I’m sitting in an office with a publicist, a famous publicist, oft quoted in literary nonfiction pieces, and responsible for the publicity of some of literature’s biggest names. He’s telling me a story about an author, a shy author, who wrote a book, but struggled to get it published. The author in question doesn’t have a Facebook page, or a Twitter account, a Tumblr, a Blog, a website, etc. He is, virtually, nonexistent (and in some circles, simply nonexistent). The author managed to publish his book, eventually producing it on his own, but very few people knew about it, and may never know about it, in large part because he’s uncomfortable with the idea of promoting himself online. It begs the question: if it doesn’t happen on the internet, did it happen at all?
J.D. Salinger, our most famous of all the reclusive writers, is a stalwart to the introverted writer, audaciously refusing to publish anymore work (beyond the few titles that he did publish) during his lifetime. It’s arguable that he could have published whatever he wanted, good or bad, and it would have sold, and been loved. Instead, he chose a quiet life, where his hair went white and his writing ceased to be seen – his lack of a presence leaving a great absence in the literary world. But, can a J.D. Salinger exist in a technological era? On top of being hyper-sensitized to the world around, the introverted writer now has to contend with an age in which self-promotion is as much a part of the process of becoming a writer as the writing of the work itself. Something tells me, F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been fantastically good at promoting his work online.
I have personally witnessed young writers with great potential, fantastic poets, fade into the background because of their discomfort with the spotlight, specifically, with controlling the aim of that spotlight. They are your most timid, shy types, extremely socially awkward, and nervous in person. They wouldn’t dare to publicly shift their gaze toward themselves in an effort to self-promote. It’s too garish a thought for them. It’s my opinion that the Emily Dickinson line, “I’m nobody, who are you?” is continually repeating in their heads. Best to keep anonymous than to risk embarrassment. However, in this technological age, can writers still make a name for themselves without having to surrender to the social pressures of joining the technological personification haze?
As a one-time grad student in writing, much of our conversations were encased by this very discussion: how could one self-promote without turning into a complete sell-out? We also spent a good deal of time tearing down certain writers who we felt were very good at self-promoting, but whose work didn’t necessarily warrant the attention. The work, after all, is what we each hoped to be measured by, but we were aware that social networking mattered. Matters. Ultimately, I don’t begrudge anyone’s path to success. We each have our own personal limits.
I sat across from the publicist, eyeing the book on his desk, shiny and new, though bland in design. I never noted the title. and can’t recall it now. The author is also the son of an extremely famous and successful fiction writer, which only makes his battle all the more complicated. I don’t know if his book will ever see the shelves of Barnes & Noble, or if he’ll eventually cave to creating a website in an attempt to garner attention, but it’s clear, if he wants people to read his book, something’s got to give.
For those willing and wanting to dive into the tech-age, the internet is a tricky landscape to maneuver. Limitless in its reach, no one is ever truly sure how far their information is extending, and to whom it is extending to. What’s certain is that two things are happening simultaneously with one’s construct of a virtual life. One, you are promoting yourself on numerous social sites, meant to draw attention to your persona, and thus, (hopefully) your work. This makes for a kind of extroversion – putting yourself out there, even if it is in the form of an avatar, is a social act. The other half of that process is hermetic – done entirely alone, without actual socializing. Some sites can take upwards of 48 hours to construct, and then some. Never mind the time you’ll spend tweaking and updating each site. This alone time makes introverts happy. Being alone is what introverts do best.
So the internet is both an exercise in introversion as well as extroversion. The trick is navigating the waters between, where the outward meets the inward, the place where you suddenly find yourself at a party, or at a reading, among various followers you’ve never had so much as a one minute conversation with in person. It’s safe to say, no one is comfortable with this convergence, but it’s also unavoidable, and necessary. It is important to connect in the face-to-face world. We are vulnerable creatures who need the touch of a personalized gaze. Someone standing in front of you no longer exists as an avatar, and enters into the realm of real-life. It is a necessary reminder that the internet is not a place in which meaningful things happen, but it can offer the possibility of meaningful experiences and events, enabling connections across worlds, in a real-life setting.
What is the beauty and salvation of having an online presence? You are the master and commander of your image (I’ve made this argument before, in defense of Facebook). You can set the design, take and select your own author portrait. In short, you can project your own vision of yourself into the world. This is not a new kind of autonomy. Pop artists do this all the time. From Madonna to Lady Gaga, manipulating one’s persona can serve as an extension to the work. This autonomy is important for writers. It’s another arena in which they can exhibit control over their literary persona, and by extension, their work.
When I said your days of introversion are over, I was being a tad dramatic. I am an introvert. I am a person who becomes psychologically drained after an hour of social activity. I don’t see my friends on a regular basis. I like to be alone, and can spend long stretches of time alone, without feeling isolated or lonely. I bore fairly easily, especially in social settings. However, despite all my introverted tendencies, I also have numerous social networking sites up and running – from Facebook to a Tumblr page, and my professional website – I tend daily to the maintenance required of each of these sites (or try to anyway). The truth of the matter is, for my line of work (creative arts), one must become one’s own strongest advocate. The internet has made it easier to do this. I have a friend whose Tumblr page has recently become a book, published under Random House no less. When he first started the page, The Huffington Post picked it up, and then other sites began to write about it. The site picked up steam, and eventually, the attention he gathered over time, and internet space, yielded a book deal. There are countless stories like this one. And it all began because my friend had an idea that he believed in. If you don’t believe in yourself first, then who will?
If you’re looking to follow the model of J.D. Salinger, where you write a few great works of classical American literature (good luck!), only so you can fade into the background as a reclusive writer, you’re basically waiting for an era in which the internet no longer exists. Young writers understand that social networking is integral to the process of being read. Acquiring a large audience via social networking can yield a profit, and a profit means being able to make a living from one’s work, which, usually, is the dream. This is a crude equation for how an internet persona can benefit even the shyest writers, but it’s also a truth.
J.D. Salinger’s rumored second act is a testament to our nostalgia for the old ways (where our access to an author is limited to the titles he [posthumously] publishes). It’s hard to imagine Holden Caulfield coming of age in the 21st century. What would he have been like? I suspect he’d be a reluctant joiner, refusing to play a part of Facebook, though obsessed by its power nonetheless. His problems with the world would be complicated by what he’d view as the world’s overly voyeuristic tendency – though, remember, even Caulfield wanted to be great friends with the authors of the books he loved. Maybe, just maybe, Holden would have loved Live Journal. And something tells me that one, if not two, of the Glass siblings would have become a version of a Mark Zuckerberg, running his or her own startup from the book-cluttered confines of an apartment on the Upper East Side. Clever introverts can make for some of the best inventors.
But, we needn’t worry what Caulfield, or Salinger, might think of such things. They aren’t here. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. Second acts are possible, and introverts can find a shady patch of grass inside the bright light of the internet. There is dignity in a strong online presence. Meghan O’Rourke is a good example, for starters. If you don’t believe me, google her.