Friday, November 5, 2010

The Loquacious Popularity Contest

Shakespeare would have hated Twitter. And not only because all modern communication forces us to condense whatever we’re saying into easily digested, tiny nuggets of scan-friendly information. Not only because our “Glance-and-Click culture” (to use Seth Godin’s genius term for it) has damaged our ability to engage with prose, to have the patience it takes to let something beautiful and transformative emerge from the storyteller. But also because writing today is as much a popularity contest as it is a display of insightful observation and a natural way with words.

Take my friend Simon. He writes very, very well. He’s published all over the place. And a good deal of his time is spent manning social media channels, chipping in with his opinion, responding to comments. He is also a very amiable person offline, completely at ease making friends at bars with a beer in his hand, getting worked up about the stuff he believes in and arguing with people about things. And the result of all of this, of course, is that he has very many friends. And very many fans and followers. His travel update emails no longer even display the recipient addresses for fear of overwhelming them.

Were he ever to write a book, his audience would already be there. His market may be untapped, but it is identifiable and quantifiable. And I would hazard a guess that most publishers today take into account the size of a writer’s social network before agreeing to sign them. This seems like a new era for writers, that requires an entirely new skill set. I’ve always imagined the Shakespeares and Hemmingways and Patons of this world to have been reclusive, introverted and quiet. And perhaps those kinds of writers will no longer cut it.