Blogs and letters: questions, definitions, issues

Blogs and letters: questions, definitions, issues

A favoured topic (because of its importance for we who research, read or are otherwise interested in letters) is the subject of this week’s blog. It concerns some aspects of the different forms that ‘the letter’ can take. In particular, is a blog post a letter? Also, are related things such as letters to an editor of a newspaper, open letters, public letters like those of St Paul and so on, really letters?

The case for. All of these have an intended recipient or recipients, such as an editor, or a group of people interested in the topic of the document. The writer signifies the legitimacy of their intentions by being traceable through providing an address of some kind. There is personalised content, in the sense that there is a relationship between the intended recipients and the content of what has been written, it has been written with them in mind. All of these are features of letters. Even more important is providing a personal signature, showing that the content has been authorised as well as authored. And standing over these letterness features, there is another key characteristic, which is that it is a communication across absence from one identifiable person to another or others.

The case against. One of the most important, indeed definitional, characteristics of letters is absent from blogs, letters to editors and so on: no response is intended. There is no reciprocation, no turn-taking, it’s a one-way street. These are public forms of writing and better understood as declarations or statements. A comparison is with Luther nailing his 95 theses on church-doors. These present-day examples are similar: here is what ‘I the author’ want to convey. It is intended  for people generally. And it requires provision of a signature – this is me conveying, authorising, authoring; and the visible sign of this is that ‘I’ am the signatory, I = the signature. ‘I, Luther, wrote this’. Signature, then, travels across writing genres (eg. think of autobiography and the synonymity of the name of the author/subject) in a way that reciprocity does not. And reciprocity is the turn-taking of sending and receiving, writing and reading, and establishes correspondence. It is as closely tied to the letter as a horse is to a carriage.

Is there a middle ground? Is there a middle ground between what is ‘really a letter’ and what is ‘really something else’? Yes, sort of; and no, perhaps not. Sort of, because many of the characteristics of letters are present in these more public forms of writing and should not be discounted. And no, perhaps not, because reciprocity is key.

Or perhaps reciprocity isn’t this. After all, many ‘actual’ letters do not intend response. And also the letter as a genre has spawned sub-genres which make this apparent. Xmas, birthday cards, postcards, for example, have personalised address, a signature, personalised content – but no reciprocity is intended and is usually not possible, because no geographical address is (usually) given, the sub-genre voids it.

It is this complicated middle ground for letters that raises the most interesting issues, with its ‘bit of this, not enough of that, some of something else’ character. The ‘this’, the ‘that’ and the ‘something else’ are always specific, always concern particular examples but not others.

So what about blog posts such as this? Letter, letterness middle ground, or what? Some thoughts on it from the perspective of this particular blog are as follows.

The WWW blog is a communication from an ‘I’ at work in authoring its contents. It is an ‘I’ whose name does not usually appear but can be found elsewhere on these pages. So the blog is authored by the person associated with this name, Liz Stanley, and this name is a kind of signature authorising its contents.

What about ‘you’? Is a ‘you’ actually there? Is anyone reading what ‘I‘ have written? In fact I don’t know, not without checking the monthly Analytics, and that just gives numbers of pages visited from different parts of the world. Certainly the blog pages are favoured by readers overall and in general. But still, this is a very indirect sense of audience/reader, because few of ‘you’ make direct contact. Fingers of one hand of personal contacts by email over the last few months, in fact. At any one moment, at many moments indeed, there could be no readers at all reading what is on the blog pages (the same with actual letters, of course, and probably more so).

The contract. Response and reciprocity? It seems that blogs, this one and others followed, are to be seen as largely one-way affairs. They are for the information, instruction, edification, entertainment, of readers but rarely for active participation. Therein lies much of their pleasure – they require little from us as readers, just enough to make them interesting, and certainly not full reciprocity.

This is a tacit contract. ‘I’ write, ‘you’ read or otherwise use. ‘I’ can stop only by ending the blog, while ‘you‘ can stop whenever ‘you’ like, for a time, spasmodically, or permanently, but the blog continues. The blogging is not dependent on any particular ’you’ but on the collectivity, although it is dependent on the particular ‘writing I’. This begs the question of why ‘I‘ would want to enter into this unequal arrangement. One answer is that it isn’t as unequal as might appear on first sight

As previous of these posts have indicated, a blog post has things in common with print forms and in particular the essay. The essay as a form of writing is an exercise in thinking about something in a structured way and presumes an audience interested in both the topic and the argument, and often also the particular author. It involves the writer working out a position about the topic. So the essay is important for the writer because it enables them to think things out, to rehearse arguments for and against, to reach and present a position. And the reader is both crucial, in that they are the consumers of the product and act as a stimulus for the process that produces it, but also secondary, in that the primary reader is the writer. An essay – and a blog post – is an exercise in self-reflexivity.

To return to the starting question. Is a blog post (and other public letter-ish forms) to be seen as a letter, or as something else? And surely the answer is now quite clear – yes, and yes!

Last updated:  30 December 2021