Sunday, 6 October 2013

Does Jonathan Franzen have a point about Twitter?

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, hasn’t been happy with technology for some time. He uses it, of course, but has warned that it is ‘a weird, compulsive, almost addictive thing which doesn’t seem to have much to do with what were thought to be the great benefits of it.’ Recently he’s been talking about Twitter and sounding almost apocalyptic. He finds it ‘particularly alarming’ that freelance writers are now forced into ‘constant self promotion’ instead of ‘developing their craft’. New authors, he claims, are being told they must improve their social network presence before their manuscripts can be considered and cites 250 followers on Twitter as the point at which a new writer’s work will warrant notice. For him, this is terribly wrong. The act of writing is the antithesis of Twitter’s shared communal ethic. ‘The whole definition of literature is that people go off by themselves and develop a distinctive voice. It’s not a communal enterprise.’

It’s tempting for me to agree wholeheartedly with those sentiments. I’ve always had problems understanding how Twitter can work for a writer. I’ve seen the social network portrayed positively as a conversation between ‘friends’ - people contributing their thoughts, responding to others, supporting followers. Yet that hasn’t been my experience. It has seemed far more like a crowd of disparate voices shouting into the void. Only when individuals actually know each other through some other medium - email, internet forums and dare I say it, face to face – is there likely to be any response, any attempt at a ‘conversation’. Maybe it’s just that I’m woefully inadequate on Twitter. In over a year I’ve managed to amass the princely sum of 93 followers. Sounds pathetic? But it’s the result of only following people who interest me and when I see someone who notches up five thousand followers, I’m stunned. How can any one person be interested in five thousand different individuals?

So if you’re a writer and use Twitter, what’s the benefit to you? There has to be one. As Franzen intimates, time spent tweeting is not time spent ‘developing your craft’. Does it help authors sell their books? I’m dubious. How many people respond to the ‘Buy my latest Novel’ kind of shout. Very few I imagine. Does it lead to useful discussions on the craft of writing? Occasionally a tweet has taken me to an interesting blog post that’s been worth following up but that’s rare. Or is the site’s sole benefit to raise a writer’s profile? I think this must be the case, though I’m not even sure it does that. Still, I’m willing to be converted on Twitter’s virtues so here I am, waiting to be persuaded. Somehow, though, I think I’ll be hanging in that void again!


  1. I'm not much of a tweeter, but I check the feed to see what some of my writer buddies are doing in terms of rants or diversionary links and articles. I tend to agree with Franzen that an assumption is creeping forward that writers and their stories are communal property. Casual rampant piracy might be one manifestation of this trend, publisher complaisance about piracy another, but it goes wider than that.

    At a recent writers' workshop put on by folks I respect tremendously, I heard, "EVERYBODY works with critique partners and beta readers. EVERYBODY. That's how it's done these days."

    I don't work that way, but I felt a bit like slouching down in my seat and trying to look innocent when I heard that--also like going back to my hotel room, where in solitude, peace and quiet, I could get some more work done on my WIP.

  2. Hi Grace

    Thanks for a very interesting response. Quite scary, isn't it, that there's such a powerful expectation every author will write in the same way. If you're feeling uncertain about your work - maybe just starting out on the writing journey - you could be 'persuaded' into something that was quite wrong instead of gradually discovering what works best for you.