The Blessay

Sorry, I don’t have a better name for it, but I feel it needs a succinct name so we can identify and discuss it. It’s not a tossed-off short blog post. It’s not a long, involved essay. It’s somewhere in-between: it’s a blessay.

The blessay is a manifestation of the convergence of journalism and scholarship in mid-length forms online. (For those keeping track at home, #7 on my list of ways that journalism and the humanities are merging in digital media). You’ve seen it on The Atlantic‘s website, on smart blogs like BLDGBLOG and Snarkmarket, and on sites that aggregate high-quality longform web writing.

Some characteristics of the blessay:

1) Mid-length: more ambitious than a blog post, less comprehensive than an academic article. Written to the length that is necessary, but no more. If we need to put a number on it, generally 1,000-3,000 words.

2) Informed by academic knowledge and analysis, but doesn’t rub your nose in it.

3) Uses the apparatus of the web more than the apparatus of the journal, e.g., links rather than footnotes. Where helpful, uses supplementary evidence from images, audio, and video—elements that are often missing or flattened in print.

4) Expresses expertise but also curiosity. Conclusive but also suggestive.

5) Written for both specialists and an intelligent general audience. Avoids academic jargon—not to be populist, but rather out of a feeling that avoiding jargon is part of writing well.

6) Wants to be Instapapered and Read Later.

7) Eschews simplistic formulations superficially borrowed from academic fields like history (no “The Puritans were like Wikipedians”).

I suspect readers of this blog know the genre I’m talking about. Am I missing other key characteristics of the blessay? What are some exemplary instances?

UPDATE: Unsurprising griping about the name on Twitter. Please: give me a better name, one that isn’t confused with other genres. Other suggestions: Giovanni Tiso: “essay” (confusing, but gets rid of the hated “bl”); Suzanne Fischer likes Anne Trubek’s suggestion of “intellectual journalism” (seems to favor the journalism side to me). As I’ve said in this space before, writing is writing; I’d love to call this genre just “the essay” or, yes, “writing,” but I wrote this post because I believe if we go that route the salient characteristics of the genre will be lost in a night in which all cows are black.

UPDATE 2: Much headway being made on Twitter in response to this post. Yoni Appelbaum puts his finger on it: “It’s not journalism. It’s not blogging. It’s practicing the art of the essay in the digital space.” That’s right. Thus Yoni’s suggestion for a name: “Simplest is sometimes best. These are Digital Essays – composed, distributed, and tailored for the format.” Anne Trubek and Tim Carmody worked to define the audience. Anne spoke of readers of the print Atlantic, the New Yorker, and other middle brow gatherings, and authors like Trilling. Tim responded: “The audience for this is similar: para-academic, post-collegiate white-collar workers and artists, with occasional breakthroughs either all the way to a ‘high academic’ or to a ‘mass culture’ audience.”

UPDATE 3: Back to the name: Some perhaps better suggestions are surfacing. Sarah Werner mentioned a word I often use in this space for the genre: “pieces.” Anne Trubek gives it that classic modifier: “thought pieces.” Kari Kraus reminds me that MediaCommons uses “middle-state,” which has some charms, but is a bit opaque.

UPDATE 4: So of course Stephen Fry would beat me to the coinage of “blessay” (thanks, Dragonweb). Again, the point of this exercise is less about the name than about a set of traits. A blessay—or whatever we want to call it—isn’t just a long blog post or a short academic article posted online. It has certain stylistic elements. And it doesn’t rule out other kinds of intelligent online writing.

48 thoughts on “The Blessay

  1. Anne Trubek

    Critical essay probably gets at what you’re describing, too. So too does public intellectual, though that describes the person, not the form she writes in.

    Of course, why does giving this a name matter? It differs quite a bit whether your “home” is academia or journalism. For academics, maybe, the question of the cv. For journalists, perhaps, the question of markets. (well okay, we have the market for both….). For readers, perhaps, a matter of helping guide those instapapered clicks. (Not to get all grubby and pragmatic.)

  2. Phillip O'Neill

    I think I’ve been writing such a thing for years as an op ed columnist. The problem is that getting such a gig is very difficult, a privilege for the very few. I re-circulate my columns here:
    http://www.uws.edu.au/urban_research_centre/urc/in_the_media
    and via twitter @philliponeill
    Nevertheless, I encourage the proposed format. It makes academics better thinkers and writers, and more widely read; and therefore exposes where they have anything to say…

  3. Ted Underwood

    I’m happy with “blessay,” but to me this just sounds like a slightly longer and more polished end of the blogging spectrum.

    Also, my impression is that blog posts overall — not just in academia but even in journalism — have tended to get longer. The one-to-three-paragraph pieces that still get published in (say) Talking Points Memo used to be more typical. But most of the pieces I read now are around 1,000-2,000 words.

    Then again, maybe it’s just that I used to read political blogs, and now read mostly academic blogs.

  4. Sarah Werner

    1) I’d rather write a piece than a blessay or an essay. Short pieces, long pieces, or medium ones.

    2) As for examples, HiLoBrow comes to mind.

  5. Ruth Starkman

    wonderful thoughts here, only the title lead me to think you were going to describe some kind of religious perhaps miraculous experience of writing –a mixture of blessing and essay?

  6. Giovanni

    We discussed this partly on Twitter, but I see more virtue in reclaiming the word essay for the meaning it has historically had than in creating a neologistic entity. Blessay has the advantage of describing the phenomenon as it pertains to the medium, but it also has the disadvantage of anchoring it to the medium. There is nothing that makes this sort of writing exclusive to the web. Popular, challenging, intelligent, well referenced writing is a good thing in any form. And if there is something unique in the intellectual and discursive environment of the blogosphere, it does not lack for precusors in times and places when magazines were better at fulfilling that function.

