The Death of the Literary Recluse (And Also, Is The Internet Ruining Us?)

To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960. Since then, Harper Lee has appeared in public a handful of times. She never wrote another book, and she rarely grants interviews. 

In 1951, J.D. Salinger published his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye. As the book grew in popularity, the author withdrew from public, moving from his Manhattan apartment to Cornish, New Hampshire. From there, he published three more books, all without maintaining a public profile. 

Only a few photos of Thomas Pynchon exist, nearly all from high school and college. He's published eight novels, and despite some high-profile "appearances"--like in animated form, as himself on The Simpsons--there's still a great deal of speculation about him. 

These authors, and others, carry an air of mystique that make them bigger than their writing. They leave more questions than they answer: Why didn't Lee finish The Long Goodbye, her second book? How many novels did Salinger write that will never be released? What does Pynchon even look like? 

These are authors we feel like we know, but we never really did. 

They're also a dying breed--the literary recluse, rendered obsolete by blogging and social networking.

The Perks

These authors, and others, carry an air of mystique that make them bigger than their writing.... They're also a dying breed--the literary recluse, rendered obsolete by blogging and social networking.

One of the best parts about being a big-time author (I imagine) is that you get to be famous while maintaining some degree of privacy. Honestly, if Jeffrey Eugenides or Cormac McCarthy got on line behind you at a grocery store, would you notice? Unless you were a die-hard fan, probably not.

Anonymity and privacy are great things--especially for writers. We're introverts by nature. We observe and we process and we retreat to dark corners to take what we learn and filter it through our own lens.

I wonder how important that anonymity is to the process--if we need the quiet and the solitude. If we need to not only stand on the outside of things, but feel like that's the only place where we have any standing. 

Except the ability to maintain a wall of privacy is eroding. 

New World Order

For as little as we know about Pynchon, there are authors I follow on Twitter that I know a lot about--too much about. What they ate for breakfast and that weird foot rash they have and what their baby did this morning.

Some of the old guard holds out against the social media stuff. I publish backlist books at MysteriousPress.com and I deal with an older stable of authors--most of them do not use social networking. But that's getting more and more rare. 

It's said that if you want to be an author today, you should get yourself a blog and build yourself a platform on social media, and oh yea, if you have a little time, maybe get some writing in? There's so much weight given to public profiles, and agents and publishers often look at Twitter followers and blog chatter when considering a new client (not to say this is the sole deciding factor or that the writing isn't given any weight, but it happens).

And I wonder, is it even possible for someone my age, getting into this game now, to achieve the notoriety of a Salinger or a Lee or a Pynchon, while still maintaining some degree of privacy? 

Or am I doomed to forcing myself to blog a couple of times a week, to tweet a bon mot once or twice a day, so an over-stimulated audience doesn't forget about me? 

Shut Up and Write

The internet isn't just a huge vacuum of whoring--it's also an incredible distraction. Seriously, what's with cats? Cats make up a huge portion of the internet. In fact, I was able to find an official breakdown of the internet, and here's what it looks like:

  • 60 percent cats
  • 30 percent porn
  • 8 percent Facebook
  • 2 percent memes I understand
  • 2.5 percent memes I don't understand
  • .5 percent actual valuable content

It's so hard to get work done. I turn off the internet, and then realize I need to know what model of hybrid car is used by the New York City taxi fleet (Ford Escape), and then I notice I have a message waiting on Facebook and then oh my god look at this owl

So for as much as the internet has given us--the ability to find pretty much any answer, instantaneously, has it also hurt us? Is all of this taking us away from what we really should be doing, which is writing? 

Negativity Bringin' Us Down

Then there's the Fifty Shades of Grey effect. Where we compare ourselves and measure ourselves against this really dumb book that's not even really worth the attention, and we get in arguments and clutch our pearls and bemoan the state of publishing and culture. 

Yes, it's a dumb book and it's a best seller, but you know what? It's just a book. If people are going to read it, whatever. There's no accounting for taste. But we're not going to stop them. The only reason the myth of it is perpetuated is because people keep talking about it. It's an endless cycle of abuse.

I'm not blameless. I've written about it a number of times for LitReactor. I'm at the point where, unless EL James goes on a killing spree, or writes a good book, or Jesus is resurrected and says it's the new Bible, I'm not writing about it anymore. (Except this one time, to make a point.) 

So not only are we getting sucked into these traps of promoting ourselves, we get obsessed with tearing down or complaining about the things we wish were different but can't change--like getting mad about the direction of the wind. 

Not All Bad

Now, there's upsides here. Social media has made it possible for writers to better reach audiences, to find like-minded communities of writers, to better ourselves with educational tools and workshops (like the one at LitReactor!). 

One of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a writer is the chance to write blog posts and columns here, which I wouldn't have been able to do without the internet. I've used it to make friends with other writers, and meet my idols, and even write some articles that people have noticed. Neil Gaiman retweeted one of my articles once, and if not for Twitter, that never would have happened, and I mean, c'mon.

That's awesome. 

But what about that wall of privacy, which has been knocked down in the name of oversharing? Is it making us worse, or better? 

