  And those “credits” go to support education for impoverished young women in Africa.  I chose the charity (from the list of charities that WordPress works with) because I wanted something as closely aligned with literacy as possible.  I hope you’ll give it a try–it’s an experiment, but I figure at the worst (if it proves so weird and clunky that none of us click that link regularly), we’ll have provided a small contribution to a good cause.

And in general, if the blog seems weirdly designed, let me know.  I don’t know how much I’m going to tinker with it, but I’ll probably keep experimenting with it a bit.  I’m conscious of not wanting a sidebar that goes on forever, but I also want to provide links to the sorts of things that are useful.  If you feel strongly, tell me (a comment here is easy, or on really any page) and I’ll certainly consider your ideas seriously.

Thanks for your patience as I settle into a comfortable blog layout and routine.  A So Big post should appear soon (tomorrow, if all goes well).