From Blog to Book

So here’s what happens: you’ve been writing your blog for many months now and your readership has grown and grown and the comments pour in and, one day, that phone call or email finally arrives from the publishers telling you you’re a phenomenon and that you’re invited to put a book together from your successful blog. What do you do? Do you go for the compilation option and string together your very best posts, or do you use the blog as a springboard for a more novelistic approach? What’s the best way to preserve the spirit of the blog, showcase your writerly skills and compose a book that works? Just recently, I’ve read two books that exemplify these two different possibilities, Mary Beard’s blog compilation book, It’s A Don’s Life and Julie Powell’s memoir of her year long quest to master the art of French cookery, Julie and Julia. One came out the distinct winner for me, but I won’t say which one just yet.

Mary Beard’s book is a recent publication. A professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, she was invited by the Times Literary Supplement to run a twice-weekly blog for the paper, something which she admits to taking on with initial reluctance. ‘I thought that blogs were too immediate, too thoughtless and often too short to have anything serious to contribute to the world,’ she writes in her afterword. And so she accepted the job with the intention of giving up after a few months and writing an article about ‘how terrible this blogging thing was.’ In the event, she ended up really enjoying blogging, not least because of the miracles of hypertext that allow the reader to link to all kinds of sources and stories that would feature only as tedious footnotes in an academic article. She also found it a useful vehicle for dispelling myths about Cambridge (or at least trying to do so), or misapprehensions about classical matters. She could use it to challenge inanities in the general media in a format that actually reached a wide audience and got their attention. And, like all of us, the online community she forged soon became something highly significant and valuable to her.

The book of her blog is almost literally that – a direct transposition of a wide range of posts, with selected comments included. Her topics often contain references to classical matters, like whether the Greeks and Romans were racist, what they wore under their togas, did they celebrate St Valentine’s Day and so on, and pretty much all the rest have to do with being an academic in a reasonably famous institution. There’s a lot of posts about the start of term, about examinations and interviews, about the hectic life of a Don. I have to confess that this is not a book I could sit down and read from start to finish but one I could only dip into at random, and more often than not it was the personal posts that drew my attention. The contents of her in-box, her fury at being misquoted by the press (I could sympathise – academics are nothing if not particular in what they say, so to have one’s words twisted into completely unrecognisable formations, designed to look silly or provocative, must really hurt), these were the posts that I read with pleasure and interest.

Julie Powell’s book, by contrast is unrecognisable from its original blog form. Instead it is a much more conventional memoir, following her experiences from the day that she first conceived of the Julia Child cooking project to its final conclusion in a book deal and a whole new life. Julie Powell comes across as one of those people who has no concept of limitations, who throws herself for better or worse into whatever she does, and who likes to have it all hang out. As someone who treasures forward planning and works hard to keep it all severely buttoned in, I could only admire her. The result is a very engaging narrative voice, one full of vibrancy, emotion and wit. Whether it’s dissecting a bone in order to get to the rather grisly marrow within or staying up all night to tend to a plumbing disaster featuring pipes blocked with the remains of her cooking, or finding out that the real life Julia Child hates her, Powell really takes the reader into the heart of her experience. She is not much of a one for contemplation, as she readily admits, and this is an action packed account that rarely draws breath. But it’s a delightful ride as we hurtle with Julie through the sections on eggs (having never eaten one before beginning her project), fish (and the many ways to kill a lobster) and meat. Julie is not a good girl – she drinks, smokes and swears her way through a marvellous pile-up of kitchen disasters, and she is never slow to point out the analogies between cooking and sexuality. But it’s all of a piece with her warm, mischevious, vital voice. Alongside her culinary adventures, she charts the growing interest in her blog that culminates in massive media interest. But she doesn’t say very much about it, not in the way she will eviscerate every last detail of a failed chocolate pudding. The most frustrating aspect of the memoir is her essential but underlying trajectory from someone who was frustrated and disappointed in her life, to someone who finally achieved what she wanted. It’s a huge story in itself, but Powell only cooks it, she doesn’t discuss it, and I would have liked to know much more about this act of self-rescue. In its absence, the reader can only conclude that fame and a book deal DO make you happy, but I don’t believe it’s as simple as this for one moment, not really.

