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 dark side to the ease of communication online. And I haven’t always been wise to its dangers.
My first novel, In Open Spaces, came out in 2002. It was eleven years in the making. The journey had been long and arduous. During those eleven years, I went through the usual doubts, questioning whether or not I was good enough. I hated telling people I was a writer, only to have them look at me with a skeptical expression, inevitably followed by the question, “So have you been published?”
Seeing my book on shelves and reviewed in newspapers thrilled me. I was living in San Francisco at the time, 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. I 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 my happiness in this instance.
What is embarrassing is thinking about what came along with that excitement, a phenomenon that has caused me to cringe time and again ever since. It’s called the ‘I’m a published author now so everything I say is fascinating!’ syndrome. In some ways, an inevitable development. Most people who get published have worked for years to achieve their goal; they revere their literary heroes and convince themselves that published authors are worthy of whatever idolatry comes their way. But the other 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 Web, mid-list writers were celebrated in small, intimate gatherings at book festivals, or at 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 era 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 was published, and it not only gave me an accessible place to expand my audience, it also provided a forum for me 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 didn’t grow up in a home where this was done, especially among the men. Most of my male relatives are silent, stoic, even timid. 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. Comment boards provide 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 moved 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 spent less than six months together in the same physical space. Most of our relationship had taken place online. So in truth we barely knew each other, and the strain of this awful tragedy proved to be too much. I ended up leaving, and most of the residents of Readerville turned against me, condemning me for abandoning my wife at her most crucial time of need. Part of me wondered if they were right. A larger part of me felt that they weren’t. They didn’t see how this event affected every aspect of a relationship that hadn’t even had time to develop. My ex and I tried getting back together again about a year later, and it didn’t last much longer the second time. Since then, I’ve been able to reconcile myself to the fact that the relationship wouldn’t have lasted no matter what had happened. So it was some comfort to me when my ex-wife wound up reuniting with her husband, who shared in her deep grief. And I’m happy to report that we’ve been able to remain friends.
The aftermath of this period was one of complete deflation. At the time of the marriage, I had been single for almost twenty years. 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. All along, I had 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 had 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 at Readerville just added to a growing belief that I had brought this on myself, that it was all some kind of grand karmic payback.
So what’s happened since? It’s a long story. Eventually, I did find a publisher for novel number two, a full five years after the first book came out. By the time it hit the shelves, my mistrust of social networks kept me from doing any promoting online, and my absence from that world likely had a dramatic impact on sales. The need to utilize the Internet in today’s book market seems undeniable. And as much as it goes against my ‘it should be the work that matters’ mentality, I know that being stubborn about this stuff probably doesn’t make sense anymore.
So I try to keep two things in mind. First: It’s not real. Or for the most part it’s not real. Some of these people really are my friends. I know who they are. And I get a lot of valuable information and insight from them, especially on Facebook. But ultimately it’s not a community that I can rely on for intimate support, or for my entire social life. If I take these relationships too seriously, I’m in trouble. If someone attacks me for my opinion—as happened not long ago when I disputed something that a currently-hot author had 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 my own behavior. How I treat people. I’ve decided not to use the Internet as a foxhole anymore, lobbing grenades at those 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 in the end.
Yes, I can enjoy the opportunity to express myself. And maybe it’ll help me sell a few more copies. Ultimately, though, it seems that my fate in the marketplace is largely beyond my control. I can toot my own 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 or say that’s going to make much difference.
Looking back, 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’d had a whole herd of people rooting for every word I posted on Facebook. I know from the jolt that I got on Readerville that this kind of constant attention would have fed my addictive personality in grossly unhealthy ways. I needed a break from the drug, and I’m glad I took some time off to reassess. I also feel that, at the time of my first publication, I was ill-equipped to handle the kind of negative feedback that someone who is hugely popular probably receives on a daily basis. My dependence on the Internet during this period was complete; my entire self-image was built on feedback I was receiving from people whom I didn’t really know.
Thankfully, I’ve managed to find my way back to the real world. I now rely on friends I can see and touch, people I can look in the eye and argue with in-person. In this kind of world, disputes get resolved. Friends make an effort to understand your behavior rather than jumping to conclusions based on a few short sentences of cold text. I have a new novel coming out soon, and I’ll do what I can to promote it online. I’ll continue to post on Facebook and Twitter in hopes that it might help get the word out. 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 now 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. And that’s enough.