Prolific writer and blogger Dean Wesley Smith recently published an article entitled “The New World of Publishing: Promotion.” His Rule #3 for writers snagged my attention because it had direct bearing on a pair of experiences I’d recently had in the world of social media. Here’s the passage:
“3… Never, anywhere (except with your closest friends), talk about politics or religion. Anywhere. Just will cost you a ton of readers. (Added note: Fine to write about it in your fiction. Just don’t talk about it in your social media. You want everyone to buy your book, not just people who agree with you.)”
In this modern age of immediate access to a multiplicity of social media outlets (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, message boards, etc.), this can be hard advice to follow (particularly for the more garrulous among us). However, purely as career advice, I agree with it one hundred percent. (I emphasize that italicized clause because there are times that a writer may feel, with much justification, that he or she must consider matters beyond what is good for the career; I’ll speak more of this later in my article.)
Social media can be both seductive in its faux intimacy and misleading due to the invisibility of its reach. Note that in his advice above, Smith directs us to steer clear of discussions of politics or religion except with our “closest friends.” The danger of social media for writers (most of whom would number among their primary goals attracting readers and selling their works) is that sites such as Facebook are set up to lull us into the notion that we are, indeed, having a chat with our “closest friends” – when, in actuality, our chat is being “overheard” by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of silent, invisible eavesdroppers, each of whom may feel compelled to make a judgment upon what we are (oftentimes casually) saying that can impact their decision to buy or not to buy our work.
Before I ever set words to paper, I was a reader. Reading remains my primary hobby and one of my chief pleasures. I’m writing this post from the perspective of a reader, not a writer. In enticing me as a reader, writers make a unique request – they invite me to come share their mind-space for a period of anywhere from a half-hour (a short story) to multiple hours over a period of many weeks (a long novel). That’s a pretty intimate setup. If I’m going to crawl inside someone’s head for any length of time, I want to have positive feelings about that person. I want to like them; otherwise, the experience of crawling inside their head will be icky and off-putting. So, as a reader, I have a strong incentive to maintain a positive outlook on any writer whose works I wish to read (at least those works I intend to read for pleasure, rather than for utilitarian reasons like gathering information).
My wife talked me into getting on Facebook a little over a year ago, about the same time I started blogging. She sold me on the notion it was a tool I could use for two purposes: easily keeping up with what my friends and extended family are up to, and giving gentle “pushes” to my writing projects and signings or convention appearances. I’d say that close to fifty percent of my Facebook friends are fellow writers or editors. Many of them are active on Facebook for the same two reasons I am. Some of them enjoy passing along jokes or funny Photoshop screenshots they’ve come across. Lots of them like to gossip or talk politics; oftentimes, these two latter activities go hand-in-hand. I say that because I believe most objective observers would have to conclude that the great majority of political exchanges on Facebook and Twitter are gossip, rather than attempts at reasoned discourse or persuasion.
Gossip has a scurrilous reputation. But it is an almost universally engaged in activity because it fulfills an important social function – it bonds gossip partners together, and it often helps to define group boundaries, the ins and the outs. Because it is a bonding activity, gossip is fun; this is mortifying, but understandable. Many writers, being engaged in typically solitary work, eagerly grasp whatever opportunities they have to be social with one another. The professional writers’ version of office gossip around the water cooler is huddling together at the hotel bar during a literary convention. Or, at least it used to be. Now, writers can replicate a convention hotel bar anytime they want to, simply by turning on their computer and logging onto Facebook. Their writer and fan buddies are accessible with a few clicks of the mouse.
So far, so good. However, whereas discretion at the office water cooler or the convention hotel bar can be reasonably assured through a toning down of one’s voice, discretion on Facebook (or other social media) requires more planning and technical savvy. Also, Facebook lulls a user into thinking he or she is chatting with a handful of friends – the electronic equivalent of the small, chummy group at the hotel bar – when in actuality the “hotel bar” is in the middle of a stadium stage wired for sound, with a silent, invisible audience numbering anywhere from the dozens to the thousands. Facebook is a public space which masquerades as a private space.
So here I am, your reader or your would-be reader. I have every motivation to like you and to maintain a good opinion of you; perhaps I have already invested a good bit of money in your books and plan to invest time in reading them. I really would prefer not to “overhear” much of what you and your intimates talk about around the “hotel bar.” But in perusing my Facebook feed, seeking interesting or meaningful updates from family and friends, I can’t help but stumble across your gossip sessions. Sometimes they are ugly or offensive. And sometimes, even though I want to think only the best of you, I find myself dismayed.
To illustrate, I’ll share a couple of recent examples (not naming any names).
A friendly acquaintance of mine, a writer of high reputation with whom I’d shared breakfast at one of the major conventions, posted a screen shot of the newspaper and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer on Facebook. He did so in order to comment on Krauthammer’s pinched, arguably ghoulish countenance, likening it to that of several horror movie actors; apparently, he’d come across Krauthammer for the first time and, repulsed by his politics, found himself equally repulsed by the man’s appearance. A number of other commenters jumped onto the thread, eagerly adding their own derogatory opinions on Krauthammer’s appearance and competing with each other to come up with the most “hilarious” likenesses for him (Count Chocula being one that sticks out in my memory). I was familiar with a number of the commenters; some of them were respected, highly awarded “gray heads” in the science fiction community, writers in their fifties or sixties – certainly not callow teenagers.
