I chaired an event at the LSE on Saturday about “new technologies and the reinvention of the author” which featured wide-ranging discussion from Lionel Shriver, Nigel Warburton and Sam Leith. The relationship between technology and authorship is a topic I’ve grappled with before, and I left buzzing with ideas. One comment of Lionel’s resonated for me more than any other, though.
She spoke about the experience of writing “with the crowd in your study” – that is, writing with the online reactions of your audience instantly and copiously visible – and the pressure this can create either to censor yourself or to try to please. “I find that I need,” she said (to paraphrase slightly), “to protect myself from other people’s opinions,” and described writing a newspaper column with her husband reading over her shoulder. “You can’t write that,” he said at one point, “just look how they reacted to that last time online.”
I’ve always felt that thinking about your readers is a cardinal virtue for writers. One of the reasons I left academia was the lack of audience: academics working in the arts often seem to write for themselves rather than for others, with few courtesies of concision and clarity, even while singing the praises of those who managed both to write beautifully and be widely read. Yet the whole business of wishing to be read does feel increasingly dangerous. Who doesn’t want to know what other people thought about their recent book, article, blog post, tweet or status update? Who doesn’t thrill at a positive review, incoming link or retweet; or bristle and prepare for engagement over a dismissive comment; or weigh up the most exquisitely polite way of accepting an Influential Reader’s critique?
All of this is true for me. I Google myself. I smile, wince and whistle through my teeth. Most of all, I just like being noticed. Increasingly, though, I don’t want to feel this way. Because once you’ve invited the crowd into your study, it starts setting up outposts in your head. I can feel it happening right now, writing this. Will people understand what I’m saying? Will they enjoy it, or like me? Am I using too many rhetorical questions? Was that last sentence amusing? Few things are harder to forget and forgive than a single, cutting comment. And approval can be just as toxic.
It’s not that there are any virtues inherent in obscurity, isolation or self-indulgence. Proper writing and good thinking have always demanded those skills that new media are so good at instilling: refining, anticipating, re-reading, clarifying, responding, learning, thinking again. But sometimes honesty is awkward or unpopular, truth or individual perceptions are hopelessly opaque – and being either affable or controversial is just so much easier. I can, sometimes, feel the fear hovering over my keyboard: of what I think will be thought, of what might be said. I want to write well; I want to be read. But I worry that I can’t help caring too much about all the wrong things.