Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Ten

Today, July 14th 2015, marks the tenth anniversary of this blog's creation.

Just writing that down amazes me.  This is where I'm supposed to say that when I started this blog I had no idea that I'd still be keeping it up a decade later, but the truth is that Asking the Wrong Questions's longevity, in itself, doesn't surprise me.  I started this blog because I had things to say and nowhere to say them, because I felt unseen and unheard.  It answered, and still answers, a need that I don't ever anticipate being rid of.  What does surprised me is how much this blog has changed my life: the people I've met, on and offline, because of it; the projects that I was given the opportunity to participate in; the greater involvement in genre fandom, culminating in a Hugo nomination; and simply the realization that people from all over the world appreciate and have time for what I have to say.

Having said that, ten years is a huge stretch of time, and it's only natural to look back at them, and at the work that I've put into this blog during them, and ask whether they were worth it.  Just last week, Jonathan McCalmont posted one of his typically excellent musings on the state of online blogging and criticism, whose observations resonated very deeply with me as I prepared for this anniversary.  Blogging, as he pointed out and as many others have observed before him, is a dying medium.  With RSS being phased out, and with outward-facing platforms like LiveJournal giving way to inward-facing ones like tumblr, writers tend to congregate not in their own spaces but on commercially-owned websites.  Blogs that do survive do so by becoming, essentially, their own semi-commercial enterprises, providing endless new content, and responding immediately to the churn of the publishing and entertainment industries.  I've chosen not to take that path--and, to be clear, I'm not trying to claim that that choice makes me superior in any way, as it was made for entirely self-serving reasons; I have a job that pays a lot more than I'd earn as a freelance writer and which requires a lot of my time, and I'm not interested in constantly keeping up with the latest books and TV just so I can write about them.  But that choice has told in Asking the Wrong Questions's stats, especially over the last year, and it's hard not to look at those numbers and wonder whether I'm not slowly becoming a dinosaur.

When I started planning this post, I took a look through the blog's archives to see what its most-read posts were.  The top ten left me genuinely surprised:
I'm pleased with pretty much every entry on this list, but at the same time I think you'd have to work hard to come up with a selection that was less representative of the body of work I've amassed over the last ten years.  Half of these posts are film reviews, which I tend to jot down without much planning or forethought whenever I see a film that interests me (which isn't that often--I don't consider myself an avid film-watcher).  Of the four book reviews, two are of mainstream novels (albeit both with a genre slant), which is not what I think of as the focus of this blog at all.  There isn't a single TV review, probably the type of writing that I put the most thought and effort into (the top-ranked TV-related posts on this blog are Women and Horses, on the problems with nudity and sexual violence on Game of Thrones, and the review of the first season of The Legend of Korra, in thirteenth and fourteenth place respectively).

To be sure, this surprise isn't really a surprise.  That a review of a much-buzzed movie published in its opening week gets more eyeballs than a review of a not-very-famous novel published a year after its publication shouldn't surprise anyone.  The fact is that my guiding principle regarding what to write about has always been "do I have something to say about this?", where "this" could be Jane Austen, historical fiction about the Wars of the Roses, or a show about a small-town ballet school.  Again, that's a choice that is both entirely self-serving--I write to please myself, not an editor or my bank account--and which has impacted this blog's potential and reach.  The fact that the things I want to write about are not necessarily the things people most want to read about is a truism that, for the most part, doesn't bother me, but which I can't help but mull over as I sit down to sum up a decade's worth of work.

Something else that happened last week is that the film review site The Dissolve announced that it was shutting its doors.  Established by a coterie of former staffers of the wildly popular AV Club, The Dissolve's focus was on film, with an emphasis on less commercial work and more in-depth criticism.  As such, its failure doesn't come as much of a surprise--TV writing is a much easier sell in this online landscape than film writing, and if you're going to write about movies, choosing not to devote yourself exclusively to blockbuster genre fare (which The Dissolve also covered, but not as obsessively as other sites) is a dangerous proposition.  The Dissolve's writers made a choice, to write about the things that interested them rather than the things that a sufficiently large audience wanted to read about, and as a commercial site, there was a very simple metric for evaluating the viability of this approach, which the site ultimately failed to meet (this should not, of course, be taken as a criticism of The Dissolve, which featured some excellent writing, and whose contributors will surely go on to do great things).  In a way, I envy the finality of that judgment.  Asking the Wrong Questions is mine and mine alone.  Which means that no one can shut it down but myself, and that the amount of time and effort that I put into it are entirely up to me.  But it also means that it's up to me to decide whether this endeavor has been a success or a failure, and that's a tough determination to make.  I've done well, but not nearly as well as others, and perhaps not nearly as well as I could have.  What I have to show for ten years, hundreds of posts, and hundreds of thousands of words is valuable, but also utterly intangible.

As Jonathan writes, there is a plain and simple choice before anyone who sets themselves up as a writer and critic in this online economy.  You can run your own space on your own terms, or you can have a meaningful chance at real reach and influence.  Doing both is almost certainly not an option.  There are upsides and downsides to both choices, and at the end of the day the one I've made is the only one I could possibly have made.  But I think that there is a danger in writing to please only yourself that Jonathan doesn't touch on, which is that you can end up talking to yourself, spewing words onto the screen for no purpose but to get them out of your heard, expending your time and energy on something that doesn't mean anything to anyone but yourself.

