To Blog Or Not To Blog?
When I first thought about starting a blog, there was much that didn’t appeal about the idea. I didn’t want to create great swathes of type about the Brontë sisters or Pushkin. There are too many academics and historical non-fiction writers who are doing a far, far better job than I ever could, and my personal reading tastes tend to be wilful and complicated.
I did not necessarily want to detail everything about my books (I believe something must always be left hidden). Nor did I plan to describe in grisly detail the poorly-attended signings, leaky church halls, overheated book basements and empty libraries where the average author ends up appearing through the bleakest months of the year.
I didn’t want the blog to be just about London, as again, there are so many dedicated London sites. And I didn’t want to run a site simply aimed at flogging books to new readers, which seemed cheap and a bit crass (hey, I’m English, we have issues).
So what did I want? I suppose a doorway to a place of ideas (see the door of my nearest bookshop, above) combined with a modern-day version of ‘Picture Book’, the children’s programme in which Freda Lingstrom asked ‘What do we have in the picture book for today?’, so perfectly parodied by Jane Horrocks (whip to around the 3 min point for the ghastly ‘Marching Song’).
What I planned (as much as I ever plan anything) was a sort of interactive potpourri of the arts, offering tasters of many different elements. Prior to this version, which started in 2003, there was an earlier, far more sophisticated version that ran Flash Player, but as formats proliferated it had to be stripped back and simplified. Simon Moore, the talented designer who had helped me create the site, was very kind and patient with me on what turned out to be a steep learning curve. (See below) I came out of it being able to write simple code, which is probably the most boring thing I’ve ever done apart from listening to Wagner.
The idea of posting every day of the year turned out to be a rod for my back, and began to cut into my reviewing/writing time – so I dropped the reviewing job, which meant a loss of earnings. For a long time I was careful not to blog about religion or politics as they tended to bring out the trolls, and although I was loathe to censor the site, that’s exactly what I had to do in more extreme cases.
Recently, regular reader Brooke very kindly had the good grace to give me the option of deleting her post (I am surely not alone in finding American readers incredibly gracious about such niceties) but others were less caring, and I weathered the usual gamut of casual hate-mail. The Brexit situation brought out a startling rabidity in reaction, so I downplayed that. Working for the press stood me in good stead; at the Independent we were required to personally answer all critics, although this tends to make one wary of posting anything bearing the imprimatur of opinion.
With the proliferation of social media (I post on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon and others) my time is being swallowed to an alarming degree, and I now wonder if there is still any need to run the blog. I read every single comment, and if I write about London the piece usually takes three times as long to create because of the extra research required. Looking back through past posts, I’m rather daunted by the range of subjects touched upon. Nothing about sport, you’ll notice (no-one in my family ever showed the slightest interest in any form of sport – we might have been genetically Jewish) and I’ve always been annoyed by people assuming I know about football.
London Taxi Driver: (Cheerfully) So who’s your favourite footballer?
Me: (tetchy, after a bad day) I don’t have one. Who’s your favourite choreographer?
However, blogging taught me a lot. First, never assume. Readership is diverse and surprising. The median age is older for the blog than among my Twitter followers, but more far-reaching. It has been a brilliant sounding board for ideas, and I feel we’ve run a rather shambolic but democratic exchange of views. I once described it to someone as ‘halfway between socratic discourse and a fight in a barn’.
Second, answer with thought. Readers have every right to ask difficult questions, and deserve respectful and considered answers. Third, listen to the young, and fourth, above all keep learning. There’s rarely a day when a reader doesn’t teach me something. I once had dinner with a writer too used to hearing himself being admired, all transmit, no receive, and I vowed never to be like him (I can’t tell you who it was. Frederick Forsyth.)
I haven’t fully made up my mind to stop the blog yet – I have a meeting with publishers next week to get advice on effectiveness, usefulness, readership etc. Meanwhile, service as normal (depending on the highly dubious broadband coverage in the airport this morning).