The New Novelist, or, Seeking a Middle Path Between Privacy & “X”

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22 July 2009

There’s something strange, and a little discomfiting, about being a first-time novelist right now.  The public-personality expectation seems greater than it’s ever been.  Making yourself “available” to readers, connecting personally on every front, is a foregone expectation.  I understand the many cultural and economic forces that have made it so, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my novel with readers; and yet… sometimes, I think: if I’d craved a life of public events, extroversion, and displaying my life and thoughts regularly on the Internet, I may have gone into politics instead.

This bit from novelist Jonathan Evison, author-personality-promoter extraordinaire (full text at Three Guys One Book), illustrates the point:

As far as writers who keep their readers at a distance, I can’t say that I really understand them. Hell, I invite stalkers! I have a number of women fans who regularly send me little emoticoms–farting unicorns, leprechauns sliding on their asses down rainbows, that kind of thing. They send them for every conceivable occasion– Happy Wednesday! Happy Saint Abernathy’s Day, whatever. I love them! I send them back pictures of my bunnies! …

…I connect with a ton of readers at events. I always invite everybody in attendance to go drink beer somewhere nearby afterward. Drink beer with your readers and it’s a safe bet they’ll buy your next book and your next. I’ve probably attended 30 book clubs for Lulu, too. If you want to build readers for life, go sit in their living room and drink their beer for a few hours.

He goes on to describe the work he does to ensure attendance at readings, including communicating with his 4,000 MySpace friends, inviting people personally, and playing host, literally: “I baked hot dog cake and brought coolers of beer to my events. I made hundreds of jello shots.” 

I understand this is easier for somebody like me with a talk radio background who has a really social nature. But… if it’s not in you to do the highly public stuff, well, then, you damn well better blog, because there’s no free passes. 

In an interview in 2001, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro spoke about a different time in publishing and in the life of the writer, and how the book tour — the first incarnation of the personal-connections-between-writers-and-readers marketing strategy — affected the writer’s creative process:

I started to publish novels in 1982 and then it was a very different kind of literary world or book world… The established authors of the day didn’t tour. They might occasionally give a lecture at some august institution but they wouldn’t go on these book tours. They were very private figures. The whole publishing world changed… Somewhere in the equation I think authors started to get used as the main marketing tool… 

These are the things that actually affect the environment in which the writer thinks, creates, writesI’m not just talking about the busyness of the tour. It’s a process by which, whether you like it or not, you’re made very aware of why you write and how you write, who your influences are and where you fit in vis-a-vis other authors. How your personal life fits into what you write. That’s a good thing in many ways. It’s very good that you’re sensitive to your audience. But nevertheless it has an effect and it probably does change the way you write. You become a much more self-conscious writer

And here I am, of course, self-consciously sharing on this blog my thoughts and bits of personal data and happenings, highly aware of the reader.  But every day, every post, I find myself wobbling on the balance beam, trying to gauge the middle path between public and private (I’m not sure I’d be so enthusiastic about stalkers, for example).  I find that Susan Sontag’s early journals are a good companion along-side the blog-life:

“X” is when you feel yourself an object, not a subject.  When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting and name-dropping, or by being very cool… The tendency to be indiscreet — either about oneself or about others — is a classic symptom of “X.”  [Curing herself of “X” is a persistent theme for Sontag in her journals]

It is not necessary to deliver oneself to others, but only to whom one loves.  For then it is no longer delivering oneself in order to appear, but only in order to give.  There is much more force in a man who appears only when he must.  To go to the end, that means to know how to guard one’s secret.

The second quote (from Camus?) reminds me of the weird morphing of the word “friend” in the age of Facebook and MySpace.  Some of us may be capable of loving many, many people (4,000!).  Some of us much fewer.   It seems a good guideline: reveal yourself when it is truly a form of giving.

5 Responses to “The New Novelist, or, Seeking a Middle Path Between Privacy & “X””

  1. Eric Says:

    I spend a lot of time wondering about this. Rather than wondering what effect is has on the writer, though, I wonder what it does to the reader to have such relationship-potential with an author. I think of Hemingway and McCarthy as spirits, gods (even with McCarthy still breathing) but if I were to get drunk with them? Surely it’d be a good time, but what would that do to their texts for me? I think some of the power would be sucked away.

    I think it would weaken my work to have the reader know me as any sort of figure. I try to write distanced from any concrete time, even place, to an extent. To peg me down, to suss out what I have and haven’t done…seems bad. But unavoidable, these days.

  2. Brad Green Says:

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog and read your essay on becoming a writer. Much of that rang true for me as well. Thank you for laying it down so nicely. There is certainly a shifting landscape in the publishing world. Blogs are close to mandatory and I, for one, really enjoy reading them. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve subscribed to your feed and will be looking for your book when it comes out.

    • sonyachung Says:

      Thanks, Brad. Congrats on finishing your manuscript!

  3. sonyachung Says:

    Eric, Cormac McCarthy is certainly a writer of a different time, who has been able to keep a distance from that reader connection. I’m not sure that kind of privacy is possible anymore, but maybe it’s just a matter of one’s priorities and not letting the industry dictate. I don’t really know the answer to that, it will be interesting to observe the careers of emerging writers henceforth.


  4. […] you with more learned and experienced folk’s opinions on the matter.  Nathan Bransford and Sonya Chung each consider this topic. […]


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