Is Twitter bad for writers?

Here’s my Endpaper column from the summer edition of The Author, the magazine of the Society of Authors:

It is, according to enthusiasts, a medium which releases startling levels of creativity. Many of our most successful writers swear by it. No less an authority than the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has delivered a lecture in which he enumerated fifteen of its many virtues. It creates communities, he says. It changes the tone of writing. It is a “formidable aggregation tool”, if you happen to need one of those.

The exceedingly weird communication known as Twitter is easily mocked. As the name indicates, It is  intrinsically trivial. Messages are  restricted to 140 characters (that is, about the length of the first two sentences of this piece). You become a follower of those whose tweets interest you, and others can in turn follow your tweets.

Asinine  -  a passing fad, surely. From its early days, when Stephen Fry, an early champion of all things tweet, reported to his followers that he was stuck in a lift and took photographs of himself to prove it, Twitter seemed little more than a form of exhibitionism. It seemed slightly odd that the famous, who complained about the lack of privacy in their lives, had found a way to stalk themselves, but that was their business.

Since then Twitter has grown. It may indeed be a fad but it expresses the mood of the moment, and no one who writes for a living can afford to be too haughty about it. Publishers increasingly use it as a basic promotional aid. Writers have found that it is a good way of keeping in touch with readers, of letting people know if a new book was on its way. For anyone writing a regular newspaper column,  it is an easy and obvious of drawing readers’ attention to what you had written.

I decided to try it. Signing up was easy, quick and free. Like a nervous little chick poking its head out of the nest for the first time, I tweeted shyly. There was a dawn chorus of welcome from friends and readers. Now all I had to do was join in what Rusbridger calls the “series of common conversations”.

What a disaster that turned out to be. Apart from self-marketing in an increasingly brazen manner, my conversations either went nowhere, or backfired badly. I tried laboured wit – “the Spring’s first cuckoo’s call is like nature’s version of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive” – and felt foolish when no one noticed. I responded to one of my publishers who was asking for nominations for a good story about fatherhood by mentioning my own book, adding chippily “Oh, whoops, you’ve just let it go out of print.” Another deafening silence, after which I sheepishly deleted it.

One day I came across a message in which I was described, rather crushingly, as being “bad at Twitter”. It sounded like being called bad in bed – too fast, too slow, too keen, not keen enough – and seemed just as difficult to remedy.

My accuser was right. I had, like a bad lover,  a problem of desire.  I had no lust for round-the-clock chat. Being on Twitter felt like arriving at a noisy party where everyone is shouting jokes, gossip and opinions at one another. I wanted to go home.

I have stayed, but am something of a wallflower these days. Twitter is certainly a good form of marketing. It is probably useful for discovering information quickly. In fact, it would be a very self-confident professional author who, trying to reach a market patchily served by traditional publishing and bookselling, refused to play the game.

It reveals character. For authors who feel lonely, it provides its own rather odd form of company.  Tuning in now to the little Twitter community to which I belong, I can see that the distinguished journalist Ian Birrell  has just dropped his i-phone in the bath. Alain de Botton has delivered one of those gnomic aperÒ«us in which he specialises (“In fractious couples, women accuse men of being ‘boring’, men accuse women of being ‘cold.”) Neil Gaiman is in a studio and about to sing which I am invited to watch as it is recorded.

To tell the truth, I am only mildly curious about all this. It has taken the social media to reveal to me quite how anti-social I am.

More seriously, Twitter poses a professional problem for a writer.  “A good conversation involves listening as well as talking,” says Alan Rusbridger. “The elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting is kicked away on Twitter. Journalists are fast learners. They start writing differently.”

The trouble is I like my elevated platform. The idea of writing differently does not attract me. It seems to me that the last thing any serious-minded author needs is a conversation. The idea that writing can be a communal activity, often encouraged on creative writing courses,  is a recipe for banality. The case made for Twitter may sound fair, consensual and democratic, but writing is not like chairing a committee of different opinions and then summarising the majority view. It is a dictatorship.

As for fiction, the form is seductive in that it offers material, but it also has a dangerously harmful effect. Those “common conversations” involve sharing with friends and strangers what is happening in your life and your brain – incidents, thoughts, opinions, ideas.

It is precisely those things which over time fill up the tank of the imagination. The problem with chatting through the internet  is that, creatively, the tap is dripping all the time.

Should we all join this common conversation? Twitter is useful – maybe even essential -  for promoting your books, and an interesting place to visit now and then. There might even be ideas out there which you can steal in the traditional way. But hold on to your loneliness and your silence. They are part of what make you a writer.

Terence Blacker can occasionally be found on Twitter at @TerenceBlacker.