For all those writers and pundits who bemoan, à la Jonathan Franzen, the superficiality, triviality, and general lack of gut-busting seriousness of blogs, Facebook, and social media, it might do some good for them to recall one of the most well-tried literary modes of the last two centuries that just happens to bear a strong resemblance to modern online effusions: the feuilleton. And god forbid, it might even qualify as a genuine literary form and precedent.
The 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as follows: “FEUILLETON (a diminutive of the Fr. feuillet, the leaf of a book), originally a kind of supplement attached to the political portion of French newspapers. Its inventor was Bertin the Elder, editor of Les Débuts. It was not usually printed on a separate sheet, but merely separated from the political part of the newspaper by a line, and printed in smaller type. In French newspapers it consists chiefly of non-political news and gossip, literature and art criticism, a chronicle of the fashions, and epigrams, charades and other literary trifles; and its general characteristics are lightness, grace and sparkle.”
As this suggests, the feuilleton began as a 19th-century form with the advent of large-circulation newspapers – products, like Marxism, of the Industrial Revolution and steam-driven hot-metal technology. Needless to say, the style spread outside France, especially to German-speaking countries and Slavic nations, including Russia. Franzen’s hero Karl Kraus may have taken up arms against the superficiality of feuilleton journalism, but there is plenty of justification for regarding his work as the intellectual epitome of the form – he certainly had to write as sharply and amusingly as any feuilletoniste. His Viennese contemporary Felix Salten, author of Bambi, won early fame and success as a feuilletoniste, and Arthur Schnitzler also embraced the form. (And you don’t see kids crying in cinemas at scenes drawn from the works of Karl Kraus.) Johann Strauss II even composed a feuilleton waltz for the dance of the Viennese association of authors and journalists. (Makes you wonder if some band will ever come up with a modern equivalent like the blog boogie…)
So the feuilleton has a long and respectable history, and even now in many European countries it’s still possible to make a living as a writer on such pieces. An Anglo-Saxon might suspect that those nations hold writers in such disproportionately high regard that even their occasional maunderings are treated as holy writ, but people do read this stuff, and even pay for it. And what else are blogs, after all? What else are many of the articles I’m writing in Teleread? A modern writer who doesn’t want to be a complete hermit could do well to learn from the feuilleton.