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With greater potential to bare your soul comes the greater danger of getting pecked to death by the peanut gallery.

Photo by Matthew Antonino

BLOGS GRANT UNPARALLELED potential for spontaneity and interaction to writers everywhere – a virtual printing press, under your fingertips.

But with this new podium comes one of the less desirable traits of mass media: scrutiny from a faceless mob.

With greater potential to bare your soul comes the greater danger of getting pecked to death by the peanut gallery.

Samuel Butler once said “…it is the duty of schools and colleges to abate (genius) by setting genius-traps in its way.”

If the sheltering structure of the academy is now decentralized, where are those genius traps hidden these days?

Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of a talented English student who wrote an exceptional short story that her professor compared to work by Chekhov and Mark Twain, two masters of the genre.

Is such lofty comparison a compliment – or a curse? Vonnegut has some harsh words for the professor:

“Thank you, you son-of-a-bitch, you’ve put this student in competition with one of the greatest writers who ever lived. And so the young lady will give up as being up against Chekhov, being up against Mark Twain, being up against me.”

Vonnegut’s story demonstrates the risk every artist invites when they create, not to mention the tremendous responsibility of a teacher-as-mentor.

Do we, as member-critics of the Internet, share a similar responsibility to nurture talent without criticizing too harshly or making unfair comparisons?

In Defense of Max

British derision is similar to being sealed in a pit of rabid chainsaws. It didn’t take the mob long to tear Max into little bloody pieces.

Consider a recent case, notable for how easily a worst-case scenario can come crashing down.

19-year-old Max Gogarty, son of travel writer Paul Gogarty, has just landed an opportunity most writers would sell their parents for: a feature travel column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Whether Max got the gig through nepotism or hustle won’t matter if he can spark some interest. It’s sink-or-swim time – a lot of pressure to succeed.

The result: Max bombed. Hard.

The commentary took on a life of its own – admittedly funny, but relentlessly cruel. British derision is similar to being sealed in a pit of rabid chainsaws. It didn’t take the mob long to tear Max into little bloody pieces.

I didn’t relate to Max’s debut article, but my heart goes out to the poor guy. It’s one thing to be shouted down, quite another to be a young writer mercilessly skewered.

Thanks to the miracle of Internet, this kid has to get up in the morning and wonder where to start again. Most people don’t do that until they’re forty.

Quality Control?

Screenshot of Max’s blog post.

The quality of Max’s article itself is an issue separate from the pounding he got. If he meant to capture the naïve excitement of a kid on his first solo trip into Asia, he surely did that, if nothing else.

Would I read his blog? Maybe. I might enjoy reading as an amateur sheds his assumptive materialistic nonsense and wakes up to the world outside.

Would others read also? Possibly, if they’re looking for a fellow newbie with whom to connect. He’s just a kid. We’re not talking Vonnegut here.

If someone’s at fault, it’s not Max. Nor the British, whose surliness makes me happy to be American.

Blame rightly rests with the editors. Max shouldn’t have been put in that spot without preface as a novice traveler. It’s unfair to kick a beginner around.

Someone’s shortsightedness fed this kid to the lions, basically stacking a beginner next to Joyce. Publicly.

Whither Quality?

Despite foibles and illness, sometimes bloggers discover something brilliant to share. We should honor each contribution fairly, without nitpicking.

How, then, do we promote quality in writing? Credit where credit’s due.

Hemingway was a brilliant writer, well-traveled and multi-faceted. But I part ways with his glorification of war. I appreciate Jackson Pollack’s aesthetic, but admiration for his personal life would be a long time coming.

The list of faults could continue, until all the heroes are burned down and there is no true beauty left to appreciate.

The constant bickering in the blogosphere is no quest for quality – it’s a headhunt for failings. We’re all princes walking with porn stars, and at the end of the day there isn’t much difference between the two.

Despite foibles and illness, sometimes bloggers discover something brilliant to share. We should honor each contribution fairly, without nitpicking.

It’s been said criticism is a lesser form of intelligence; I think any intelligence used wantonly becomes its lesser.

