On the advice of counsel I have taken up Twitter as part of my effort to expand my name recognition, or some such, in preparation for the publication of the next novel, THE RETURN, due out in late August. The counsel is the PR firm (February Partners) I've hired to help with the book marketing my publisher declines to do. I have to say that before I became a published author it had never occurred to me that books were marketed like toothpaste or autos. I guess I thought that publishers shipped books to bookstores and the bookstore people put them on the shelf and that was it. I realized that some books got reviewed and others were neglected but I thought this decision was made over drinks at the sort of New York luncheons and parties to which I was not invited.
Was I wrong! Book marketing is a big deal and an art. I am told I must put out content via blog (I'm doing it!) Twitter & Facebook so as to build a public wider than the people who already buy my books. No one can say I am not a good soldier and I have been tweeting like mad, nearly a thousand pithy apothegms so far. But I have to say tweeting is strange, or strange to me, although I know there are many people to whom its environment is as familiar as my driveway is to me. They are practitioners of a new art, that of forming communities around tiny squibs of language or references to other media. I expect some infant Mozart is already at work on forging something quite new in the world out of this material. It will not be me, however. I don't much like to talk about my work while it's in progress or read reviews or give encouragement to people trying to enter a profession I know to be a miserable way to make a living, with a premature death rate that compares unfavorably to coal mining.
Twitter has many mansions and I am mainly in the one devoted to writing, or writers talking about writing. Although some quite famous writers tweet (Margaret Atwood being legendary here) the vast majority are not famous, and, of course, almost all of these never will be. On first being exposed to this zone I confess to unattractive feelings of irritation verging on anger, rather like a person happy in a woodland cabin who finds that they're putting in a golf course community next door. Why so many writers? What do all these people want? And why do they want to talk ceaselessly to one another? Narcissism gone mad? What?
After a while I calmed down and overcame the urge to flood the twitterverse with acerbic, discouraging comments. Some of the people pushing their books on Twitter are, when you take the trouble to look at the work on amazon, frankly illiterate in the sense that they don't really know the meaning of the words they use and cannot reliably write coherent sentences in English. This is sort of funny and might be the subject of cruel humor, but I have discovered none of it on Twitter so far. There might indeed be a # devoted to scarifying commentary on lame digital-only fiction, but the atmosphere I've observed so far is universally supportive.
And this too is new--and odd. Writers have had on occasion mentors and protégés, but envy and rivalry were more typical of writers in the past. If one is a writer, why would one wish to encourage a rival? It doesn't make sense, but there it is. I don't think it has anything to do with producing real or better writers--only stringent editing and criticism do that--but it can't ever be a bad thing to be nice. And perhaps in time this community will develop into a kind of sandlot baseball--playground basketball sort of thing, a place where lots of people can safely try out the game, and which occasionally produces a genius.
Speaking of sports, perhaps a more important phenomenon is at work. Professional sports leagues depend for their survival on fan interest in them, and that largely depends on a huge base of people playing the sport at an amateur level. Can anyone imagine golf being a televised sport watched by millions if millions did not play golf? And don't sports decline when they lose their amateur base? Horse racing, especially harness racing, was far more popular when people rode and drive horses and the same with boxing. Pro soccer has come to America largely as a result of millions playing it in schools and amateur leagues. So maybe what we are seeing in writing's bush leagues is similar. I suspect that the majority of the writers I observe on Twitter (judging only from the work) are people who have read a thousand mysteries, or vampire novels, or thrillers and have said to themselves, "Why, I could do as well!" Maybe, maybe not, but they sure must read a lot of books; a person (me) who earns a living selling books cannot but approve!
So what may be happening here is the birth of a novel and parallel system of generating writing talent, quite different from the former one in which writers submitted directly to agents and publishers, something much more like golf, with a huge fan base of duffers and a scattering of stars. I hope this is true because I sort of like the idea of talent emerging from an anonymous mass without elite filtering, even though I'm personally a beneficiary of the former system.
The down side of this, however, is the requirement for each participant of the new order to generate an on-line persona attractive to potential readers. Yet good writers may not have attractive personalities, in which case the attractive persona is a lie, and in any case persona-building may blur the necessary focus on the quality of the work. We shall see. Meanwhile, there is Cyril Connoly's dire warning from six decades ago, which seems even more remarkably prescient in the age of Twitter:
"It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair." And his Twitter feeds?