Are Writers Too Accessible?

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Like most writers, I was a voracious reader as a kid. Naturally I had favorite authors, though they never heard it from me. In those days, before PCs and the Internet, the only way to contact an author was to write a letter care of the publisher and hope that it was passed on; but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t try. It simply would never have occurred to me. I thought a lot about the books that captivated me, but if I thought of their authors at all, it was as unapproachably remote beings who dwelt in a literary Valhalla or possibly a garret in Paris, emerging from time to time to bestow their largess upon the world.

Cinderella

Then I grew up and went into publishing, and I discovered that writers were regular people with kids and mortgages and bad hair days. They weren’t as witty or clever or daring as their characters; they were smart but otherwise ordinary folk distinguished only by their invisible mastery of a difficult craft. But for me, that singular distinction was enough to set them apart and above. I was a literary agent for twelve years without ever fully overcoming my reflexive awe in the presence of writers I admired.

It is impossible to revere without longing to emulate. When my own work found its way into print, surprisingly little changed. Most of the time, for months at a time, I worked in my home office all day, dressed in extremely unglamorous sweats, emerging with glazed eyes whenever the clamor for dinner grew loud enough. Co-presiding over a messy but surprisingly functional ménage of two adults, two boys, and a couple of German shepherds, I was gratified by my elevation to the ranks of published authors, but I was decidedly not living in Valhalla. Still, every time a new book came out, I got to step out of my cave, clean myself up, put on a decent suit and become Barbara Rogan, Author, for an afternoon or an evening. To be an author was to be that which I had revered as a child. It was discomfiting to find myself the object of what now seemed misconceived adulation: discomfiting, but flattering.

Now we live in a world of constant and immediate accessibility. There’s hardly a published writer alive who doesn’t have a website, and many have blogs, Facebook pages, twitter accounts, etc. Readers now can learn all they want and more about the writers whose work they follow. They can contact them directly with just the push of a key. And the opposite is true as well. Writers can eavesdrop on readers’ discussions, read and rank their reviews, answer their questions, and heap abuse upon the insufficiently appreciative: not a common occurrence, fortunately, but Google “writers behaving badly” if you want to get an eyeful.

So here’s my question: Do you think writers now are too accessible?

I have mixed feelings. Mostly I think it’s a very good thing. Getting letters from readers was always one of the most fun parts of the job, but the ease of communication has greatly increased the flow. Writing is a solitary job, so feedback from smart readers is deeply encouraging. I started this blog eight months ago, and I enjoy the interaction it has brought me. I tweet as @RoganBarbara, I have an active Facebook author page, and I like being a part of the wider world.

And yet there is a downside. Writers are rarely as compelling as their best work, in which case a bit of mystery can be a good thing. And a great novel can seem like a found object rather than an artifact: something shaped by natural forces into a necessary and harmonious form that gives us pleasure. The brush strokes don’t show; the messy erasures are gone. That someone wrote the book feels almost irrelevant. In the past readers had only the book itself to relate to, and one could argue that this is how it should be. In this view of things, focusing on writers instead of on books is like handing out Academy awards to the parents of the winning actors.

What do you think?

 

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2Barnes and Noble in Carl Place, New York, has kindly invited me to celebrate the release of my new book, A Dangerous Fiction, with a reading and signing on the official pub date, July 29, 2013. We need to support our local bookstores while we still have the chance. I hope everyone who can will come out and join me at 7 PM. Please mark your calendars and spread the word!

 

 

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Barbara's books, the writing life, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Are Writers Too Accessible?

  1. Peter Pollak says:

    Good topic. For me the scales are weighted to the present world in which readers have more access to writers. Why? In the past how much feedback did writers get and where did it come from? Ans. Primarily from reviewers. Reviewers are by definition a select kind of audience, one that is very different from the “average” reader. I want to hear from the people for whom I’m writing–i.e., the “average” reader, who is represented by those who bother to write a review on Amazon, sign up for my emails, etc. Being accessible of course adds another skill that successful writers have to master–namely, how to respond to readers without letting their communications interfere with your primary task.

    In terms of the other stuff–how much should you reveal of yourself via your website, Facebook, twitter, I’m not certain that interferes with the reading experience. Once I get my nose into a book, I tend to get lost in the story and forget that I know the writer has two German shepherds and lives on Long Island.

  2. I think as writers we sometimes carry an exaggerated sense of self importance in what we think our readers want to know. Sure, in the age of information overload and reality TV, there is a certain urgency to be in the circle as it were, but at the same time one needs to establish the balance. Easier said than done, I know all too well…

    • Bard, are you saying I’m full of myself? But you’re right—we do have to exercise control over what we put out there. Peter, for example, knows way too much about me…or thinks he does. 😉

  3. Ella Quinn says:

    I have never paid that much attention to the personal lives of the authors I read, but I know a lot of people do. I think how much you want the general public to know about your personal life is an individual decision.

    As to the ability to contact authors, it is easier, then again, it’s easier to contact anyone these days. Gone are the days when we didn’t even have answering machines, and one had to actually write a letter, find a stamp, and send it.