But how are we to evaluate the transposition of blogging into these very different book forms? Reading Mary Beard’s book, I felt that more transformation was needed. I found I had a very short attention span for her posts when printed on paper pages; it is in any case very rare for me to read more than one or two entries on a blog in any one sitting. Oddly enough I didn’t get into the book at all, until one day when I felt really tired and not in the mood for ordinary novelistic fare, and happened to pick it up. I realised that my online reading usually takes place when I’m not quite fully awake, either first thing in the morning, or late at night, and that I read online in a scattered way in order to avoid getting on with proper chores. It’s so easy to read one more post rather than do the washing up or get on with my work. Somehow this translated seamlessly into the book, which I could read when I had nothing better to do, but could not pick up to read in a concentrated manner. There’s a fair amount of repetition (we often seem to be at the start of an academic year) but little of the continuity that draws you through a book-length work.

And I realised that reading blogs for me, is rather like being James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I sit, incarcerated at the computer, and see little brightly-lit windows opening up in front of my eyes, each one containing a voyeuristic peek into someone’s everyday life. Behind that window, someone is talking about the difficulty of writing an article, behind the next there’s someone unpacking a shopping bag of recent book acquisitions, whilst the next window along is empty – the owner is away on holiday for a week. That’s the fun of blogs; they give you a vivid snapshot that is charming because of its discontinuity. We have to piece together the bits of information to get a whole life, and even so it’s riddled with uncertainties and gaps. But it doesn’t matter, what we see at any one time is so real and alive that it grabs our attention, even if it is ordinary and mundane. It’s the living of it, the very immediacy that matters.

How to preserve that immediacy without it growing stale in a printed book? How to transfer the delight in the everyday without it sinking into banality? This is the problem facing the transposition of blog to book. I came to the conclusion that for it to work, the reader has to be invited into the room behind the lit window, and that we have to be involved in the whole life, not just the segment of event that constitutes the truncated glimpse of the blog. So for me, Julie and Julia worked a lot better. I enjoyed it immensely as a read, and felt that the lively, funny voice of Julie brought the best of the blog into the pages of a memoir. But it was still like reading the very best, extended magazine article you could possibly imagine. To have really made it into the literary realm, I needed her to dig deeper, make connections, reflect on her experience in a way that she was reluctant to do. The best blog posts, after all, can be profound in their concision. But it was extremely interesting to read both these books; both celebrating the unique qualities of blogging but not quite yet managing to transpose them flawlessly into orthodox narrative. I can’t wait to see what bloggers will come up with next.

19 thoughts on “From Blog to Book

  1. What an insightful one but last paragraph you’ve written there (and y’know the rest of the post, but that bit in particular). It is the personal that draws people back to blogs about anything I think, the little connection you can expereince by seeing a little bit behind the scenes of everyday lives. Maybe it’s a bit like why lots of people (yes me, I am nosy about people’s lives) like fictional books written in diary, or letter form, just a pinch of the day to day, personal life.

  2. Gosh — I am hugely flattered to be compared (even if unfavourably) to a blog that isn’t just a book, but a movie..

    If I were ever to see Meryl Streep in the movie of A Don’s Life (now how likely is that?), I would rewrite immediately. That’s a promise!!

    Meantime, I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as you did — even if when knackered. But we all need things to read when we’re knackered!

  3. What a great post! Seems to me that if you were an editor who wanted to transform a wonderful blog into a book, you’d have to begin by figuring out just what the blog is up to and then translate that into an existing form: cookbook? memoir? diary? columns? graphic novel? essays? coffee table book of scenes from your garden? And then you’d take it from there. What interests me too is your last question — what will bloggers come up with next?!

