Thursday, June 19, 2008

The blog as veil: a cautionary tale

How well do you know me?

And is it Kelly you know or is it the Don Mills Diva?

Are they the same person or is one an alter-ego, a character, constructed to appeal to, or provoke a reaction from, my readers?

Would it surprise you to hear me confess that the latter question is one I have asked myself on more than one occasion?

There are so many, many things about blogging that fascinate me and foremost among them is the notion that a blog might provide a space in which a person can construct an alternate identity.

That’s probably why I have spent the last several days obsessively reading Catherine Sanderson’s book Petite Anglaise to the detriment of pretty much everything else in my life.

Petite Anglaise is also the name of a blog that Sanderson has written since 2005 to document her life as an English ex-pat working and raising her toddler daughter in Paris. In Petite Anglaise the book, she provides an unflinching account of the events that lead her to leave her child’s father for one of her blog’s commenters and how the increasing popularity of her blog started to inform the way she viewed herself and ultimately conducted her life.

Even if you are not a blogger or particularly interested in the world of blogging, Petite Anglaise is a juicy read. Thanks to the breezy writing, the details about Sanderson’s day-to-day life as a working mom in Paris and the scandalous nature of her romantic entanglement, the book is likely to ratchet up the best-sellers list as this summer’s guilty pleasure.

But for me and for thousands of other bloggers, Petite Anglaise is also a cautionary tale about what can happen when the identity we construct in the blogosphere starts to seem more interesting and relevant than one we inhabit in real life.

There are people who claim they present themselves on their blog exactly as they appear in real life. I say that’s impossible. Even bloggers who strive to write with an authentic voice are still choosing the words and photos they feel best reflect who they are, and their perception of who they are might be different from that of others.

I’d be lying if I told you that Kelly was as articulate as the Don Mills Diva: she’s not. The words I write here have been carefully chosen and arranged for maximum effect and I make no apologies for that. What is skillful writing, after all, if not the ability to choose and arrange words in a pleasing and effective fashion?

I do try and resist the urge to buff and polish my alter-ego to a degree that would make her unrecognizable to my friends and family, but obviously the temptation is there. I’m constantly asking myself whether I would be so empathic or sarcastic or cheeky if I were discussing something, rather than writing about it.

While Sanderson frequently admits to making her alter ego – Petite Anglaise – appear more engaging and together than the woman behind the blog, she resists that tendency in the book, something I found ironic, and incredibly brave. She doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that the intoxicating quality of her love affair was heightened by thousands of blog readers cheering her on. She doesn’t gloss over how quickly she was seduced by the attention or how the escapism of blogging led her to make choices that wreaked havoc on people in her life, particularly the father of her child.

But the fact that Sanderson allows herself to come across so poorly in the book suggests that she has learned a lesson about the dangers of presenting yourself as a character, no matter how lonely and unappreciated you feel.

And the fact that Sanderson was so very lonely and unappreciated when she started her blog saves her from being entirely unlikable. Most parents will find themselves nodding in recognition when she details how she and her partner, exhausted by the demands of parenting, descend into a mire of bickering and petty desperation.

What I also find particularly fascinating about the whole sequence of events outlined in Petite Anglaise is that visitors to Sanderson’s blog can poke around in her archives and read the original exchanges that lead to the climatic events in the book: they are the literary equivalent of DVD extras and after I finished the book I found myself attacking her archives with the same fervor I applied to her book.

Petite Anglaise is available in bookstores across Europe and North America. At its Toronto launch a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to snag an extra copy for a lucky reader. Leave a comment to enter to win your own copy. I’ll close comments June 26th at midnight and announce a winner shortly after.

54 comments:

MommyK said...

Great review!

A blogger I read just recently lost a real life friend because of her blog. Her friend felt that the blog took precedence over her friendships and that the author always seemed to have time to blog, but could never find the time to pick up the phone. When the author emailed the woman, explaining what life is like with three little kids, her friend essentially didn't believe her, because her blog post from that day was cheerful.