I don't think I've done that with Asking the Wrong Questions.  I'm proud of the work I've done here.  I think that it has had value for people other than myself.  I'm deeply grateful to everyone who has read and commented and linked and said kind words about my writing.  But I also don't want to find myself, in ten years time, in the same place.  I'd like to find ways to make Asking the Wrong Questions more than what it is right now, and to explore projects beyond the reach of this blog.

Having said all that, this is still a birthday, and birthdays are an occasion for gifts.  As you may have already noticed, there is a new tab at the top of this page.  It contains e-books collecting my posts on a particular subject.  Right now there's only one, comprising my reviews of Iain M. Banks's science fiction novels (I'm indebted to Adam Roberts for the idea to do this).  I'm planning to add more in the future, and if you have ideas about which topics you'd like to see gathered up in this format, please let me know.  Once again, thank for reading along these last ten years (and if your just checking in now, there's a huge archive to explore, starting with my list of favorite posts on the right).  Despite the perhaps melancholy tone of this post, there's no real danger that I'll stop writing, or writing about precisely those things that interest me and which I have something to say about.  But I could not have done that if I didn't feel that there was someone on the other end reading along, and for being that someone, I am deeply grateful to you.

15 comments:

RT said...

I always enjoy your reviews, even when I don't end up consuming the media. And your explanation of the Hugos was quite helpful. I too have chosen my own space over a broader reach, but I am confident that the people I reach are largely interested in what I have to say. Happy birthday!

Niall said...

Happy blog birthday! My vote for the next ebook goes to Back Through the Wormhole.

soon-lee said...

I am an irregular reader but I keep returning because you say wise & insightful things.

Happy birthday on the 10th anniversary & congratulations!

Chris said...

Well, I discovered your blog through the movie reviews (Batman), but I stayed for the TV reviews (Star Trek, Whedon, Sherlock Holmes). So there's that.

Happy birthday! Only been reading this blog for a few months, but it's one of those I check almost every day.

Will Ellwood said...

Happy blog birthday!

I have been inspired by and enjoyed reading your blog for approximately five years now, and I hope to continue reading your pieces, here and in other venues, for years to come.

One particular highlight for me was your piece "Is There Someone at the End of This Rope? A Long Day's Struggle With M. John Harrison".

Thanks,

Will

ruthlessculture.com said...

"But I think that there is a danger in writing to please only yourself that Jonathan doesn't touch on, which is that you can end up talking to yourself, spewing words onto the screen for no purpose but to get them out of your heard, expending your time and energy on something that doesn't mean anything to anyone but yourself."

That's pretty much exactly what I do these days... I said in my post that this independence suits me and I'm generally happier in my output than I have been for a while but I'm not entirely sure whether this is down to my independence or simply the improved weather and lack of other stress-inducing variables.

I must admit, I'm really surprised that your TV writing has proved less popular than your other stuff as I remember that writing about current TV would always yield weird spikes when I used to do it. But then... that was before every corporate blog started taking its cues from the AV Club and writing about TV almost in real time.

I don't watch what you watch and I'm waaaay less invested in the MCU than you are (though I do ship Stucky) but I still read most of what you have to say about the things you watch as you always write with such perfect clarity, concision and insight that I find what you write accessible even without being familiar with the primary sources.

I'm glad you're not giving up!



Ashmitha said...

Thank you for writing.

George Pedrosa said...

I've not only thoroughly enjoyed your writing for, I think, probably 7 years by now, but have also been deeply inspired by it in my own writing (which I do mostly in my native language). Congratulations for the anniversary, thank you for all the amazing articles and for all that is sacred, NEVER stop writing.

נמרוד שלם said...

Thank you for your writing, which is not only thought provoking but has also led me to try some excellent shows and novels that I wouldn't have reached on my own.

Thanks!
(An email subscription option would really aid in following this blog for those of us who don't use RSS)

Lindsey Wilson said...

I've enjoyed reading this blog and still check it semi-regularly as updates occur. Congratulations on ten years--that is a long time to stick with any endeavor.

zahrawithaz said...

Congratulations! I do love this blog, and share a lot of your sadness about the passing of a certain wave of internet culture. I wish you the best with its continuing future.

Oh, and I 2nd the nomination of Back Through the Wormhole!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thanks, everyone, for your congratulations.

Niall & Zahra: Yes, Back Through the Wormhole is the obvious next choice (and probably the TNG essays too). I'm hoping I can get to it in the next couple of weeks.

Nimrod: I added a "follow by email" widget to the sidebar. Let me know if you have any problems with it.

Jonathan: I think the TV thing is largely because I tend to write reviews of whole seasons rather than next-day recap/reviews. That does seem to be a hugely popular feature (and I enjoy reading them too, though I tend to find them rather disposable).

baeraad said...

Ten years is an admirably long time to keep doing something. My congratulations! :)

I would like to note that actually, I've never seen this blog as being mostly about "genre" (by which I'm guessing you mean fantasy/sci-fi stuff?) works myself. In fact, the main reason why I keep tuning in is that it tips me off about more literary, realistic stuff than I tend to manage to find on my own. I very much doubt I would have found my way to, for instance, The Bug or King Dork if I hadn't heard about them from you, and those are books I am very happy to have read.

raz greenberg said...

A bit late but still - congrats! I still remember my first reply here to one of your Babylon 5 posts. Turns out it was shortly after you started. Oddly, I always thought the blog's been around much longer than that.

Nicole Echelberger said...

love the blog please give me tips

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