Thought Catalog
November 24, 2014

Writerly Mystique Vs. Self-Exposure: Mind The Gap

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iStockphoto: badmanproduction
iStockphoto: badmanproduction

‘About My Generation’

When the teacher comes around asking, “How did you spend your weekend?” my answer will be…responding to comments at Writer Unboxed.

As a regular contributor to that large, avidly commented-upon authors’ site, I provide columns under the branding “Provocations in Publishing.” The idea of that phrase is to help the unprepared reader of my work handle my critical tone. Porter Pan Flies Again! I’ve got to stop wearing green tights. But I always appreciate the chance to name my harsh realities for the gentle souls of the Writer Unboxed community.

My latest fearful pronouncements lie, smoldering, in this piece, The Gate We Should Have Kept: And Was Mystique That Bad? The main message of this particular sermon on the dismount of publishing from its pedestal — here in the depths of the digital depression — is that we are in danger of seeing some of our best writers lose the mystique that has, in the past, been a part of their and other artists’ presence in the world.

Carla Douglas
Carla Douglas

Having dodged bullets all weekend on this, I’ll just use a few of those projectiles to step you quickly through what I was on about:

  • While writing once was an intensely solitary career, it is today (as our colleague the editor Carla Douglas has said) perhaps the most social of all.
  • It’s social because social media have made it possible for authors to be in touch with each other and with readers, right from those lonely desks, at every moment, day and night.
  • Where once there was little to no community for an author beyond, perhaps, one’s faculty fellows at a university, writers today cling to each other in vast online herds, exchanging chucks on the chin because “writing is so hard,” you know.
  • I believe that this heaving rush to community and the pressure from marketing and publicity sectors to promote oneself online prompt authors to expose enormous amounts of banal info about their daily lives. I don’t care what they had for lunch, which child has a cold, or when the dry cleaning will be ready. Do you?
  • And I think there’s a price here: the more our authors trot out their personal trivia for all to see, the more they risk losing any hope of that marvelous, difficult, ineffable thing — mystique. They become “normal.”

Writer Unboxed’s readers are among the most eager and eloquent commentors out there. It was a big discussion. And in the course of the back-and-forth (sometimes more back than forth), the author Lancelot Schaubert launched a very long but interesting comment in which he seems to ascribe a great deal of social-media self-exposure to a generational distinction.

He went right for it: “Hey Porter, interesting thoughts about my generation.”

In fact, I hadn’t really been thinking about his generation, not that I don’t deeply love each and every one of them. The closest I’d come, I think, was mentioning the odd YouTube personality who might get a book deal from time to time, with great hosannas in the industry — as if there are enough mega-followed beauty-and-fashion YouTubers to save publishing.

And the fact that I started in one direction and Schaubert took us in another is why it’s worth looking at this.

‘Supremely Disappointed With The World’

Schaubert is an avid spokesman for “my generation,” pretty much running for class president. I’m not sure the home crowd is as unified on things as he seems to think, but that’s his problem, not mine.

Lance Schaubert
Lance Schaubert

He was born, he tells us, in 1987, which classifies him as, maybe, a mature Millennial? He has an interest in innovative forms, as you can see in this information about his “photonovel,” Cold Brew. And he runs an online book club you can look into if you’d like. At Writer Unboxed, he arrives to tell us:

We need hope, my generation, real hope – not some political slogan – because we’re supremely disappointed with the world we’ve been born into and we’ve heard rumors of a better world, one that’s past and one that’s yet to come.

I feel sure I haven’t offered him any political slogans in the opening essay with its gorgeous shot of Lake Lugano. And, as you might surmise, I didn’t expect to trigger this response. But it sure was interesting. A smart man, himself, Schaubert surely knows that he might get responses to his line about disappointment that run along these lines:

  1. No one owes any generation something they’ll like, and if you want to file a complaint, take a number.
  2. If you don’t like this world, you’d have loved the Medieval age, or you might have enjoyed going to war in Vietnam or Iraq.
  3. In which heavenly coffeehouse were Schaubert and his buddies when they got their hopes up for something they’d like more?
  4. And hell, if you don’t like it, by all means make it better. We’ll watch you do it.

