June 22, 2017

Writers can, and should, and do, wield both phone and pen


Rare photo of a writer on Twitter

At some point—who knows exactly when—the Writer, a white-haired white man in this fantasy, became the poster child for thoughtful interiority and private life.

This writer took his time. He read deeply, he thought slowly, only writing in short, erratic bursts. He resided in the hills. He looked down from up high. He minded his own business, his craft, and left the coarse, brusque business of daily life to those condemned to live it. He didn’t get a smart phone until 2014, once he had no other choice. He eyed the internet with austere, Catonian suspicion.

The problem is, this writer never really existed. Or at least, he was always rare, and never the whole story. A great number of authors, from many different eras, across many different movements, have been engaged with the social worlds going on about town and beyond. And it wasn’t just the more overtly socially-engaged realists we learned about in English class who looked outward from their own individualism to deal with working people’s issues. Modernists, romantics, you-name-it-ists, too, found it purposeful and important to discuss interior and social life.

But this imagined Writer still rears his soft, idea-filled head from time to time. He (usually, alas, he) is often found in think pieces, a fragile soul that needs protection from the slings and arrows of contemporaneity — and especially from social media, apparently literature’s pomo kryptonite. He’s vulnerable to the depredations of the tiny blue bird, the Facebook, the Instagram.

Andrew O’Hagan’s provocative, interesting piece in the Guardian this week, “Will Social Media Kill the Novel?” finds this Writer in danger once again. Before he reaches far beyond what’s discussed here, O’Hagan takes time to answer the headline’s clickbait-y query (a line of inquiry he thankfully mostly abandons early on): Yes. The novel will survive.

Of course. We know this, and O’Hagan knows this, too. After all, he concludes: “One of a writer’s rewards is to find himself alive in the detail of his stories, and the age of the internet provides a whole new funfair of existential provocations.” Which is to say, in his opinion, social media and the internet provides, at least, fodder for the mill of writerly inquiry.

However, before landing there, O’Hagan dangles this:

Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest.

I don’t know if O’Hagan has read many sentences by professional writers on Twitter. But among those of us who have, there’s widespread agreement that they should be free. Or to shed some glibness, in the interest of making an important point: most writers aren’t publishing sentences on Twitter that would be better served as tiny pieces of novels. Nor are readers taking these sentences in the way they would take in those in novels.

O’Hagan, I think, knows this. His second point, that “we’re all entertainers now,” hits closer to home. Writers, when they’re tweeting, are often sharing marketing or publicity for their own books and articles, or books and articles by others that they love. They’re making themselves lovable, charming, interesting. That’s the reality of life online, and this, I think, is what O’Hagan really fears: that superior writers who are less adept at being funny and savvy on Twitter will be outlived by those who are not exactly great at writing books but totally know how to pull off a good Tweetstorm.

But marketing and jokes aren’t the only things happening on Twitter. There’s also public outrage, productive organizing, and the amplification of marginal voices that might otherwise go unheard. These things are worthy of writerly attention and general readership — as much so as great writing always has been. An author can’t ignore the speed of life, no matter how disruptive it is, and remain relevant. Later, O’Hagan writes:

Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.

I don’t exactly disagree. But his conclusion—that we need privacy and social media is not privacy—is damaging: social media, however cheesy, artificial, or disingenuous, however surveilled by corporate interests or gamed by canny careerists, is also the stuff of revolutions. History has already proven this. It’s not “dark babble” (or, at least, it’s not just “dark babble”); it’s become a medium in which suppressed histories can thrive, an agora where writers who don’t conform to outmoded ideals of intellectual life can and do exchange ideas. It’s a place where neglected stories get told. And yes, those stories are tracked. Yes, that’s bad, gross, and potentially very destructive. But the power of bad, gross, destructive forces over lines of communication is hardly an invention of the internet. And for the time being, it’s also proved a shot in the arm for the cause of correcting “the political forces embezzling our times,” for the casting of light on injustices, and, indeed, for the production of great books. Plenty of good writers know that — they watch, listen, participate, and adjust their output accordingly. For this generation of writers, it’s clear, writing into the internet is writing, full stop. This is their work.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.