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