When I first started writing—seriously writing—and started getting published, the internet was still a mostly hidden thing used by scientists and a few first adopter types. There wasn’t yet anything like what we now know as “social media.” In those distant days of yore, it was possible for people to be, generally speaking, anonymous—including authors, and including authors who wrote under their real names and did the modicum of promotion that might be required of them.

A few authors went out, mostly on purpose, to try to be famous beyond their work, like Truman Capote or Jackie Collins. A few achieved a sort of mythological or cult status, whether they liked it or not, like J.D. Salinger or Hunter S. Thompson. Some, like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, wore their political affiliations and ideas out front for all to see. Others let their work, and their work alone, convey any messages they might have hoped to get across. In the science fiction and fantasy universe there were authors who were fixtures at conventions, and others who tended to shy away from public appearances. And in all these cases, it was left up to the individual author to decide how public they wanted to be, how political they wanted to be, how reclusive they wanted to be, etc.—at least it seemed to.

The fact that writing is an almost exclusively solitary pursuit, it does seem to attract more introverts than extroverts. In my experience working with literally hundeds of authors, I find the vast majority would rather write than talk about their writing, and very few are comfortable talking about themselves. I think most of us are content with what Priscilla Long described in “On Writing: An  Abecedarian”: “Writing allows you to discover what you are thinking and feeling, what you believe, what you remember. By writing you can elegize or rhapsodize or argue with yourself or with another.” Another, but not necessarily everyone.

But now it’s 2022, the Era of Social Media, and it’s assumed that every author needs a platform. And more and more it seems we have to create lists of defining characteristics to attach to ourselves so potential readers can filter out authors who might fall into some subset of people they don’t want to hear from. Granted, if it’s revealed that Author X has a new children’s book just coming out and is under indictment for child abuse, well, that’s a real issue we need to contend with. But I’m not talking about authors accused of actual felony crimes. We may all agree that Author Y is perfectly swell—but we get to that author’s work only after we’ve had a chance to get to know Author Y in some way that was impossible thirty years ago.

Where does that leave the majority introvert authors out there? The ones who just don’t want to figure out how to muster 5000 Twitter followers, or can’t for the life of us understand why we need to post photos of ourslves on InstaGram?

In a 1976 Paris Review interview with John Cheever, Annette Grant wrote:

Cheever has a reputation for being a difficult interviewee. He does not pay attention to reviews, never rereads his books or stories once published, and is often vague about their details. He dislikes talking about his work (especially into “one of those machines”) because he prefers not to look where he has been, but where he’s going.

But now, are we all being forced to not only read reviews but actively solicit reveiews? Even pay for reviews? Do we have to talk about our work? Or worse: ourselves? And do that into a version of “those machines” Cheever couldn’t guess at in 1976, where a quote, in context or otherwise, can be promulgated instantly across the entire world and ignored completely, made into the news story de jour, or anywhere inbetween, via an anonymous network that more and more consists not of people but bots that spread that context-free “information” based on keyword algorithms, and… yikes.

Don’t get me wrong, now, this is not some kind of anti-“cancel culture” screed from an old man who longs for the old days of legalized inequality, or whatever. No way do I defend people like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, both convicted in courts of law of signficant felony crimes. I’m also not suffering over the fact that someone might not like something I wrote. In “Your Feelings Are No Excuse,” Margaret Atwood wrote:

You can’t exist as a writer for very long without learning that something you write is going to upset someone, sometime, somewhere. Whether you end up with a bullet in your neck will depend on many factors—there are lots of bullets, and some necks are thicker than others—but let us pause to remember that the most important meaning of freedom of expression  is not that you can say anything you like without any consequences whatsoever but that the bullet should not be your government’s, and it should not be fired into your neck for an expression of political views that don’t coincide with theirs.

That said, I’d always rather get a bullet in my neck for something I wrote than for who someone thinks I am. I’m writing this blog right now. I tweet, etc. I’m not a reculse at all, but I worry that we’re not reading great books written by people who don’t want to blog or tweet or speak at conferences or do anything other than write, because publishers won’t touch someone unwilling to take on the lion’s share of social media promotion.

For the record, this is not a new issue. Going back to 1972, again to the Paris Review, we find Eudora Welty confronting the same issue:

A writer’s whole feeling, the force of his whole life, can go into a story—but what he’s worked for is to get an objective piece down on paper. That should be read instead of some account of his life, with that understanding—here is something which now exists and was made by the hands of this person. Read it for what it is. It doesn’t even matter too much whose hands they were. Well, of course, it does—I was just exaggerating to prove my point. But your private life should be kept private. My own I don’t think would particularly interest anybody, for that matter. But I’d guard it; I feel strongly about that. They’d have a hard time trying to find something about me. I think I’d better burn everything up. It’s best to burn letters, but at least I’ve never kept diaries or journals.

So then not a new problem, just one I think the social media, and shoot first, ask questions later (if at all) nature of public discourse in America in 2022, has made worse. Now we don’t just have to write great books, we have to be great celebrities. And even some “celebrity writers” didn’t necessarily set out to be that. Even Hunter S. Thompson said, “I was never trying, necessarily, to be an outlaw. It was just the place in which I found myself.”

Can someone write the Great American Novel and not be forced onto a stage they can never feel comfortable on? Can we be public authors and private people?

Before I end with the requisite list of social media links to me, I’ll give the final word to Sylvia Plath:

Winning or losing an argument, receiving an acceptance or rejection, is no proof of the validity or value of personal identity. One may be wrong, mistaken, or a poor craftsman, or just ignorant—but this is no indication of the true worth of one’s total human identity: past, present & future!

The Unabridged Journals, 1956

—Philip Athans

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