“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

And If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next

A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: Given that Damien Mulley and Sinead Gleeson were kind enough to link to this post, and thus generated a few comments on our behalf, the Grand Vizier has ordered that we re-post the piece to save ourselves the grief of having to scroll down half the page in order to respond. Scrolling down, Jeez … Fairly takes it out of you, doesn’t it?

It was a funny old weekend for Twenty Major (right), even by his usual standards. On Saturday, George Byrne in the Evening Herald (no link) opened his review of Major’s debut novel, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX PARK, by referring to “the postings of Twenty Major, whose rants and observations on Irish society, life and the world in general are generally acknowledged to be leagues ahead of the barely-literate ‘dear diary’ standards of the medium.” The general gist of a broadly positive review (which name-checks Kinky Friedman and Christopher Brookmyre) runs thusly: “Treading a frequently blurred line between comedy, farce, thriller and social commentary, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX PARK (a very Colin Bateman-esque title that ) does possess an infectious energy […] and a few cracking ideas.”
  Also on Saturday, over in the Irish Times (no link; premium content), Colin Murphy opened his review of the novel with something of a damned-with-faint-praise gambit: “THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX PARK by Twenty Major is the worst book I have ever finished.” The very negative review finishes: “The book concludes with an acknowledgments section. The last line, directed at the readers of his blog, is: “Thank you all, you magnificent c***s.” That, really, is all you need to know: either it includes you, or it doesn’t. It is, though, likely to include the twenty-something male sitting across from you on the bus home, who will be chuckling over Twenty’s violent nihilism, toilet truths and use of the word ‘c**t’. He and his mates are going to make this a bestseller.”
  On Saturday night, at the Irish Blog Awards, Twenty Major won three awards, chief among them ‘Best Blog’, the third time in a row he has won the award (congratulations to Sinead Gleeson, by the way, another three-in-a-row winner with The Sigla Blog).
  On Sunday, the Sunday Times (Irish) Culture section (no link) carried a feature by Kathy Foley, herself a blogger, called ‘Blog roll’. The piece opened with Twenty Major as its hook, Foley segueing from Major’s book deal with Hodder Headline / Hachette into a verdict on the novel: “[I]t’s a tepid, flimsily plotted satire filled with half-cocked gags.” The gist of the article is this: “We have few, if any, counterparts to the American blogging elite, whose online dispatches zing with flair, attitude and insight, not to mention – in some cases – intellectual rigour. We simply don’t produce the vibrant and considered style of blogging that dominates the US scene, where there are compelling blogs on every topic imaginable – from architecture to zoology – each with energetic, articulate writing and comments sections brimming with vitality.”
  The first thing to say here is that you could replace ‘blog’ and ‘blogging’ with ‘newspapers / magazines’ and ‘journalism’ in the above quote and it would be just as valid an opinion. The second thing is that Irish blogging is still in its infancy by comparison with America, so like-for-like comparisons are premature if not entirely unfair, particularly given the vast difference in the respective populations.
  Thirdly, most non-internet journalists seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that blogs and blogging are intended as replacements, or poor substitutes, for newspapers and journalism. The reality is that the vast majority of blogs come into being to fill a specialist niche not being catered for in the mainstream media (Crime Always Pays to promote Irish crime fiction is a case in point; The Voyage, the well-deserved winner of the ‘Best Specialist Blog’ award on Saturday night, a category in which Crime Always Pays was nominated, is another). Indeed, in another feature in the Sunday Times’ Culture section, reporting on a new Irish music magazine, State, Mick Heaney says, “The growth of the blogosphere has had a huge impact on music publishing: American sites such as Pitchfork Media are as influential as any print equivalent, and are free … State has responded by setting up a complementary website, State.ie, run by the blogger Niall Byrne, aka Nialler9. Whereas the print edition is aimed at older readers, State.ie aims to draw in a new, younger audience.”
  A ‘new, younger audience’ … ‘the twenty-something male sitting across from you on the bus home’. There appears to be a generation gap opening up between print / mainstream media and the various incarnations of on-line web presences. It’s almost inevitable that Twenty Major’s novel, springing as it does fully formed from a blog, will suffer a credibility deficit when reviewed in mainstream publications, and not least because it’s a comedy crime caper novel. There are already echoes of the initial reactions to rock ‘n’ roll, when the raw, primal sound of Elvis et al was damned as jungle music made by uppity white trash.
  THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX PARK may not be the literary equivalent of the Sun Sessions but it is nonetheless a pioneer in terms of Irish blog-to-shelf publishing. Another Irish blogger, Fiona McPhillips, has her book TRYING TO CONCEIVE published in April. Sean and Keiran Murphy are soon to publish their BOOK OF SWEET THINGS through the Mercier Press. Eoin Purcell, a commissioning editor at Mercier, has also signed up ‘Grandad’ from the Head Rambles blog to write a novel.
The blog-to-shelf route to publishing means, of course, that all these books will arrive on the shelf with an audience already in place. Many members of that audience will in turn blog about their reaction to the books, spreading a virus-like word-of-mouth. As Colin Murphy notes in the Irish Times, Twenty Major’s book will very probably be an Irish best-seller on the strength of its appeal to a young male demographic, most of whom will be web-literate if not necessarily bloggers themselves. Taken to its logical conclusion, this development means that blog-to-shelf books will have no need of the traditional reviews in print publications.
  In essence, the current media revolution involves a move away from the traditional pulpit-audience lecture to a more democratic peer-to-peer discussion. In an Irish context, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX PARK is the latest manifestation of this trend. Is it so surprising, then, that the novel was panned in the print media on the very weekend when Twenty Major’s peers yet again voted him Ireland’s best blogger?

