Say It To My Face: Where do writers go to speak freely?

Writers are expected to participate in informal, off-the-cuff online conversations, but find their tweets and status updates held to impossible standards. Connor Tomas O'Brien asks whether authors now find it difficult to speak honestly online – and what the implications might be for our broader cultural conversations.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson discusses the implications of what happens when public status updates are taken out of context and used to humiliate individuals. After speaking with publicists and NGO workers who lost their livelihoods for sending risqué tweets or Instagram posts into the ether, Ronson comes to a realisation: digital spaces, in enabling a new form of public shaming, may not be broadening or democratising conversation, but increasingly encouraging conformism and conservatism. If we are never quite sure whether what we say online could be wielded against us, continuous second-guessing – to avoid offending an unknown, and often unknowable audience – becomes a requisite precautionary measure. If the wrong 140 characters might lead to mass humiliation, it becomes necessary to choose wisely – or not to share at all. 

When ‘serious’ writers join Twitter, readers are disappointed to find that authors’ tweets do not match the high standard of their rigorously plotted, planned, and edited published work.

Joyce Carol Oates understands this well. The American author of over fifty well-received novels, plays, and short story collections, has a… surprising presence on Twitter. By offering her off-the-cuff, rarely moderate thoughts on controversial topics, Oates continuously opens herself up to criticism for sharing her ‘unprocessed opinions and observations with the world’. ‘Your continued presence [on Twitter] does nothing but undermine your own authority,’ writes Gawker columnist Michelle Dean to Oates, in an open letter tagged ‘Friendly Advice’, before encouraging the author to delete her Twitter account. Instead, for better or worse, Oates continues tweeting, against the wishes of her critics. 

Twitter is a strange platform for authors, who are both lambasted for refusing to participate in social media and often criticised as soon as they do. ‘I long to hear Octavia Butler’s voice in 140 characters,’ writes Mensah Demary, speaking about our desire to experience the thoughts of the authors we love in as many formats as possible. In TIMEHeba Hasan wishes J.D. Salinger would have set up an account, to ‘give us a little peephole into the life of an otherwise inaccessible curmudgeon’.

But when ‘serious’ writers do join Twitter, readers are sometimes disappointed to find that authors’ tweets do not match the high standard of their rigorously plotted, planned, and edited published work. ‘When it comes to writing long books, formulated in multiple pages and paragraphs, every sentence read in context with the one preceding it, you are… better than most of us can ever hope to be,’ writes Dean in her open letter to Joyce Carol Oates, ‘But when you offer disconnected, abbreviated, context-free thoughts [on Twitter], you are not so good.’ It’s not altogether reasonable to expect everything a writer produces should be to the standard of their edited published work, and yet authors who engage in informal public conversations online – where a lot of these kinds of conversations happen – are increasingly surveyed and assessed as though their tweets or status updates constitute part of their body of official work. And whenever they mess up – which happens regularly – readers take notice.

Writing in the New YorkerMark O’Connell notes that, while, ‘Any act of writing creates conditions for the author’s possible mortification… the possibility of embarrassment is ever-present with Twitter—it inheres in the form itself unless you’re the kind of charmed (or cursed) soul for whom embarrassment is never a possibility to begin with.’ While Jon Ronson makes it clear that any of us might be targeted for an ill-advised tweet, authors are held to even higher standards – to never say anything that might be wrong, or improperly fact-checked, or poorly-phrased, ever. 

Author Teju Cole has publicly acknowledged that he treats tweeting as serious literary work. ‘Yes, I know it's weird,’ he says. ‘Two drafts of a tweet? Insufferable.’ But he acknowledges the standards are higher for authors on Twitter. ‘It's like saying, Oh, someone's an accountant and when they're reckoning the bill in a restaurant, they can afford to be sloppy because they're an accountant all the time. When I tweet, I'm still a writer.’

 

Unbound Discussion

Still, what happens when writers want to speak or write freely, or simply play with dangerous ideas, without being held to the high standards readers expect from them? To simply talk, without the burdens and expectations that are associated with being a capital-A ‘Author’? Cultural critic Mel Campbell suggests that writers may be increasingly wary of speaking their minds online, especially on informal public platforms like Twitter, where there are no editors to act as buffers between writer and reader. ‘I wonder how much more frank literary discussion happens in closed message threads, in email discussions and in person,’ says Campbell, ‘where people feel safer from online comment wars, and the possible reprisals from being seen to be too publicly critical, and critical of particular people, scenes, publications, publishers, styles and genres.’ 

