Nearly three years ago, Sarah Boxer wrote a NY Times article about the popularity of PostSecret that led an editor at Vintage to suggest she compile an anthology of the best writing from the blogosphere. “It could not be done, I was sure,” she wrote earlier this month in a NY Review of Books essay. “Making a book out of bloggy material, if it could be done at all, would kill it, wouldn’t it?” Which is, actually, one of the most common criticisms already being levelled against Ultimate Blogs, the book developed out of that initial concept, with excerpts from 27 blogs ranging from AngryBlackBitch to Under Odysseus.
When I met with Boxer earlier this week, I asked her to define the “virtual charisma” she cited in the anthology’s introduction as one of her main criteria for inclusion. “It’s different for different people,” she said, “but it’s about the people you want to keep coming back to who are talking about things in a topical way that transcends the moment, a mixture of the personal and the public that’s very hard to master.” They’re blogging about the same things everybody else is, she conceded, “but there’s something about their voices that nobody can imitate, giving us a view on a different world.” All this means her choices are highly idiosyncratic, and that almost nobody is likely to agree with her on all 27 blogs—even if she picked one of your favorites, you may ask yourself why she went with those posts.
(To wit: I still don’t think The Smoking Gun is a blog anymore than Project Gutenberg is. But it’s awesome to find out about Nina Paley‘s switch from comic strips to animated films—and now I can pester UnBeige to do a story on her…)
When critics say that setting blog posts down in print is like taking dead chunks from a living, organic work, Boxer acknowledges the point—but only to a certain extent. “It’s like any issue of translation,” she says, elaborating a parallel with those who argue, for example, that the only real way to get at Proust or Homer is to read them in French or Greek. “There’s a lot of people who aren’t going to learn those languages, and there’s a lot of people who are never going to go online,” she counters. “To say you can look at blogs this way or not at all is, I think, small-minded.” Boxer mentions in her introduction that she’s tried and failed twice to start her own blog; I asked if she ever thought about doing an Utimate Blogs blog: “I’m not sure it’s my medium,” she says. “I read poetry, but I’m not a poet.”
“Blogs have really changed since I started this,” Boxer observes, shifting from a largely outsider phenomenon to an ever-increasing component of the mainstream media’s online offerings. “The Times has I can’t even count how many blogs now. But I don’t think newspapers have fully figured out how to do this yet, and some bloggers still seem to want to remain separate from the [mainstream] publishing world, believing that it would be corrupting somehow to be published.” (I’ve remarked on this myself, what I call the punk rock credibility issue; lots of bloggers want to be Fugazi, but almost nobody’s willing to admit they want to be Green Day.) Most of the bloggers she approached about being included in the book, however, had no such misgivings—some, in fact, had already landed book deals of their own. In the long run, she says, “the kind of person whose blog worked as a book was the kind of person who was happy to be in the book.”
(Full disclosure: Boxer mentioned my first website, Beatrice.com, in passing three years ago when she wrote about bloggers reviewing book reviewers, which I believed we needed more of. Still do, actually.)