  7. Ted Underwood

    I’ll speak up for “blessay.” I understand the point of the word not strictly as taxonomic but as (gently) normative.

    In other words, sure — a blessay could be called a “piece,” or “essay.” That’s precisely what it is. An essay, with links.

    But the point Dan makes by inventing the word is to underline that blog posts can be essays — can aspire to take themselves that seriously.

    In other words, maybe this isn’t a word for all time — not a taxonomic category to endure forever — but a temporary neologism intended as an intervention to help nudge blogs in this direction.

  8. liza

    I like the name, and I like the genre. An important feature that you did not include is images. Because they are free to publish, images can drive and inform a blessay, essay, blog post, in a way that they cannot do in print because of the prohibitive cost of print publishing

    Many bloggers, or blessayists, don’t take advantage of images. Many do. I love the ones that do. Copyright and image provenance is key, but with so much available, this is only an issue for the lazy or willfully ignorant. Others can provide not only a visual feast, but another dimension to their words.

  9. shgregg

    This is what I said about the form of the blog when I started my own blogs just recently: http://digitalhumanistbeginner.wordpress.com/about/ and http://danieldefoeblog.com/about/

    Interestingly, I used the term ‘post’, and although some of my … ermm … posts are exactly that, some of them are a little more. I also invoked Montaigne;’s sense of an ‘essai’. However, while I still really admire that sense of an essay, the dominant perception of the term doesn’t quite work with what a lot of blogs seem to do (at least the ones I read). So I quite like Sarah’s bid for calling them ‘pieces’.

  10. Carol Chiodo

    Your discussion of the blessay reminds me of William Hazlitt’s familiar essays written for the London Magazine feature Table Talk in the 1820′s. Both types – the blessay and Hazlitt’s familiar essay – attempt to seize the advantages of the medium available to them to promote a conversation in an informal style with a broader public . As Hazlitt remarked, the familiar essay “promises a greater variety and richness, and perhaps a greater sincerity, than could be attained by a more precise and scholastic method.” I think your blessay shares the same objectives as Hazlitt’s, in the “new media” of our time.

    Yet the constraints inherent in the form that transmits a text to its readers constrains the production of its meaning. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of how such constraints operate in manuscript and print. How that might occur digitally is for another blessay. . .

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece!

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  12. Caleb McDaniel

    I wonder if the rising popularity of “static site” engines like Jekyll and Hyde is related to the growth of this genre, too. Jekyll claims to be “blog-aware” but in some ways these kinds of engines are moving away from the typical “blog” layout and just make it easy to publish stuff. I thought about this recently when abandoning my blog Offprints in favor of a simple static-site homepage. I don’t really think of the new page as a blog so much as the place where I can publish my posts or blessays or short articles.

  13. Peter Kerry Powers

    Dan, I’ve wondered for some time whether some of what is happening in web writing doesn’t re-make older forms of publication going back to the eighteenth century. I think the best writing on the web reflects something like what was called wit. Erudite while not being scholarly, something like your notion of expertise without rubbing the reader’s nose in it. And the more reduced form of wit to simple humor at least gets at the sense that the writing is for an informed but also a general audience and has as much need to delight as to teach. I think the best of long form web writing does that. As to the name, I still think “essay” could suffice if we retained Montaigne’s notion of an attempt. But because that word has been corrupted into an academic motion of scholarly finality, maybe the term could be saved by resurrecting the French–essai or essais

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  15. theaporetic

    Love the idea, love the genre, hate the name. It carries a vague taint of high church Anglicanism and suggests a degree of piety I’ve never been able to muster.

    I’d maybe go for “assay,” as when you try the value of something or test its properties. “Assay” implies a bit more rigor, but the first three letters render your musings problematic. “Meditations” is good bet sounds too passive. “Ruminessay” rolls of the anglophone tongue but “ruminate” has a bovine connotation. “Blongform” gets to the blog aspect but is dumb. Hmmm

  16. Amanda Moore

    Great, the ‘Blessay’ is what I want to read, and hope to write.

    Suspect they still need compelling Excerpts to get them read.

    Not exercised about the name as the opening points clarify scope.

    I believe ‘personally’ that if academics (and those of us who have not sustained ‘brain-death’, just because we are not currently in full-time research or education’ ) helped forge this bridge, a lot of human knowledge would become more accessible but without the awful ‘dumbing-down.’

    Which hopefully means it gains a wider audience, more support and is more valued and engaged with potentially, across society. This should lead to wider participation and usefulness of the content of the writer’s endeavours.

    Maybe I just hope that’s the case.

    As a member of the wider public, I think people get the need for Science and Innovation as an economic driver of recovery. In the field of Humanities I think it is not understood. Digital Humanities may hold the key…it certainly encourages us.

    Thank you to Dan and you all for making the hope possible and for a glimmer of light where those of us wanting to learn share explore and enjoy (outside of academia) reside. I am sure it is a great and worthy use of the web.

    Recently The Economist and others have shown that with the ‘Ipad generation’ they are seeing patterns of online reading moving towards the ‘lean-back’ mode where users are engaging with content for 2 hours or so, if the numbers back that up and I believe they do, with Tablets surging then whata great platform for the Blessay?

    For me the development of purposeful content on the web is still one of our greatest challenges and I am often dismayed by the poor quality of content. BUT !!

    The Blessay gives me hope and the fusion of journalism with the scholarly made me smile. Nice way to start the day. Thanks.

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