Truth is a Brick

Truth is like a brick: it can be used to build or destroy, and the emphasis in “brutal honesty” tends to be on “brutal.” Tearing down is easier than building up, but thoughtless destruction becomes boring after a while, and leaves the landscape barren.

The artist’s heart is invisible to the medium – an essence we’re often blind to when we should be more aware. Each of us has experiences that are truly our own; learning to polish these ideas until they shine is what art (and life) is all about.

Vonnegut offered this advice:

“What I tell people is there is no trade anymore of writing, of storytelling, but you engage in it anyway…. It’s not a way to make a living. It’s a way to make your soul grow, to see who you are and where you are. I was in the Chemistry department and didn’t know my writing was crap. So I went on writing anyway because I enjoyed it so much.”

It doesn’t matter what he writes next. The gutsiest thing Max could do right now is to pick up his pen again, and box his own weight.

Questions to the Community:

Does anyone feel like they’ve been railed on unfairly for their writing? How did you handle it? What’s your advice for someone who’s taking heat? Do you believe we have the responsibility to moderate ourselves?

Writing

 

About The Author

F. Daniel Harbecke

F. Daniel Harbecke (just call him Daniel, the F's a family thing) is currently working on "A Philosophy of Travel" which envisions travel as a metaphor for the meaningful experience of life. Daniel has lived in Europe, South America and Asia and is trying to fund his tony lifestyle in Sweet Home Chicago.

  • Julie

    Great article and insights. While I’m fully aware of the papparazzi of nitpickers on, as you put it so well, “the headhunt for failings,” one of the many amazing aspects of the blog community on Matador is that those folks are refreshingly absent.

  • http:///www,twistedcompass.com/pnomads Jacob

    Ballsy title! I saw this in my RSS feed and thought, “One of the BNT editors must’ve got unfairly sacked and this was their parting gift! This should be good!”

    But alas, just another delightful insight.

    I have to admit, I guard my insights very closely. If I were to instantly share every half-cocked idea/experience with the world, I would slowly die of shame. I’ve had a lot of stupid thoughts and opinions that were able to change because, thankfully, I never went public with them…

    …But those KKK guys just seemed so nice. ;)

    There is no doubt, however, that voyeurism sells. I sent multi-paged emails discussing my travels in Europe to friends and family over 72 days. It wasn’t until I sent an email outlining how terribly wrong a bunch of things went (sleeping outside being one of them) that I got a resounding response from all of my friends and family.

    People don’t want to drink their coffee and read about how great someone else’s life is–they want to read about how someone who writes for the guardian is more naive and dimwitted than themselves. I get the feeling that–considering the response, the newspaper, and the background of the writer–this was something more than an “accident”. A father-son travel writing team, backed by the editorial staff of one of the biggest newspapers in the world doesn’t make “mistakes” on that grand of a scale. I’d be curious to see the marketing department’s figures on the Guardian’s new online travel blog and/or youthful readership.

    Ironically, much the same way the the title “Who the F*ck Cares About Your Travel Writing” had me drop everything and come racing. Hmm.

  • Henri B.

    Daniel,

    This story was posted over at travelwriters.com before the crash came. It is probably no big surprise that the story was not well received there with the young man’s inside connections to the newspaper being seriously questioned. It seems that this whole episode was a disaster in the making from point go.

    I hope he can pickup the pieces and keep going,but the assignment should never have happened in the first place.

    Henri

  • jared

    I have yet to start traveling but cannot wait to begin. I have always thought of traveling as a way to become “enlightened”, see more of the world, become a better person. So why is it that a lot of the people who read and respond to similar articles, the enlightened travelers I so aspire to be like, absolutely lay into a person they know nothing about.

    My personal view on blogging has always been more of public journal if you will. When I do start traveling I most assuredly will start a blog and will follow up on any comments, but mostly to connect with the people who seem to share the same views as I do and have positive comments. Negative comments will mostly mean nothing to me because I will know most of the people responding know nothing of me as a person.

    Would it not be an eye opening experience for Mr. Goggarty to continue his blogging about his travels and through the months or years of experiences change his views and thoughts. Then be able to look back at his blogs and see what he thought before and be able to relive his emotional and intellectual growth over the years?

