Friday, February 24, 2012

Are Writers Nicer Nowadays?

Image from Jonathan
The other week, my Beloved Shelf Awareness had this piece by their regular columnist, Robert Gray, in which he wrote about how the internet was forging strong bonds between writers. Are those titanic feuds (Truman Copote vs. Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy vs. Lilian Helman, John Updike vs. Salman Rushdie, and Norman Mailer vs. just about everybody) a thing of the past? What do you think about writers behaving buddy, instead of badly?

Here's Gray's column. It's a good one. Enjoy!

It isn't fair to begin a column about friendship and mutual support among writers with a mean-spirited, if mischievously delightful, line from Gore Vidal, but I do so only to establish counterpoint: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

The view from my Facebook window tells me otherwise. Although the Internet can be a den of the ├╝ber-snarky, it is also a haven where writers are building friendships (the real kind, not the FB kind) with their peers.

The recent publication of Jessica Keener's fine debut novel Night Swim prompted me to pay closer attention to the enthusiastic support she received online from authors whose work I admire, including Patry Francis (The Liar's Diary), Susan Henderson (Up from the Blue) and Leora Skolkin-Smith (Hystera), among many others.

I like this trend. It feels like evolution. It's so... anti-Vidal. I wondered what they thought. I asked.

"Over the past five or so years, with the surging growth of the Internet and bloggers, and the birth of an online private forum for writers called Backspace, I began to connect with writers in a much more supportive way than I had ever experienced before," said Keener. "The online medium fostered a wonderful world of pen palship. What writer doesn’t enjoy crafting a letter or passing a note?

"As I see it, the Internet nurtures reading and responding--a give and take in words. In the process, I discovered many writers I might never have met sitting in my office at home. I became a regular follower of Susan Henderson's Litpark, thrilling over the variety of writers and artists she hosted. I found writers whose work I respected and who sweated as I did over the language of heartache. E-mail exchanges between writers I'd never met became increasingly confessional and intimate and ultimately led to in-person meetings. When I finally met Susan and Patry Francis (in New York, at a Backspace Writers Conference) as well as M.J. Rose--whose blog about publishing and marketing I'd been reading for months--I began to see that I was surrounding myself with a supportive community of writers, peers willing to care for each other professionally and personally."

Francis noted that when she started submitting her work to agents, "I was suffering from an extreme case of writerly isolation. I viewed loneliness and fierce rivalry as occupational hazards." Gradually she discovered online alternatives, "and eventually the tangled, marvelous, distracting, infinitely fascinating world that is social media. There, counter to stereotype, I found an incredibly large-hearted and generous community. No one embodies that spirit more than Jessica Keener. Her willingness to give of herself, to offer encouragement, nurture, constructive criticism when requested, and enthusiastic support to others is truly unique."

Or perhaps not so unique anymore, if what I've seen online is any indication.

Henderson said she met Keener when they were both on a fiction panel with an editor "I’d been rejected by for years. And that’s kind of at the heart of writers' journeys, this marriage of success and failure, throughout our career. Here I am invited to sit beside an icon on this panel and yet I’m remembering those letters he wrote me. So that’s one of the immediate places we bonded, and that idea was at the core of why I created my blog LitPark, because it’s hard to be alone with all the rejection and self-doubt and still believe you’re on a path to publication. The self-doubt can eat you alive.

"When a writer lands a book deal, there's almost always a long story behind it--a story of multiple revisions, hair pulling, rejections, thoughts of quitting, and in the end, pure stamina, sometimes decades of stamina. Often when you read a little blurb about an author's debut novel, you know that debut is actually her third or fourth--the others just never saw the light of day. And I think it's knowing this that's behind the joy and celebration we feel when our friends finally achieve what had seemed impossible."

Although they had communicated online, Keener said she only recently met Skolkin-Smith, who observed that, as "the field of publishing becomes more narrow (in terms of only a few brand names getting print reviews and the rest of us authors dangling on a thin hope that we will be read at all), I honestly don't know what I would do as an author lost in the shadows without the support and recognition of people I've met in literary cyberspace. On blogs and social networking sites, it feels like a new cyber landscape is defined by a passion for literature, and in no small way the new connections made possible now have transformed both reader and writer. I am grateful, alerted to the miracle of words in a new light, a new way."

Keener summed up the view from my Facebook window nicely: "The writing business is nerve-wracking and for a long time it was incomprehensible to me. This has changed. As my peers and I exchange experiences, my sense of control and grasp of the business side of things has shifted significantly for the better. As for the writing itself--that struggle and challenge will remain personal and mysterious and unique, but the sting of isolation is gone. Even now as I write, new friendships that exhilarate and inspire are forming."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)


  1. I think that's what I love most about writing . . . the writing community behind it. I feel sorry those individuals who don't realize there's a wonderful, supportive community out there, waiting to welcome them with open arms (and tons of writerly, querying advice to boot). :D

  2. thanks Michael, for sharing this ...
    your cheerful attitude always lifts me up...

  3. There's a dark side too, but I just try to ignore it, because I'm immune to hate.

  4. there may be a dark side as Matt says but so far I haven't experienced it. All the writers I've virtually met thus far have been nothing but nice.

  5. I can't speak for the writing community of old (if there ever was one before the Internet), but I've noticed how supportive writers are to each other these days.

    Of course, those few truly household names live in a different world from the rest of us, and that may not have changed.

  6. Much to my surprise, I have found the writing community to be wholly supportive and encouraging. I say "to my surprise" because I've seen rivalries and competitions in most everything and expected (when I started blogging, in particular) to encounter the usual drama and snarkiness. The opposite has been true. What I've seen is that writers support other writers. When I hear of another writer's success I'm thrilled, probably because this business is so crazy, and a "win" from a "teammate" is a shot in the arm for everyone.

  7. Michael,
    Thanks for posting this!!
    Warm wishes,


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