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.