Those of us who blog know that you choose your voice and that you can spend all day writing a post or schedule it weeks in advance. The computer will always be there when you get back.

I try very hard to present the real me when I write, but there are some topics that I avoid or skim over because some of my readers are family and close friends. And I'm not sure I want people seeing that deep into me. And when a post comes across as funny, it's very likely that when the events were happening, I was grouchy or near tears. It's only later that i can laugh about it.

I'm intrigued by the book, I'll have to check it out!

Jen said...

Fascinating. In some ways, blogging and online forums remind me of the wife in Orwell's 1984 and her "people" she interacts with on the television. The way she obsesses about them every waking moment reminds me of the way some people obsess about their blogs.

I started my blog for long distance friends and family members to keep in touch, so I don't have much chance of it not being the real deal. I do find that I avoid some topics on my blog that are too personal. For instance, I don't discuss my health much on my blog, because if I do, I get frantic phone calls and comments from my MIL, and it irritates me. :) So maybe I'm guilty of omission on a few small things, but I don't embellish and the typos are there because I'm too impulsive to take the time to correct them.

Rachel said...

I adore you, but don't know you. I respect you, yet don't actually know you. It's amazing isn't it.
I have had no desire to read this book, until now. This review makes me want to read this book. I hope I win it, but if now... I'll find it.

I heart you for your voice, your empathy and your humor.

Kami said...

I really, really want to read the book now! What are the odds I'd win?

Slim to none is my guess, I never win anything! Good think I have a credit card and know how to use it....

Mayberry said...

Ooh, I'm fascinated by this book for so many reasons ... great review.

beth said...

Ooh, I really want to read this book now but I might just have to click on over to Amazon before the 26th.

angie said...

I so hope I'm the lucky reader. If not, I'll have to go out and procure it myself. I really enjoyed your thoughts on how we represent ourselves on our blogs.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

This sounds like a great read, I'd love to win.

My 23 year old daughter is a Bossy fan like myself. I was commenting on how wonderful Bossy's family sounds. She looked at me, quizzically and said, "That's just how you make us sound."

I think it is the rare blogger who doesn't present his/her best side even when "keeping it real."

Elaine A. said...

Sounds very intriguing. Count me in! : )

LaskiGal said...

I just struggled with this the other day. I put out a piece of myself. Unpublished it. And then put it back out. Now, it is gone again. I am at constant odds with myself as to who I am in the real world (especially now with facing so many changes--leaving teaching, staying home with J) which often leaves me floundering in the blog world.

Through other networking sites, I've observed that often the people we THINK we know via their blog are much different than we'd suspect. Their language, demeanor, and attitude scarcely resemble the personality behind the words on their blog. That scares me. It makes me question if I know them. Then I remind myself that we can create whatever identity we want. Maybe that is a powerful incentive for many. For me, it leaves me feeling lost.

I looked to blogging and connecting with other female bloggers to find some anchoring. Sometimes out here you can feel the anchor give way . . .

If I win, I would be more than willing to share. In other words, pass it around to others that show interest. That will probably help with getting the word out on this fascinating story. . .

Great review . . . forgive my wordiness.

Awesome Mom said...

It is hard to be your real self in a public setting. I try and keep it real, but I do set some limits on what I discuss for privacy's sake and because I know that I have family members reading my blog.

Trudie said...

I censor myself, quite a bit. First of all I started blogging to keep family and friends informed - there goes any chance of presenting myself as more interesting/witty/popular/ and getting away with it.
Secondly - I live in a veeery smaaaaaall place.... I can't vent about work or the state of the roads in spring without everybody knowing who is behind it!

The book sounds very interesting - and I'm with laskigal: I'd gladly share it with others!

Laura said...

WOW - how interesting. I would love to read this book...please pick me!

Whitenoise said...

I agree with much of what you say, but how do you define a person or personality, anyway? It's like trying to throw a net over a raincloud. I've worked with some of the same people for 25 years and yet they still manage to surpise me with facets that I hadn't previously recognized.

