Tuesday, February 21, 2006

BOOKS: No Sex, Please. We're Indian.

If you've ever wondered what exactly a blog is (and according to the link I'm about to provide, 62 percent of you do), then this article (in the Financial Times, no less) provides a comprehensive background on the origins and rise of blogging and the blogosphere's current level of celebrity.

And since no think-piece on this subject would be complete without its author's gloomy misgivings about blogging's credibility and future, it has that, too:
But as with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold - a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave “new economy” a few years ago?
I have to admit that I only skimmed this article, so it kind of read as "Blah blah blabbidy blah revolution blah blah old media blabbidy blabbidy information reformation blah blah blah." But as we used to say back in my old IRC days, YMMV. So feel free to read it and get back to me with your more comprehensive impressions.

As much as I like to write in my site and to read other people's sites, I find reading about blogging to be sort of the navel-gazing equivalent of watching the Oscars, and I don't do that, either. But the piece caught my attention near the end, when its author,
Trevor Butterworth, surveyed people like Heather and Jessica of Go Fug Yourself, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, and Ana Marie Cox, the blogger formerly known as Wonkette, and asked if they thought George Orwell or Karl Marx would have blogged.

The question, Butterworth claims (only after presenting us with everyone's answers), is rigged, apparently so that he can deliver a gloomy summation to his argument... a summation that he seems to have predetermined before even writing this piece. And boy howdy, here's where I have to mention that the last sentence of this opus magnus is one of the more tragically purple bits of prose I've read in a while. Dude needs to lighten up a fair bit. It's just blogging, Trevor! Come in off the ledge!

Anyway, the mention of Orwell reminded me of this awesome piece that
Rusty pointed me toward the other day. It's Orwell's essay "In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse," in which Orwell takes on those critics who castigated P.G. Wodehouse for ostensibly spreading Nazi propaganda over the radio airwaves after he was captured by German soldiers during the Second World War:

If my analysis of Wodehouse's mentality is accepted, the idea that in 1941 he consciously aided the Nazi propaganda machine becomes untenable and even ridiculous. He may have been induced to broadcast by the promise of an earlier release (he was due for release a few months later, on reaching his sixtieth birthday), but he cannot have realised that what he did would be damaging to British interests. As I have tried to show, his moral outlook has remained that of a public-school boy, and according to the public-school code, treachery in time of war is the most unforgivable of all the sins. But how could he fail to grasp that what he did would be a big propaganda score for the Germans and would bring down a torrent of disapproval on his own head? To answer this one must take two things into consideration. First, Wodehouse's complete lack -- so far as one can judge from his printed works -- of political awareness...

The other thing one must remember is that Wodehouse happened to be taken prisoner at just the moment when the war reached its desperate phase. We forget these things now, but until that time feelings about the war had been noticeably tepid. There was hardly any fighting, the Chamberlain Government was unpopular, eminent publicists were hinting that we should make a compromise peace as quickly as possible, trade union and Labour Party branches all over the country were passing anti-war resolutions. Afterwards, of course, things changed.
Interesting stuff. I knew about Wodehouse having been captured at the start of the war (while playing golf, believe it or not) and about his radio show, of course, but since I have huge, glaring holes in my knowledge of, oh, the entire history of the world, I didn't realize that there was a tepid phase during WWII.

And then THAT essay reminded me of this article, which Rusty also sent me, that talks about Wodehouse's current popularity in India, which is pretty friggin' cool, in my opinion:

In a country where most books in English sell fewer than 1,000 copies and 5,000 constitutes a bestseller, the corduroy-suited Abraham estimates that his company sells up to 70,000 Wodehouses a year: part of a thriving “retro-market” that ranges from Agatha Christie to Modesty Blaise.

Most Wodehouses are bought by middle-class Indians whose public school-like “English-Medium” education arguably equips them to appreciate the author’s verbal virtuosity and literary allusions better than many Brits.

“Wodehouse’s appeal is a pure sense of linguistic delight,” says Abraham, who has read “about 82” of his 85 books. “In the 1980s there was a debate about whether he was ‘literary’ or not, but the fact is that the books are a great read, laughaloud funny.

