11 Comments

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from flickr.com user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).

11 comments on “Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

  1. Thanks, April, but it would be wrong to suggest that few literary authors are active on social media. Also, I think we have to think about what we mean by “literary.” If you mean the thought-of-as-important, award-winning, taught-in-classrooms, reviewed in NYTimes type of fiction writer (and I’m going to focus on fiction here), writers like Meg Wolitzer, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff, Russell Banks, Bharati Mukherjee, John Edgar Wideman, George Saunders, William Gass, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, then yes, a lot of those writers don’t blog and are not active on social media because frankly, they don’t need to be. Although Wolitzer is fairly active on Twitter, and these days, even Charles Baxter is on Facebook. But there are some literary authors who use Twitter to great effect: Colson Whitehead, Maud Newton, and Elissa Schappell are just a few who come to my mind. But there’s another kind of literary writer you don’t seem to be aware of here: the literary *indie* writer. The independent literary community is BOOMING with energy, seriousness-of-purpose, and plenty of entrepreneurship–and it thrives and is sustained almost completely BECAUSE of social media. These literary writers need no support group. Over the last few years, I’ve taken my cues from them: Roxane Gay, Sean Lovelace, Dan Wickett and the folks at Dzanc Books, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Chad Simpson, Amber Sparks, Bryan Furuness, Chris Newgent. And Kelly Link, who runs her own press, is in this community, too. I could go on and on and on. I’m not even talking about the poetry community, which is almost completely sustained by social media connected-ness. Next year, go to AWP in Boston and hit the off-site events and the book fair, and you will witness literary participation and enthusiasm like you wouldn’t believe. The indie community is decidedly and proudly literary, often experimental, but until there’s more room for them at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, they are happily ensconced somewhere in the middle, making art and feeling fine. Are their books available at Target or even in a lot of bookstores? No. But they do get noticed and recognized: Ryan Call, Emma Straub, and Shane Jones published books with indie presses and were subsequently “discovered.” See, it’s not a choice between Literary vs. Commercial. It’s which kind of literary, and as I see it, the indie writing community and the commercial/mainstream writing community have a lot in common–social-media wise–but they just don’t hang out together. I do agree with you that the literary world–all of it–has a lot of biases again mainstream or commercial or genre fiction, but I see signs of that ameliorating. Julianna Baggott, Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead all have plenty of literary cred and publish books that “go genre.” The one genre that still gets no cred is romance, but that, my friend, is another story altogether…

    This is something I wanted to say when you posted about literary fiction’s “image problem” a few months ago, but I didn’t have time to respond then. I’m glad you posted about this today, because last night, when I was talking about the book cover issue with my students, they asked me “What do you mean, ‘serious’ writer? Doesn’t publishing a book make you a serious writer?” And the answer, of course, is yes and no.

    • Hey Cathy,

      Thanks for this.

      I think what I was talking about when I first started talking about this is the indie literary fiction set. The ones like Emma Straub & Elissa Schappell, etc. I see those people as the ones who can take the mainstream fiction market by storm. As you point out, Franzen and his peers don’t have to. Though I suspect that if Franzen and others like him did do social media, their readerships would expand.

      And the thing that baffles me is that this kind of emergent/experimental lit fic has to be indie when–as you mention, the no-cred–romance novelists are getting four-book deals and doing the hell out of social media and some of them are getting paid really reasonable money to write really crappy books. Even the best of the romance novels are still crappy when compared with the worst of the lit fic. And I think that while Literary novels are a ton better to read than Romance novels, a lot of them have some sorts of things in common with romance novels (attention to relationship and characters’ inner lives) that would allow them to infiltrate the romance market… if that makes any sense?

      And that’s what the Wolitzer piece in the NY Times made me think about. The way even though there is a lot of talking going on about books, not enough of it is going on about this indie lit fic set that’s been kind of relegated to the margins, and atomized within creative writing and MFA programs, and as you point out, only visible at all because of social media.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that it’s not happening, just that not enough people are talking about it–people OUTSIDE of the community of it happening. The happening is the thing I am excited about: getting the happening noticed by people who like to read. My question is why read romance novels when you can read Emma Straub’s Other People We Married? I think it’s because people who read romance novels haven’t heard of Emma Straub, and it’s not as easy to get her book as it is to get Nora Roberts’s.

      And that while people are talking about the books by Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore etc, fewer people are talking about them than are talking about everything by Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts.

      I think that there are still a lot more indie lit fic authors who don’t “do” social media than indie authors of the genres that are considered to be mainstream. There’s a kind of huge DIY movement in publishing of all sorts, and no less in mainstream/commercial/genre fiction.

