The Idea of the Author Is Facing Extinction

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I spent more than ten years working at Writer’s Digest, a media brand that provides information, education and services to writers both new and established. In the span of those ten years, a lot happened. Most of the U.S. population got online, social media and Web 2.0 evolved and e-books took off.

Expectations for authors have changed dramatically. Perhaps we never lived in a world where a writer could just focus on his writing to the exclusion of all else, but certainly there was less to worry about if you were writing novels pre-Internet. Your publisher wasn’t asking you to tweet, be on Facebook, write blog posts, have a website or build a platform.

On the other hand, pre-Internet, an author had few options for making a living that didn’t involve working with a publisher. Today’s authors live with the burden and opportunity of being able to reach their readers directly, without anyone’s help. In fact, an author can make a full-time job out of marketing, promotion and audience development, waking up to find that, somewhere along the way, the writing became secondary. Steven Pressfield has talked about this phenomenon, what he calls the “shadow career.” He writes in Turning Pro, of people who get distracted by activities that lie outside of the work (in our case, the work of writing):

Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony,” of which we ourselves are the orchestra, the composer and the audience. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture. […] The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a “life,” a “character,” a “personality.”

There is a danger in the industry’s call to authors to build relationships with readers, to be responsive and engaged, to be in “conversation.” How big of a danger, however, totally depends on the values and goals of the writer. If the goal is sales and long-term readership growth, there might not be any harm at all. But if the activities impede the writer from pursuing his primary purpose (however that may be described or quantified), then we can see the call to engagement as seriously detrimental and distracting.

This has been the conclusion of many “literary” authors, or those people who see their purpose as producing art and meaning, something that goes beyond entertainment or “satisfying” the reader. Author Will Self said in an interview with The Guardian: “I don’t really write for readers. I think that’s a defining characteristic of being serious as a writer” (qtd. in Day, “Will Self”). What happens to such writers in the future of publishing, if it is defined or driven by author-reader interaction?

I’ve often tried to tell writers (of all stripes) that the Internet is the best thing to happen to the introvert. Before the Internet, an author would probably be put upon by a publisher to do tours, talks and other public appearances that can be time-consuming and draining. Post-Internet, the introverted author can decide exactly how, when and where they want to interact with the public – do it completely on their own terms. There’s a great deal of control and planning that one never used to have over marketing, promotion and networking activities. The Internet, in short, is a great blessing for introverts.

But that doesn’t really solve the problem of the author who has zero interest in putting on a show or being revealed. Another serious author, Benjamin Anastas, argued:

Distance is the writer’s friend. It’s nice to break out from your seclusion every now and then and give a reading to a room of actual people, or visit a college class that’s reading one of your books, or introduce yourself to someone on the subway who’s got his nose in your first novel. […] But for the most part the old adage holds true: You should never meet your heroes. And if your heroes are writers, you really don’t want to meet them. Writers are generally vain, and needy, and shut inside for most of the day listening to the voices in their head, so when they come out, their behavior can be erratic. […] Mystery plays a big role in our love of books, and by using social media to promote yourself, you’re only demystifying your work for everyone who follows you. And that makes you lose potential readers.

What is to come of the author who holds this philosophy? Does such a species survive? Does the future of publishing, which is becoming more and more focused on reader interaction, favor a very particular type author, one who is comfortable serving his customers? Or is there a class of readers out there who, just like the authors, prefer no interaction, and recognize the wisdom of never meeting your “heroes”? Perhaps a patronage system will evolve to support such authors and their art, if they can neither support themselves (through entrepreneurial activities) nor gain publisher support.

What nags at me, however, is that our culture’s idea and concept of authorship is destined to change. As Richard Nash pointed out in his essay “The Business of Literature,” the concept of the author is a fairly recent one, which was invented side by side with the printing press. The digital era may entail a new type of authorship, one that is built on resampling, remixing and collaboration. Authors may evolve to be leaders, moderators and synthesizers of information, rather than the dictator in control of it.

Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book, has advised, “Go back and study […] what McLuhan called the shift to print, the place where an idea could be owned by a single person. One of McLuhan’s genius insights was his understanding of how the shift from an oral culture to one based on print gave rise to our modern notion of the individual as the originator and owner of particular ideas.” We are outgrowing the era where someone owns an idea, or, as Stein eloquently says, “If the printing press empowered the individual, the digital world empowers collaboration” (qtd. in Bustillos, “Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert”).

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