“It’s a whole world of clean, wholesome, escapist fun and parents here like to hand it down to their children. Today’s humour is fairly dark, but the appeal of these books for parents is: ‘No sex please, we’re Indian’.”

If you want to check out some first-hand press about the Indian obsession with Wodehouse, you can also read this lovely piece by writer Shashi Tharoor, published in India's national newspaper, The Hindu. Tharoor movingly recalls the moment, twenty-seven years ago, that he learned of Wodehouse's death, a moment as profound for him as other people's recollection of where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the death of Kennedy, Marilyn, Elvis, Lennon, or Cobain:
VALENTINE'S Day has just passed. Twenty-seven Valentine's Days ago, I was sitting in my college room at Delhi University when All India Radio announced that P.G. Wodehouse had died. It was a typically sunny February afternoon in Delhi, but I felt a cloud of impenetrable darkness. The newly (and belatedly) knighted Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and of the prize pig the Empress of Blandings, was in his 94th year; yet his death still came as a shock. Three decades earlier, Wodehouse had reacted to the passing of his stepdaughter, Leonora, with the numbed words: "I thought she was immortal." I had thought Wodehouse was immortal too, and I felt the bereavement keenly.
Perhaps Wodehouse proves Trevor Butterworth wrong. Perhaps you can write prolific nonsense and still be beloved and immortalized. That's what I'm holding out for, anyway.

[Some links via
Arts & Letters Daily]

5 comments:

Jessica said...

The thing that irked me, personally, about that piece when I read it, was that he sort of misinterpreted his own question. In other words, he asked if I thought Orwell and Marx would have blogged, and I said yes, probably. He then wrote in the article that, basically, blogging would have been bad for them -- well, for Orwell -- as writers. To which I said, aloud, to my monitor screen, "dude, that wasn't the question you ASKED ME."

A bit frustrating, for me.

Doppelganger said...

Yeah, I got that from reading the piece. It was a pretty transparently contrived gambit.

I didn't want to give away the conclusion to the article in my entry, but I figure it's fair game in the comments section, but the last paragraph struck me as unintentionally ironic:

"And that, in the end, is the dismal fate of blogging: it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence. No Modern Library edition of the great polemicists of the blogosphere to yellow on the shelf; nothing but a virtual tomb for a billion posts - a choric song of the word-weary bloggers, forlorn mariners forever posting on the slumberless seas of news."

Er, guy? We blog-types may be destined to be candles in the wind, but may I point out that you just wrote an eleventy-million-word ONLINE article ABOUT us? I mean, evanescent much?

Anonymous said...

where's the contest winner post?!

Rae said...

Because I can never resist this sort of thing (I'm a history major and a closet pedagogue):

The Second World War had an extremely tepid phase. After war was declared, Britain undertook a total blackout in order to present lesser targets to German bombers, and began mustering her troops.

Then nothing happened. The Germans didn't attack, and neither did the English; the Blackout went on for so long without anything actually happening that people actually started to resent the pointlessness of it.

In Spring 1940 the war began in earnest with a German offensive into France through the Ardennes forest. France fell, and only then did the Blitz begin. It was then that the war became truly desperate, with Britain's European allies mostly conquered and only a few of their surviving troops and support from the Empire to keep Germany from winning pretty much immediately. From that point on, the war was a furious thing encompassing all society.

Norfolk Dumpling said...

The FT piece was frustrating on all sorts of levels. "Nobody is making much money from blogging." Well, that's not why I or millions of others do it. "Orwell would have been a tedious blogger." I disagree, but is dull writing any less tedious if it makes it into "mainstream" print? It's not as if every piece of journalism is dripping with wit and insight, a piece to savour through the ages. "Blogging is a way for the right to bring down the great liberal media conspiracy." Really? Blogs represent many viewpoints and have many aims, and suggest that people everywhere are pissed off about the utter wetness of most mainstream media outlets.But, as a representative of the newspaper industry, Trev doesn't want to acknowledge this.

I guess I'm most frustrated that he didn't see that the fact that there are millions of people who want to communicate with others, who wish to write and express themselves, is a wonderful thing. After years of articles about passive TV/movie consumption and the death of society, blogging runs counter to all of this.

Oh well, at least he recognized the genius that is GoFugYourself!