    That is an experience I would love to have myself someday and if I can find people who have posted positive comments and possibly make a connection with them through my life all the better. For those with negative comments… well i can only hope they look at their life first before pointing out the negatives in others lives. Nobody is perfect, so why criticize others when you can probably criticize yourself for much more because who knows you better than you? I am not an overly religious person but I absolutely love the line in the bible by Jesus, let those without sin cast the first stone. Words to live by in my opinion. Strive to correct your own failures before pointing out others.

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Interesting conspiracy theory Jacob, and not cock-eyed in the slightest – I became a loyal Guardian travel section fan about 1 month ago myself…thanks for sharing that insight :)

  • http://completeandcreative.com Terry

    I’ve been sensitive to criticism toward my writing ever since I was little. I’ve gotten better at it, but I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been for Max.

    Still, you just gotta get back up after falling, right?

  • Daniel Harbecke

    Julie – About the refreshing attitudes of Matador & BNT, I totally agree. This is one of the most congenial communities I know of, and I think it’s because meaningful travel – and simply sharing it – isn’t a competitive activity. No one here is expected to be Theroux. (Lucky for me…)

    Every so often I check over at Ain’t It Cool News because, well, I’m kind of a movie geek. When Heath Ledger died, half the community expressed their condolensces and regrets; the other half basically said: “Huh. Another dead druggie. GOOD.” And when you sit back and read it all, you realize, “God, these people aren’t the exception to the community – they ARE the community.” There’s a really good vibe here and I consider myself lucky to contribute to it, ballsy titles aside.

    Jacob – Credit for the title largely goes to Ian & Tim. I sent the article in with this title, and then got thinking “…eeeeehhhhmmm….” So I sent in a few alternative titles in case they got “squeamish.” Nope! They ran with it! So now I’ve got kind of an “aging punk” motif, with “Travelers Are Hippie Scum” and “F*ck Your Travel Writing.” Not sure what to do for an encore, but it’ll be written with the same tenderness and forethought.

    Henri – I can’t imagine how I’d handle that level of bloodletting at so young an age. It was a perfect storm of what could go so spectacularly wrong. They even razed him for being a “rich white kid” – assuming he is, how do you defend yourself when someone tears at you for who you ARE?

    I’ve been so ashamed for things I’ve said to people I’ve never even met, over some niggling misunderstanding…. This whole “faceless and anonymous” aspect of the Internet plays havoc with the living, breathing, feeling human beings out there. When people say “the Internet isn’t really ‘real’ life” – who’s to say how real it is, just because you don’t fully connect to all those people on the other side of the screen?

  • Daniel Harbecke

    Also, Jacob – I’d like to disagree, because I can’t imagine how you could sleep at night doing that to a 19-year-old kid just for readership. I’d like to, but who knows.

    I’ll admit this title was “tabloid-y”; that was much of the point of it. There are real people out there, and “just words” aren’t “just words.” By now, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been hit with some vicious attitude on the ‘net. Harsh as the title was, I wanted to balance it with something human behind it – a reverse of what you usually get, when you expect some decency and instead get… whatever.

  • Jenn B.

    Writing and putting yourself out there can be terrifying, but all writers get skewered and rejected sometimes, just like all baseball players strike out. And the pitcher doesn’t throw slow pitches to the new guy. At the same time, there is no reason to be mean, ever.
    My advisor once told me that you give criticism by first saying something nice, then critiquing, then ending with something else nice. Everyone feels much better about the whole interaction.

  • http://jeelago.net jeelago

    Great title, great article… very relevant to all kinds of writing (academic, journalistic, confessional, etc) as it speaks to the way blogs are changing the how we interact with text, the writer and each other.

    Hopefully young Gogarty shakes this off and emerges stronger for it, people can be such buttheads from behind their keyboard!

  • http://www.wranglingrhinos.com N. Chrystine Olson

    Daniel,

    As I file away the rejections received today via e-mail and snail mail (too personal, doesn’t fit our editorial style etc. etc.) I come to BNT, grateful to have your wonderful insights (and Kurt’s of course) to get me back in the saddle for my next piece. Coming along nicely so far…thanks!

