Dwight Macdonald on blogging, er, amateur journalism

by Yule Heibel on November 2, 2003

At the library last Tuesday, I came across Dwight Macdonald‘s article Amateur Journalism; Notes of an American in London, published in November 1956 in Encounter magazine. I said I’d blog about this, because so much of Macdonald’s article resonated with blogging issues. Here are some excerpts (and keep in mind this is 1956):

[American journalism is] more or less vitiated by the “middlebrow” approach, that is, they are edited with a wary eye on an amorphous public whose tastes and interests fluctuate somewhere between lowbrow and highbrow. This means at best a compromise between quality and “what the readers will take” and at worst a genteel slickness that is more trying than the simple vulgarity of the lowbrow press.

The English weeklies are not exactly high-brow — their circulations are too large, their writing too relaxed, their spirit too clearly that of a confident and sizeable social group rather than of an embattled minority — but they are not in the least middlebrow, either. I think they may best be described as “amateur.” The word has acquired a pejorative overtone, in this businesslike, science-minded civilisation. No one is insulted if he is called a professional or an expert, but nobody likes to be brushed off as an amateur, usually with a “mere” in front. But the amateur is not necessarily inferior in skill to the professional; the difference between them is simply that the former does because he wants to what the latter does for pay. In journalism, this means that the amateur is less vulnerable to the pressure of the market, and so to what I regard as the most corrupting influence on art and letters today, that of the cheap cultural goods sold in bulk to the mass public. The amateur may not know as much about any particular subject as the expert does, but what he does know (which may be rather impressive) he knows as part of his own life and of our culture in general [emphasis added], instead of in the narrow way the specialist knows it. Even those who fling “amateur” about as a term of abuse complain of the increasing tendency for knowledge to be subdivided into a myriad of special fields that are each worked intensively without much relation to the whole. The amateur, even the dilettante, would seem a necessary figure if our culture is not to dry up into academicism. (pp.13-14)

Macdonald notes that US journalists write as professional scholars “concerned with academic advancement (whence the barbarous jargon, the cramped, cautious specialisation of the academic quarterlies),” or they write as professional writers, and especially editors, “concerned with attracting as wide and profitable an audience as possible (whence the hard, sleek superficiality of the non-academic press).” The English amateur — a book reviewer, say, “is not trying to educate his readers or to overawe them or to appease them or to flatter them, but is treating them as equals…” “Since he is not writing for a mixed audience whose lowest common denominator he must always keep in mind, he doesn’t have to go in for elaborate explanations of the obvious, nor does he have to capture the reader’s attention with a startling journalistic ‘lead’ and try to keep it with debased rhetorical devices and constant appeals to the l.c.d.”

More, from pp. 17-8:

Liberal intellectuals in England and in America are worried because the circulation of serious journals is in the tens of thousands while that of mass magazines is in the millions. While it would admittedly be cheering if the figures were reversed, I think this anxiety overdone for several reasons: (1) an audience of fifty or even five thousand is large enough for all practical purposes (that is, for the communication of art and ideas to a public large enough not to be monolithic and ingrown); (2) a smaller audience on a higher level will be more affected by what it reads than a larger audience on a lower level, partly because the material itself will be more significant, more able to “make a difference” to them, and partly because they will be intelligent enough to let it make more of a difference; (3) the smaller group will be in general more articulate, energetic, intelligent, and powerful (that is, with higher status and more important jobs) than the masses who drowse over The News of the world or the American tabloids, and so it will make more of a difference what they read. This line of thought is obnoxious to conventional liberals because it is “undemocratic” (they really mean inegalitarian, not the same thing at all, since, as the Nazis and Communists have demonstrated, levelling can produce a most undemocratic mass society), but it may nonetheless have some validity.

What seems to me alarming is not the contrast between the circulations of the highbrow and the lowbrow periodicals, but rather the influence of the latter on the former, the gravitational pull that is exerted by a large body (of money, or readers) on a much smaller one.

In other words, it’s debilitating for discourse if publications of “little” circulation try to adapt to the modus operandus of the “big” circulation journals. That’s somewhat similar to blogging trying to figure out how to become “A-list” instead of using the power of the individual voice. The problem is how to avoid co-optation.

Finally, Macdonald includes a nice description of the vivid back-and-forth represented by letters-to-the-editor in the English press of the time: it sounded a lot like what often goes on in blogs’ comment boxes.

As it turned out, the Cold War and CIA-sponsorship of ventures like Encounter magazine had already spelled the end of free discourse by the late 50s, once witch-hunts made sure that everything was weighed on the scale of patriotism. We seem to live in equally dangerous times, but the web also offers some nifty new tools to outmaneuvre witch-hunters. As for the pull of the big guys and their alluring glamour of “big” circulation (hit) numbers …well, they won then, didn’t they? And yet, maybe it’s a question of whether or not you want to play in their sandbox, or whether you’re happier on the beach.


Joel November 3, 2003 at 4:18 pm

Commentary on my blog about this.

Yule Heibel November 3, 2003 at 11:56 pm

Bwahaha, Joel, I’ll have to respond to that on your blog! 😉

Joel November 4, 2003 at 1:35 am

I have another take on this. Writing is not about becoming a celebrity. Not if you want to become an acolyte in the Temple. It’s about a lot of hard work, rejection, and emotional loss. It’s about telling the truth even though what people want is to be told that they are the second coming of Christ. It’s about being alone a lot of the time and being able to cope with that.

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