23 comments:

Eoin Purcell said...

I did think that the Murphy piece was a bitter rant against blogs in general rather than an actual review. It sounded like the tired blast of a club major who resents the "new wave" or something like that.

Kathy's column was different though! More a lament that the Irish blogosphere is so flimsy.

It is shallow, that I think you will grant. The mainstream is still more comfortable with print and static websites from trusted brands rather than a chaotic landscape of unknowns (Meant not as an insult). I think this will change.


Not having read the 20Major book I won't comment on that except to say that I'm not the biggest fan of the blog. Its funny and satirical, just not to my taste!

Declan Burke said...

Eoin - I think what is most interesting is the inter-texuality of it all, how it seems to be impossible for people to review the book without considering it in the context of Twenty's blog. Valid insofar as it was the blog that got Twenty the book-deal? Or should the book simply be taken on its own merits? Cheers, Dec

roosta said...

Yeah, the Irish Times reviewer lost all respect from me when he turned his review of a book into a tirade against blogging. From that point on I couldn't be sure I would get a fair review of the contents of the book.

So I went out an bought it immediately..

Cathy said...

Thirdly, most non-internet journalists seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that blogs and blogging are intended as replacements, or poor substitutes, for newspapers and journalism
I could not agree more, I think most of them do not "get" blogging. This strange need to see The Great Blogger emerge, like The Great American Novel is totally out of sync with the reality of the medium. Participatory culture, anyone?

Ronan said...

great post.

Declan Burke said...

Roosta - That'll learn 'em ... Cathy - I think I know where you're going with 'participatory culture', and it's a valid concept, but at the same time I think Kathy Foley had valid points to make about Irish blogs and a lack of focus and ambition. You don't have to be the Huffington Post to make a significant contribution to your chosen speciality ... Cheers, Dec

Graham D. said...

By any objective measurement, TM's book is modest fare that appeals to the same market segment that read lads magazines (still) or laugh at the low-brow comedies that the Irish Times consistently assign one-star ratings to. Simple as. It would have been pathetic for any self-respecting literary critic not to point out the deep flaws in this book to the 95-98% of this country that typically stay clear of the "blogosphere" (my estimations).

To pick up on another point, how genuinely democratic are those blog awards and therefore reflective are they of how any blogger is truely perceived by his peers? Maybe TM is the best blog out there for the last three years running, but the real decision-making process that says so is opaque in nature and, fairly or unfairly, seems to stay focussed on the usual suspects rather than some of the quality that does not join the love-in at the centre of the Irish blogging scene.

Indeed, while it was hardly earthshattering in its content, Kathy Foley should be commended for what she had to say about blogging. Too many bloggers rarely stray past the mildest of criticism when referring to fellow bloggers or to blogging in general. It is just not healthy and flies in the face of the freedom of expression that blogs should excel in promoting.

Finally(!), the best thing that bloggers can do is to stop being so precious about who they are, what they do, and where their place in the world is and just get on with it.

Write with passion and conviction. That's what keep non-bloggers like me interested.

Darragh Doyle said...

Well written article, Declan! Thanks for the update - had missed the papers following the Blog Awards.

There is a gap between the print/mainstream media and internet blogs, but I think it hasn't as much to do with generation gap as preference for what you want to read and how you want to react or interact.

You don't like someone's blog post? Leave a comment. Interact. Get feedback, get support. Open a dialogue. With "mainstream media" there's no real opportunity to add your voice in accolation or sissent. The Letters pages just doesn't cut it as much.

Bloggers - from Twenty Major to Damien Mulley and all the winners from the Blog Awards, their readers and commenters and everyone who writes any sort of blog sit down and write what they think, and that's all they put it as - their opinion. Shane Hegarty at Ireland.com had an interesting post on the responsibility/perceived authority of newspaper journalists vs bloggers, how they have to earn the traffic and audience they have (as opposed to journalists who accept the jointly caused circulation figures) and I'll repeat here what i commented there...

