It used to be that ‘social networking’ (formerly known as ‘networking’) was the exclusive preserve of those who worked in the media (now known as ‘media’). Then there was a meeting to which I wasn’t invited. And now everyone’s at it.
Novelists in particular. These days it seems we’re nothing without a Facebook Group, a blog, a vlog, a series of promotional videos on YouTube, a Twitter account. And yet there’s something about our involvement in social networking that is surely counterintuitive.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with working the room per se. All novelists know the role it plays in building a readership, raising your profile, connecting with readers, etc. etc. yawnsnoozecoma. I network myself: I like pubs and in my capacity as part-time dad there’s barely a baby group within a 10 mile radius of my house that hasn’t had the pleasure of one of my ‘impromptu’ seminars on commercially available local literature. But two things vex me about the process. One is devoting quite so much precious time to something that isn’t writing. And the other is Twitter.
Twitter is a silly business. For those of you unaware of this, please let me reduce the thing to its essence. Twitter is based on ‘following’ people and trying to attract ‘followers’. The people you ‘follow’ are those you’d like to be associated with. For novelists—and I’ve done some research here—this means editors of magazines and newspapers, literary bloggers and, for some possibly Machiavellian reason I’ve yet to fathom, other novelists. Having decided to follow them, you then try to attract their attention (and alert them to the possibility of ‘following’ you) by responding to their tweets with tweets of your own.
Now I’m not denying that a relationship worthy of the name may arise from approaching such people in such a way. The possibility certainly exists that editors respond well to a never-ending stream of over-familiar attention-seeking electronic interference. Doubtless, in extreme cases, work and encomia may begin to flow the other way. But the odds aren’t good.
And even if you manage to attract the attention of your cyber-targets, they return your interest and your ‘following’ grows, that’s only the start of the trade-off. Twitter may have practical benefits but dignified it ain’t. To spend time on the thing is to immerse yourself in an ejaculatory tumult of ‘isn’t this...?’s and ‘have you seen...?’s, now honour killings, now Boris, now mushrooms on toast. It reads like a celebration of sentience for sentience’s sake.
If Twitter was merely a communication tool of course, this wouldn’t matter. But it isn’t. Because Tweets are formally constrained to 140 characters they are not simply typed but edited and revised. Or, if you like, written. As such, they are part of the ongoing dialogue between reader and writer, one that incorporates questions about how we read and what is written and why. Yet their brevity limits their contribution to this dialogue: although they can be gnomic, playful or witty, they can offer none of the poetry and wisdom that can only come from a truly reflective engagement with these questions.
The demands Twitter makes on readers and writers then, are antithetic to those made on the readers and writers of novels. By this reckoning alone, it is plain daft for us—as novelists—to tweet. We are being culturally and synaptically rewired out of existence as it is; let’s not help to speed the process up. Instead let us object, conscientiously, and stick to discourses that provide us with something more.
All of which brings us to the single most pertinent of my objections to Twitter: I’m rubbish at it. This is partly because I can’t do pith without 140 rewrites—it takes me three attempts to get a birthday card just so—and partly because I’m an expert in the art of l’esprit de l’escalier. And as for the obligation to be all up-to-the-minute and zeitgeisty? Truth be told, the whole thing makes me feel a bit Charlie Brown...