In his short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver sets two couples to talking on the subject of love, They are drinking gin to help them discover what they mean, but by story’s end, there is no resolution. The four have talked their way through an afternoon, from daylight to darkness. Carver leaves them there, in the dark both literally and metaphorically.
I don’t want to end up in the same place, but my subject is love, specifically the love that readers have for the written word, and for writers. I think the distinction between the two is worth considering.
Here’s a hypothetical. I visit a well-known writer’s website. The writer is promoting his latest suspense novel, in the course of which he laments how little support he’s been getting from those closest to him, his friends and family.
The writer acknowledges how time-starved so many of us are, and that reading is time-consuming. He even goes so far as to acknowledge a simple if depressing truth: many people just don’t like to read. Even so, it seems to him the neglect he feels is not his imagination. Even if those he knows don’t have time to read or can’t be bothered, it seems reasonable to him that they would show a little interest in what he does. He has been let down, and wants people to know it.
When I read these complaints, I think there’s something wrong. I comment to the effect that this successful, admired writer seems to be engaged in self-pity. Of course I know what he’s talking about. With a handful of exceptions, who among the community of writers doesn’t know? But reading this writer’s expression of being wronged just doesn’t seem right. Not in the face of his success in the marketplace.
Is my comment motivated by envy for a writer much more successful than I am? That’s certainly possible: I write suspense novels, too. But in my view, even if my motives are questionable, that’s not relevant. To me, the writer deserves to be challenged about his complaint.
Reaction is swift. One person replies to my comment by saying it’s wrong to criticize anyone for thinking out loud about something that bothers him. We all have the right to express ourselves on anything, and who am I to say otherwise. Another tells me that if I knew the author, I would understand that he never complains about anything, that he’s tough as nails. Not only is he tough, but he’s also mindful of sensitive matters related to race, class, gender, and the environment. Another supporter points out that the author is extremely dedicated to his craft, plus he goes out of his way to help other novelists.
I am an older writer, so my takeaway from all this may be influenced by my age. First, it’s true: I don’t know the writer. I’ve never gone to a reading or book-signing of his, I’m not on his mailing list, and we’ve never met at a conference. Those who have defended him obviously do know him in some way, and they see my criticism as unfair. The writer should be left alone. He’s hard-working, and makes every effort to do his best, plus he champions socially responsible goals in his work.
For me, as a writer, these reactions reveal a new, dubious aspect of our craft.
First, the words I’m reacting to in this hypothetical situation are taken from an author’s blog. That’s something not only unheard of but impossible until very recently. Secondly, those who leap to the defense of my hypothetical novelist do so in terms that have nothing do with the words he wrote and that I read. They are mostly the defenses we offer for friends and family. Those close to us are good people, and we want others to know how hard-working and morally admirable they are.
This I think is both the appeal and the danger posed by the rise of social media. In the current moment, writers are far less likely to succeed if they don’t create a posse of online followers. These supporters are encouraged to develop something like a familial or at least a personal relationship with the author. When this happens, the writer sells more books, and readers enjoy a sense of belonging to something like a fan club, or even a cult.
Is this in any way dangerous?
If you think that what we talk about when we talk about lit should focus first on what’s written, not on friendship or admiration, then yes, it’s potentially dangerous. To the degree the growing emphasis on electronic fandom shapes our reactions, the importance of good writing and clear thinking is almost certainly diminished. Fandom also reduces the likelihood of writers gaining the advantage of hearing the unvarnished truth.
More importantly, if we think of the effect these burgeoning, personalized connections between writer and reader are likely to have on the reviewing process, and on critical thinking in general, there’s nothing trivial about it.
What do you think? Is this is a matter of real importance, or an older writer’s overreaction to changing times? Have you “pulled your punches” and silenced yourself as a consequence of knowing a writer too well to risk speaking the truth? Did you decide it was just a matter of good manners, not one of honesty?
In other words, do you think the growing media-enabled connection between reader and writer is blurring our commitment to critical thinking in favor of fandom and loyalty?