A Writer's Tools, conversation with Angela Makholwa, Lauren Beukes and Margie Orford, facilitated by Rebecca Davis, 17 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.
The advent of social media has undoubtedly changed the way writers interact with the public and vice versa. At this panel, the discussants examined exactly how social media have changed the way writers do what they do.
The first question wittily posed by the facilitator, journalist Rebecca Davis, is not, as the event description would have it, whether it is possible to write a book without using social media (which would seem to have an obvious answer, given the until-recent absence of the Internet), but how writers procrastinated before they could do so online. Responses by both Beukes and Orford quickly indicate that Davis has identified a pertinent issue – Beukes cites her dependency on the Windows/Mac OS X app “Freedom” that prevents you from accessing the Internet for whatever period of time you specify, up to a length of six hours. Orford similarly mentions that she writes in a studio with no Internet access (although, she quips, this was not always sufficient, as she used to find the demands of her children for food and water more distracting).
Having established that the Internet can be a hindrance to writing, Davis turns the conversation to social media in particular, and lets Beukes, a prolific tweeter, open the discussion.
Beukes describes Twitter, curated properly and used correctly, as “like being at the best cocktail party in the world”, where one has easy access to experts and interesting people of all kinds. She uses Twitter to crowdsource information not easily Googled – for example, when doing research for her 2013 novel The Shining Girls, she connected via Twitter with police officers in Chicago that eventually gave her access to the kinds of details that were necessary to portray the novel’s setting accurately. Makholwa, who runs a media and public relations business, expresses her own personal dislike of Twitter, describing the site as a “buzz in one’s head” that exacerbates the constant mental buzzing of her characters’ voices that she already experiences. She prefers the more “controlled space” of Facebook.
Davis turns here to Orford, a recent committer of “Facebook suicide”, for her opinion on the matter. Orford jokingly lauds giving up Facebook as a preferable alternative to the Noakes diet, as, inexplicably, she lost seven kilograms after deleting her account. Her actual reason for leaving was, however, more serious – she explains that she wished to avoid an embarrassing “public breakdown” on Facebook (and, later, she mentions the more ominous matter of a stalker she had who would contact her via Facebook).
As a freelance journalist, however, Orford acknowledges that Twitter can be a useful resource. She notes that many of her articles have been commissioned through Twitter, and that Twitter can be a valuable source of information from people “on the ground” (here, she mentions in particular the prevalence of social media as a platform of expression during the Arab Spring).
The panel then considered the possibilities for interaction between writer and public that social media (and Twitter in particular) have created. For example, Davis notes that since the rise of the Internet, book-reviewing is no longer the purview of select editors and literary critics. She asks the panelists how they approach the reviews of their books, both positive and negative, that are published online.
Beukes responds quickly, exclaiming “No author should ever go on Goodreads!” (a popular site for sharing and reviewing books), but qualifies her remark by saying that she finds engaging with reader feedback valuable. Orford, on the other hand, refuses to read any reviews of her novels, saying that once she has completed a book, she avoids any further engagement with the finished product.
Finally, the all-female panel comes around to the topic of gender-directed online abuse. Davis mentions that the anonymity and immediacy of online interaction seems to dissolve the inhibitions of some people. Orford shares her recent experience where, after publishing an article analysing the “imaginary black stranger” at the heart of the Oscar Pistorius trial, abuse was levelled at her online, to the point where strangers threatened both her and her daughters with rape. Orford calls this kind of trolling “bizarre”, and says that although she found it upsetting at first, she has now learned to ignore it.
The discussion comes to a close with the acknowledgment that although, as Orford contends, “privacy and solitude” are necessary tools for writers, a writer must also be in the world, and social media can be valuable insofar as they are one way of doing so.