    Does it help? I’m not sure. I’ve had people contacting me for months wanting to know where they can buy my books. I just hope when the books release, the readers aren’t disappointed.

    • Hi Ella,

      I never used to think about the authors at all, just the books. But since it’s so easy to find stuff out, I’ve taken to googling the authors whose work especially interests me. Just pure nosiness; it has no effect unless I discover that the author’s a raging homophobe or hater of some kind—that would affect my decision about whether or not to read more of the writer’s work. As a reader, I’m delighted that I can easily drop a note to someone whose work I’ve admired; as a writer I’m thrilled to hear from writers. So despite my grumping, I’m quite pleased with our new accessibility.

  4. Jo Murphey says:

    I think being accessible equal sales, but then again what do I know. You can be over exposed.

    Being a published author carries with it a sense of mystique and it disappears with increased exposure. The “Meet the Author” promo tool is less effective. You’re still a celebrity of sorts, but readers become desensitized to overwhelming information on the web. The mystic of being an author looses something.

    • I think that the advent of self-publishing has also eroded the prestige of being a published writer. Last year something like 300,000 writers self-published. Diluting the brand, you know.

  5. deniz says:

    It’s hard to say… some authors are just awesome no matter what they do *cough*Gaiman*coughcough* and some I’ve been friends with through blogs and such before they had books out, so it’s fun to be friends with them now [g]
    I just wonder and relearn, every day, how to juggle social media and writing…

    • Gaiman, Joe Hill—it’s like they own twitter! Plus our very own Diana Gabaldon, an early adopter of accessibility. As for how they juggle it all…some people are just like that, and we mortal folk must forgive them. Although I do sometimes wonder if Joe Hill shouldn’t quite tweeting and write more. I like his stuff enormously and wish there was more of it.

  6. D C Hubbard says:

    Mornin’ Barbara,
    Perhaps the question needs to be: Do autors have a choice? If you don’t put yourself out there, you have less chance of readers plucking your masterpiece from the over-filled (virtual) shelves.
    Besides, how “personal” can Twitter/facebook/websites get? The bottom line remains: You are still in control of the information. (Like controlling when and how much backstory you’re going to reveal to the reader.) It has to be up to the writer to use his/her judgement – in fact, that goes for anyone indulging in social media platforms.

  7. Fascinating discussion. Thanks for letting me know it was prompted by my post on whether authors should stop blogging. My post in turn was prompted by a post on Jane Friedman’s blog that said experienced authors who are already blogging should stop–and write for less interactive media.

    I don’t think that’s such a great idea. When you take something away from readers (accessibility) they tend to get crankier than if they never had it at all.

    When I was a small child, I remember being surprised to hear that a favorite author had written a new book. I thought all famous authors were dead :-). But I’m sure I didn’t have much desire to meet either CS Lewis or Lewis Carroll. I saw the characters as very separate from their creators.

    But as a teen and young adult, I was hungry for information about my favorite authors. I’m sure if I could have read a blog by Kurt Vonnegut or read travel advice from Mary Stewart I would have loved it. Would those things have made me buy their books? I was already buying them, so I don’t suppose it would have made a difference.

    But the whole system of discovering books has changed. When the NYT Book Review decided what everybody was going to read, we didn’t need blogs. Now I think we do.

    • Hi Anne,

      Actually should have linked to that post of yours, and the guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog that got us both started on the topic (and which I also read.) Funny about assuming all famous writers were dead! My absolute favorite writer as a kid was Madeleine L’Engle, who not only was not dead, but many years later became a client and friend; she also blurbed my second book, which was beyond a dream come true. If she’d had a blog then—if there had been such a thing as blogs—I’d have read it religiously. But like you, I was far more focused on the books than their authors.

      Are you saying the NYT DOESN’T decide what we read? Don’t tell them; they’ll be devastated. Although, in fairness—they’re still one of my great resources for new (to me) writers.

  8. Lara Lacombe says:

    Great post! I think there’s a balance to be struck–if authors make themselves too accessible, readers can start to think they ‘own’ that author (see: Neil Gaiman’s blog post, George R.R. Martin is not your b____). However, authors can no longer retreat to the writing cave full-time.

    For me, I like being able to check a website or blog for the latest news, but I don’t really need to know what you had for dinner, know what I mean? 🙂

    • Totally love that post by Gaiman, and he’s 100% right. Martin got berated, threatened, and mocked for taking so long between books. Do people think they write themselves?!!!

      Re. last night’s dinner, I had ravioli in tomato…oh, wait, you said you didn’t want to know.

  9. Being easily accessible is one thing. Sometimes I think authors (especially the newer ones) believe self-promotion and marketing to be like door to door sales. There’s this borderline of being spammy as opposed to accessible.

    I think having a website and/or blog is super great. Love it. Even Facebook and Twitter is alright. But, when you expose yourself by contacting friends, followers, and/or fans via privileged channels, that becomes a bit spammy and I can’t stand it. I would think the author might likely lose potential customers that way. Just a thought.

