Literary idols on Twitter

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • February 7, 2013

I've always been interested in the lives of my favorite authors outside of their body of work. It’s deeply fascinating to me what makes an artist — influences, background, opinions, and the like. This might sound a little voyeuristic, but the heart of this fascination, I believe, is my own insecurities about being a writer. It’s a tough profession to “make it” in, and a solitary one — everyone who finds success as a writer seems to go about their work in a different way. It’s reassuring for me to see exemplars in the field outside of their dust jacket blurbs and photographs, because it gives me a realistic look at what it means to work as an artist in today’s world. And with the rise of social media, it has never been easier to learn about the people behind my favorite books. 

Caitlín R. Kiernan, a Providence-based writer of Lovecraftian horror and science fiction, blogs regularly on LiveJournal, documenting her progress on various projects and offering her opinions on movies, music, and literature. Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk tweets links to helpful writing advice pages and thought-provoking opinion pieces on contemporary works of literature. Horror writer Joe Hill recently tweeted his invigorating experience of finishing Moby Dick. 

These details might seem inconsequential to some, but for a fledgling writer, they can be incredibly gratifying, a real-time validation of a future career. These writers are able to use social media to connect with their audience in a way that they cannot through their books. They cleverly use venues like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as a virtual extension of their literary lives. 

It’s to be expected that some of the most effective users of social media are those who have built their lives on the printed word. But, like many everyday users of these websites, some writers have fallen into the pitfalls of the internet and the results have, in many cases, been nasty.

Take Bret Easton Ellis. Author of such novels as Less Than Zero and American Psycho, Ellis earned critical praise as a young writer during the 1980s and ’90s for his bleak social commentary and use of the grotesque. 

Today, Ellis has become infamous online for his Twitter page. While occasionally posting tweets of substance (“If you’ve never read a novel pick up ‘Anna Karenina’ and you will have the most intensely jolting and cinematic experience ever. Great book.”), Ellis frequently veers into scathing criticisms of various public figures (“Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Douchebag-Fools Pantheon…”) .

Like anyone else on the internet, Ellis is entitled to his own opinions, but his Twitter potshots rarely form any kind of considered argument. The late David Foster Wallace, an outspoken critic of Ellis’s writing, at least had the decency and articulateness to criticize Ellis through his fiction and essays. Ellis, on the other hand, fired incendiary, half-baked attacks in 140 characters or fewer — at a deceased target. Ultimately, Ellis’s social media presence leaves one with a sense that he is vying for media attention and controversy, which he has gained in full; a Google search of “Bret Easton Ellis Twitter” will pull up scores of opinion pieces condemning Ellis as an offensive, washed-up, empty former celebrity.

I don’t take issue with Ellis’s tweets because they are offensive. I simply find them embarrassingly shallow for a writer of his talent and intelligence. For nearly three decades, Ellis has provided his readers with gritty commentary on American society and pop culture through his fiction; unfortunately, his attempts to do the same on Twitter fall flat. 

Authors make a living off of expressing themselves through the written word, and perhaps more so than other public figures, they have a responsibility to use social media productively. For better or for worse, the internet is changing literature, and writers cannot expect to survive in today’s literary scene if they use it ineffectively. Having said that, no writer is obliged to have a social media presence at all — in fact, some (like Bret Easton Ellis) would fare far better without one. But those who do choose to connect with the world through Facebook, Twitter, and other online mediums should understand the power and limitations of social media and behave accordingly.