And, so much of who we are is us responding to what the people surrounding us think we should be. One tends to become pigeonholed after a while, perhaps even play a part that isn't truly what we feel we are.

So- which is the real person? The role we might assume at work, at the club, in the neighbourhood? Or the mirror we might place on wordpress or blogspot?

It's not so clear cut, is it?

Stomper Girl said...

The book sounds fascinating. I made my blog open to anyone including friends and family so I really have to keep myself nice on mine. Like for example when my sister-in-law got married I couldn't discuss how we really felt about the whole thing. Although I'm not above putting in a few veeeeeeery subtle digs when I think I can get away with it. So I think I present as a much nicer person on my blog than I really am. But hell, I figure I'll look back on it when I'm old and grey and feel glad about this, and maybe feel relieved that I didn't spend all the time recording my petty insecurities and harsh judgements!

Mental P Mama said...

You know, it's a very interesting world, the blogosphere. I was telling my husband the other night, that I read so many women's blogs who have these perfect, magnificent lives/children/husbands, I sometimes feel inadequate. We actually had a good chuckle about our own lives as a result, but I can see how easy it would be to construct "an other." Just look at some of the online dating sagas.

I am going to read this book...but will hold off on another visit to Amazon until I see if I won! Thanks for the review and the contest!

Nowheymama said...

I wonder how much of the construction of our blogging selves and families comes from a desire to protect those we love and not rant about them to the entire Internet.

This sounds like an interesting read, for sure.

sky girl said...

This is going on my reading list whether I win a copy or not. Sounds fascinatin!

daysgoby said...

I'd love to read this!


I'd better go request it from the library, too...

Mary Lynn said...

Sounds like it would make a great summer read. Will have to look for it (if I don't win it!).

mamatulip said...

Great review, Kelly. I read the book and was absolutely fascinated with it, and all the points you mentioned.

caramama said...

When I decided to blog, I talked it over in detail with my husband. What would I share? Who would I get the address to? Would I publish picture?

I discussed it with my husband because I felt very strongly that I didn't want it to interfer with our relationship. He reads my blog and so does some of his friends. And so does my sister. I have to think about every post I write and who is reading it and how it could be interpreted.

Oh yeah, it's not always the real me and I do censor myself. But I'm an open and honest person in general, so it's pretty close.

I cannot wait to read this book.

Dawn said...

I'm definitely going to have to read this book whether I win it or not. I would have to say that my blog is only a part of the picture of who I am. I set rules for myself early on when I started blogging about not talking about the gripes I have with people I know. It may appear that I'm nicer than I actually am because of this but I don't want to hurt anyone or regret writing something later when I'm no longer upset.

noble pig said...

Sounds like a great read, I would love it.

Chelsea said...

I would love to read this book too!

theramblinghousewife said...

I'm a regular lurker on your blog--

This review was great. I'm completely fascinated by this book.

I would love to read it.

I think the "Rambling Housewife," is definitely more like an alter ego.

She's much more over-the-top than I ever would be in real life.

I am multi-faceted--

So, although the "Rambling Housewife," is me --

She's not ALL of me . . . :)

Mandy said...

I didn't know about the Petite Anglaise until a month or so ago when she was guest posting on a variety of blogs I read.

I am interested to read the book, but I don't know how I feel about the whole question of identity and how it evolves on a blog.

If I don't win this contest, I may just have to check it out at my local library.

mom2tot said...

Interesting topic, I so want to read the book, *crossing my fingers for luck*

amanda said...

so much to say on this topic - but the babe has decided to wake up early from her nap :)

lovely!!

anyways - i hope i am a big winner!! and if not thanks for the tip and i will head to b&n :)

utmomof5 said...

I am so glad you founf my blog so I could find you. I am always looking for a good read :) DOes this get me entered? :P

David said...

