Help me out, everyone. Comments this time will be useful.
I wrestle sometimes with my own nature, and the changing nature of the book world and our culture as a whole. As I have said before, the pressure on writers (especially younger ones, but not only) to do more than ‘just’ write their books is more and more obviously undermining people I know. Add this to expectations of speed in delivery of books, and the home run or strike out mentality of the industry, and it is too easy to see some sad, stressed author behaviour (sad for me, at any rate).
But that ‘sad for me’ is the point of this post. I may just be out of step. I don’t think so, obviously, or I’d be acting differently, but I have friends and colleagues making a case regarding authors and readers and the need to use, to mobilize, one’s reader base. I called this the ‘Release the Fans’ idea in a newspaper op-ed a while back. I just don’t think of readers as there to be mobilized, but that’s the issue.
This all came up again in discussions over the last ten days or so. CBC in Canada ran an book awards competition called the Bookies, across many categories. Voting was online. River of Stars was nominated in one category, with the immensely distinguished Margaret Atwood as the favourite.
I didn’t post anything about it here on the journal while the voting was open, or allow (or request) the Bright Weavings team on Facebook or the main website to alert that the competition was even on. I did a generic tweet about the entire multi-category event, and another at the very end expressing (real) pleasure at being runner-up to Atwood’s Maddadam.
But I didn’t want to campaign. I never want to campaign. And I am now being told by culture-astute and web-savvy friends and professional colleagues that this is because I misunderstand the real nature of what is going on. So I want to open it up for discussion.
The shrewdest one lecturing me, probably (an unfairly sharp cousin), says I am over-focused on these things in terms of the legitimacy of the award. In other words, I don’t want to turn winning or losing into who cajoles most or loudest, or who has the most fame or Twitter/FB followers (this happens for other awards too, of course). I am, she says, too hung up on the ‘legitimacy’ issue.
Her take is that these awards are never going to truly be about the ‘best’. That the Oscars, say, have long had aggressive ‘for your consideration’ campaigning. (All thanks to Harvey Weinstein? I think it pre-dates him but he made it a modus operandi.) These popular vote awards are about empowering readers to be more than merely passive enjoyers of a given writer (or writers), she argues. They let readers participate, fight, lobby, engage, be active. She tells me I am denying my readers the chance to do that by staying quiet when the votes come up.
And there are writers I respect who obviously agree. They treat the Bookies (and others) as a game of sorts – though some think of them as mattering more than they do, I suspect. They rally their online forces, spread the word often … do the ’empowering’ thing, if that is what it is.
It therefore becomes, some are urging me, about the new age of active consumers of any art. Passive enjoyment is old school. This is an age of real time tweeting of a television show (building community), of Kickstarter campaigns to revive cancelled favourites (why does the network get to decide?), or even, on the very dark side, aggressive online threats to actresses (usually actresses, alas) who are disliked. I’ve written an essay about how this level of consumer activism can’t help but shape the art produced when the work is ongoing and the feedback is continuous and urgent. (I’m not saying this is automatically ‘for the worse’ but I’m noting the process.)
I have argued before, perhaps quixotically, for the value of some distance between writer and work, writer and reader, preserving a space where the reaction to the books (in this case) is not bundled with a reaction or ‘relationship’ with the writer.
Let me digress, but it isn’t really a digression (just looks like one!).
When I was young, first reading and writing and studying poetry, Robert Frost was seen by most of us as safe, bland, boring, the whole crusty New England thing was uncool. It took the outstanding critic Randall Jarrell, with two superb essays on Frost’s brilliance to change my mind (and I’ve tried to be an advocate ever since). But something else happened when I was still young, and it had to do with the man, not the work.
A three volume biography came out on Frost and it pretty much savaged him, left him in the dumpster. Frost was an evil, odious, selfish, vain, unfeeling near-monster. This biography stamped him in the minds of my generation (those who cared). It was long, long afterwards that we learned that this biographer had had a huge, compromising, personal agenda, a reason for vilifying his subject. But when a far better, balanced, biography came out it made very few waves: the image was set too hard, even among those who knew or should have known better. (Joyce Carol Oates wrote a recent story using Evil Frost as a character and I admit I was disappointed. To be fair, she now says, apparently, she was ‘commenting’ on the phenomenon, not endorsing it.)
The good news is, just this month the first volume of Frost’s Letters has appeared and reviews seem to be (finally!) working to correct the entrenched maligning view of the man and poet. I’ve seen several pieces to this effect in the last few days.
My point here (see, it wasn’t a digression) is that focusing on the artist, accurately or otherwise, can lead us to lose or devalue – or overvalue, in other cases – the work. This, as I have said here before, is part of my ambivalence about social media.
It is possible I am just out of synch in this. On the other hand, I have (this post is evidence!) spent years crossing towards the new online world order, sharing tour information, industry norms, and very personal reflections with readers (and non-readers, in theory) here, through Bright Weavings or its Facebook page, and more recently on Twitter. If I’m hiding, I’m not doing it very well.
But I still wonder about the Darwinian analysis of the process today. It is being argued that only those who ‘get’ the new system, who plug in all the way, campaign, lobby, hit book clubs non-stop, pop onto each others’ blogs, make deals or promises to vote for each other, essentially looking to create a readership (or fanbase, but I prefer to speak of readers, not fans) in order to leverage it … these are the writers who will succeed.
Leaving aside issues of excellence (another essay, maybe?) I’d argue, that this take on things may leave open what ‘success’ is in the larger scheme of art and life.
If people are driven to exhaustion, are made deeply stressed and anxious, feel fearful if they don’t have a good blog idea for a given day, or a witty tweet lined up (or are afraid their latest tweet will elicit hate), if all this subverts their writing, who has won? Do readers win if a liked writer hurries a weaker book out? Do we care about quality or about connecting? Is there a role for grace or restraint? Are we always served by more intimacy – or (very often) the illusion of it?
I’m not sure. That’s why I’m throwing out these questions. They are real ones, not rhetorical. I’m interested in the answers. And thanks.