My life took a more complicated turn after I was informed that I had become the recipient of the 2012 Liebster Blog Award, given to bloggers with less than 200 followers, whose blogs are “the best kept secrets” of the blogosphere. For that honour I must thank Brian Joseph, of Babbling Books, who didn’t give up until he managed to include my name in the select list of candidates. I remember that when we spoke about this, last March, over the phone, I wasn’t very optimistic. “Come now, Brian, the Academy’s members are never going to vote for me. You know they’ve been avoiding me since that post on Vladimir Nabokov’s mediocre first novel, Mary. They don't like contrarians; they're afraid of what I'd say if I delivered a Liebster Lecture.”
“They liked the post about Jorge de Sena,” he replied. I could hear the tone of joyful anticipation in his voice.
“Follies of my youth, no one remembers it anymore,” I mumbled into the speaker. “It’s been linked at, what, one blog?”
“You just wait,” he said, and hanged up the phone. After that I didn’t hear from him until some months later. I continued to live my life, amused that someone thought I was worthy of an honour I was certain, in the most intimate recesses of my soul, I hadn’t been born for. Out of curiosity, though, that same day I had a look at Labrokes; the odds weren’t good:
A Common Reader: 12/1
Caravana de Recuerdos: 20/1
St. Orberose: 500/1
Poor Brian, I thought. I was up against older, more experienced bloggers. How could anyone think I was going to receive the Liebster? I felt bad for him, his disappointment, I feared, was going to be bigger than mine, for I was used to expect the worst, always.
Then around April I got a new call from Brian. “It’s yours!” he shouted. “You won by unanimity!”
I could barely think straight, not because of the news, which had been overwhelming, I admit, but because I had just come out of a bad period in my life. The day before I had submitted to my editor the 76th draft of my blog post on Salvador Dalí, which, I tought, was going to revolutionise contemporary art theory. I had poured my soul into it, I had struggled with a bout of depression, I had started drinking and I had lost twenty pounds in weight. I knew the final draft was unsatisfactory, but my editor, probably out of pity, told me it was perfect as it was. Every blogger should have a kind-hearted editor ready to lie for their physical and mental health. But I had a lingering suspicion that if I had written a 77th draft I could have strengthened the post’s connection between Dalí and De Chirico. For some inexplicable lapse of judgment I had ignored my blogger instincts, for the first time since I had penned my ground-breaking blog post on Aquilino Ribeiro, which had drawn praise from, amongst other veterans, Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos.
So with everything that was going on in my life at the time, the news did make me feel ecstatic, and somehow validated, even if I knew fully well what the prize entailed. Everyone in our circles has heard of the Liebster curse. There’s hardly a blogger who has gone on to write another great post after receiving the Liebster. Most tend to decline in quality, or they die in car crashes or of old age shortly afterwards. And I still had too much to write, too many posts to link at my blog, too many commentaries to write on other people’s blogs. I sold my car as a precaution and went to see a doctor for a routine check-up.
No sooner did I receive the news than my editor called. He was thrilled. This was going to help boost the number of hits on my blog, he told me. Several of my blog posts, long out of print, would get a new lease on life: the José Saramago pentalogy on Clarabóia, the forgotten one about Imre Kertész. I think he was happier than me. He added that other publishers were calling about wanting to buy the rights to link my posts in other blogs. Without going into specific numbers, my editor told me that links to my Jorge Luis Borges pair had come out at several blogs with excellent new commentaries. This was success at last.
By the end of the day, everyone had linked the news all over the blogosphere. On one blog I came across a video of the permanent secretary of the Liebster Academy speaking during the press conference. He declared that they had awarded me the prize for my “idealistic blogging that continues, with poetic honesty, to chart new geographies across the landscape of a suppressed language.” I felt a shiver run down my spine. What was this nonsense? They spoke nothing about my posts on Mario Vargas Llosa, Dario Fo, Philip Roth. Instead they focused on a small part of my oeuvre which belonged mostly to the beginning of my career. All of a sudden I saw myself being pigeonholed in a niche.
Trying to find a new direction for myself, I decided to fight back with my series of posts on War and Peace, collectively known as the Tolstoy Quintet and considered by some critics a modern blogging classic.
People immediately took notice of the change of content, but not in the way I expected. I first had a glimpse of this resistance to my change while I was attending the Glasgow Bloggers Congress, this year devoted to the theme “Blo(om)gging: Ulysses in the Era of the Blog.” After a tedious conference delivered in the form of an entry of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and an incomprehensible one about Finnegans Wake done as an optophonetic mock-epic poem, I had a meal with Tom from Wuthering Expectations, who revealed some of rumors which, till then, I had been ignorant of:
“Some people are saying your blogging is more conventional than it used to be,” he said.
“Oh?” I said coolly.
“I’m not going to say who, of course. But they say your blog writing changed considerably after the award.”
“How so?” I asked as I tried not to look too eager or worried by slowly sipping my red wine.
“Well, your book choices, they are, how should I put it, more typical. Tolstoy, for instance,” he said. And then added: “Borges. You used to write about Portuguese literature, obscure poets, that sort of stuff…”
“Like Adília Lopes,” I murmured.
“Yes. And now, I don’t know, I mean, first this Tolstoy affair. And now Melville. I mean, I’m not judging, but you can see why someone would say that you’ve sold out. Does blogging even need more posts about Melville?”