Your Turn

I know I'm speaking in broad terms here, and there are a lot of factors to consider. This is more an opportunity to drive discussion. So, what do you think? 

Is it possible for an author to achieve notoriety without whoring themselves on social media? 

Has social media and internet ephemera made it harder for us to focus and do what matters, and write? 

Who's your favorite reclusive author? 

Image of The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J. D. Salinger
Price: $8.99
Publisher: Back Bay Books (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 288 pages
Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

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Comments

Pezcore1123's picture
Pezcore1123 from Webster, NY is reading your profile August 21, 2012 - 11:35am

Best article ever!  No seriously, it is, because it speaks to me.  And I'm important, at least that's what the internet tells me.

But really, it is true.  Right now I am fighting deadlines with my editor on the release of my first book.  I'm also writing another book.  My blog has a thick coat of cyber-dust on it because it's next to worthless.  I write books, and maybe a short story here and there, I'm not a blogger.  My Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Linked In accounts are all linked together.  Because I'm lazy and don't want to lose writing time.  And still, I'm posting in the comments section on this article.  After about 30 minutes of staring mindlessly at Facebook.

I know authors who have said fuck it and deleted their entire online profiles for these reasons right here.

 

Michael Thomas's picture
Michael Thomas from South Jersey is reading books August 21, 2012 - 12:22pm

I find this sort of discouraging as a 26 year-old aspiring writer. I write because I love to and it makes me feel good. The internet is one of many reasons why I'm not as disciplined as I should be and it's easy to call it a huge distraction. I loathe all social media because it just feeds narcissism which is widespread in our celebrity obsessed culture. Sites like LitReactor are awesome though, because it's a community of like-minded individuals which could only help your writing...if used appropriately.

I take pride in my lack of a social media presence and my preference to withdrawl from public. If, someday, I were to write something worthy of being sold, I don't think I'd ever start up a blog or Facebook. But I might have to....and, to me, that kind of sucks.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David August 21, 2012 - 1:00pm

If you're a writer in the 21st century you're already anonymous. Robert Heinlen was on my paper route when I was a kid. I hadn't read his stuff then so he was just another driveway.Last semester Jane Smiley lectured at our school, she lives a few miles from me, I doubt I could recognize her today.

I know Stephen King's face, but not Dean Koontz. I know Tom Clancy because he's kind of a media whore. My point is JD Salenger tried too hard.

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables August 21, 2012 - 1:19pm

Um...cute owl. In all seriousness though, I am still working on my first novel, but facebook has proved an excellent tool for building enthusiasm and sharing my progress (even if it is just people who already know me). But, even though I have a twitter account, I'm pretty sure I have three followers and the only tweets I've done have come from updating my facebook page. And I still don't even really know what Tumblr is. I would like to think I'm not missing out on something big there, but really I just want to finish a book (like in a few weeks) and it's hard to get behind all the social media when my main priority is so close.

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing August 21, 2012 - 3:14pm

The only reason I know what Stephen King looks like is because he's a Red Sox fan (and did a guest spot on Sons of Anarchy).

And this is the only owl on the Interwebz I have time for:

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 21, 2012 - 3:49pm

I tend to agree with Marc Ferris. Even as popular as 50 Shades is, I think I've seen one picture of that woman. I probably wouldn't notice her in public. A lot of books don't have author pics. I think that, thanks to the internet, if you wanted to truly and completely disappear, it'd be more difficult than earlier times, but not impossible given the effective anonymity many, if not most, authors already have.

Mickerdoo's picture
Mickerdoo from Brooklyn via the Center of The Universe August 22, 2012 - 10:36am

Like just about everything else(that's trying to be promoted online), I think some people are still finding what their voice should be in the Twitterverse and on Facebook, etc. Someone 'likes' an author on Facebook, but may not want the everyday banter. Meanwhile, someone 'follows' an author on Twitter, they may expect a more lively outlet. Some people are so natural at engaging an audience or discussing writing(theirs or other), Twitter might be a natural direction. Others may look at social media simply as a platform to promote new material, announce book readings, etc. The trick is finding the happy medium.

Ultimately, I don't think writers need to whore themselves on social media, they just need to choose the path that best fits their style of communicating. As far as social media being a distraction, I don't think it's any more a distraction than a Law & Order Marathon or a buddy asking 'Hey man, want to get a beer or 6?". It's certainly a new excuse, but that's something entirely different that prevents a writer from getting down to work.

underpurplemoon's picture
underpurplemoon from PDX August 23, 2012 - 9:59pm

I've deleted and created so many Facebook accounts that now I can say that I'm done. I only keep my current one for the purpose of information to better my education in the school of life.

I agree, this was one of the best articles I've read in a while. Just posting random thoughts here.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 25, 2012 - 1:07am

I'd have to agree with Marc. It didn't even click that the kid I was in high school with's Dad had the same name as a fairly famous author, much less that he WAS that fairly famous author. Your fan base might know you, but even some household names like Dean Koontz I couldn't pick out of a line up.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami July 15, 2014 - 8:07pm

William Gibson, P.L. Travers, Edgar Allen Poe, Harlan Ellison, the list could go on and on. People had their books sold before the internet without the internet, and will probably continue to do so.