  4. Having loved Julie and Julia, you need to see the movie. It is gorgeous.

    I do know what you mean about reading blogs without the brain fully engaged. I definitely do that too – first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, news-gathering before the work of the day begins or ends.

  5. I love your comparison of reading blogs to Rear Window. Such great fun!🙂 I don’t have any real interest in either of the books you reviewed (although I enjoyed the movie version of Julie & Julia, mainly because I love Amy Adams and Meryl Streep), but I definitely enjoyed your thoughts on them and the differences between blogs and books.

    I’m reading Zadie Smith’s new essay collection right now, and it has that kind of scattered focus feel to it that rather reminds me of blogging. I’ve been trying to read more essays in general this year, and I really do feel that they’re the precursor to blogging. Of course, in general they’re much more polished, but there are a lot of similarities.

  6. Jodie – I have my hand way up in the air as one of the world’s most curiosity-filled people! I love seeing into other people’s lives, and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a story I’ve heard a hundred times – the everyday as it gets put on the page (or screen) in the moment of it’s happening; now that IS interesting! I keep thinking about what it is that makes blogs unique, because I do think of them as a whole new genre, and one that is excitingly in its infancy.

    Mary – I am thrilled to have you drop by, so thank you! I am right behind the idea of making It’s A Don’s Life into a film – it surely has potential, all those gorgeous settings, and the chaos of students – and Meryl Streep would be rather perfect as you, I think. Your book is an ideal dipping-into sort of book, and to be quite honest, I don’t read that kind very often. But it was just what I wanted when I couldn’t settle to a novel and I was very grateful for that. Readers need books for ALL kinds of situations!

    Bloglily – you are spot on there, my friend. That’s got to be the guiding principle of all good writing – know what the real point of it is, understand what you really want it to do, and go from there. When your novel comes out, publishers will be clamoring for your oeuvres de jeunesse, you know, and your blog may well be the subject of heated bidding!🙂

    Charlotte – I was hoping someone would tell me whether the film is any good! Wonderful – I’ll rent it from the video store next time I need to lie on the sofa and watch a lovely movie. Blogs wake me up in the morning – I pack my son’s lunch box on auto-pilot and then I go through the feed reader. I couldn’t possibly do anything else, I’m too zonked, but they do bring me gently to full consciousness!

    Eva – Delighted to have another vote for the film. And also very interested to hear your thoughts on Zadie Smith, as that essay collection is something I’d like to read. I love blogs that do mini-essays and wish more did (there are probably loads of essay blogs out there and in my technical incompetence I haven’t found them). The idea of writing a brief essay and then having the discussion subsequently in the comments section is just so unique and unusual and purely bloggy. Nowhere else can you do that, but how to move that into a really satisfactory book form is a tremendous challenge. Someone will figure it out, I’m sure!🙂

  7. That was such a keen description of what it’s like to read blogs. I wouldn’t think it would translate at all well into a book and yet it sounds like each of those books, in different ways, managed that transition well if imperfectly.

  8. An interesting topic for all bloggers and their readers. I listened to a discussion on the radio about bloggers versus critics, which also brought up intetesting points – dovegreyreader was on for the bloggers and seemed as pleasant a person as on her blog. I was aware of the don’s life blog, but the other has somehow passed me by, even as a film, no doubt showing where my interests lie. I must look it up as I’m intrigued by this child cooking project to do with Julia! That sounds typical of our extreme media interests these days. Are there recipes?