The emergence of secret Facebook groups for writers, in particular groups like Binders Full of Women Writers in the US, and international variations, offer just this kind of in-between space for authors who might want a space to share honestly and candidly, but where the threat of shaming or harassment is mitigated by knowledge that the audience for their writing is limited and known. In particular, secret online groups provide the ability for writers who may lack positions of power in broader literary circles to trade experiences, frustrations, and opportunities, without attracting the attention of those who might troll or shame them in a more public forum. Campbell notes that, when authors are writing publically – either for a publication, or on Twitter – the stakes are raised, such that ‘even the mildest observations can be interpreted as harsh sledging’. Private online groups can temper this perception by ensuring that all participants are aware of settled ground rules – or by simply ensuring that the object of the perceived sledge isn’t present to read it. 

If many authors now – understandably – feel it necessary to continuously self-censor when sharing outside of private spaces, what happens to the shape of public discussions, so often traditionally guided by authors and intellectuals?

At the same time, even informal, conversational writing intended only for consumption by other writers, in private online spaces can – and has – been used to humiliate writers. Earlier this year, American journalist Jonathan Chait published an article in New York magazine in which he gained second-hand access to the Binders Facebook group, then proceeded to reference private posts from writers in the group to make a point about the nature of political correctness. Even when writers attempt to make it clear their work is not intended for public consumption, there appears to be a perception that, by virtue of their career choice, every word they write is tacitly open for public dissection – and outrage. Now that private literary conversations from Binders have been referenced in a major publication, it is likely that many of the writers who would have previously felt comfortable there are being drawn to even more intimate channels, where there are no Jonathan Chaits lurking.

The tendency for frank literary discourse to trickle even further away from public channels and toward increasingly private groups, from Facebook groups to informal email threads, might have a chilling effect on public conversations. If many authors now – understandably – feel it necessary to continuously self-censor when sharing outside of private spaces, what happens to the shape of public discussions, so often traditionally guided by authors and intellectuals?

 

Between Friends and Trolls

Monthly blogger Aicha Marhfour recently expressed her frustrations on Twitter. ‘THIS IS A SUBTWEET TO THE AUSTRALIAN LIT SCENE,’ she wrote. ‘I don't want genteel tweets and THEN the snarky personal emails! I want feuds, blood…This is a personal commitment, and I want ALL YOU WRITER FOLK to do it - fuck pos vibes. Show how selfish & jealous you are, in public.’

In Australia in particular, concerns are regularly raised about what happens when too much literary conversation happens behind closed doors. Over the past few years, critics have asked questions about whether the Australian publishing industry is beset by ‘invidious backscratching’ or a culture of ‘parochial and myopic clique logic’, which can be a natural response to feeling that authors may not always be ‘necessarily saying all they’re thinking’. The Saturday Paper’s continued experiment with anonymous book reviews seems intended to act as a corrective to this, by enabling other writers to offer honest assessments of the work of peers without fear of reprisal, but this has been beset by other issues: perceptions, for example, that anonymous reviewers may be using the position to bully without accountability.

In the online ‘critical vocabulary’, Schwartz argues, ‘There are friends and trolls. There is nothing in between.’

Why is it so difficult for writers to simply speak freely online? Oscar Schwartz, a writer and researcher who examines the interplay between literature and digital spaces, believes that there is a fundamental issue in terms of authors and readers attempting to transition to social media from print. ‘Interacting with a print book is mostly private - talking about it with friends, in book clubs, et cetera,’ Schwartz says. ‘Public response to books are often done via extended criticism and follow the conventions of criticism - an opinion, and an extended defence of the opinion.’ But when authors interact with readers online, especially when the author is offering thoughts more informally and conversationally, the parameters shift. In the online ‘critical vocabulary’, Schwartz argues, ‘There are friends and trolls. There is nothing in between.’

Still, perhaps one of the more interesting games engaged readers can play is trying to decipher what authors mightn’t feel comfortable saying publicly, outside of their published work. Schwartz agrees. ‘no gap between how one presents themselves and their behaviour is admirable. a medium gap between how one presents themselves and their behaviour is off-putting. a big gap between how one presents themselves and their behaviour is interesting,’ he tweets