I’m rarely incensed by the insensitivity, stupidity or complete-lack-of-respect-for-their-position by things the bloggers I read daily have to say. I am however often inspired, amused and educated. I simply cannot say the same about Newspaper journalists.

Declan Burke said...

Graham - I'd imagine Twenty would be the last to claim 'literary' status for his novel.

I've no idea of how democratic or otherwise the voting process for the Blog Awards is, I'm fairly new to the game.

"Too many bloggers rarely stray past the mildest of criticism when referring to fellow bloggers or to blogging in general. It is just not healthy and flies in the face of the freedom of expression that blogs should excel in promoting."

Valid point and well made. By the same token, given its relative infancy, I suspect there's a spirit of mutual nuturing and support about the Irish blogosphere that is entirely natural and quite charming - for now. I doubt it will last.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Darragh -

"There is a gap between the print/mainstream media and internet blogs, but I think it hasn't as much to do with generation gap as preference for what you want to read and how you want to react or interact."

I think so, yeah ... It comes back, again, to blogging and niche writing / speciality subjects. But as Graham (and Kathy Foley in the Sunday Times) says, what will raise one blog above others is the passion, vision and vibrancy of the posts. Eamon Dunphy always bemoaned the 'cult of mediocrity' in this country ... bloggers, with their access to an international audience, have the opportunity to prove him wrong. Cheers, Dec

Graham D. said...

Thanks for the response Dec.

(1) Perhaps the better question to ask is should the Irish & Sunday Times have reviewed this style of book in the first place...

(2) I have no axe to grind with the way that the IBA judging works. Its just how much can be read into who wins what that I question.

(3) A valid observation.

Declan Burke said...

Graham - As a disclaimer I should say that I write reviews for the Irish Times and the Sunday Times ... but certainly, there's no reason why either paper shouldn't review Twenty Major's book, and reviewers are paid to offer their honest opinions (for the record, and for what it's worth, I think both Kathy Foley and Colin Murphy are good and honest journalists). The piece above isn't intended to denigrate mainstream print reviews per se, or claim special status for bloggers-cum-authors ... I just thought there was a certain pattern to the coverage that seemed out-of-synch with the success Twenty Major enjoyed among his peers over the weekend, and I thought I'd point that out. Cheers, Dec

Damien said...

"95-98% of this country that typically stay clear of the "blogosphere" "

Was it the Northern or Southern part of your ass where you picked that stat from? Are you the one that supplied the 80% of the net is porn fact (by your estimation)to John Waters? Elaborate on this figure why don't you and the fact that they "stay clear".

Declan Burke said...

Damien - Coffee late at night is baaaaad. And everyone knows that 95-98% of this country typically stay clear of the blogosphere. It's just another example of what Ibsen said about the majority being always wrong. Cheers, Dec

Graham D. said...

No problems.

There was a reasonably arrived at calculation on Sarah Carey's blog during the week (not by her, mind) that there are almost 1,400 active blogs in this country (even forgetting that some may be nationals living abroad). Even doubling or tripling that figure to captue anyone missing from that number would still mean that bloggers represent less than 0.1% of the population of this island.

(In terms of population, the most recent census that I know of in the South put us at 4.1mln people and in the North at 1.7mln people. This means 5.8mln people on this island.)

Conversely, so, 99.9% of this country do not actively blog. This was not part of my calculations, but it does provide context.

Based on ranking sites, though, the best blogs seem to get around 100,000 hits a week. Very conservatively assuming that these represent 100,000 unique IRISH people and increasing that by a factor of three on the reasonable assumption that someone who reads Beaut.ie is not then reading Arseblog, this suggests 300,000 Irish people wandering across Irish blogs a week or around 5% of the population.

A valid obsevation here would be that a good portion of that 300,000 is probably not the same from week to week and that the overall population is therefore higher. I would accept that.

In saying that, though, it also needs to be recognised that popular blogs get a substantial portion of their hits from the UK and the US, as well as a not insignificant slug from the rest of the world.

Moreover, many of these hits are people searching for something else entirely (remember Grandad and his infamous "Paris Hilton and her cat" hits?). Therefore, their time on the site is typically measured by long it takes them to click the "back" button.

In all, so, I think that 300,000 is an acceptable upper range figure for how many people have a passing knowledge of what a blog like Twenty Major, etc. is about and half of that is a reasonable lower range figure.

I think that the rest of the math is then pretty obvious.

(By the way, I happen to think those numbers are actually quite good. If you could earn just €10 from each of those a year, that is a €1.5-3.0mln industry)!