  • http:///www,twistedcompass.com/pnomads Jacob

    Why am I coming back to the comments section of an article I’ve already read? Oh yeah, to pad my timesheet at work….

    I would respectfully disagree with your disagreement of my original crackpot thoughts (I’ve got Tim’s support, though, so my theories are justified through minority consensus…HA!). Here’s what I’d like to believe:

    Schmucks like you and me–what do we have to do to get published? No need to go into specifics, but we’ve all probably started (or continue) in places that needn’t be discussed; disgusting places in the dungeons of the writing world whose traumas are so severe, they leave us crying in the shower, scrubbing at dirt that will never come off. Once we do get a word out there, it travels like an errant sperm, colliding with an editorial egg that’s missing a chromosome. What ultimately birthed from the womb of the publishing world is something neither the editor, nor the writer wants. Know what I’m sayin’?

    So here comes a talented kid, ready to be crushed into a nice naive powder by the grist mill that is the world of writing, and scattered into the winds of anonymity.

    The father–a man who has, presumably, taken this path–looks at his son and wants nothing but the best for him. So he sits him down and says, “You’re a smart kid. We need you to adapt you voice to fit [x] demographic. I think we can sell this to the Guardian. You might get a little burned by the public’s derision, but then you’ll have a name. Once you have a name, you won’t have to go through what your father did…” His gaze drifts to a place the son cannot see.

    My point is, though the consequences may be something other than what father or son intended, the intentions are not too crazy to imagine…especially for writers.

    The question is, will Max Gogarty be so scarred that he’ll be considering a career in accounting, or is he already the full time blog writer/editor at “MTV’s Mad Crazy India Trips”.

    By the way, I don’t think I properly thank you for this piece; as is my modus operandi in comments, I immediately launch into my thoughts. Great piece, man! “Aging punk” suits you well. ;)

  • http://www.gadling.com Aaron Hotfelder

    Hey Daniel,

    Long time listener, first time caller.

    I thought this piece was really insightful. I agree that the debacle at the Guardian wasn’t Max’s fault or his dad’s. It was the editors, who (perhaps unwittingly) fed this kid to the wolves.

    Nasty commentors often bring to mind a favorite quote of mine: “Many a man devoid of talent will say of someone full of talent, ‘If I could do that, I’d do it better.’”

    I imagine many of these people spend their entire lives on the internet, zipping from blog to blog, just letting people know that they suck. What fulfilling lives they must lead.

  • http://www.communityofsweden.com/Pages/Mypage/mypage.aspx?userId=329 Cedric Pieterse

    Geat article Daniel! I love the title as well…
    I think it is Madonna that once said ” It does not matter weather it is good or bad publicity, it is the publicity that counts”
    I hope that this kid will see the wood for the trees, and capitalize on the publicity. But then again, youngsters are normally a bit more self consious…
    I think he should come back with a title ” Fcuk the critics!” Befitting to a 19 year-old’s response, and the press would once again have a go at him. More publicity…
    Maybe some brave editor will publish him, and he will develop in his own right.

    Wish I had those opportunities…

  • http://www.lemurworks.com/lola Lola Akinmade

    Well done Daniel!

    Its the story of our lives. People tearing others down to make themselves feel better.

    Within an industry such as travel writing, real slow travelers tear down travelers with less time/opportunity, writers with postgraduate English degrees tear down more organic writers, etc

    Its amazing how elitist travel writers who’ve reached the ends of the earth and experienced the lows of humanity can still be.

    If someone’s writing doesn’t draw and engage you, go find it somewhere else.

  • http://www.matadortravel.com/travel-community/deva Eva

    I enjoyed this post, Daniel!

    You’re right, the blame for this lies with the editors. I feel for Max – they shouldn’t have thrown him out there like that. But while I definitely don’t agree with some of the more vicious comments aimed at the kid (hilarious and finely-honed as some of them were), I do agree that Guardian readers had a right to be pissed off. I mean, let’s be honest: the blog was bad. It was shallow, predictable and unfunny. How were readers of one of the nation’s most respected papers expected to react, to an announcement that a 19-year-old kid would be keeping them updated on his drunken conquests and resulting hangovers over the next few months? (That being said, I hope Max does get back on the horse. Maybe on blogger, or a nice, supportive community like Matador! :P)

    It’s such a shame because there are so many talented people out there, and this debacle will probably scare a lot of people off trying out someone new and untested. Youth doesn’t have to mean mindless, callow ignorance, either. Take Matador member “noellejt” for example – every time I read one of her blogs, I have to remind myself that she’s only 18.

