How Blogging Has Changed Writing
Andrew Sullivan is a conservative political writer and commentator and one of the pioneers of political blog journalism. He was born in England, where he attended Magdalen College, Oxford, but moved to the US in the 1980s to pursue a Masters in Public Administration and a PhD in Political Science at Harvard. He has remained in the US and has focused his writing on American political life.
In 1991 at the age of 27, Sullivan was appointed editor of The New Republic, over which he presided for 250 issues until he resigned in May 1996. Sullivan's tenure at TNR was often turbulent, controversial, and pioneering. The magazine expanded its remit beyond politics to cover such topics as the future of hip-hop, same-sex marriage, and affirmative action in the newsroom. TNR also published the first airing of 'The Bell Curve,' the explosive 1995 book on IQ, and 'No Exit,' an equally controversial essay that was widely credited with helping to torpedo the Clinton administration's plans for universal health coverage. In 1996, Sullivan was named Editor of the Year by Adweek magazine.
Sullivan is openly gay and has been a key figure in the public discourse on such issues as gays in the military and same-sex marriage. His 1993 TNR essay, 'The Politics of Homosexuality,' was credited by the Nation magazine as the most influential article of the decade in gay rights. His 1995 book, 'Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality,' was published to positive reviews, became one of the best-selling books on gay rights, and was translated into five languages. He followed it with a reader, 'Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con,' and testified before Congress on the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. His second book, 'Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival,' was published in 1998 in the United States and Britain. It was a synthesis of three essays on the plague of AIDS, homosexuality and psycho-therapy, and the virtue of friendship. Sullivan tested positive for HIV in 1993, and remains in good health.
In the summer of 2000, Sullivan became one of the first mainstream journalists to experiment with blogging and soon developed a large online readership for his blog The Daily Dish. He has blogged independently and for Time.com, but in February 2007 he moved his blog to The Atlantic Online where he now writes daily.
Question: How has blogging changed the art of writing?
Andrew Sullivan: Well, I think it’s changed the art of a kind of writing. I don’t think it’s done anything to change, for example, fiction or poetry, although it might. Most of those experiments have not really panned out. I do think that what it’s done with non-fiction is really destroy a particular process, which is a future-oriented process of writing, which is that you, the writer, sits down, thinks about something, has something to write, researches, polishes, edits; if he’s lucky he has someone who can read it and edit it, and then publishes it and it’s done. And there is, so every time you write, you are writing with a sense of the future of a moment when it will be completed.
Whereas when you blog, especially if you’re... you’re thinking and writing in real time, so it takes writing away from that future oriented moment of completion to a constant presentness. For me, that’s fascinating and it’s also a way in which the writer, when they’re talking about non-fiction again, fact, or the reality that they see in front of them, is a fascinating challenge. Because it means, first of all, that everything you write is provisional; because you live in a changing world and you might change your mind or facts may change. Or you may come across arguments that force you to reassess. And so, it’s really a presentness of writing, I think that I’m talking about.
For me the great... the two great writers that I actually read and studied in college were Pascal and Montaigne, and they, in a way, in two very different forms, helped me understand this kind of thing before... avant la lettre, as it were. Montaigne wrote his essays as sprawling present thoughts. Some of them even contradicted themselves. Then he wrote them, put three editions out. And in the three editions he added stuff into the text and if you go through the best translation, which is Donald Frame, you will see A, B and C. You will see this text in three dimensions. This is how he first felt, this is how he secondly reconsidered, this is his third and final version. And that suddenly gave the writing a human quality to it because, look, there is no moment in our lives that are final except death. Our thoughts are constantly in flux. In some ways this writing is truer than the conceit of a finished piece of work.
And so, this was never possible really, except by the manner that Montaigne did it or as I said, Pascal, who in his defense of the Christian religion tried to write a finished book about defending Christianity. And along the way he just wrote what are called, the "Pensées," "The Thoughts." And he never finished the book, but what we had was these selections of fragments of thoughts and ideas that he... that subsequent people put together. And I actually felt it, and still believe, it’s the greatest defense of Christianity ever written. And it was because it never tried to capture the truth of Christianity because it demonstrated a mind thinking it through incompletely all the time.
So, I’m not saying that this was something I figured out at the very beginning, but it’s certainly something that evolved, mainly because, day-by-day, was you write your opinions on a blog, you are forced to acknowledge that you misunderstood something or made a mistake or have grown up a little bit. When you’ve done it for 10 years, that’s a quarter of my life, well a little less than a quarter, but it was a quarter of my life when I started. Anybody who’s writing the same thing or think they’ve completed their evolution of thinking at one moment in time is just wrong, or has stopped thinking. And as you know, I mean well maybe on of my core philosophical political principles is that there is not stopping.
Recorded on October 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Blogging destroys the future-oriented process of writing nonfiction and replaces it with a sense of constant presentness—everything you write is provisional because the facts, or your mind, could change.
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