  9. Speaking of enjoyable… great post, LL. I love the comparison with Rear Window too, it’s just pitch perfect, exactly right. I’m interested in this topic particularly because I think blogging does have unique properties that a straight blog-to-binding trans-modality doesn’t attend to sufficiently; something, I fear, is inevitably lost in translation. But I have noted that the most successful – the Post Secret books and J & J and Stuff White People Like and even Cake Wrecks I see is now a book – all began with very specific blogs, blogs that had a very clear defining interest. General observational and quotidian blogs such as my own simply don’t… ADHERE in the same way, which is why you see less of them glued together in book form. If people aren’t going to get a narrative arc with the thrill of its winding hairpin bends, they at least want good visibility on the straight road between A to B.

  10. It seems like every successful blog out there is getting book deals now – but as you say, it doesn’t always work out that well. I really enjoy Heather Armstrong’s blog, Dooce.com, but I thought her book didn’t pull together very well. It was made up mainly of blog entries, and it didn’t feel like a complete story. I felt like I had missed things from it, like I had skipped over a crucial section that should have been in there.

  11. Interesting blog-to-book comparisons. I agree with you that blogging is a new genre and I don’t think that a blog as it is can be made into a book and have it work. The blog must be transformed into something else entirely, a memoir or essays for instance. And depending on the writing skills of the blogger, that transformation may or may not be successful. You could be the world’s best blogger and stink when it comes to writing a memoir. I am curious to see how blogs-to-books evolve as time goes on.

  12. I loved this analysis of how blogs work and your comparison of the two blogs-to-books. Having seen the movie of J&J but not having read either blog (or book) I still think you’re spot on in pointing to what would have made both books more complete. A more personal grounding in the one and a deeper reflection in the other. Loved that analogy of Julie Powell cooking but not discussing the full story.

  13. Gosh — I shouldn’t get interested in this…!

    I havent looked carefully at the J and J, But I should have said how keen I was to publish some comments as well as the blog posts themselves. I have come to think that there are interesting, and readable/worth-reading, interactions here. If you rewrite to form a new literary entity (as is possible — and may work well), you do tend to wipe out the commenters and what makes the blog a blog — rather than a collection essays? mb

  14. Belle Du Jour must surely be one of the most successful blog to book stories? Of course she had the mystique of anonymity as a big driver in readership numbers and media coverage – not a model that will work for more conventional blogs, although lessons can certainly be taken from this.

    The problem with blogging, from the point of view of profiling a novel say, is that of giving too much content away.

  15. I really enjoyed Julie and Julia the movie, especially because I have a strong interest in cooking and grew up watching Julia Child’s cooking shows. However, I was hesitant to pick up the book for fear that it would be too topical and blog-like (I love reading blogs too, but as you noted, it’s different and not something I would want to sit down and read a book of). Your description makes me want to try it though, and I know I can steal my Mom’s copy when I’m home!

  16. Very insightful post, I’m glad I stumbled across this blog!

    It is interesting to compare the same stories as they change medium. Such as the classic line: “The book was much better than the movie!”. Although I have to admit I actually gave up on Julie & Julia the book at about page 90. I much more enjoyed the movie because I was far more interested in the Julia Child side of the story. The book seemed to be all about Julie Powell, while the movie was more 50/50 between the two of them.

  17. Interesting stuff! It’s fascinating that these two examples don’t quite work as books, although it sounds like the Powell book has the potential for it, but hers is taken pretty far from the blog format. I’m curious to read Beard’s book just to see if I would respond in the same way you did — I like books I can dip into, especially essay collections, although I’m usually ready to give them my full attention, if only for a short span, and if the sections are too breezy and not meaty enough, I might not like it either.

  18. You are sharply insightful. I did enjoy the J&J book and wanted more Child which the movie delivers and is thus better than the book. I thought Julie Powell was incredibly brave, especially compared to me and what I blog about.

  19. Lilian – I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it – they both did manage the transmission with some grace and lots of interest, and if neither is perfect, well, very few artworks are!

    Bookboxed – lol! And how nice to have you drop by. Julie Powell cooked just about everything bar a small child. A great deal of offal passed through her kitchen, but not in a way that made me want to eat any of it. I must look on the radio archives for the programme you mention – it sounds most interesting.

