Thursday, December 21, 2006

On Blogs, Bloggers, and Pat Conroy

Joseph Rago had an excellent little essay about blogging in yesterday's Opinion Journal. His criticisms of the blogosphere are all precisely on target, the main thrust of them being,

The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps. . . .

Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .

[J]ournalism as practiced via blog appears to be a change for the worse. That is, the inferiority of the medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope--though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog's being is: Here's my opinion, right now. . . .

This element--here's my opinion--is necessarily modified and partly determined by the right now. Instant response, with not even a day of delay, impairs rigor. It is also a coagulant for orthodoxies. We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought--instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. . . .

Naturally, many bloggers objected to this criticism, although in general, the mode of their objections tended to support, rather than refute, Rago's thesis. To take just one example, conservative cartoonist Chris Muir, who combines the intellectual curiosity of Gary Trudeau with the wit of Aaron McGruder, penned a strip attacking the Rago thesis for a missing period. The punch line to the strip was a rip-off of the "Halp us Jon Carry" banner that conservative bloggers touted so often in the days before the 2006 election. One could hardly think of a better example of either solipsism or derivation.

As far as the rest of Rago's arguments go, I will not, as a courtesy, provide links, but I would encourage readers to think back to the early days of November--and even on Election Day--when many parts of the conservative blogosphere pronounced, over and over and over, about how wrong the polls, the "experts," professional journalists, and the mainstream media were going to be about the impending midterm election. One could hardly think of a better example of a mob based on a collective delusion.

What bloggers always seem to miss in their angry reactions to criticisms such as Rago's, is that the criticism is of the medium, not the writers. When most "professional" writers ply their art on blogs, the results are little better. As Exhibit A, I would point to this useless blog. But if you need Exhibits B, C, D, and E, I'd suggest looking at the blog-work of professional journalists such as Gregg Easterbrook, Lee Siegel, Andrew Sullivan, and James Wolcott--whose blogging careers have been so terrible that they have at least damaged, and perhaps even destroyed, their reputations as serious people. And as a counterexample, I'd suggest looking to the non-blog writings of bloggers such as Scott Johnson and Dean Barnett, which are often quite valuable.

In other words, the criticism of blogs as a medium is not a personal criticism of bloggers, it is an intellectual argument about the nature of things. That so many bloggers cannot understand that distinction is, again, an argument in support of it.

(It should go without saying, of course, that not all blogs are worthless and not all traditional writing is valuable. One can admit and enjoy exceptions while still making reasonable generalized arguments.)


On a vaguely related topic, yesterday my friends Dean Barnett and Scott Johnson both linked approvingly to a Pat Conroy essay drawn from his memoir My Losing Season. It is understandable that conservatives would search for any port in a storm, but Conroy is one port from which they should probably steer clear. This is not for ideological reasons, but because Conroy's "memoir" is not 100 percent true. I'll quote at length from Dave McKenna's January 10, 2003 Washington City Paper report on another famous incident from My Losing Season:

Alums of one of D.C.'s oldest prep schools have been buzzing ever since the Washington Post printed an excerpt from My Losing Season, the new memoir by Pat Conroy. . . .

The biggest buzz created by the Post excerpt came not from Conroy's academic portrayals but from the vivid description of a brawl that the writer recalls as having taken place in the Gonzaga auditorium in May 1961, during the annual athletic banquet and awards ceremony. The unquestioned king of the Daddy Dearest novel writes that the brouhaha really got going after he was knocked out for the second time that night by--no surprise here--his dear old dad. According to the text, his father decided that the boy deserved the double beat-down for playing a prank on another student.

"The second backhand caught me on the left jaw, harder than the first, and I went down to the floor again," Conroy writes. "Then a free-for-all began." In the book, the younger Conroy came to just in time to drag his bad dad out of the auditorium and save him from other Gonzaga fathers--"an angry mob of men"--who wanted a piece of the perpetrator of a very visible act of child abuse.

"They had no idea who my father was and did not care," Conroy writes. "They saw a stranger knock a Gonzaga boy to his knees and came roaring to my defense."

A public man-boy pummeling? Two knockouts in one night? Sure sounds like memorable stuff, and it will no doubt make for some fine movie scenes. But the all-hands brawl Conroy describes doesn't have a big place in Gonzaga lore. In fact, until the Post story ran, it apparently didn't have any place.

"I think Conroy got everything else about Gonzaga right, so I don't know why this wouldn't be right, too," says John Carmody, Gonzaga's general counsel and one of four generations of Carmodys to attend the school--the gym is named after his father. "But I'd never heard that story before.

Carmody suggests that William Bennett would be able to confirm Conroy's account. In the book excerpt, Conroy places himself behind Bennett, the high-profile moralist and member of Gonzaga's class of '61, during the fateful awards ceremony.