“I guess I should have continued to write about Jorge de Sena, uh? Stay stuck in the past? Never change? That would just make everyone happier, wouldn’t it!”
“Well,” Tom replied, without looking me in the eyes, “you did promise a post about his correspondence with Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. A long time ago.”
Tokenism, I thought. They want me blogging about the same thing forever: untranslated, obscure writers no one’s ever heard of. But he was right. My blog posts about Portuguese writers didn’t have as many hits as Tolstoy’s. But to say I had ulterior motives, that I was a sell out…
“Maybe I’ll write about Raul Brandão!” I shouted, defiantly. “You’d just love that, wouldn’t you?”
You’ll find out who! Soon enough all of you will!
I was furious and Tom probably saw that in my bloodshot eyes because he subtly turned the conversation in another direction. We didn’t speak again during our stay in Glasgow.
When I came back home I decided I was going to shut myself in and start working on my series of José Saramago blog posts for his 90th anniversary in November. But even in seclusion I couldn’t stop the world’s envy from rearing its ugly head. One day, sorting my mail, I found an envelope: it had a recent copy of the Italian newspaper Il Corriere del Blog, containing an unsigned article about me. (From the style one can easily identify the author of this irresponsible text, but I prefer to let the person in question, if she has any scruples, to accuse herself) Although the article is long, I’ll translate just the most relevant part:
“(…) but, even if that is the case, what becomes clear, once again, is that the Academy prefers to take into account the laureate’s political sympathies rather than the respective content of his blog posts, which, any objective critic will agree, this year are without the merit and innovation that should accompany the work of a Liebster Laurate.
One need only consider the obsessive attention, which the blogger doesn’t even try to hide, given to Dario Fo, self-declared communist, atheist and apologist of terrorist acts in at least three different countries, whereas Mr. Václav Havel, playwright extraordinaire and ideological rival, is barely mentioned in St. Orberose. Obviously the author, like many of the communist lackeys he fawns over, has little consideration for genuine democracy and its martyrs. Anyone counting the number of labels will see that the inconsequential Italian jester has 6 entries but the celebrated writer of The Memorandum, the man who single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union with theatre, has only 3. This decision to emphasize idealism over quality does much to hurt the integrity of and respect for the Liebster Award, but given its track record in recent years, one fears this tendency will not end with the author of ‘Dario Fo, in his own words.’
Fifty years from now (…), who will read St. Orberose’s blog posts? Compared with perennial contenders like Argumentative Old Git, who celebrate the true life of the mind, one can see how short-sighted, safe, not to mention reactionary, this year’s decision was, a grave setback for blog writing everywhere, and, if anything, an encouragement for young bloggers not to tread the risky but rewarding venues that lead to the necessary development of the art of the blog (…)”
As I cried over the phone, my editor, to whom I had sent these pages through the fax, told me that I was going to start seeing a lot more of this from now on. “It’s just jealously,” he said. “You’re going to have to develop a thick skin, at least until the ceremony. Give it a few weeks and it’ll all blow over.”
He was right. By the time I attended the ceremony, where I read my Liebster Lecture, entitled “The Book Blogger Is Not The Book’s Executioner,” most of the controversy had subsided. In my lecture I spoke of the influences I had during in my formation years, of the duty of the blogger to unearthing the truths and verities of the text, of how in dictatorships the book bloggers, after the book writers, are the first to be persecuted, of the dangers of mean-spiritedness in book blogging, of the ideal qualities a blogger must have: humility, passion for the topic, curiosity, and the will to learn more. “Although ours is the first age to know blogging,” I concluded, “literature has nothing to fear from this new activity, it should see in us its most loyal friends, and just because we’ve dethroned print critics, we are no less its promoters and defenders than a Gabriel Josipovici, a Stanley Fish, a Terry Eagleton, or a Steven Moore. Indeed, I daresay we are more committed to and passionate about literature than they have ever been. We will give our lives, commit murder and acts of sabotage, betray our countries’ literatures to foreign ones, cheat, forge and blackmail, throw sulphuric acid in the face of a child that refuses to read, lose our identity in order to adopt the character’s, commit suicide for an author, and, yes, separate ourselves from those we love if they don’t share our impeccable tastes – that and more we will do for books!”
I must have struck a chord with the audience, for it applauded in a standing ovation that lasted fifteen minutes, leaving this humble speaker immensely proud and happy.
I also did not fail to mention in my lecture five great blogs which, like mine, have less than 200 followers, run by excellent bloggers all of them who have enriched the blogosphere and deserve more recognition, visits and linking to, namely:
seraillon, whose eclectic posts on Fernando Pessoa, Antonio Tabucchi, Leopoldo Lugones and Carlos Drummond have been a joy to read;
ImageNations, for his devotion to promoting African literature and the excellence of his analyses;
Surreal, Imaginary, Mysterious and Fantasy Art, for bringing my attention to many new marvellous artists;
Quodlibeta, for a funny, thought-provoking mix of history, politics, science and books;
and SPLALit, for its fine work promoting, amongst other things, Portuguese literature in English.
During the customary lunch after the lecture, there was some odd nitpicking about the award’s rules, which some claim should be simplified. I disagreed and remarked that the rules, as they were, were quite fine:
1. Thank the person which nominated you in a blog post.
2. Nominate up to five other blogs.
3. Let them know via comment on their blog.
4. Post the award on your blog.