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.
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?
Barnes 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!