Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Why I like Keith Gessen

You remember how things ended during every 80’s sitcom? When Dad and the kids would sit around at the end of the show and recap what they’ve learned?

It’s time for one of those.

Yesterday I tried to make a lame inside joke in Keith Gessen’s blog, referencing Alex Balk and Choire Sicha. Alex, Keith and Choire are three of my favorite writers, and I love them all for different reasons.

Choire is an outstanding journalist, in the big-J sense of that word: get the story, nail down quotes and throw in some snark to make it 2.0.

Keith writes an utterly sincere literary mag called N+1. Keith is a Writer, in the big-W sense of that word — devoted to digging up intensely personal, emotional material and wrapping it up in a bow of universal truth.

Balk is a Blogger, dishing out everything in quick bites, serving up sharp, funny bits of gossip in micro-paragraph chunks.

I expect credit for these labels, by the way, when somebody finally makes a tarot deck based on Internet celebs.

I made a joke in Keith’s blog yesterday, based on the assumption that these three men were friends, recently reconciled after a series of blog feuds. Turns out the term “reconciled” was a bit optimistic.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of that feud. VGI sums it up here, if you care.

A lot of people in the blogosphere hate Keith because he doesn’t play by the same rules that everyone else is using. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for him because I know exactly what he’s doing wrong and exactly where it’s coming from.

Keith is the only character in this little drama who refuses to act like a character. Everybody else gets it. Even Emily Gould gets it. She may despise being a character in an Internet soap opera, but she’s adapted to the reality of it and moderates her writing appropriately.

Keith either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. He may be actively rebelling against the whole thing, making himself even more sincere and vulnerable on purpose. I feel for him because I’ve been this guy.

He knows his statements will be parsed like legal documents and thrown up for ridicule but keeps on writing, pitching big, slow softballs that critics can hit out of the park. He’s starting to look like Kevin Klee’s character in “Idiocracy” — constantly setting himself up to be kicked in the crotch in front of a sadistic audience.

You want to swoop in and save him. “Keith, please don’t stand in front of the pitching machine with your legs open.” But Keith is a Writer, slave to his own narrative conventions. He’s staked out a place for himself as The Last Real Person on the Internet, to the point where giving it up would probably kill him.

I don’t want to portray Gessen as some kind of innocent flower here. He’s posted all kinds of things that are worthy of ridicule, but he’s posting in a voice that makes it easy to attack him. He calls his critics out by name, penning long, sincere screeds about celebrity, elitism and the corrosive effects of Internet gossip.

Ultimately, this boils down to a difference between people and personas. After a while, popular bloggers build up a kind of defensive shell around their real personalities; armor to protect themselves against casual attacks.

Their voices harden, calcify and close off. They stop writing in a personal voice and start to sound like gossip columnists. Their blogs start to focus on external things, obsessing over the lives of celebrities and politicians. It’s not safe to write about their own feelings, so they start quoting others, writers from less competitive circles, who can still afford to be real They stop reacting to the world in an authentic way and fill their blogs with empty snark.

Even those who fight against it learn to play by the rules eventually. Emily Gould was one of the most honest, most open, most vulnerable writers on the web. Then a posse of critics and victims tore her apart, forcing her to scale back and apologize for ever being real in the first place.

Ultimately this boils down to a battle between people who view the Internet as a game versus people who view the Internet as an intimate extension of real life. When you view the Internet as a game, all the bloggers on it become chess pieces, to be linked, mocked, quoted or dismissed with no more thought than you’d give to posting a picture of Britney Spears.

To this I must add a third category: people who view the Internet as a commodity. Bad enough to run over people’s feelings in pursuit of fame, link-love or the adulation of your commenter base, but what about people who do it for money?

What do you do when making fun of people is your job? When posting gossip and destroying lives means the difference between paying your electric bill and living in the dark?

So far the most popular solution is to make a name for yourself and quit, while you still have a soul.

I see this battle happening all over the Internet, as bloggers become celebrities and struggle to adapt, weathering the storm of critics and commenters until they become parodies of themselves.

This is why I love watching (and obsessively linking) Rex Sorgatz. Rex is so conflicted over this issue you can actually hear his teeth gnashing as you read.

Rex wants to be real so badly it makes his heart hurt, but he knows too much and he’s been here too long. He’s not “really” famous, just a little too famous to make himself vulnerable, and the urge to overshare is a living thing. You can see him fighting it on Tumblr, thinking up new ways to break the rules.

I know he’s fighting a losing battle against the forces of banality and artifice, but I can’t help but cheer for him, and pray that he finds a way to make intimate writing cool again.

All serious bloggers start as people and end up as personas. I went through this mess on a smaller scale in 2002. I used to blog in the Emily Gould style — writing long, emotional screeds about personal drama and events of the day. I burned bridges and destroyed friendships and made outrageous generalizations about people I barely knew. (Cough.)

I’m still learning to do the persona dance, but I look at Keith Gessen and I miss the writer I used to be.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 2, 2008 at 13:59

Posted in Culture, Gawker

2 Responses

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  1. Love this!


    October 4, 2008 at 06:36

  2. Greets! Really interesting. keep working! Tnx! Saw!


    October 27, 2008 at 13:57

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