Like many writers, I have a complicated relationship with social networking. I’m a loner who loves people, an introvert who craves attention, an exhibitionist who isn’t always comfortable in public discourse. The internet allows people like me to meet many of these needs without ever leaving the house. It sounds ideal, but there has always been a downside to the ease of communication online. And I haven’t always been aware of getting sucked into that side of it.
My first novel, In Open Spaces, came out in 2002. It was eleven years after I wrote it, so the journey had been a long and arduous one. During those eleven years, I went through the usual doubts. where I questioned whether or not I was fooling myself about being good enough to get published. I hated that feeling of telling people I was a writer and having them look at me with that skeptical expression, inevitably followed by the question, “So have you been published?”
Seeing the book on shelves and reviewed in papers thrilled me in ways that I had never experienced before. I was living in San Francisco when it came out, and when I woke up one Sunday morning and sat down with the paper, flipped it open to the Book Review section, and found my name on the bestseller list, it was one of the highlights of my life. It felt as if all of my perseverance and stubborn determination had finally paid off. So of course I’m not the least bit embarrassed about how happy I was about that.
What is embarrassing is thinking about what came along with that excitement. A phenomenon that has caused me to cringe time and again since. It’s called the ‘I’m a published author now so everything I say is fascinating!’ syndrome. In some ways, it’s an inevitable development. Most people who get published have worked for years to achieve their goal and have held anyone who has in such high esteem that they have convinced themselves that published authors are worthy of whatever idolatry comes their way. But the main thing that feeds this beast is the fact that there are people out there who will support your theory. This is one area where the birth of the Internet has become something of a mixed blessing. Before the Internet, mid-list writers were celebrated in small, intimate gatherings like book festivals or public readings. They were content with the occasional fan letter, or the (very) occasional run-in with a true blue reader who recognized them on the street.
In Open Spaces came out right in the midst of the dot com boom, and among the many sites that were born during this time was Readerville, which brought together readers and writers for lively discussions about every aspect of the book world, from covers to fonts to books that had been made into films. I found this site just after my novel came out, and it not only gave me an accessible place to expand my audience, it also provided a place to spout my brilliance on a daily basis, which I was more than happy to do. The positive thing about it was that it gave me some confidence about expressing my opinions. The negative thing about it was that it gave me some confidence about expressing my opinions. I did not grow up in a home where this was done, especially among the men. Most of my male relatives were silent, stoic, even timid about expressing themselves. So I found a certain freedom in finally feeling comfortable telling people what I thought.
But of course there was a downside. One of the more unpleasant aspects of these websites is that people form alliances. I had my little following, and they laughed at my jokes, supported my arguments, sniped at people who sniped at me. The Internet provides an easy way to be mean-spirited without having to deal with the look on someone’s face when you say something hurtful. I became someone I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with today. Someone who was very pleased with himself. And of course it came back to haunt me.
The details about what happened could take up a whole book. I wound up getting married to a fellow member of Readerville and moving across the country. Two months after the wedding, my (now ex-) wife’s only child was killed in a motorcycle accident. By this time, we had actually spent less than six months in one place together. Most of our relationship had taken place online. So in truth we barely knew each other. The strain of this tragedy proved to be too much. I left after two months, and most of the residents of Readerville turned against me, condemning me for leaving my wife at her most crucial time of need. Part of me wondered if they were right. But of course they weren’t there. They didn’t see how this event affected every aspect of a relationship that hadn’t even had time to develop yet. We tried getting back together again about a year later, and it didn’t last much longer the second time. It took several years, but I was eventually able to reconcile myself to the fact that this relationship wouldn’t have lasted no matter what happened. It was some comfort that my ex-wife went back to her husband, who shared her grief, and we were able to remain friends.
The aftermath of this period was one of complete deflation. I had been single for almost twenty years by the time we got married, so the failure hit me hard. All the bravado was gone. On top of that, nobody wanted to publish my second novel, which was a huge wake-up call. Like many people I’ve talked to since, I just assumed that once you got your foot in the door, you were in the door! In Open Spaces had received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, it was reviewed in the New York Times, and it had sold enough copies to surpass my advance by a wide margin. But I couldn’t find a publisher for novel number two, even with the high-powered agent I landed thanks to my friends at Readerville. The self-doubt that plagued me before I was ever published came back with a vengeance. And the public skewering I had endured on Readerville just added to a growing belief that I had brought this on myself. That it was some kind of karmic payback.
So what’s happened since? Well, that’s a long story. I eventually did find a publisher for novel number two, five years after the first one came out. By the time that book hit the shelves, my mistrust of social networks kept me from doing any promoting online at all. My absence from that world had a dramatic impact on sales. So I have since found myself in the quandary of just how involved I want to be with this new form of social communication. The need to utilize the Internet in today’s book market is undeniable. Many writers have become masterful at maximizing their fan base in this manner. And as much as it goes against my ‘it should be the work that matters’ mentality, I know that being stubborn about this stuff doesn’t make sense anymore.
So I try to keep two things in mind. First, it’s not real. A lot of these people really are my friends. I know who they are. And I get a lot of valuable information and insights into life, especially from Facebook. But it’s not a community that I can rely on for support or for my entire social life. If I take these relationships seriously, I’m in trouble. If someone attacks me for my opinion, as just happened not long ago when I disputed something a currently hot author posted, it really means nothing. These people who suck up to the latest queen bee or alpha male are just feeding the beast. Maybe they’ll figure it out someday, maybe they won’t. But for me, what matters in the end is how I treat people. I refuse to use the Internet as a foxhole anymore, lobbing grenades at people I don’t like. It’s cowardly and the thrill it provides is brief and dirty. I don’t feel good about it later. And I believe it comes back to me. Today I can enjoy the opportunity to express myself. And maybe it will help me sell a few more books, but in the end, even that is completely out of my control. I can toot my horn, and maybe a few people will provide a little harmony, but once the book is out there, there’s not a whole lot I can do that’s going to make a difference. Today I’m actually grateful that my first book was only a modest success. It scares me to think how obnoxious I might have become if I had a whole herd of people rooting for every word I posted on Facebook. I know from the jolt I got on Readerville that this kind of constant attention would have fed my addictive personality in ways that would need to be fed again and again. I needed a break from the drug, and I’m glad I took that time off. I also think that I was ill-equipped to handle the kind of negative feedback someone who is hugely popular probably receives. My dependence on the internet at that time was complete. My whole image of myself was built on the feedback I got from these people, people I didn’t really even know.
Thankfully, I managed to find my way back to the real world. Today I rely on friends I can see and touch. People I can look in the eye and argue with in person. In this world, disputes get resolved. Friends make an effort to understand your behavior rather than jumping to conclusions based on a few sentences of cold text. I have a new novel coming out soon, and I will do what I can to promote it online. I’ll continue to post on Facebook and Twitter with the hopes of helping get my work out to the public. But that will be the extent of my life online. And if I’m ever fortunate enough to find myself with a huge bestseller, I would hope that I have sense enough to remember that, as Raymond Carver once said, it’s all gravy. It’s not the food. I already have the food.