Disagree by all means. I welcome debate. But please do so with figures rather than just sneering this time!!

On the other hand, sneer all you want, as Irish people do like their anti-intellectualism, as we have been finding out this week! :-)

Declan Burke said...

Graham - Much obliged for the facts and stats, I appreciate the effort. Not sure that applying them to the Irish population is entirely safe, though - most of my visits (few that they are) tend to come from the U.S., the U.K. and mainland Europe ... my Irish visitors are probably third or fourth on the list. And with a huge Irish diaspora out there, there's no telling what the potential 'market' for Irish blogs really is ... and given that most Irish blogs aren't solely concerned with Irish matters, there's no reason why we should confine ourselves to Irish figures at all.

Also - damning Irish blogging with stats and numbers while it's still in its infancy is a little unfair, especially given the pretty limited broadband roll-out in this country. Two of my mates down in the sticks, for example, are just waiting for broadband to arrive so they can start blogging.

As for 'anti-intellectualism' - I think many people, and not just Irish people, equate self-confessed intellectuals with thinkers who tend to be out of touch with general trends. Not necessarily a bad thing, but if you set your face against the wind, the least you can expect is a little friction. Cheers, Dec

Damien said...

You said they steer clear. Where's the proof of them steering clear?

Cathy said...

I can see the rationale behind Graham's calculations, however, as Declan has pointed out, readers of Irish blogs are not necessarily Irish. Could we also assume that Irish people might possibly read blogs that are not Irish? A lot of blogging communities are centered on interests and practice rather than nationality; there can obviously be a de facto convergence of both nationality and practice due to language (a lot of people are only comfortable in their native language), but it is not the case with English.

Kathy said...

Hi...sorry bit late to this. Found the original post and all the comments interesting. Thanks for both the criticism and the compliments!

Have to say, in all honesty, that I didn't regard the book as having a credibility deficit for having sprung from a blog. There have been heaps of great books that were born in the same way. As I said some place else, I think blogs can be a great avenue to being published for writers. And kudos to Mercier especially for keeping an eye on blogland.

Also while the piece was hung on the review, I was giving my opinions of the book as a stand-alone entity, as most ST readers probably don't read his blog or any other.

I think there are lots of reasons why his blog is so popular, but his book has received some bad reviews. He's consistent, posts regularly, has a distinct personality, tackles topical and sometimes controversial issues and has built up a real community. Also, many people find swearing funny. :)

The book, on the other hand, well, you already know what I think of the book.

And yes, not mentioning the infrastructural issues was an omission. I do think that has a bearing on the bedding in of blogging and online culture generally in this country.

Cheers K

Declan Burke said...

Kathy - Thanks for dropping by ... I was actually thinking about writing a post about how my original post was about the general print response to Twenty's book, and yet everyone seems to have jumped on your ST piece. I'd have liked it too if more bloggers had been more constructive about your criticism, as Sinead Gleeson was.

As for the rest ... you're as entitled to your opinion as the rest of us, about Twenty Major's book and blogging in general, and some of the extreme reaction from Irish bloggers to your ST piece doesn't augur well for freedom of expression in the blogosphere. Cheers, Dec

Graham D said...

Dec - To be fair on two things please. (1) I think it is clear from my previous post that this was not a rigourouse piece of work on my part, but that I did have a rationale at the same time. (2) I have not damned blogging in any way here. In the beginning, there was only one blog in the world and no readers! Then things started to happen and will continue to happen.

I cannot remember the exact analogy, but there is a line that says where one man sees a problem, another man sees an opportunity. I would like to think that I am the latter on most things.

I did like the "anti-intellectualism" remark though, although I was being tongue-in-cheek.

Damien - I did not mean that term in the sense that it necessarily implies a deliberate or conscious action (which I am guessing is your beef). Rather, I was trying to refer to those for whom the blogosphere is essentially an unexplored place (still).

Damien said...

"some of the extreme reaction from Irish bloggers to your ST piece doesn't augur well for freedom of expression in the blogosphere."

Surely it shows the exact opposite. Online there is more freedom to say what you want. Certainly some of the reaction would never make it into the Sunday Times or another paper. That's good. Whether you like it or not or agree with it or not at least we can see all types of reaction in comments or in blogs and not just ones the gatekeepers want to be seen.

Declan Burke said...

Damien - The freedom to say what you want is certainly available on-line, but that very freedom brings with it a measure of responsibility, even if that responsiblity is only to the tone of the individual's own blog. Regardless of the forum (blog, print, pub, etc.), comment and reaction that is reasoned and considered is far more likely to get its point across than knee-jerk reactions that target one aspect of a debate and come down like a ton of bricks. As for 'the gatekeepers' ... never met one, and I've been in the game 15 years now. Cheers, Dec