After a tour of all the precincts of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, and Medium, I decided I still like my own blog best! It has zero reach and almost nobody reads it, but it’s fun, and it doesn’t actively make my life worse.
I decided, actually, to spend a little bit more time cultivating one-on-one relationships. When I thought of the most popular and charismatic people I knew, one thing that cut across them, actually, was that they tend to put little effort into social media and a lot of effort into developing intimacy with their friends.
Of course I don’t want to be one of those people who bags on social media. I’ve found it to be a very useful tool for getting better acquainted with people I already know. Facebook has given me a lot in this life. I’ve reconnected with several old friends, and I’ve becom better acquainted with scores of people who I probably would’ve lost touch with were it not for the platform.
But as a marketing tool or a tool for broader engagement with the intellectual world, I’m not sure social media is for me.
The truth is, sometimes I feel a little lonely, when it comes to my intellectual interests. For instance, right now I’m reading a lot of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was a 19th century writer of sensation novels. Essentially, her books are thrillers, she wrote thrillers. But because it was the 19th century, her thrillers proceed at a rather sedate pace. And yet she’s a master of keeping you in suspense. And her plots proceed in such a cunning and thoughtful manner that the writer in me is very impressed. Previously, I’d read a little Wilkie Collins, and although I liked it, I didn’t enjoy how contorted his plots were. The book seemed to be straining to deliver shocks and surprises. Whereas Braddon is very in tune with the virtues of the form. She’s still writing domestic stories and still writing novels of manners, but in her books the manners are now somewhat expanded, to include things like murder and bigamy. It’s good stuff! Particularly when you compare it to current domestic thrillers, which I also find to often be somewhat sweaty in their plotting. I think there’s a lot of value to reading books that were written before current standards cohered. Because she’s not working with the framework of the “thriller”, Braddon doesn’t need to try so hard to be thrilling.
But who is there to talk to about these things? I thought maybe I’d find somebody on Twitter, but to be honest, Twitter seems mostly concerned with discussing ephemera. Even in the literary world, there’s a certain level of faddishness that doesn’t excite me. I don’t hate what is new, but I also don’t instinctively think that it’s superior to what is old. And I don’t see why our conversation has to be dominated by books that came out this year and writers who are currently alive.
One might think that I’d find people to talk to within the academy, but again I don’t know. I find that academics don’t read in either the way a writer or an ordinary person does. They don’t seem to read for pleasure. They rarely read outside their field. And they read with an agenda, to prove or disprove some particular point. There’s no feeling of wonderment.
Oftentimes I think writers are the true heirs to the world of literature. Alone amongst peoples, we have permission to read widely and to read deeply and to read only the best of what literature has to offer.
The real problem here is that when we writers follow our own tastes, those tastes take us into peculiar and unique places, whereas if we just read whatever is getting reviewed this week in the New York Times, we’re able to read it along with everybody else, and, as such, we get the pleasure of discussing it. Because of that, current discussion will always, of necessity, be dominated by the new and contemporary. Everybody out there might be reading their own M.E. Braddon, but their Braddons are all different, while if we’re reading contemporary novels, we’re probably reading Sally Rooney.
It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s not even a problem with human nature. It’s structural, mathematical, a problem of the long-tail distribution of the books that sell and are read each year.
I guess I just wish that the current books that everybody was talking about were, like, better? I wish they actually merited all this discussion. I wish there was still something interesting to say about them. And I wish there was some way of talking about them without either being gushy or completely disdaining them. These are all things that, I think, come easier when a book is older and an author is dead. But by the time it’s possible to say something interesting about a book, everyone has forgotten it! So the only times you get a fun discussion about a book is when its stock is rising, as with John Williams’s STONER or John Okada’s NO-NO BOYS, or when its stock is falling, as with INFINITE JEST, and you get to have post-facto arguments about it that lead people to read it to see what the fuss is about.