Article

Stephen Mitchelmore

Stephen Mitchelmore Stephen Mitchelmore was Britain's first book blogger. Since September 2004 he has maintained an independent blog This Space.

Mark Thwaite: When, why and where did you first start blogging?

Stephen Mitchelmore: Late in the year 2000 Chris Mitchell of Spike Magazine, one of the first 'ezines', appended a blog to the site called Splinters and invited me to contribute. I had written a few reviews and essays for Spike and had complained that the essay format demanded more attention than many subjects deserve. I had much to say because Britain is afflicted with a serious case of philistinism, especially in the highest reaches of its literary culture. Blogging was the ideal vehicle for literary fire-fighting while also drawing attention to the more substantial content – a kind of reverse scarecrow.

MT: When did you start This Space?

SM: After a few years, Splinters had become well established (I was told that internet sensation Jessa Crispin of Bookslut named it her favourite) and was far more active than the host magazine. Despite this I had began to feel uncomfortable with writing in the shadow of content in keeping with Spike's tagline "Picking the brains of popular culture" (it was also dying, leaving the blog pinned like a bright red parasite to the side of a grey hippo). By then blogs were unique sites, no longer adjuncts to magazines, so, after getting to know Lars Iyer through our mutual interest in the writing of Maurice Blanchot, we started a group blog called In Writing. But there were crossed wires. Lars Iyer began to dominate with long, oracular posts that seemed to me inappropriate to the form and assumed purpose. After some awkward discussions, Lars left and created the legend that is Spurious; a masterstroke of misjudgement for which I am happy to take the credit. I continued with In Writing but, once again, after another difference of opinion, I moved away and, in September 2004, began This Space, an unfortunately bland title truncating a line of Blanchot’s: "Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words". The point is that the blog is concerned with the presence of writing and how it changes our relation to the world, rather than discussing its overt subject matter.

MT: What difference did you find having your 'own' space from blogging on Spike's pages?

SM: Almost immediately I recognised This Space as my true home, a miraculous release into a limitless expanse in which writing could be explored in the direction demanded by the work under discussion. The editorial identity was soon established and gave me what I had lacked until then. My only responsibility was to sustain that exploration. So the difference is that blogging became the means of writing rather than as a parasite on the larger work. However, as it is an individual pursuit, persistence is everything. The form is a constraint that enables a million liberations, but one must persist. There is no destination, no end to blogging.

MT: You've been blogging for over a decade... what's changed over that period of time?

SM: The big change is that blogs are now read. As a result, they have become more uniform and less exciting. Newspapers had provided the only means of discussing books and had many book pages: big critics wrote big reviews of big novels by big authors. Since blogging became commonplace, review space has been decimated and reviewers have followed the tendency toward gossip and saying the right thing before their mates – the equivalent of talking loudly in bars – rather than opening themselves to the silence of reading. This has always been the drawback of newspaper criticism and blogging has enabled it to reassert the social rather than personal reception of literature. That is, some things can't be written about in public without being drowned by guffaws from the bar. Blogging is an essentially private and solitary undertaking and thereby has the virtue of allowing silence to approach. But now those who maintain the trivial bookchat model predominate. It shocks me how few really good, regularly updated literary blogs there are. However, one can soon tell who is worth reading and who not, unlike online magazines, which often have a brantub miscellany in which the best writing is often swamped. I think the single blog is therefore a great way to think about literature, as the blogger has responsibility only to his audience and gains an audience by writing well.

MT: What have been the highlights and the low points?

SM: They are difficult to separate. Getting emails from strangers who say nice things is always a pleasant surprise, but these are countered by attacks by those riding high on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Another example: after a few years of writing, I was asked to write a review for various print publications, including the TLS. This seemed to be a natural progression: from floor to stage, from amateur to professional, from darkness to light. And I wrote about a dozen reviews. But it was distressingly unsatisfying. Everything that generated a need in me to write was removed and I felt like a ventriloquist's doll. Since then I have turned down offers to write elsewhere. For that reason, the highlight was rediscovering the futility of blogging: my fortress, my prison cell.

MT: How has Twitter affected things?

SM: It has had the beneficial effect of siphoning trivia from blogs and starving them of comments. Before, blog posts often comprised brief asides and hyperlinks, with longer pieces saved for a grand parade. Now that the form is more suited to essays and reviews, fewer people are willing to read let alone write them, so Twitter has emphasised a serious challenge to blog as a form.

MT: Where next for blogging do you think?

SM: More of the same. This isn't a prediction but a statement of necessity. Blogging is a singular project because it goes nowhere and can only keep going in that direction. The challenge is to focus on this inevitablity, to ask what it means for literature, and to keep asking. It begins and ends with each book, which also partakes of the same inevitability (which is perhaps why there are so many). A review then becomes the space in which the distance opened by the book resonates beyond its covers. The revelation of writing is only ever revealed in the book itself, an experience we invariably dismiss or disguise as soon as we begin to speak about it. The next blog post is where this can be exposed at last.

MT: Where next for you and and your own writing then...?

SM: The inevitable answer is more of the same. I have been asked if This Space might provide enough material for a book and for sure there are more than enough words. I would like to think it was possible, if only for a change. But the blogging form is probably irreconcilable with the book form, if not antithetical. I often wonder if a change is possible only by disappearing, by becoming anonymous again so that one writes in an apparent void. Lars Iyer's Spurious has now been relegated by his novels that emerged by chance on his blog (the new one, Wittgenstein Jr, is a joy), but I can't see that happening with mine.

MT: Looking back, do you have a few favourite pieces?

SM: While blog posts are standalone, each one has the undercurrent of personal striving to articulate a certain vision of literature, and the long essay The Shadow Cast by Writing and a review of Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher are good examples of this. I regard both as step-changes, which makes the blog worth writing. But there are also expressions of frustration with popular literary culture and my send-up of The Guardian's Writers' Rooms series is a particular favourite (mainly for the paper "Enlarge Image" icon stuck to the chair) as is the rewriting of a Books of the Year piece. I hope there are more to come.

-- Mark Thwaite (25/09/2014)

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