The Blog Question Pt. 1: Authority, Authenticity, Legitimacy

Next weekend, Trainbust and its distinguished conscripts will attend the Chicago Zinefest at Columbia College. For those who don’t know, a zine is like a magazine but usually smaller, cheaper, and, as such, less distinguished. Or, perhaps more accurately, differently distinguished. As a form, a courier of information, and an art, zines earn their legitimacy not through authority as such but their authenticity, their intimacy, and the personal, not professional, connection with their subjects.

Zines exist to better established [cf. flashier] magazines as Samizdat [not to be confused with Samizdat] existed to Pravda [not to be confused with the bar on Decatur of the same name]. As it happens, Wikipedia, says that Samizdat literally means self-publishing in Russian, and I believe them.

Zines, however, lack the dissident reputation of samizdat and are perhaps more closely associated with vanity presses than they ought. Yet, the culmination of years of mutual mistrust between those wishing to get themselves “out there” to be heard or recognized and the gatekeepers who reject them by whatever opaque mechanisms, encourages this evaluation. The rejected yet undeterred start magazines or zines, and the successful among them become gatekeepers themselves. This is, after all, the founding myth of Fence Magazine, which, in its 14 short years has come to read as stodgy and as insular as the gray old lady of poetry herself, Poetry Magazine.

 

Insularity is the difference between a magazine and a newsletter.

Not to say that credibility or money or a sizable endowment make a publication lazy or corrupt, far from it, and don’t construe this as a rant against the canon and oldguard mentality within either publishing or academia. Someone needs to write about Shakespeare and publish Mary Oliver, both of whom are no less relevant than anyone else; I’m just glad I don’t have to. But zine culture operates on a paradigm that allows it to be relevant in a different way than well-established publications, and blog culture, with its zine mentality and DIY spirit grapples with this dynamic.

Blogs and web-only magazines, oddly, seem to stand somewhere between authority and authenticity and, in general, have a precarious claim to legitimacy. Readers insist on distinguishing between the fan’s “like” and the critic’s “endorsement” even if purely semantic as if distinguishing between the blogger’s “thoughts” and the expert’s “analysis”. How does a website as garish and frenetic as the Huffington Post earn more legitimacy and relevance than Gawker, as frenetic but slightly more coherent [“Rush Limbaugh Seizes Opportunity to Mock Japan,” filed under “Assholes”]? Because Gawker doesn’t pretend it’s not gossiping when it gossips while “HuffPo” pretends it’s just reporting the news?

The difference is hardly trivial. Both are more than capable of producing quality content and contributing to the larger discourse, which they both do with enough frequency, but the general consensus is that no one goes to Gawker unless someone links them to it. In terms of quality, Slate.com probably deserves to be ranked among them, but, perhaps because it is owned by the Washington Post or perhaps because it has a sleeker website, people hold it in higher regard. You don’t see the Huffington Post or Gawker on Arts and Letters Daily, though they cover much of the same material, and all three have built their following as much on the strength of their sizable networks as the quality of their content.

Yet one still sees the somewhat reactionary impulse to defend the austerity [purity] of journalism and criticism. The same impulse exists in academia: John doesn’t object to the subject, per se; he objects to the methods and goals of this particular inquiry. Not that he isn’t perfectly capable of of objecting to subjects, citing science fiction, movies, contemporary and “secondary women” writers, the Beats, soap operas, graphic novels, and video games as examples of fields of studies “insufficiently serious” for academic study.

I don’t know of many sympathetic to an academic elitism this rigorous or this regressive, but one still finds it maligning much web-based literature as insufficiently illuminating or of insufficient quality for consideration, but, as zines, the Huffington Post, and the Weekly Standard demonstrate, we define legitimacy socially, not by an objective measure of quality of seriousness.  How “serious” something is only depends on how seriously people take it.

Caetera Desunt