4May

Writers And The Internet

Can the author survive the internet?

James Wood was somewhat less pleased with the “vituperation” he associates with the blogosphere (though Wood himself, it must be said, has been no shrinking violet when it comes to dispatching the pretensions of what he has dubbed the “hysterical realist” school of fiction). He said he finds looking through readers’ comments on blogs to be akin to a descent into Hades. He added that his friend Andrew Sullivan is buckling under the strain of writing three hundred blog posts per week, which has interfered with his ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few paragraphs. According to Wood, one of the Internet’s longest-serving and most prolific bloggers could even be about to call it a day as a result. (Contacted by The Daily Beast after the debate, Sullivan replied that “I have felt that way for five years and I’m still blogging!” He confirmed, however, that he had indeed considered calling it quits recently but would persevere if he could get an extra staffer.)

The poor darlings. It must be terribly difficult for writers of Literature to finally have to answer to readers now, in addition to critics who may or may not go to the same dinner parties.

I guess this is where the SFF community has been for several years, if not decades. The history of fandom is one where authors have engaged in a dialogue with readers, to some extent. And it’s one reason I think the blogosphere is a good thing: it has devolved power of opinion from a few gatekeepers, to the many. There certainly doesn’t seem to be as much rigour of analysis in reviews as there used to be with the early blogs, whose competition then was the established quality e-zines. Now, anything passes for a review, even a rough synopsis. Things are often reduced these days merely to “I did / did not like this book”, which is a loss to the genre). And the author experience differs – there is so much more discussion of their works, but more of it is emotional gut responses, rather than a full-on engagement, for better or worse. Now, a year’s work can be reduced to “ZOMG you suck”. These reactions existed previously, but now they’re digital, and for the world and the author to see.

With great power comes great responsibility – little do online commentators realise how fragile creative egos can be. You might chuckle, but to some, a damaging comment can prevent a writer from doing his or her job properly. Some might crumble for a week, who’s to say? I’ve been pretty lucky, but I cringe at reading scathing reviews of other authors’ work. So whilst I was full of snark at the start of this post, I do actually understand how such things can harm writers. And yes, some writers really do care about what people think of their work. Yes, they receive Google Alerts about the fruit of their labours. Surely that’s a good thing, that they give a shit? I suppose if you’re the kind of person who enjoys attacking creative works for kicks, then you need a little more help than this blog post can offer.

My opinion to new writers: all you can do is develop a thick skin very quickly, and deal with it. (And, ironically, be concerned about the amount of coverage, rather than its quality.)

We are now entering, what, phase three or four of the blogosphere (so many blogs have come and gone), and it’s interesting to see so clearly that tribes and cliques are forming, people linking only to few others, talking only to few others, and so on. Is this bad? Not inherently, of course, it’s natural; but cliques were always one of the reasons that new fans do not fully immerse themselves in the convention world – does the same apply digitally, I wonder? Just a thought.

Also, authors online are given platforms to reply to reviewers and comments. Personally, I think writers should respond – not necessarily to their own reviews, but certainly to address specific problems they feel exists in online coverage. Why not? There are few rules for current online etiquette. There’s nothing to stop an author reviewing why a blog does or does not work, right?

I guess this post doesn’t contain all that much flow; it’s more of a bunch of thoughts to be honest. I think it’s interesting to watch some genres still playing catch-up on this subject of the blogosphere, whilst SFF is developing into newer modes of connectivity.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

18 comments

  1. ahh…it is evolving and that is a good thing. Probably the best aspect is that blogs basically provide something for everyone. Other than that, it’s kinda fun to see the usual society rules, ethics, etc. assert themselves online – sometimes they survive, sometimes they thrive and sometimes they fail.

    As for writers – I’m sure it’s a very fine balance to find. Especially if a writer may be predisposed to emotional stress. I once had a negative opinion on a book that I posted that quickly digressed from constructive talk to childish attacks and simply lingered on far too long. Apparently the whole situation made the writer suicidal for a bit. An extreme end of the spectrum? Yes. But very scary and one that has certainly made me think on the issue quite a bit.

  2. After living through three teenagers, I find my skin is a lot thicker than it once may have been. Really, after “Fuck you, Mom!” where is there to go?

    I recently found a comment online that said “Kate Elliott is like fantasy for the brain dead,” and after my initial wince (Ouch!), all I could think was: how can I spin this to get into the zombie craze? (although you note that I still remember the comment!)

    But I think your point about amount rather than quality is crucial. These days, if almost no one knows you exist, then it doesn’t matter if a few connoisseurs love and praise you. Unless that select elite is what you are aiming for.

    I do think the freewheeling and unmoderated internet can be difficult for writers who are particularly sensitive in this regard (we all have our sensitivities, just in different ways, I suppose), but one thing they can do in that case is not look — and yet, I do think many writers want (need?) to know that someone, anyone, has read (and appreciated) what we’re writing, so it is hard not to look.

    I do *not* have Google Alerts set up, though!

  3. Oh, one last thing. I’ve been online for, uh, never mind, skip that part. Anyway, the tribes and cliques have been around since forever, as always. That aspect is nothing new. The last couple of years especially, though, I’ve been seeing the next big generational shift.

