When social media platforms were launched, the prevailing assumption was that novelists would be unwilling to join in the microblogging fun. The diligent attention required to plot, write and revise a sustained piece of fiction over three hundred pages or more seemed antithetical to the constrained space and endless distraction provided by something like Twitter.
Yet the opposite has proved true: it is this industry, more than any others, that has been cannibalised by the attention vacuum, infighting and reputation-laundering of social media. It is more than possible to ruin your career, even when you are only doing as Pascal says you should, and sitting quietly in your room.
Slowly, it emerged that a large social media following provided a better guarantee of book sales than almost any other metric. If social media gave writers – gave everyone – anxiety, it also provided the volatile business model of publishing with an unexpected crumb of stability.
Young and emerging authors are the people who find themselves most at the mercy of this satire of technological circumstance. To understand more, The Fence wrote to a host of novelists on both sides of the Atlantic and asked: how many hours have you spent on your phone today?
‘I’m writing this at 11am’ wrote Fiona Mozley, ‘so haven’t been on my phone much yet. Just for, say, an hour and a half.’ Sophie Mackintosh spends ‘a mere 500’ hours a day on her phone. ‘Says here that my daily average is 3hrs and 43 minutes’ said Lauren Oyler, ‘which is less than I’d expect.’ Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett suggested she had probably spent eight hours on her phone on the day following the US Election.
Every writer we spoke to uses multiple forms of social media, excluding Ottessa Moshfegh, who wrote us back promptly and politely to say that she finds even thinking about the subject unbearable. ‘I exist, in a purely technical sense, on LinkedIn and Instagram.’ said Richard Smyth, adding that he owns a Nokia, not a smartphone. ‘None of my actual friends are really on Twitter. As for my Twitter friends, they have to stay on Twitter, because if they didn’t they would cease to exist.’
‘It doesn’t need repeating’ wrote Luke Brown, ‘that Twitter is a cesspit of the vilest sentiment and the most pious and humourless of fools. It rewards awful behaviour and when I used to look at it more than I do now I would become deeply misanthropic. There are some funny people on there, but they can’t counterbalance the crashing awfulness of it and its net harm to the human spirit.’
With Facebook increasingly a family concern, and Twitter a perennial Hobbesian mess, Instagram is the most reliable way to sell a book. There are lots of depressing articles about how to ‘sell yourself’ that reproduce the statistics; we won’t do it here, because our readers are above it, even if neither we (nor our interview subjects) necessarily are.
Yet most of our writers find Twitter more addictive than Instagram. ‘I find the general Instagram population just too weird to be interested in, even though it seems likely they are in fact considered “normal,”’ said Oyler. ‘Looking at it reminds me of being at a frat party; insecurity tempts, but it’s always forced out by repulsed disbelief that this is a thing lots of people do. Though I probably shouldn’t say this, because apparently Instagram sells many more books, and mine are so photogenic.’
Rebecca Watson wouldn’t say which favourite social media site, saying ‘I love all my children equally.’ When asked who her least favourite individual on the internet was, she merely commented ‘I love all my reply guys equally.’
Several of our authors, asked about their social media addiction, shyly admitted to the deeply unfashionable crime of not having one. But almost all confessed to having injured themselves whilst on their phones. Fiona Mozley hurt her neck, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett walked into a glass door. Sophie Mackintosh had a ‘very painful but stupid accident’ whilst doomscrolling in early lockdown. ‘I was holding a beer in one hand and my phone in the other and I tripped quite comically over a bucket, and refused to let either my beer or my phone go, and so crashed with great force onto the solid poured concrete that makes up my garden. I couldn't even stop looking at my phone then as had to google “broken kneecaps” for the next hour.’
There is a sniffiness in British journalism about writing up what happens online: a sense that it’s not the real world, not newsworthy, not worth the column inches. But Oyler argued that the small constituency of notification-addicts and discourse obsessives casts a shadow over the rest of the thinking world. ‘Even if [social media] is a net bad, which I think it is, you can’t just turn it off. You can’t just ignore it. The only real justification I can think of for ignoring it is a desire to remain ignorant of just how out of touch you are. Which is fine, but not for a writer.
‘It influences every area of society that is meaningful to a literary or creative type: politics, tech, the media, the academy, the culture industries... The anodyne tweets become the theses of anodyne editorials, which become the anodyne messaging of politicians.’
Almost everyone we spoke to had, at one point or another, tried to quit. ‘I quit social media all the time.’ said Mozley. ‘Sometimes I deactivate my accounts in the morning then reactivate them in the afternoon.’ Sophie Mackintosh questioned the wisdom of cutting off the chemical supply. ‘I do it periodically and end up just reciting my boring thoughts to myself or my partner, without the benefit of any dopamine.’
The writers we spoke to seem to be able to find the time to write whilst also devoting several hours a day – as we do – to staring at their phones. Perhaps it’s not these writers we should worry about.
‘It’s fairly easy to stay out of trouble,’ said Smyth. ‘And while capital W Writers can be annoying in real life – on social media, boy oh boy. They’re absolutely fucking unbearable.’