    Doctordi – couldn’t agree more; focus is everything. Or as one of my writing friends once asked me with great seriousness, what is the book’s raison d’etre? Narrative arcs help a lot – and Julie Powell certainly had that on her side. But it’s interesting how much voice matters in a blog, isn’t it? With the best will in the world, I couldn’t read a novel purely for the voice (though heaven knows I’ve got through Beckett on it – just about), but I often find it doesn’t matter what the blogger writes about if I like the way s/he writes. Hmm, intriguing.

    Jenny – I can quite imagine that, although I don’t know the blog you mention there (and will rush to look it up!). Books do need a foreground and a background to be really satisfying, don’t they? Everything feeds into everything else and the richer the material, the more you are drawn into the world of the story. I do agree.

    Stefanie – what you say there is so interesting, as it shows up how very different blogs and books are. This does make me hope that someone out there is thinking very deeply about the medium of blogging and what kind of genre of writing it creates. Because there is so much to think about, no?

    Pete – thank you, my friend! I am very much looking forward to seeing the movie of J & J now, as I’ve heard many good things about it and I really want to see how the Julie Powell storyline plays out. And most interesting to read on your site a review of her latest book – I was so intrigued to hear how that had gone down (and not well! being the answer…)

    Mary – now that’s something I wish I’d mentioned in the main body of the review, because I was won over by your inclusion of comments. Initially I feared it wouldn’t work, but as I read through the entries, I found myself very keen to know how they were received, and really appreciated reading the same commenters or someone with an…umm, eccentric viewpoint. It certainly brought the book close to its blogging origins. I did find my interest piqued when a blog entry was controversial enough to provoke a second post – that sort of thing was very engaging, and I wondered about how possible it might have been to group entries together so that they made small narrative arcs of their own, or drew together a number of similar posts to provide a richer viewpoint. Again, blogs work better with daily variety, but I tend towards the view that books do better with focus. But the jury’s out and I’m only speculating here.

    iwentbankrupt – (and I’m very sorry to hear that!). Yes, Belle du jour had all sorts of specific things going for it – that tabloid-y sort of linking between sex, scandal and teasing anonymity. It’s interesting that the author has come out of hiding now – which I expect will kill the sales of the book. For most people blogging, that sort of combination is out of the question! But there are clearly emerging qualities of blogging that suit books – blogs that give first person accounts of highly particular situations, for instance, like the policeman’s blog and the woman writing in a war-torn middle Eastern country (can’t recall which now). That sort of thing seems to do well.

    Miriam – J & J doesn’t feel like a blog at all when you read it – it’s most definitely a memoir, part of which concerns running a highly successful blog. I really want to see the film now! I’ve heard so many good things about it, and I know nothing whatsoever about Julia Child (and I love Meryl Streep – she’s amazing).

    Steve – and welcome! I’m glad you stumbled in. I know nothing about Julia Child, hadn’t even heard of her until I read Powell’s book, and to be honest, I thought the glimpses of Child’s life were the weakest thing about J & J. So I’m looking forward to the film to learn more.

    Dorothy – I think you might really like Mary Beard’s book. It’s very intelligent, has some interesting snippets of information in it and lots to empathise with concerning teaching at university! It is a very good dipping-in sort of book, and when I had that frame of mind I enjoyed it very much. I hadn’t realised how much I like a narrative arc, or a longer treatment of an issue until I read it – but that’s my personal preference and shouldn’t reflect on the book’s potential to please. It has a lot going for it!

    Care – thank you for that! I know nothing at all about Julia Child, and the only bit of J & J I didn’t like much were those biographical snippets, which seemed too short and irrelevant to the rest of the memoir for my liking. So I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie now! Powell is brave in the way she’s so honest, but one person’s forthright honesty is another’s exhibitionism.😉 Don’t you change an atom on your blog – you’re exactly right just as you are.

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