    As far as nasty commenters go, I’ve been lucky so far in my blogging endeavours. No particularly personal shots, just the odd person strenuously disagreeing with me. (Although there’s a nasty bit of race hatred on my recent MLK Jr. post over at World Hum… not sure how/if to respond to it.) I do think, though, that people blogging for money sometimes confuse their professional blogging with personal blogging – but when you are getting paid to write for a respected site, readers have a right to expect certain standards, and they have a right to express themselves if they don’t think those are being met. No excuse for personal attacks, but criticism is allowed and should even be encouraged. That’s what sets blogging, and indie online media generally, apart, right?

    Anyhow. I’m rambling a little, so I’ll stop.

  • http://www.nerdseyeview.com pam

    I’m inclined to agree with the conspiracy types who think that Max was a pawn, but I don’t think he was intended to be a sacrifice. I imagine the Guardian thought, “let’s get the hipsters reading!” and this was a half-assed plan that backfired. I imagine them going for that egalitarian, community, representative voice of a generation of backpackers, but instead, they got a guy who came across as a partying frat boy with money who couldn’t say why he wanted to travel. Wow, talk about a red flag for writing for a travel community, a guy who CAN’T ARTICULATE WHY TRAVEL MATTERS? I think it’s important to note that a lot of the criticism was towards the Guardian for running such insipid writing, though, yeah, Max got his share of the shrapnel. Poor bunny. I genuinely feel sorry for him.

    I’ve been blissfully protected from bile, I can count on one hand the times I’ve received harsh feedback, and then, it just wasn’t that bad – once, a guy who agreed with me, essentially, but had racist undertones to his comment, once, a guy who blasted me for sidestepping an issue. But personally (and at many of the sites I frequent) I cultivate an atmosphere of respectful discourse. Oh yeah, once, a guy KICKED ME under the table in my writing class! True! True! He wasn’t even critiquing my writing, he was vehemently opposed to the political point of view I was expressing.

    While I feel sympathetic to those who get blasted, I also think writers need to think long and hard about WHY they write, travel and otherwise. If they write seeking praise/fame/fortune, they’re doomed. Personal attacks notwithstanding, a writer who exposes their work to the public is sure to get some negative feedback at some point. If you can’t look at your writing and say, “Meh, whatever, I LOVE that piece,” then your work doesn’t belong in the public eye. The best answer for who the f*ck cares about your travel writing is “Who cares?”

    Stepping off the soapbox now! Next, please?

  • Daniel Harbecke

    pam (and jacob and Tim) – I can see your point(s). The seeming indifference on the part of the editors is so glaring it’s hard not to suspect another angle. I still have to ask: why would anyone send a kid out to get punched in the neck for the sake of negative publicity?

    What kind of message would that send to other writers? “Billy, your writing is head and shoulders above your peers. True, you’re only 12, but you’ve got styyyyyyle. Now, for your first job, we’d like to sit on this stool. Never mind the red and white circles around it, they’re just for decoration. That’s it – up on the stool, Billy! Could you maybe lean to your left a little? The cross hairs are only getting half your head. Much better! Okay, say “feedback!”

    Ka-BLAM!!! “Oh, the humanity! Anyone else want to be famous?”

    I just don’t think in those terms. It’s why I’m writing the occasional article for BNT and not selling cars. “Surely the Guardian doesn’t need that kind of attention,” opines Daniel, perhaps naively. But then, I’ve never had to sell a newspaper, either.

    Tim, Ian, please don’t make me this kind of popular, please? I’ve always had a lot of respect for you guys and… what, payment for this article? Heh heh, no, that’s okay, you can keep it! Heh heh! Buy yourselves something nice! Don’t worry about me! Heh heh! Just don’t hurt me, okay? Heh! Big fan of anything you do! You’re A-Number-One in my book! Right-O! Thumbs up! Big fan!

