By ANNE TRUBEK
Since the 19th century, the common conception of “the author” has gone something like this: A young man, in his garret, writes furiously, crumpling up papers and throwing them on the floor, losing track of time, heedless of the public, obsessed with his own imagination. He is aloof, elusive, a man whom you know only by his writing and the portrait in his book.
Writers themselves have sustained this myth, asking readers to keep their distance from authors, who should remain enigmatic. W. B. Yeats remarked that the poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.” T. S. Eliot further argued that “the progress of an artist is . . . a continual extinction of personality”; forget about getting to know the figure behind the words: “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” On his Facebook page, created by his publisher, Jeffrey Eugenides recently expressed similar sentiments. In “A Note From Jeffrey Eugenides to Readers,” he described his joy at meeting them, but concluded by saying he doesn’t know when or if he’ll post on the page again: “It’s better, I think, for readers not to communicate too directly with an author because the author is, strangely enough, beside the point.”
But readers are not heeding Eugenides’s advice, nor are many writers. Why? For one thing, publishers are pushing authors to hobnob with readers on Twitter and Facebook in the hope they will sell more copies. But there’s another reason: Many authors have little use for the pretension of hermetic distance and never accepted a historically specific idea of what it means to be a writer. With the digital age come new conceptions of authorship. And for both authors and readers, these changes may be unexpectedly salutary.
Salman Rushdie told me he enjoys Twitter because “it allows one to be playful, to get a sense of what is on a lot of people’s minds at any given moment.” He has written more than a thousand tweets — “OK: Philistinism (destroying bks bec you don’t care abt bks) is not fascism (destroying bks bec. you DO care). But both destroy books” — and more than 150,000 people follow them.
When they use social media, authors have as many personae to choose from as they do in their other writings. Some strike poses that effectively increase the distance between them and their readers, foiling voyeurs. Gary Shteyngart (4,187 followers), whose first tweet was posted on Dec. 1, is charming yet enigmatic (“grandma always said to me, ‘boytchik, do not start a meth lab.’ but i guess i had to learn the hard way”), and often writes in the voice of his dog (“woof!”). When I asked if he enjoys interacting with readers on Twitter, Shteyngart responded: “There are so many clever people out there. I love each one of them. Many times I laugh with them.” Humor is common and welcome in authorial tweets. One of Twitter’s funniest is Mat Johnson (39,712 followers), who told me he consciously becomes “Mat Johnson, author and humorist,” on Twitter. (“Teenagers hanging out at a playground, laughing to each other at how ironic they’re being. I want that made illegal.”)
Johnson does more than quip; he engages with others: “The people I follow, they are my dream party guests, interesting strangers whose wit keeps me coming back.” Jennifer Gilmore (3,463 followers) finds hearing from readers helps her understand the influence her novels have on them: “On Twitter, I have a sense that people — those you know and those you don’t — read your work in a way I have not always felt in the world.” For the poet D. A. Powell (2,443 followers), interacting with readers on Twitter makes him feel “like I’m living in the future. I imagine that’s the feeling all writers want to have.”
Holdouts like Eugenides often cite the need for solitary reflection. Wells Tower has said that “the Web . . . is . . . toxic to the kind of concentration fiction writing requires. It’s difficult to write good sentences and simultaneously buy shoes.” But of the idea that writers require absolute solitude, Powell wryly notes, “That certainly worked for John Bunyan when he was in prison.” Of the “I want to be alone!” type, Jennifer Weiner (34,682 followers) says: “I sometimes read about authors who say they require a perfectly silent room maintained at precisely 68 degrees, with trash bags taped over the windows and a white-noise machine in the corner to write, and I think, ‘Who are these people, and do any of them have kids?’ ” Johnson concedes writers need uninterrupted time, “but only about four hours of it. We are awake another 18 hours. We have to do something with our thumbs, right?” As Margaret Atwood told me: “Every writer is two people (at least). There’s the one that does the writing, and the one that has an egg for breakfast. I’m the other one.”
Weiner notes that the publication process has always been collaborative. With social media, she can bring readers into it, so “they have a say in an author’s career, whether it’s giving feedback on a cover or a title, or voting on book-tour cities.” Darin Strauss (1,979 followers) enjoys what Twitter offers after the promotion process is over: “It’s nice to hear dispatches from the front. When you publish a book, you can forget — after the reviews stop coming and stores clear space on the front table for newer stuff — that people are still . . . reading the thing.” Johnson is grateful to social media, since he doesn’t benefit from massive publicity. “I’ve never had a single ad for any of my novels, had a movie made or been given a big budget push by a publisher,” he said. “Usually, they just throw my book out to reviewers and hope it floats. Twitter lets me hijack the promotion plane, sidestep the literary establishment and connect directly to my current and potential audience. . . . It’s a meritocracy; if you’re interesting, you get followed.”
Of course, not all readers want to hear about Atwood’s breakfast. On why she doesn’t follow authors, one reader tweeted: “Following an author is kind of like looking behind the curtain, isn’t it? Why ruin the illusion?” A few big-name authors post to Twitter but do not intermingle, keeping the curtain drawn. They post about coming releases and tour dates, but are not social. Their personae, more corporate than individual, are vulnerable to lampooning on false and parody accounts, like @EmperorFranzen, that commandeer an author’s voice.
All the actively tweeting authors I interviewed agreed that the genre’s formal constraints (140 characters maximum) make it enticing. Powell joined because he was “intrigued by how integral the prosodic tools are in admiring a tweet, how quick and perfect a tweet can seem. . . . I like the public thought process and the shared text. Those are aspects of poetry that fascinate me, and they are the same aspects of Twitter that fascinate me.” (@Powell_DA: Poetry is the No-Kill Shelter of words.) For Strauss, “on Twitter you’re still writing, and imposing a certain discipline on what you write by keeping it short.” (@DarinStrauss: Scientists find black holes 10 billion times bigger than the sun. Yet God still takes time to help Tim Tebow win every week.)
At their best, social media democratize literature and demystify the writing process. As Suzanne Fischer tweets of following her favorite author, “It’s fascinating to learn what an unsettling & emotional process it is for her to write characters into the world.” When that mythic author comes down for a chat, she gets followers.
Anne Trubek is the author of “A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses.”
Correction: January 6, 2012
An earlier version of this essay misspelled the surname of Suzanne Fischer. It is not Fisher.
Illustration by O.O.P.S.
Do any of you interact with a favourite author through Twitter? I had Ami McKay, author of The Birthhouse respond to one of my tweets, and I thought that was pretty exciting 🙂 I like that Twitter helps to connect authors and their readers.