    • Drives me totally nuts. I teach writing and have had the pleasure of seeing some students publish, others self-publish. In the publishing industry there’s a tradition of giving free copies to people who helped you along with way,along with close family, friends, etc. Instead of thanks and a copy, some self-pub’d writers spam family, friends and colleagues unmercifully, sending emails, posting every give minutes on FB, tweeting one tune all day long. Completely counterproductive.

      Now let’s see how I do when my next book comes out. Will sit on my hands if necessary.

    • As an as-yet-unpublished writer and someone who is keen to ‘do the right thing’ but not overdo it, I am glad that I read your comment, Diane. Like Barbara, I may sit on my hands from now on, at least until I have thought it through a little… 🙂

      • Elaine, all writers are prone to magical thinking. “If I do start an FB page/open a Twitter account/mail my ms. on a Tuesday, then I’ll find an agent and a publisher.” In fact, although we all have to do the best we can to promote and market ourselves, the bottom line is the book. Read my interviews on this blog with agent Gail Hochman and Viking editor Tara Singh, and you’ll see they say the same thing. Yes, a social media presence is helpful; but what really counts, what trumps everything else, is a book that knocks their socks off.

      • I would say, if you already have a Facebook page or Twitter/Blog, etc. when your book comes out, just make sure you have other things going on with your pages so that it doesn’t appear overwhelming.

        I like to hear of a book and if I like it, I might want to explore the author a bit, so if I see a link to their Facebook page, I’ll go there. But, once I get there, if it’s all about the book and nothing about the author, I’d be sadly disappointed.

        It’s fun to get a hold of a really good book, become a fan right away, and then get to learn about the personality of the author, so, a status update like so:

        Planted some gardenias with my grand daughter today (with posted picture).

        is much more welcome than:

        Don’t forget to follow my book, click here and get it on Amazon today. My next one is coming out in May, look for it! Free giveaway next month, click here for sneak preview!

        See what I mean? LOL

        • Hi Diane!

          Very true; and btw, do buy my new book which is coming out….Just kidding. You make a great point. Someone advised handling twitter the way you do a conversation with new acquaintances. Do you buttonhole people, insist that they buy your book, then follow them around all day bugging them to do it? Or do you talk about other stuff, get them interested, and wait to be asked what you do?

          That said…stuff happens when new books come out, and not sharing the news with people who are a priori interested would be silly. As you say, it’s a matter of finding the right balance.

          Nice website, btw.

  10. Donna Rubino says:

    Great news, Barbara! I’ve put the date on my calendar. Unless hell freezes over I’ll be there.

  11. Marja McGraw says:

    Personally, I like being accessible — to a point. I’ve had a lot of fun meeting new people because of my writing, and I’ve made some new friends. As long as no one decides to stalk me, I’m good with being open to dialogue and meeting people. Great post, Barbara!

    • Thanks, Marja. Stalking’s a big concern for agents who are overly accessible, which is why so many of them hide behind assistants; some don’t even have websites. For me, having just written a book about a agent stalked by a writer, the episode was eerily familiar.

  12. Pingback: Can you divorce the writer from the writing? « datanode.net

  13. Barbara–was your book sparked by the attack on Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg? I saw her right after that attack and it was so crazy. She thought he was trying to hijack her car. Luckily her dog bit the guy, so they caught him. Turned out to be a crazed rejected writer. They found all these threatening emails to her at her house. I’ll have to check out your book.

    • Hi Anne. My book was already finished and with Viking when it happened. Everyone who’d read the book was amazed at the coincidence except me. Agents are always trading story about the lengths some writers go to. I heard of one who brought a ms. to the funeral of an agent’s husband, where he shoved it into her arms.

    • i donated 1000 points i earned to Japan relief. cant think of a better thing to do with them. saw on news the navy flying in MRE’s n blankets with helicopters to stranded small groups of survivors.

    • Hello, I just found your page, thank you for having a page that helps others,my parakeets had babies,4 babies are doing well, the last one that hatched died. the cage I have is tall, my fear is when the babies come out the nest box is too high off the ground of the cageis it ok to move the nesting box lower in the cage or that would make parents upset?this is my first time having birdsthank you for your help

  14. Elaine says:

    As a self-published writer trying to get ‘the word’ out there, it is a moot point. I know some indies (personally) who are very wary of being accessible, or perhaps more accurately, of exposing themselves on social media, even though the accepted wisdom is to have as many platforms as possible. A website/blog, Twitter and Facebook page seem to be the minimum requirements these days, with the second, third and fourth all involving some level of exposure/accessibility to the people whom you hope will become your readers/followers… My feeling is that whether we like it or not, some accessibility seems to be expected. Can a writer achieve success without being seen in the wider world? I don’t know…

    All of which is me saying that I personally welcome the chance to be accessible on social media. I enjoy talking to other writers and readers – the opportunity to learn from -and perhaps in turn help- others is a huge benefit.

    So are writers too accessible? Er… I’m not sure, is my honest response!

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