The veil is the perfect metaphor in so many respects. My issue when I read many posts daily is the point in a bloggers life when they "ramp up" if you will and change from who they started out to be.
Right out of the blue, some bloggers have this transformation and become someone else.
I often wonder how much the ego forces this?
I like and admire honesty. I respect real life stories, warts and all. I disrespect any form of non-truths. Many bloggers don't realize it and wander into the non-truths area. They need better memories.
I loose interest in narcissistic ramblings that stray from great stories to ego driven stories.
Blogging provides so much for some. It is a discipline of writing that creates an outlet to think. Open an vein and it pours. Honesty pours out faster and better than dishonesty.
I blog to keep my mind active.
Many bloggers do the daily post for numbers.
Another group does it for dollars.
There are some, and I suspect you are one them does it for all of the above, and the quality of your writing is amazing. You provoke thought, keep length to where it should be, use colour and format well, and keep the rules of blogging in play: read others, comment when you can, show respect etc

Chantal said...

SOunds like an interesting read!

kay said...

i can't wait to read this!!! even if i don't win i will be buying this one.

thanks for the review!

Stimey said...

This book sounds really interesting. I'd love to read it.

Adrian said...

Having an affair with a blog commenter sounds like fun, but all my commenters are women - dang it!

Lynn said...

Sounds like a great read -- it's going on my wish list. I'm a little alarmed -- I blog for fun but all of a sudden I'm wondering if my need to run to my blog window whenever something cute or charming or interesting happens around here is a little twisted. It's definitely food for thought.

LunaNik said...

I'm so intrigued and am now dying to read this book!!!1

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

I'm intrigued, all right! Although I don't think I would agree with the choices she made (and her profiting from her escapades that hurt her husband), I'm curious to read the book. Amazing how real life can collide with an imaginary one!

Amanda said...

Wow, I'd buy book filled with reviews of yours. Pulled me right in...off to explore your blog!

Stacey said...

Oh I so want to read this book! I'm not even sure if its available in Australia.

April said...

If your intent with your review was to make me really really want to read this book, you have succeeded!
I've noticed that it's actually harder for me to find the right words when speaking because I feel too rushed :)

Lilacspecs said...

I do often wonder who is creating an alter ego in their blog versus who is just telling it like they think it is. I'm one of the latter, I think. And the expay angle definitely appeals to me, since I am one myself. But yeah...I've been reading a lot of long historical fiction lately so this sounds like something fun for summer reading. I'll have to look for it over here, although English books aren't as easy to come by.

Maureen said...

Gret review... sounds like a very interesting book; one that many bloggers need to read. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!!

Kathi D said...

I must be fairly real in my blog, because when people that know me in "real life" read it, they generally say "It sounds just like you!"

I don't reveal my whole self in my blog or anywhere else, really. I prefer to keep things on the light and happy side. Since I started writing a blog almost daily, I have been far less apt to get into dark moods (and I have just now realized that). There are several reasons for it, but I believe one is that you magnify what you focus on, and I have shifted my focus to the silly side of life.

I hadn't heard of this book until reading your review, but now I will definitely be reading it. You have made it sound fascinating. I'll be delving into her blog, too.

a kelly said...

Wow, what a story.
Yes this blogosphere is a different place. I'm enjoying my break and feel more connected to my "real" world. Blogging was instant gratification for the writer in me...but I've gone back to some projects that are longer than a typical post. That's a good thing.
But I still want to read the book!!

Helen E.M. Wright said...

book sounds interesting!
I wonder what kind of topics it would bring up at a book club?!?!?

Indy said...

Sounds like my next book. I am sure people struggle with this.

Karen MEG said...

What a fascinating read that sounds!!! I think I stumbled upon her blog a few months ago,didn't know there was this history to it! And wow, what a story!

I think I'm pretty much the way I am in my blog, although it has evolved, the longer I write it. But I have been known to embellish a bit for the sake of the story, or to make myself appear more hip or self-assured (so as far as the IRL-me I suppose it's not saying much!). I do have relatives and friends who read it, so they would likely call me out.

But it is a cautionary tale; it is easy for this to get in the way of real life and real friends. It is an easy way to "hide" isn't it?

BTW, I cannot wait to meet Kelly AND her veiled DMD.

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