Against Community

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My new therapist asked me what it was I wanted from the sessions, what my goals were, etc. and I told her a few ideas, a few of my various hang-ups and dramas, recent and from childhood, past troubled relationships, etc., and then said what I really wanted, or what I was thinking the other day when I thought she might ask this question, is to learn to talk, I mean talk to people, I mean have a conversation, because sometimes I’m good at it and sometimes I stop, unable to say a word, the other speaker rattles on or gets annoyed at me for saying nothing and I’m left in a void, in silence, mouth frozen, not sure even where my feet are.

My girlfriend says this, my old friends say this. I say this to my therapist and she nods and makes a note, using my pen because at the beginning of the session she couldn’t find hers.

People tell me I should be on Twitter more, on Facebook more, on Instagram more, that as a writer, as a “public personality,” which apparently is what a writer is, I should be out there promoting myself, which is another term for being part of the “public conversation,” which is what self-promotion is these days. That is to say that conversation, at least held publically, digitally, is a commodity whose price is linked to ubiquity. Or to say that every public conversation is an act of self-branding, brand building, or platforming as the term is now.

My old publisher told me he wouldn’t publish my new book, even though he loved it, said he couldn’t stop reading, ruined his Xmas vacation because all he did was read my book, etc. because he said he no longer published writers who lacked a platform, that the writers he published “successfully” were those with established platforms. He said, Go build a platform, like Horace Greeley said, more than a hundred years ago, Go west, young man, both exhorting different paths to material success.

An agent told me he wouldn’t read my book because he only took on writers with a “plus one,” and as it was evident to him, I did not have a “plus one,” there was no reason to read my book. He said his son had taught him this, his son being the artistic director of one of the most prestigious public theaters in the UK, because his son now only produced playwrights with a “plus one,” and because of this, his son was very successful.

A “plus one,” the agent told me, was a platform, and a platform could be anything, but it meant that you were already famous, that people already knew your name, that you came along trailing a guest list of ready-made fans and readers and influencers and retweeters, that no matter what you wrote, it would be gobbled up. Success was built into the model: only the successful are allowed the opportunity to be, well, successful. It also explained a lot of bad plays I’d watched and my failure at sliding a foot into the office doors of artistic directors of theaters with copies of my plays.

Both were saying the same thing: My “social media credit score” was not high enough. As a result, I was banished to the hinterlands of the unpublishable.

I spend time on Twitter most days, as a lurker, that guy hiding in the undergrowth with his binoculars hoping no one spots him, a peeping Tom in the digital hedgerows. When the writer Iris Murdoch was having an affair with the other writer and future Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, he followed her almost everywhere, sometimes crawling in the mud and grass behind bushes while she went for walks with girlfriends. He wanted to make sure she wasn’t sleeping with other men, even though he was sleeping with numerous other women. Iris was his star lover. She got the favored spot, late afternoons in his bedroom, after which his one-armed wife, Vera, would cook dinner and carry it upstairs so the lovers could eat in bed.

I’m not so extreme, but I am curious what my fellow writers are doing: Will they read that pile of fifteen two-inch-thick tomes tagged #VacationReading, or do I really need to see the two-foot pile of books they say they read last month? I like #shelfies more than #selfies. It moves me to see a neat row of editions of one of my favorite authors, say, Alasdair Gray or Brigid Brophy, sometimes to jealousy. Where did they find a first edition of such-and-such?

It’s banal to say social media is a money-making machine among whose primary fuel is envy. The world of writers before social media was hardly free of that vice, among many others. But the backslapping — “liking,” “retweeting,” etc. — coteries of modern writerly cliques, with their mob-like #followbacks and paeans to #buildingcommunity, their #happypubdate fireworks gifs, and the mirthless #coverreveals, which too often feel like a stillborn baby’s gender reveal party, strike me as too cringingly false, off-key notes that fail to mute the obvious, the mutual, and hollow, platform building that is going on. It’s like watching an endless series of Potemkin villages being erected before your eyes. Or a circle of male porn stars preparing for an orgy scene, each fluffing the next.

I’m allergic to falsity in online communities: If I like/retweet/comment on so-and-so’s tweet, so-and-so having x multiple more followers than me, I can fall into nausea-inducing panic at the thought it might be read as self-promotion, that someone might think I’m trying to cadge a few more followers. This is another of the “products” of social media, another of its money-making engines: this pandering to our various debilitating narcissisms, exploiting them, magnifying them. Even forms of social media paralysis become commodities of exchange within such economies, contributing to bottom-line profits in faraway money centers and trading hubs. It is not too outlandish to imagine that someone, somewhere, has calculated how an individual’s sense of nausea as their on-screen pointer hovers over the like button contributes to or takes away from the share price of our social media overlords over time.

When the Swedish poet Aase Berg was asked for advice for aspiring poets, she responded by saying poets should forget readers, ignore the audience. “Poetry is not about making connections,” she said. “You don’t need to be understood, you don’t even need to understand yourself. Poetry is only research into the unfathomable.” The idea of an online community, which has become axiomatic in modern literary culture to a point where it is no longer seriously questioned, feels more and more like the sharing of counterfeit banknotes. We are piling up our stashes, exchanging them readily, showing off our balances. The same culture drives the madness of NFTs. Meanwhile, the unfathomable remains, awaiting its researchers. The job description is brief: an ability to tolerate silence, loneliness, shutting out the world, a willingness to not give a fuck about what others think. There is no pay, or seldom is, but who worries about material rewards when we lose ourselves in contemplating the abyss.



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