Beside the Point?

A couple weeks ago (OK, three, which is ancient history in social media time), an essay appeared in the New York Times Book Review called “Why Authors Tweet.”  In it, Anne Trubek seems to poke fun at Jeffrey Eugenides as well as other social-media-shy writers for opting out of Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the great and powerful Oz says, but that’s of course exactly where we want to look.  Toto pulls back the curtain, and the mysterious and powerful is rendered quotidian, ordinary—a little traveling showman with his smoke-and-mirrors machine.

I’m as curious as the next person to see what’s back there.  And as a writer, I’m part exhibitionist, a craver of attention.  But I’m more than a bit ambivalent about Trubek’s portrait of what she terms “the historically specific idea of what it means to be a writer.”  You know, the romantic hero in billowing shirt penning alone in his garret, crumpled sheets of paper (or parchment) littering the floor.  What writer hasn’t gone to the movies only to groan at Winona Ryder (as Louisa May Alcott) penning “The End” on her last page and tying up Little Women with a ribbon:  one draft, all done!  Or at Michael Douglas’s shelter-porn writers’ office in the finale of Wonder Boys.  Or – well, you get the picture.

This “historically specific” idea is a stereotype, a broad-stroke cartoon.  I’m not sure whose history it’s specific to, even.  We recognize it as a trope, a shorthand, an easy way out.  Not as reality–Jeffrey Eugenides’ reality, or anyone else’s I can think of.

So when Trubek aligns Eugenides’ comment (on his publisher-created FB page) that “it’s better…for readers not to communicate too directly with an author because the author is, strangely enough, beside the point”  with “the pretension of hermetic distance,” she seems to miss the, well, point.

What about personal preference?  Maybe Eugenides just plain doesn’t want to do Twitter or FB.  Or chat & tweet with his readers.  Does that make him pretentious?  Salman Rushdie and Gary Schteyngart embrace the playfulness and humor of tweeting—and followers flock to them.  Why not?  Rushdie and Shteyngart are good at being playful and clever in 140 characters as well as in hundreds of pages, and they deserve every follower.  (Though I couldn’t help wonder if, in Shteyngart’s case–he’s been tweeting since Dec 1–the novelty may soon wear off.)

Schteyngart and Rushdie don’t pull away the whole curtain; of course not. Who would?  They choose, as artfully as in their fiction, what to reveal online as well as on page, or in person.  So if a writer chooses NOT to interact (playfully or not) in social media, does it follow that he or she is some kind of cranky Luddite, slamming the door on fun and community?

For those of us who are still figuring out this social media thing, from content to whether or not we even want to participate, who are still carving out what feels right, who post about an essay published three weeks ago, who don’t have tens of thousands of followers—please don’t lock us in the garret.  We like our fun, too.

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2 Responses to Beside the Point?

  1. Callie Feyen says:

    I used to write authors notes to tell them I liked their books. It wasn’t too long ago, but I stopped doing it after blogs, websites, and all around accessibility to “get at them” became so easy. This post made me think about my motivation to talk to authors, comment on their blogs, email them, etc.
    I wrote John Krakauer a letter in the summer of 2001. I had just finished reading Into the Wild and had quite an emotional response to it. So I wrote him and told him about it. I didn’t think anything of it after I put the stamp on it, though his story has stayed with me. I think that is why I feel the need to talk to authors. When I read, I think there is an exchange going on with the words and myself. If the exchange has left me changed – in whatever way – I want to tell the author this.
    On the other hand, with blogs, and websites, and Twitter, it seems that I’m finding myself saying, “You know, I just want to read your stories. I don’t need to hear all that other stuff.” And, “I just spent x amount of time reading what this person had for lunch when I could’ve been working on my own writing.” Also, I process stuff at the quick clip of a turtle so I’m afraid I’ll never be able to hang with folks on Twitter.
    Still, I react quite personally to literature and I don’t think that’ll ever go away.
    A few weeks after September 11, I came home from a rough day of teaching seventh graders to find a hand written post card from John Krakauer. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated my letter to him. I keep it on our fridge as a reminder of the exchange that occurred because of a story.

    • Thanks, Callie, for the good points. Your experience hearing from Jon Krakauer makes me happy, and I too find that that kind of exchange is quite different from tweets, etc. Who doesn’t love a handwritten note?

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