In fact, some would want to mention that we live in what may be the most peaceful, highly educated, best-fed, most medically advanced and technologically promising era humankind has experienced — albeit with nightmarishly uneven distributions of wealth, resources, and standards of living, all of which demand continued effort.

If you’re in Kabul where a suicide bomber has self-detonated at a volleyball match (at least 45 killed, my former CNN colleague Ashley Fantz is reporting), you may not feel like these are peaceful times, no, and in such settings, no such academic discussion as this holds an ounce of water. But much of history is written in far more violence than we see in the global picture today on the widest level today. Something to be thankful for.

Schaubert, an incredibly likable guy, works very hard here to assure us that he’s not an ageist — “I believe wholeheartedly in binding and uniting generations,” he writes — and I think we can take him at his word. Who among us doesn’t look out at the world through the eyes of his or her moment in time? If he sees it all as a near-Millennial, why shouldn’t he?

Where I think we have room for discussion is in Schaubert’s apparent idea that tweeting everyone senseless about one’s daily life is the way to audience respect and trust. He writes:

At our best, my generation wields self-disclosure to earn not the attention but rather the respect of our audiences. Having earned that respect from a basis of honesty, we can then move forward. This starts with the Socratic “Know Thyself” and its first application is quite possibly authorial voice.

In his next paragraph, Schaubert goes right on to give us the downside, as he sees it, as well:

At our worst, we fail where previous generations have succeeded. Self-disclosure without discretion can indeed show weaknesses and expose ourselves to the enemy. Your illustration was the burglar, but perhaps the global example is the historical one: had the allies exposed their ciphers to the Germans, they may have lost the war.

I had mentioned the danger of blabbing about your holiday travels all over the Net, which of course is the best way possible to alert burglars to exactly when your home will be empty for their criminal convenience. That’s why he referred to the burglar illustration.

‘God’s Honest Truth’ — And Which God?

Schaubert swerves back toward what I’d been writing about long enough to bounce us off a not-so-innocuous phrase:

You’re right, there is a place for mystique. But we do desperately need self-disclosure, because if we will not disclose, what do we think we’re doing meddling in a craft whose prime task is to tell God’s honest truth?

That’s an interesting and loaded question.

If we’re talking about literature — maybe other arts, visual, performance arts, what have you — who decided any “God’s honest truth” was the goal? What if the goal, in fact, is hardly truth at all, but a form of artifice that tells us something about who and what we are? This is a very generally accepted idea of what art does for us, holding up the proverbial mirror so we see something of ourselves: nobody requires the mirror to be “real” or even “honest.”

Not a lot of truth in the work of Vincent van Gogh — the world looked that way only to him. (If the world looks that way to you, please don’t drive.) But how radiantly expressive it was, so much so that we embrace that artifice more than a century later with an abiding love and respect for this Dutchman who still flies through our imaginations like a comet. “God’s honest truth?” — not even his brother Theo could recognize it as that.

In literature, look at Station Eleven (2014, Knopf), a novel I’ve spent some time with this year by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a National Book Award finalist. Or look at Josh Malerman’s Bird Box (2014, HarperCollins), another work I know well from this year. Both are by authors not that much older than Schaubert. “God’s honest truth?” Nowhere near them. Something better is in those books. They achieve their importance through fiction. These are masterful mirrors.

And neither author, by the way, is given to a lot of busy self-disclosure on the Web. They tweet, they’re healthy community members, but they’re nobody’s chatterboxes online. Too busy writing good stuff.

‘Everyone Wants To Be An Un-Business’

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen

I’m reading Andrew Keen’s new The Internet Is Not The Answer (coming January 6, Atlantic Monthly Press), and one of the things he gets at early on is how:

In the digital world, everyone wants to be an un-business…In today’s digital experiment, the world is being transformed into a winner-take-all, upstairs-downstairs kind of society. This networked future is characterized by an astonishingly unequal distribution of economic value and power in almost every industry that the Internet is disrupting.