      Anyway. Thanks a million for your candor and insight.

      Hope you’re well.
      -April

      • Ah, okay. So you’re aware of the community. I would argue that EVERYONE in the indie lit fic scene does social media. But perhaps they are not in your circles? I don’t know, because I’m not you. But I’m friends with many of these folks, and trust me, they do social media and they have a web presence.

        Is the problem that indie lit fic writers aren’t “trying hard enough” to reach a wider audience? Or is the problem that the audience isn’t trying hard enough to find something to read other than the books at Target that look just like the books they usually read? Do “serious” writers even necessarily WANT to be read more widely?

        I think maybe what we’re talking about here are cliques, literature’s equivalent of the high school lunchroom, and how difficult it is to move between these taxonomies, how entrenched they are. In order to get Nora Roberts’ readers to read Other People We Married, the book would probably have to look like a Nora Roberts book. And let me tell you: as soon as a book looks like that, nobody will teach it or take it seriously. Which is why it doesn’t look like “that kind of book,” and why the ghetto-ization persists.

        This piece in The New Republic is one of the few I’ve read in which a woman writer says, “Please, make my book attractive to the female book buyer.” In Defense of Girly Book Covers
        http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/102440/worlitzer-womens-literature-covers-girly#.T4Trz-X0KuU.twitter. Also worth a read.

      • Ha, Cathy! Thanks so much for all of this.

        Maybe that’s what I want. Maybe I want all the popular people to like the geeky people because they’re better (as we all know).

        Cheers!
        -A

      • “Maybe that’s what I want. Maybe I want all the popular people to like the geeky people because they’re better (as we all know).” I WANT EXACTLY THE SAME THING! :-)

    • And also, Cathy, in this post I AM talking about the big-deal guys. I realize that I got off track in my response above, talking about how I was thinking when I first started thinking about this.

  2. This is a fascinating discussion. I have really wondered what makes something literary fiction versus indie or women’s fiction. The distinctions seem very arbitrary to me as an outsider who did not get an literature or Creative Writing Degree. Now I know. If it’s literary then it’s obtuse and few people care about it, but teachers make you read it because its special (just kidding – a little).

    • I don’t think that April nor I are saying that literary means “obtuse.” Your comment makes me feel incredibly sad. You are speaking exactly to what we are talking about: the fact that readers will discount a book as “Too smart for me!” when it might be something they’d love and value. Why would do you associate “literary” with something to *avoid*? That is what I would really like to understand.

      • I am in total agreement with Cathy here, Ann! Your comment makes me sad, too! In fact, the whole reason I started this whole project of trying to get well-crafted fiction in front of more people is that I saw the thematic commonality between books they sell at Target and books I like to read, and thought, “Gosh, if more people could find out about these books easily, they might read more of them. That would be good for everybody.” I would posit that fewer people care about romances (their staying power is like short-term memory for culture) than care about the books that have influenced all of us along the way, because teachers *made* us read them. Like Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn or Wuthering Heights (or whatever it was in your case). So literature, or literary fiction, is like long-term cultural memory. It concerns me, too, that in 100 years, we’ll leave historians a meticulously kept sales record of the books we read and they will be disappointed, especially because they will also have access to the books we didn’t.

  3. Chiming in a year later. Fascinating conversation, indeed. I was just about to start outlining a blog post on writers of literary fiction and their relative presence, or absence, in social media, and why there appears to be such a gap, and why I feel like I’m alone in actually enjoying social media while also writing what I keep being told (by editors full of kind words and compliments who ultimately turn down my manuscript) is “literary” fiction. I typed “literary writers social media” into Google, and after reading Alexis Madrigal’s 2010 response to Zadie Smith’s review of The Social Network and Facebook, I came across this post. Thanks for some good food for thought.

  4. […] (Now I address the use of quotation marks, before getting rid of them. There is a massive and ongoing debate regarding what “literary” actual means. The debate is thought-provoking, fascinating, exhausting and, I think, essentially pointless. Some say the word “literary” denotes a lack of plot, that it is writing for the sake of beautiful words strung together. Some say it is idea-driven, not character-driven. It is “serious” writing. It is undefinable, but you’ll know it when you see it. Etc. To me, it is simply writing that makes one think, writing where the choice of words matters, writing that has an aesthetic value beyond the story itself, but that nonetheless can–and often does–have a wonderful story, memorable characters, a surprising yet inevitable arc. The writer April Line aptly points out that what one thinks about the literary fiction world is where one sits in relation to it.) […]

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