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25 July 2007

John Whiting on blogs

I was invited by the good burghers of The Guild of Food Writers to talk about blogging. Those people in the room, who had kindly paid to come and hear me write about food professionally. Hence their incredulity that I spend so much time writing without any expectation of being paid. I can see that is rather scary from their point of view. Eyedropper gives a pretty good summary of the night.

However, I was particularly intrigued by an email I received from John Whiting. I have known, in the internet sense of the word, John for a few years. We have come across each other primarily on food forums and exchanged emails. He has been thrown off virtually every food forum for managing to infuriate one management team after another. An impressive feat that I admire him for - especially as so far he has managed not to get on the wrong side of the notoriously controlling lot at eGullet. He is also the author of Whitings Writings, a website, not a blog he would stress, that focuses on Paris bistros.

Back to that email. John had written a summary of my talk for fellow members of GFW, that I found thought-provoking. He has agreed for me to repost it here, which I have done, in full below. I am interested in readers' views on what John has to say about the importance of blogs. I'll post my views in the next couple of days.

Silverbrow’s workshop on blogging was so expertly presented that it narrowed down attention from the larger and more interesting question of websites in general — indeed, of the entire internet as the growing means of global communication. Blogging is getting all the attention because, like using a Blackberry, anyone can do it (providing they’re young enough). Newspapers and magazines are wild about blogs because they fill up the space vacated by their shrinking journalistic and editorial staff; never mind the quality, feel the width.

At the entry level, blogs are to writing as ready-meals are to cooking. They’re fine as Show and Tell for grownups, but as a carefully considered and categorically arranged archive they are about as accessible as a stack of old newspapers. And there’s a breathless air about them that doesn’t take kindly to the discursive essay. Imagine the prose of Elizabeth David or M.F.K. Fisher in blog format — it would be like dressing them in track suits.

As for finding your way around in blogs, the more sophisticated versions may have on-site Google search, but that’s useless if you don’t know what to search for. Down-the-edge indexing, if it works, just takes you to a snapshot in an endless home movie. (Political blogs are a different matter; their content tends to be both urgent and ephemeral.)

As a vehicle for your CV, contact details and samples of your work, a blog soon looks dated if you don’t keep adding to it – unattended blogs have a strong whiff of mortality. And the more you add, the more your original material gets buried. So what’s the solution? Putting together a proper website, like cooking a proper meal, is a skill that doesn’t come instantly. You must be prepared either to put in the time and effort or pay someone who knows how to do it properly — there are so many slick websites now that a bog-standard format looks amateurish.

If you go to the GFW Members’ Web Links page, you’ll find that they are all proper sites, not blogs. The only exception is Charles Campion’s, which is attached to the Evening Standard, for which he writes; it goes with the territory.


If for any reason I edit a comment, I explicitly say so. I only edit comments if they are rude, abusive etc. I reserve the right to delete comments if I think they're unduly offensive or constitute spam.

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Allow me to be the first to comment on my own comment. Is this narcisistic mental incest? So be it.

In all fairness, I've only been kicked off of two food forums: on one, it was because I wrote disrespectfully of sous vide as a gourmet chef technique, on the other it was because I had written rather ironically *on my own web site* about food forums in general, with no reference, even by implication, to the forum administrator who took offense. It was excommunication for public heresy.

I was in fact an active participant in a very nasty exchange on eGullet (post 9/11) in which one of the volunteer forum supervisors was viciously attacked for the generosity of his humanitarian sympathies. I got a lot of hate mail, both on and off the forum, but the management never threatened me with expulsion. In fact, I wrote a very critical article on eGullet for the Guild of Food Writers newsletter and submitted it prior to publication to the chief administrator for comment; in a very friendly spirit, he made a couple of minor corrections, which I incorporated.

I'm writing all this to dispel any suspicion that I am what nerds call a troll; i.e. a person who enters forums for the purpose of disrupting them. I'm still a member in good standing of seven food forums, both on line and by email, although an irregular participant. Most of my on line time goes into my own web site.

John - sorry, certainly didn't mean to imply you were any sort of troll. It was merely a throw-away line on my part.

Having offered my defense, I should add in all honesty that food forums have sometimes *wished* that I would go away. :-)

Is there actually a real point to what John Whiting has written? I think we should be told.

I’ll spell it out for you. Blogging has been made easy by the servers who offer it so that the maximum number of people will take it up. This produces an enormous amount of garbage in which useful information becomes submerged. Furthermore the form is a diary, not an outline—it is not suited to conveying a fixed body of information, such as a CV and samples of one’s work. A website, on the other hand, can be made to fit the information and can be easily updated.

Hey, John. A blog *is* a website. Ease of publishing doesn't necessarily equate to useful information becoming submerged amongst an enormous amount of dross. Search engines such as Google are becoming increasingly better at highlighting appropriate content. And once you've found a decent blog such as this one, you'll often find others via the blog's accompanying blogroll. To be brutally honest, you've been part of an industry which churns out a considerable amount of dross 'professionally' every day. Food magazines and other publications often leave me cold, whereas there are a number of blogs I follow religiously - all are written by so-called 'amateurs'. Perhaps members of the guild of food writers and the publishers they write for should take note - it's time to change career.

You're flogging a horse that isn't even there. I didn't set out to defend all and sundry who practice the profession of food writing; I was writing simply about what format of website is most useful for someone to set up who who wants to showcase his/her talents for prospective clients. Period.

As for what passes for culinary journalism, I subscribe to John Thorne's passing comment in his brilliant essay, "Cuisine Mechanique: "Food writing's guilty secret is its intellectual poverty." It's because most of its practitioners are unwilling to accept the fact that gourmet food is not the most important thing there is. Paul Henderson put it in a nutshell at the end "Cornucopia", his perceptive journal of a culinary journey around Britain:

"It is a hard thing to say, but fine food is far from the most important thing in the world. It is not really a question of reaching perfection – that would be too much to ask – nor of lotus-eating, but of finding and maintaining a level of confidence in the food we eat day by day that enables us to get on with the rest of our lives."

Or, in the wise words of Jane Grigson, "We have more than enough masterpieces. What we need is a better standard of ordinariness."

John, at last we get to your point - and it's plain wrong. Which format is most useful depends on the individual and what they are looking to achieve. Many editors are now following blogs to anticipate trends and source ideas. They aren't following non-blog websites in the same way. So, if a professional writer needs an outlet to demonstrate their skills, or they feel their existing outlets do not let them write as they would like, then launching a blog may be a good strategy. But if they are already busy writing for a living and happy with what they're writing, then perhaps a brochure-ware website will do.

"Many editors are now following blogs to anticipate trends and source ideas." You're probably right. Anticipating and sourcing are a lot easier than thinking.

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