And yet:

As a 2014 Pew Report showed, 90 percent of Americans [surveyed] think that the Web has been good for them personally — with 76 percent believing that it has been good for society. It is true that most of the personal lives of the estimated 3 billion Internet users (more than 40 percent of the world’s population) have been radically transformed by the incredible convenience of email, social media, e-commerce, and mobile apps. Yes, we all rely on and even love our ever-shrinking and increasingly powerful mobile communication devices.

The Internet Is Not the Answer cover by Andrew KeenAnd Schaubert — along with his generation, as he likes to say — seems caught somewhere between these two paradigms.

Keen gives us “Silicon Valley’s architects of the future…building a privatized networked economy.” Schaubert seems aligned with that in his commentary on why he loves “Wikileaks more than Anderson Cooper because we know Cooper has a script handed to him by a corporation.” And he laments that a mentality of “I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine” on Mad Men has been “handed to us by our grandparents and even by some of our parents.”

In point of fact, the initial essay at Writer Unboxed and the most cogent comments that followed it were much closer to Keen’s second point, the better things to be said about the Net. Even Keen is found conceding in his book, “I certainly couldn’t have written this book without the miracles of email and the Web.”

When Neither The Lady Nor The Tiger Is The Answer

What we’re left with is a chance to study why Schaubert’s reasoning and the original column’s seem to run on parallel tracks.

If Schaubert is a representative of his generation as he asserts, then the disconnect here between the Writer Unboxed essay and his own long commentary in answer to it is more than a simple misunderstanding. That plain old confusion might run along the lines of, “Hey, Lance, I wasn’t talking about tectonic socio-economic shifts driven by ruthless and secretive corporate power on the Web, I was talking about authors Instagram-ing their freaking breakfast toast to their readers.”

The deeper-bigger-wider-worse thing that Schaubert seems to think he was reading about is hinted at in his pre-comment tweet to me: “Was it less critique, more generational gap? Favoring mystery over authenticity?”

That answer I can provide, since I wrote it: No. It was not less critique, more generational gap. Nor did it favor mystery over authenticity. In all friendly honesty, I wasn’t talking about what Schaubert is talking about, full stop. What I had set out to argue was and is the efficacy of literary mystique, the actual place of a certain remove by the artist of his or her daily private life from the stage, which allows an audience, a readership, to focus on the work, the writing, not the personality of the author. I was talking about sparing our readers the noise of common social-media prattle about our authors and letting the books (remember the books?) speak for themselves. To me, that’s an authentic mystique worth protecting.

What Schaubert interpreted the question to hold is a chance to talk about social-action imperatives, contemporary issues in citizenship, and subterfuge — generally corporate, of course — in the online environment. It’s not wrong that he took it in this direction, although for intrepid Writer Unboxed comment readers it probably seemed as much a non sequitur to the main article’s premise as did the separate shower of irate commentary from some recent conference-goers who became confused in thinking that their ox had been gored by the piece. (Weekends were made for Michelob, not critical thinking, it seems.)

My own original question remains: once authors (and celebrities, for that matter, in any field) have become widely available through social-Net channels, yakking away in the supermarket of trivia that passes for much conversation online — “blathering” is the term of one Writer Unboxed respondent — what happens to the mystique that once was a part of writerly process, promise, and presentation?

Schaubert’s version of “self-disclosure” is a political act rooted, he says,  in the need for members of his generation to doff what he sees as the “hypocrisy” of an economically driven culture. “We want [to] call ‘foul’ on a broken system,” Schaubert writes, to “paint a picture of a mended future for that system.”

Silly me, I’d be happy if a lot of writers would simply write more and stop running off at the mouth online.

But these two views of what “mystique” may be about in an online world are divided not by generational gap but by purpose. Being a couple of years older than Schaubert (shut up) doesn’t mean that I can’t be as wary as he is of corporate forces on the ether. And being my junior hardly means he can’t be as put out as I am by the stupendous waste of time and energy that publishing’s backyard-fence gossip online frequently is.

It’s a question not of age but of issue; not of generation but of presentation; not of politics but of marketing.

Nevertheless, look how much we learned when Schaubert took us down the off-ramp of the topic and  out into what Lillian Hellman called “another part of the forest.” TC mark

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