"Mr. Bennett says he was at the function, but he can't recall that scuffle," says Jeff Kwitowski, Bennett's spokesperson. "He can't verify any scuffle."

Chris Warner, a Gonzaga classmate whom the excerpt places next to Conroy earlier in the banquet, also says he didn't see any fight.

Buchanan, who keeps close ties to the school and is involved in the alumni organization, says he'd never heard about the big brawl, either. "That's quite a story, though, so after I read it [in the Post], I asked some of my brothers about the brawl, and they said they'd never heard it, either," says Buchanan, one of seven siblings to attend Gonzaga. He then adds with a laugh, "But he's some writer, isn't he?"

"This is such a personal memoir, we didn't do any fact-checking," says George Solomon, the Post's sports editor. "We trust Mr. Conroy, with his reputation, for its accuracy."

One Gonzaga-ite who had heard about the banquet brawl is Danny Costello, class of '72, now vice president for development at the school. He got it right from the horse's mouth.

"Pat Conroy came here about 12 years ago and I walked the halls with him, and he told me a story of his father's kicking his ass at a school dinner," says Costello. "I'd never heard that story from anybody before or since, until the book came out."

Costello says he understands why the Post piece left some Gonzaga alums wondering why they'd never heard more about the brawl. He hasn't been able to answer their questions.

"I see why some people could question the account [that appeared in the Post]: He describes being dazed and not aware after getting hit, yet he also describes in great detail everything that was going on around him. How the hell does that happen?" Costello says. "But was there a rumble, and did the brawl happen the way the book says it did? I guess only one man knows all the answers, and that's Pat Conroy. But I really think it's irrelevant. That's the way he remembers it. Everything he writes, his dad beats him up--I know he gets pounded in The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides--and stories about his dad beating him up are in every article that's ever been written about the guy. So nobody should be surprised that he gets beat up in this book, too."

Buchanan says he's also ready to let Conroy's brawl story stand as written. But he admits that the episode reminded him of the travails of Gonzaga alum Joe Ellis, class of '61. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, had his career derailed when it came out that he'd padded his resume with a fictional stint with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. As the press was piling on Ellis, it also came out that he'd bragged to the Boston Globe about catching a game-winning touchdown pass in his final game on the Gonzaga football team. Ellis never played football.

"But now, whenever anybody brings up the Joe Ellis touchdown story," Buchanan says, "I just tell them I [threw] that pass."

After being asked through e-mail and phone messages to confirm his account of the Gonzaga free-for-all, Conroy responded through his literary agent, Marly Russoff. "No one saw him get hit," Russoff says, "and he did not discuss it with anyone."

Conroy was scheduled to appear at a book signing in downtown D.C. shortly after McKenna's article appeared. He canceled the appearance.

If the Andrew Sullivan experience taught bloggers nothing, it should have been the valuable lesson that some allies aren't worth having.


Anonymous said...

Rago states the obvious when he says that some blogs stink. But, not every blog has the pretensions of being "journalism", whatever that means.
The biggest problems with Rago's article is the utter condenscension and lack of specificity. He could have written a much better piece with less of the former and more of the latter.

Anonymous said...

My oh my. Jonathan's hacks and lackeys come out to defend him. How convenient. Let me guess, Katherine. Somebody wants an internship at The Weekly Standard? How utterly, sadly predictable.

I for one will not be silenced!


Anonymous said...


Very funny, Joseph.

Anonymous said...

Listen, Kaitlin, I don't know what you're problem is. I for one celebrate the New Journalism. I for one celebrate the prospect of a Reinvigorated Democracy. I for one celebrate the prospect of letting a Million Flowers Blossom. But you? I guess you're still stuck in Old Media Mode. More the pity for you.


Anonymous said...

Good take on the Rago piece. I saw it, and then I saw instapundit's response (which was to link to the Muir cartoon twice). One of the (specific) criticisms of the (rightwing) blogs in the Rago piece was that they tend to focus on dumb minutiae instead of substance. Which is why it's so f'ing awesome that instapundit smugly linked to that sh!t Muir cartoon (twice!) that focused on a typo in the article, rather than the substance of the article.

Anonymous said...

Joseph Rago has been put to shame by a cartoon, folks. All of his much vaunted "expertise" didn't seem to matter a jot, as it were.

Let me turn the question to you: why do you fear what you cannot control? Why do you slander that which you cannot understand? There's a word for people like you, and it rhymes with "mash-ist."


Jay D. Homnick said...

Inflated Memoir Syndrome has affected many great men throughout the ages. I could tell some stories... but you might suspect me of inflating them.

The ironic part is that their lives tend to be quite interesting enough without embellishment. It's like Peterman, the world traveler, buying stories from Kramer, the couch potato.

Wise up, guys! Be secure in your own interestingness.

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