Talking to Jamaican writer and blogger Marlon James

Jamaican writer Marlon James

Jamaican writer Marlon James

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His first novel, John Crow's Devil (2005), was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second novel, The Book of Night Women — described by one reviewer as “both beautifully written and devastating” — was published in February 2009. James now lives in the United States, where he is a professor of literature and creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

James is also a blogger. Since May 2006 he has posted occasional ruminations on books, music, movies, politics, and society at Marlon James, Among Other Things. The New York-based litblogger Maud Newton recently interviewed Marlon about his new book. Soon after, I also did an email interview with him, focusing this time on his blogging activity. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Nicholas Laughlin: In a recent blog post you criticised “elitist” anti-Internet writers who scorn blogs. Do you actually run into a lot of those? These days it seems like everybody's blogging, and even mainstream publications like the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, etc. have blogs, podcasts, and twitter feeds. Where and wherefore is the vein of resistance to online media?

Marlon James: Anti-Internet scorn? Where to find it? In the literati itself. Some of it is good-natured ribbing, but a lot of it is a basic belief that the Internet simply cannot be the meeting space for solid intellectual thought and engagement. This has led to feuds before — I'm thinking of the stupid hissy fit that writers at N+1 magazine stirred up over blogs like The Elegant Variation a few years ago.

I'm the biggest believer in the permanence and the importance of the book, but literature existed before it and it will exist after it. We tend to think that because the Internet is an inevitability, everybody is online and nobody has any issues with it, but people still look at the Internet as the bogeyman waiting to happen. It's where old pedophiles lure out young girls or boys. It's destroying reading. It has made up a quick-fix culture (and here I thought it was quick fixes that caused that). That said, the Internet has degraded common knowledge to a matter of opinion, or at least whatever has just been posted on Wikipedia. All these concerns may be true, but this was once said about the novel, radio, and TV.

This doesn't mean everybody should start blogging. One thing that afflicts this online confession culture is that many of us have very little to say, but are dead set on saying it. But so many of us have things that need to be said, and the Internet is the only place where those voices can be heard.

NL: Do you feel your blog has widened the audience for your fiction?

MJ: I’m not really sure. My friend Don Lee is convinced that my blog persona is a completely different person. A creative writing teacher told me once that my literary persona is a far better writer. At one point there were people who knew me as a blogger, and nothing else. I started blogging because there were so many things to get off my chest that fiction could not convey. In particular, stuff about how we live today. Maybe I was also too lazy to find a job with a magazine. I have very little desire to confess anything, nor do I come alive only when there is an audience. I'm not even sure that people read what I write. In some ways my blog is a clearing-house for my thoughts. In other ways, it's a dress rehearsal for what I really want to write.

NL: How is writing for your blog different to, say, writing a short essay for a print publication? Do you have a different approach, intent, voice when you write for online publication? Does the medium matter? Is there material you would not write about were it not for your blog?

MJ: My blog posts are very much searches, me writing towards finding what I really want to say. For some reason that feels more natural in a blog format, the act of getting my s**t together. In print, my post about “The Bigots On My Bookshelf” would seem unformed and slightly inconclusive, but online it seems like what it is, my going through a process. I had no idea at the beginning of that article how it would have ended.

I might be wrong, but I've always felt that with print I should at least know what I'm supposed to write before I write it. Or at least have a driving idea. I’m also more likely to write a blog post purely out of rage, with no concern for rationality — exposing a raw nerve, you could say. None of my writing is that far removed from how I speak, but blog posts are probably the closest. This may come as a shock to some who think I walk around burdened by heavy thoughts, when all I’m thinking of is how to get the new Buffy comic. Speaking of Buffy, I also use blogs to riff on pretty much everything BUT literature. There’s more to life than books, after all. Not much more, but still….

NL: Which might be another way of asking: do you think of your blog as a literary work?

MJ: No. A searching exercise, yes. A playground for thoughts to grow, certainly. My amateur attempts at journalism, probably. Storage for essays, more often than not. But I’m probably alone in thinking that art is better cooked than raw, and my blogs tend to be raw.

NL: Have you ever thought of using the blog medium or form to write a fictional work?

MJ: Now we enter into where I am a Luddite. A good story is a good story regardless of medium, but I wonder sometimes who does this? Blog fiction is loaded with as many pitfalls as self-published fiction. Certainly there is good work out there, but there is also, as far as I have seen, bad work held together by the hubris of the author, or put another way, work that probably would not be published.

Blogs, like self-published work, do reveal more often that they should how essential good editors are. Genius can come from everywhere, but it’s hard to find it when a huge percentage of this stuff is just writers defecating online. I’m sure those are fighting words. But it’s sort of like the beauty queen stereotype. Sure it’s dismissive and offensive to assume that all beauty queens are stupid. But why do I keep meeting only the stupid ones?

NL: Which literary blogs do you read regularly? Do you follow the very small Caribbean literary blogosphere, or feel that it's a community you belong to?

MJ: This aspect of the blogosphere I’m interested in very much. The building of community. Binyavanga Wainaina spoke about this at a 2007 PEN conference, and I’ve referred to it before; him saying that it was the Internet that built the community of contemporary African writers. A group base, that not only spoke truth to power but was also too physically scattered, too elusive yet palpable and too easily accessible for the powers that be to stop it.

Caribbean authors are so scattered and apart for all sorts of reasons, coming together once a year for the Calabash Literary Festival [in Jamaica]. I don’t know if we’ll ever get our Paris, but we could come together online. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I do believe that writers need community, for moral support if nothing else. I never felt more alone than when I was writing my first book. That said, I read Guyana Gyal, Long Bench, Geoffrey Philp’s blog, Active Voice, and a whole bunch of other blogs that I can’t remember. Or I just go to Global Voices and they point me to where I need to go.

NL: Which Caribbean writers would you like to see blogging?

MJ: V.S. Naipaul clearly has s**t he needs to deal with. Maybe if he got more stuff out online he would save us from him dropping it all over his work. I’m just saying.


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