  4. I don’t think quoting anything that references Andrew Sullivan in it will fit your points well, Mark. He’s a political blogger and sometime author on politics that I believe spends about 12-16 hours a day browsing through all sorts of international news sites to provide content for the online portion of Atlantic magazine.

    That being said, I quite enjoy being where I am. Not just a blogger, but also a few more hats that I’ve recently come to wear (and one that’ll be making its debut this autumn). I think it’s interesting to see which bloggers have thin skins as well, since it seems every few months I somehow manage to get under a few skins without trying or (in most cases; I’m no perfect angel) desiring to do so. Better be careful about using “tribes” – I used a specific example to argue that internet tribes exist and I received a few complaints elsewhere about how I was “picking on” someone, when in reality I was referencing a small thing to make a larger point. Tribal warfare, anyone? 😛

    But the best part of all this is getting to know a few people, make a few connections that aren’t Twitter-related, and getting to experience other aspects of the publishing industry that aren’t strictly author/reviewer.

  5. Always interesting to hear authors talk about this topic.

    There are different types of bloggers and each type appeals to a particular type of reader. If a reader finds a blogger who has the same tastes, than an “I like this/ I don’t like this” kind of review might be helpful if the reader is looking for nothing more than something fun to read on the beach.

    I think that in some cases, bloggers (especially new ones) may not realize that authors are actually reading their reviews. My tone certainly became more respectful when I realized that authors were listening. Some of my older reviews make me cringe.

  6. Blimey, neth – that’s quite the response! (Wasn’t me was it? :P)

    Kate – yes, I think things like that help put it all in perspective. And absolutely – a book that isn’t talked about is a dead book.

    Larry – yeah, it was more the first author who gave me the fuel for the post. But the connections and, ultimately, friends is the good part of it all. But not everyone is as open-minded as yourself…

    Kat – thanks for the comment. That last point is interesting – why do some people write what they wouldn’t say to someone’s face? The great anonymity of the internet is rather interesting, psychologically.

  7. Why do some people write what they wouldn’t say to someone’s face? The great anonymity of the internet is rather interesting, psychologically.
    Not because I thought I was anonymous (I plainly stated who I am, what my “real job” is, contact info, etc) but because I was talking to readers, not to authors. The reality is that 3 years ago no author cared what I had to say.

  8. I think one cannot avoid building cliques. It’s ideal to be on the look-out for new books, new people and enter the conversation as you say, but readers are limited in time as all humans and therefore the circle of their conversation is restricted. After all the Internet mimics life and in the real world, the model is identical.

    And, yes, I know firsthand what a negative comment can do to a writer and I regret causing the extra grief to that person by having structered it better. However, I do think that writers need to seperate themselves from their work in order to develop the mentioned thick skin.

  9. Harry makes a good point about cliques. I have so little time to spend socializing on the web that I only visit places that I find particularly interesting and enlightening.

  10. @Mark – somehow I doubt my review would have invoked suicidal thoughts in you (perhaps a gag reaction?)

    But one thing that I’m seeing in the discussion here, at Chadbourn’s post and the one above, is some sense that bloggers shouldn’t say anything negative about a book. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, a review should be well thought and not devolve into cheep shots and personal insults. That’s bad all the way around, and I’d sure like to think that reviewers saying that sort of thing have a very small audience. Even having been involved in a situation where a writer apparently was suicidal for a bit due at least in part to something I wrote, I still don’t hold back. I write what my thoughts and opinions on a book are, regardless of positive, negative, or even if my reactions are more reflective of my own strengths/weakness, those of the author or the text. I lay it out there for others to read and try to provide enough context for my thoughts/opinions to be compared with whoever is reading at the time.

    I think that the take home message is that for all the positive aspects of the internet/blogosphere/etc. for authors and fans and their interaction, there are some drawbacks that can’t be avoided. Authors need thicker skin faster now. I think it’d be a bigger problem if every reviewer suddenly felt the need to tip-toe around their real thoughts on something because they don’t want to upset the sensibilities of an author.

  11. Reviews should be honest and negative if the reviewer didn’t like the book. But that can be done in a respectful manner. (I think we’re all in agreement about that). I have no problem with negative reviews. Just nasty ones.

  12. Neth – Mark even says that he’s not suggesting that, and to be honest, neither am I. It’s not even about the bloggers who, for the most part, write well-considered reviews. Some write phenomenal reviews – negative or otherwise. It’s about the quality of engagement that goes beyond a little vitriol.

    I’ve always thought the blogosphere is perhaps too kind in places, but so long as honesty is there, then that’s all to the good. And yes, as Kat says – respect is, perhaps, what all of this is about, and what often is lacking in some online quarters…

  13. I always find it amusing and somewhat puzzling that some people think they can be “freer” and “truer to themselves” online than in person. I’m much the opposite. I’m much more acerbic in person, as I tend to practice some restraint in long-distance communications. Not to say I’m any less “real,” but rather there’s more of a distance.

    And as for the author/critic angles, let’s not forget that before the web, there were the Mark Twains and H.L. Mencken’s of the world. Certainly no shrinking violets there among those older generation of writers and critics…

  14. @Mark – not to imply that you or Mark are saying as much. I certainly know you aren’t and from what I know the other Mark and my interacations with him, I really doubt he’d think so either. But in the comments here and especially over at Mark’s blog that seems to be a reaction.