This set my nose out of whack. Not so much because I enjoy many of Krauthammer’s columns, but because I knew he was severely physically handicapped – either paralyzed or a victim of multiple sclerosis, I wasn’t sure which.
I briefly debated what to do. I hoped that my friendly acquaintance and his correspondents were unaware of Krauthammer’s disability. I wanted to think the best of the writer who’d posted the screen shot and started the thread, if for no other reason than I’d just invested in him – only a week before, I’d purchased two of his books, and currently I was shopping for a third, and I had more of his books on my shelves waiting to be read. I didn’t want to be a buttinski or a nosy Miss Manners; but I also didn’t want to think this writer was a jerk. Because if I decided he was a jerk, I wasn’t about to invest dozens of hours in reading his books, and the only thing I could then do with the books I’d already purchased would be to trade them in at my local Second and Charles store for pennies on the dollar.
So, for partially selfish, self-defending reasons, I posted as gentle a rebuke as I could manage: “Folks, you may not be aware of this, but you are poking fun at the appearance of a severely physically disabled person. Just saying…”
The next day, out of curiosity, I checked back on that Facebook thread. What I discovered was illustrative of the seductive power of gossip. The thread’s initiator had “Liked” my comment. He’d gone on to say he’d been unaware of Krauthammer’s disability and had considered taking down the post… but given Krauthammer’s views, it simply felt too good to take shots at him – it was too much fun — so he was letting the thread continue. And the commenters continued merrily along as they had before, some saying that, since Krauthammer had helped intellectually define the Reagan Doctrine of foreign policy back in the mid-1980s, he deserved whatever physical malady he was suffering from.
I looked up the cause of Krauthammer’s disability. Then I posted a message to this effect: “Charles Krauthammer is paralyzed from the neck down due to a diving accident he suffered at the age of twenty. Please feel free to disagree with Krauthammer’s writings or opinions, vehemently, if you wish; I understand that Krauthammer enjoys a feisty policy argument. But to make fun of the man’s stiff facial expressions and physical appearance when this is due to his paralysis… if you persist in this, you should be ashamed.”
To my acquaintance’s credit, he then took down the thread and sent me a private message explaining he had done so. He apologized and said he hadn’t been aware of the severity of Krauthammer’s condition. I told him he was a mensch and that I was relieved he’d done the right thing, because I had a stack of his books sitting in my home waiting to be read.
I inserted myself because I knew this writer personally and thus had dual motivations in maintaining him in my esteem. Another social media mishap didn’t end so well. I didn’t bother pursuing it the way I’d pursued the Krauthammer incident because, for one thing, I had no personal acquaintance with the writer who’d posted offensive material, and for another, what he’d posted had so profoundly offended me that I had no desire to communicate with him and ask if he might redeem himself in some fashion.
This other writer reposted the electronic version of a chain letter. This Photoshopped chain letter called for the outlawing of the practice of circumcision, whether performed for religious or physical hygiene reasons. He did not write any additional commentary, nothing to explain his support of the posting’s urging that an ancient, venerated to some, and widely practiced procedure be not merely discouraged, but outlawed. He simply threw it up on Facebook with the casualness of someone tossing a cigarette butt onto my lawn.
Far more so than disparaging comments about Charles Krauthammer’s appearance, this hit me where I live. Under the supervision of a Jewish physician who was a family friend, I had personally circumcised three of my sons, performing the rite of brit milah with my own hands the same way (okay, using anesthetic cream and a scalpel rather than a stone knife) the progenitor of the Jewish people, Abraham, had circumcised Isaac. In terms of ritual, these three acts were the most meaningfully Jewish acts I had ever engaged in; I truly felt bonded with the entire thread of Jewish experience, with thousands of years of history and millions of lives.
I have no idea of the depth of the re-poster’s attachment to the anti-circumcision movement, nor his reasons for supporting it. It probably took him all of thirty seconds to copy that screen shot and to put it up on Facebook. But those were a costly thirty seconds for him. I’m basically this writer’s ideal reader – we have numerous interests in common, I gravitate towards the sub-genre he writes in, I have lots of discretionary income to spend on new books, and I’m very vocal about championing books I particularly like. Taking all this into account, the writer may have surrendered a couple of hundred dollars of lifetime income by posting what he did, when one factors in the numbers of people I might otherwise have recommended his books to. Casually or not, he offended me so viscerally that it will not matter to me if this person wins the Hugo and Nebula awards every year for the next thirty years running – I simply will not spend a penny on anything he does.
I hope it was worth it to him.
I understand that people want to speak out about matters they are passionate about. In rare circumstances, one’s status as a citizen and/or as a human being may make it imperative to speak out regarding a particular issue; otherwise, one could not peacefully sleep. But, if you are a professional writer or someone who is striving to be a professional writer – a person who derives income from their writing – you need to be fully aware that there are costs involved. If you judge the benefits (to your mental or moral health or the welfare of humanity) to be greater than the potential costs, then, by all means, trumpet your political and religious views from the rooftops, from Facebook and Twitter and what-have-you.
But put some thought into it. Make a reasoned and persuasive argument. Add something new and valuable to the discussion. Don’t just re-post some Photoshop quip (which most likely originated in a teenager’s basement) because it seems righteous or you want to give the giggles to your buddies “around the bar.” You never know who’s paying attention. And you’ll never know the good will you have lost.