ARTS & CULTURE

How Social Media Changed The Way We Read Books

The boundary between author and readers is disappearing. What does that mean for the future of storytelling?

03/12/2015 2:47 AM AEDT | Updated 03/12/2015 2:48 AM AEDT
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Last week, during a dwindling work day, I scrolled through Twitter for something to engage me, something newsworthy or pithy or both. I felt drawn to the sort of tweet that was neither hackneyed nor too intimate, neither click-baity nor dry. After all, I’d curated a list of Twitter accounts that more or less pandered to my precise interests. News sites that specialize in deep dives into the uncanny, authors who manage to employ their style in 140-character observations.

Instead -- and I’m sure you’ll relate to this painful experience -- what I got was a rash of strangely dogmatic tweets from an author I like, Joyce Carol Oates. “This is sad,” the National Book Award-winning author wrote, “Please consider ‘fostering’ these orphans ... ” Embedded in the tweet is another tweet from @citykitties, and a link to adult cats in need of owners.

“God,” I wrote a coworker. “Joyce Carol Oates is everyone’s most condescending friend.” What I meant was that this type of tweeting -- sharing something tragic yet too specific to be engaged with meaningfully in quick, offhand conversation -- was uncomfortable to read. What I didn’t say was that I was confused and bothered by the dissonance between the words I was used to reading under her name, and the words she proliferated daily.

I’d read Mudwoman and enjoyed it, finding the style Oates used when bringing to life the windstorm of thoughts that accompany a nervous breakdown thoughtful and artistic. I didn’t like it as much as A Garden of Earthly Delights, though. It’s hard for me to say whether my opinion on the former was colored by Oates’s truly bizarre Twitter feed, and as much as I’d like for that not to be true, it seems likely.

By the time I read Mudwoman, Oates had already made a reputation for herself on Twitter. She was an early adopter of the platform, and, just as she writes books prolifically, she tweeted relentlessly about anything that came to mind, sans the artistic filter that’s presumably in place when she writes her fiction. When reading the deliberately chosen words of Mudwoman, I couldn’t unsee her weird pontifications on naps and kittens. This is because, for better or for worse, social media has turned Famous Authors into mere mortals, Literary Novels into malleable things that can bend to match our own personal experiences.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the fan pages and social media accounts of authors with huge followings -- J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin in particular.

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Occasionally, Rowling will tweet new details that cast Hogwarts in a new light, infuriating fans who feel their own interpretations of the books have been undermined. To firm up the boundary between writer and reader, Rowling will encourage some debate, but assert that some of her characters’ attributes -- like the pronunciation of Voldemort’s name -- are fixed truths. As the creator of the Harry Potter world, she has every right to share notes about it not included in the books proper. But for readers who’ve devoted hours to exploring her pages, claiming such ownership is a bristly matter. We’re torn by our warring wants: we want more of the books we love, but we want the books we love to remain sacred, fixed things.

For the most part, authors seem pleased with the ability to give their readers more to chew on outside of their published stories. In an email exchange with Andy Weir, author of The Martian, he told me about the positive impact social platforms have had on his book. "Social media removes barriers for my readers,” he wrote. “They feel a much more direct connection with me because they can message me directly and I answer them. I'm not a faceless entity like authors of the past. My readers know the person behind the story -- my interests, my hobbies, and my concerns. It fosters a much closer connection. Instead of being ‘a book,’ it's ‘a book by this guy I know.’”

Here’s the rub: our dream of reducing the author, previously enthroned as a kind of genius, to a pal we can chat with, works better when the author has a palatable personality. Ideally, she should be prone to quip-making, should be mostly apolitical (or at least have straightforward, digestible political opinions), and should be consistent in her mood or beliefs. Anything else is “bizarre”; anything else is Joyce Carol Oates.

This doesn’t leave very much room for the sort of grey area so much good fiction lives in -- worlds where opinions are changeable, moods are capricious, and people are human. Worlds where we rant about how sad it is to see so many cats go unadopted, and yet maintain a level of respect in the public eye.

This, coupled with the amount of energy it takes to lay one's personality bare publicly, has led plenty of authors to forgo the whole social media thing altogether, or at least cut back on the time they spend interacting. Jonathan Franzen probably won't be taking up tweeting anytime soon, and Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, recently requested that teachers not ask their students to email her. "It's not fair to us or to them," she wrote. Both Ng and Franzen are making personal choices by abstaining, to some degree, from socializing. Both Ng and Franzen got a lot of flak for their choices. 

There’s an upside to all of this, particularly for authors of nonfiction books meant to spark a conversation about the topic at hand, or authors who write books that directly address their readers. One such book, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, was actually inspired by the author’s bevy of Facebook fans.

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Gilbert told The Huffington Post that her latest book “would not exist without my relationship with my Facebook followers.” She added, “When it came time to write this book, I was therefore able to write directly to my readers, because I know them so well. For me, social media dissolved the border between author and reader, replacing that border with real intimacy.”

A few other authors I emailed had similar feelings about engaging with their readers on social media platforms, Facebook in particular. Paulo Coelho observed, “My bonds with my audience have never been stronger. Now I can really interact with readers,” but added, “I believe books in the future will change totally, and I need to be ready for this.”

Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir inspired a litany of fans well before it was adapted into a blockbuster movie, wrote, “Social media platforms have reduced the distance between readers and authors -- at least authors who are active on social media. It’s also expanded the conversational territory between readers and authors who are active on social media. It’s no longer limited to the books that have been written and read.”

Strayed points out the value of the aura that now surrounds a book: “You can talk to Susan Orlean about her pets because she’s tweeting about them or you can get recommendations from Elizabeth Gilbert about where to go in Greece because she’s posting photos of her recent travels there.”

Such conversations are fun ways for readers to immerse themselves further into authors’ worlds, generating the deeper sense of intimacy that writing is supposed to be about. The only danger in this is that when that sense of intimacy is established -- when author and reader are put on level playing fields -- the reader sometimes begins to feel ownership of the book’s content. Trust that the author knows what she's talking about can be diminished, as myriad interpretations grow into larger, more emphatic conclusions. The book, once a solid physical object, risks becoming a fluid thing, subject to quick shifts in meaning, tone and content, like a chat with a friend. 

The metaphor we choose here matters. The book could also be characterized as an inanimate thing brought to life by the conversation it inspires. It could be characterized, too, as a house with sturdy walls and open doors. As readers, we’re invited in, but we should be polite. We should not track our dirty footprints all over the carpet. After all, it’s not our house.

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