Last weekend, something controversial happened in the author blogosphere. The Romance Writers Report, the journal/newsletter of the Romance Writers Association, published an article giving tips for social media use among its members. Among other tips, the RWR advised its members not to express “an extreme opinion on social issues,” and went on to identify a few examples: gay marriage, Ferguson, and politics. Beware of talking about these topics, the RWR warned, because “you cannot afford to let those opinions turn your readership away.” If these topics are brought up, the RWR counseled that an author “express sadness” that the topic was being publicly discussed.
A screen-capture of the RWR advice was posted by LGBT romance writer Racheline Maltese, who got out in front of this issue and penned on her blog an appropriately critical message to the RWR responding to this terrible and uncommonly silly advice. (The screen cap is below). Much of the criticism of this advice has centered around social justice issues, that particularly within the romance writing community, the majority of both its authors and readers being women, the advice is especially offensive because it characterizes important public issues of basic human rights and decency–such as the right of marriage equality–as “extreme opinions.” There’s also, quite rightly, criticism of the tone of the RWR’s advice, that it’s cowardly and defensive, totally out of step with how people live in the real world today, as well as bad business for authors in general.
I am neither a woman nor a romance writer (though I am LGBT and in fact an married to a man). Without being a participant in the romance community, let me just say that I certainly agree with the very apposite criticism of the RWR’s misguided advice and the social justice issues it raises. This article is not about the social justice implications; that’s been well-covered by others. But there’s another issue lurking here that I think is worth talking about as well. In addition to being needlessly defensive (and offensive) from a social justice perspective, the RWR’s advice is bad for another reason: it’s counseling authors on how to be boring.
The overarching idea of the RWR’s advice seems to be, “Don’t rock the boat. You’ll lose customers.” Sounds like good advice, right? Well, it’s not, really. In fact it’s a terrible way, in my opinion, for a writer to approach the public. Not that I advocate “rocking the boat” for its own sake–which is the definition of trolling–but the whole notion that expressing the things that make a person who they are is somehow incompatible with an author’s mission, which the RWR cynically defines solely as “selling books.” The way the RWR seems to envision things, an author is precariously perched in an unstable canoe floating on a glassy calm pond, trailing a hook and sinker in the water waiting to reel in potential readers, and anything that makes even a tiny ripple on the surface risks scaring the delicate fish swimming below. So, you must keep your hands and feet in the boat at all times. Don’t whistle, speak, or even move, because you might cause a ripple. The one job you have is to sit there and wait for readers to nibble on your hook.
I utterly reject this view. Not only do I reject it, I want to beat it over the head, take it outside and run it over with my car, then back up and run it over again. It’s just nonsense.
“Whatever you do, don’t have an opinion–you might scare away the fish!”
The fact is, the world, especially the online world of social media, is filled with authors selling books. Twitter has tens of thousands of them. You probably follow some of them. The less tactful of them never tweet a damn thing other than Amazon links to their stuff, with maybe a few “inspirational” quotes thrown in as padding; some authors who are particularly unskilled at social media manage to botch even this simple prescription for mediocrity. Of these tactless authors, their websites are merely platforms for links to buy their books, and blog entries, if there are any, are often recycled listicles like “10 tips for landing an agent” or “how to format your manuscript” which have been done thousands of times before, and usually much better. There’s nothing new, nothing interesting, nothing personal, and certainly–certainly–nothing even remotely controversial. Reading the RWR’s terrible advice on social media, I wonder if whoever wrote it believes that the kind of social media presence I just described is a “good example” of how to be an author online. I fear that it is. It also makes me want to craft my own social media presence to resemble that paradigm as little as possible.
If we’re talking about controversial opinions, here’s another one for you, and one that I think may ring uncomfortably true: a fair number of authors you meet on social media are boring. I mean, let’s face it. Their smiling faces look great in Twitter avatars and on Facebook pages, but if you follow a lot of authors, after a while many of them tend to blur into a flat void of milquetoast sameness. It’s not because they’re boring people; in reality many of them are intensely interesting people who you’d love to hang out with in real life. But something about writing books and pushing those books on social media tends to flatten out those rough edges and leach out the uniqueness of their voices and visions. I’m convinced it’s this same “don’t-rock-the-boat” mentality, this same damnable orthodoxy that manifests itself not merely in foot-in-mouth boners like the RWR’s bad advice, but also the idea that an author, in order to sell books, has to follow the same old tired bag of tricks that everyone else is doing, because that’s just how it’s supposedly done. This is a prison of groupthink, or marketing-think, and represents a profound failure of imagination.
Sometimes I fear that the seldom-questioned orthodoxy of how authors should be on social media–an orthodoxy the RWR seems to accept–is going to turn us all into this. Scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
Authors shouldn’t be boring on social media. They should be vibrant, interesting, quirky, and unique. Hand-in-hand with that, they must have the freedom to be controversial, because you can never please everybody. Whatever you do, however innocuous, somebody somewhere is not going to like it. I was once blocked on Twitter for saying “Happy weekend!” on Friday morning by someone who thought it was inappropriate because it wasn’t the weekend until 5:00. Living in fear of these unpredictable reactions in others is a surefire recipe not only for neurosis, but for that same agonizing blandness that marks so much of the writing-related blogosphere. We must change this. Throwing out the “don’t-rock-the-boat” paradigm is the first and most necessary step.
I have opinions. You can find many of them here, and some are unpopular. But even beyond having personal opinions, I also believe that I do, and should, have something to offer the world beyond simply a book that I really want you to buy. This is why my website isn’t really about me selling books. Sure, I’d be delighted if you’d buy one, but if you’d rather come here because you like Norwegian history, or you’re interested in environmental disasters, or you read Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, or you want to know what happened to Marble Arvidson or Stevie Bates, I’d like to think I’ve got something for you, and the punch line is not “buy my book.” I sense that whoever wrote the RWR’s silly advice column would read this paragraph and say, “Wow, look at that crazy guy. He’s doing it all wrong! His site is an unholy mess! I guess he doesn’t want to sell any books.” Such a reaction would in fact tell me that I’m doing something right.