Last week an article appeared in Slate, decrying the way writers use Twitter to boost their social media status and thereby sell books. The piece was written by Jacob Silverman, contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review—a bonafide literary magazine that runs poetry and stories about Icelandic cod fisheries, along with short fiction by luminaries such as Paul Theroux and Madison Smartt Bell.
Silverman accuses writers of faking niceness, promoting each other quid pro quo-fashion, of being “clubby and glad-handing.” He writes that this “online slumber party” makes real critique impossible. And he’s right. I’ve found everything Silverman cites, and more.
The Twittersphere is, indeed, full of a raucous enthusiasm—as is Facebook. Early in the process of promoting my novel, I was told by my publicist to join both and I learned the rules quickly. This is no place to launch debate or break ranks with the reigning kings and queens. When, for instance, I stated a slightly opposing viewpoint on the gender-equity issue—questioning the very powerful Jennifer Weiner’s claim about sexism at the New York Times—there was dead silence. NO ONE commented. But cheer a fellow writer’s pub date for a book I’ve not yet read? That earns “likes” all the way around.
A couple of the falsest, least kind writers I’ve met are darlings of social media. Onscreen they ooze sweetness. In real life, they’re dragons and snakes. Say anything against a bestselling favorite and you will be ousted from the club. Believe me. I’ve watched some really dignified people suck up to the popular writers. Remind you of anything? High school? Yeah, me too!
There is nothing new here. It’s a function of people gathering together and milling. As Tommy Lee Jones said in that masterpiece of social commentary Men In Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” Get more than five of us in one place and group politics will prevail.
The other factor, I think, is that we all tend to create our own importance. If I’m surrounded by legendary writers—imagining myself at the center of some Gertrude Stein salon—I feel better about my life and my writing and my rather minor book. By boosting the reputations of those around me I will build a big bubble of greatness with myself at its center. We all do this. It’s human. And with the exception of those snakes I mentioned, it’s mostly uncalculated. We fool ourselves into believing the myth we construct is real.
Back in 2005, when I left my job as a food critic at a Minneapolis lifestyle magazine, I wrote a scathing treatise (very similar to Silverman’s) on the business of high-end restaurant reviewing. It was called FOOD SLUT and in it I copped to all my own slutty behavior: making nice with chefs who sent out special dishes, losing sight of real quality, not really eating (substitute: reading) but only talking about it. I received death threats over this essay. I actually—this is true—had to gather up my children and leave town for a while. Doesn’t matter what the topic, people don’t like it when their self-serving institutions are disturbed.
But here’s the part Silverman’s article didn’t address. There’s also an enormous body of really interesting people and work and opinion on social media. I’ve been able to connect with writers and other experts (mathematicians, musicians and advertising execs) I truly admire. I read more and better things because of the Twittersphere. I follow people I believe act with integrity. I’ve made friends—real friends, people I travel to visit and talk to about my children—whom I wholeheartedly love.
I could name them all here, but that would be such a cynical, self-promotional social media move. So let me just say if I’m still following, responding and listening to you, you’re one of them. After reading Slate last week, I did clean out my contact lists and resolve to stand a little straighter when expressing myself. It was an excellent reminder to put my personal values ahead of group think. We all get a little slutty when we’re thrown together at the prom.
*For a thoughtful book reviewer’s perspective on the Twitter brouhaha, see this.