    …Chrystine, I’ll distract them while you make a break for it… Say, look over there, Tim! It’s Cedric with some pictures of Africa!

    RUN!!! There’s a safe house I know at Rolf Potts’ blog! Tell them Eva sent you! It’s too late for me! I just got feedback that my writing’s contrived and smacks of effort! Save yourselves! AARGG… “… an unfunny hack and my philosophy’s juvenile… ” EYAAGH… “egotist with a receding hairline…” “…Bryson wannabe…” Remember me kindly!!! GHAAAA…

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/ianmack Ian MacKenzie

      Ha, thanks Dan. This has to be a contender for one of the funniest comments. And don’t worry, payment’s on it’s way….

  • http://www.wranglingrhinos.com N. Chrystine Olson

    Rolph’s busy…telling stories…but wait. Didn’t he say something in his book about not going on and on after you get back from your life changing vagabond experience? Hmmm….I think landscaping season beckons ;)

  • http://blogs.bootsnall.com/What+A+Trip/ Nancy Brown

    Great title! Grabbed my attention right away.

    With magazines, folks have to really love or hate your article (or were mis-quoted) to bother writing in. Blogs create an easy environment for instantaneous feedback both positive and negative.

    Personally, I leave comments to see if my Gravatar will one day appear. (I’m only half kidding. I enjoyed the post, but would really like to figure out what I’m doing wrong wiht this silly Gravatar.)

  • http://anitasatyajit.wordpress.com Anita Satyajit

    Daniel, I am one of those writers who was always afraid to write in first person. Then once I decided to keep my ego and fears aside, wrote a piece about a bird sanctuary I visited and sent it to an editor. She loved it! Since then I have realised I connect most with myself when I am writing about the places I have visited. Travel writing is what I love doing and I know I am good at it.

    The only time I received flak for my writing was when I wrote for a so-called ‘huge’ travel publication in India, where I live. It was a market I was looking to break into. My mistake was a word count, higher than what they had asked. And it resulted in ridiculous editing by the magazine (at the hands of a sub-editor). Their editing resulted in some parts of the article being factually inaccurate. But the magazine refused to accept responsibility for their actions and instead chose to blame me saying my article was too long. They could have easily asked me to edit it and stick to the word count or asked me to ensure the facts were accurate in their edited piece. So I told the editor she was not being fair and that their mistakes had made my work appear shoddy and hence reflected badly on me as a writer. She chose to support her rookie sub-editor and that was the last I worked with them.
    I did feel bad because being published in that magazine is considered prestigious and their payments too are good. But I didn’t see the point of working with an editor who has no faith on the writer. And hence had to give up some other assignments I had planned with them.
    Now looking back, I feel instead of giving up on the other assignments ( which she has once commissioned and then post the first article decided would be on spec), I should have written an amazing article which would have her packing her bags to actually go there and made her realize that it was her sub-editor at fault! Sometimes wisdom comes very slowly though.. smiles..

  • http://longines-conquest.webs.com/apps/blog/ Longines Conquest

    Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the jocular opera known as life, and they pass like bubbles of a grit of champagne. Whoever lets them tell without having enjoyed them is a done fool.

    • DHarbecke

      Go placidly amid the noise and waste,
      And remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
      Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep.
      Rotate your tires.

  • http://longines-automatic.webs.com/apps/blog/ Luminox

    May your passion be the stone of corn stuck between your molars, perpetually reminding you there’s something to tend to.

    • DHarbecke

      Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself,
      And heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys.
      Know what to kiss, and when.
      Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.

  • DHarbecke

    Take heart in the bedeepening gloom
    That your dog is finally getting enough cheese.
    And reflect that whatever fortune may be your lot,
    It could only be worse in Milwaukee.

  • DHarbecke

    Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.
    Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.
    Exercise caution in your daily affairs,
    Especially with those persons closest to you –
    That lemon on your left, for instance.

  • http://horologistz.info Timekeeping

    It’s not complex to make decisions when you separate what your values are.

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