On setting up a website

It is time to become more accessible. The days have gone when an author’s self-presentation could be little more than a carefully enigmatic biographical paragraph on the back flap of a book, accompanied by a photograph taken ten years ago. That woefully 20th century approach sends out a chilly, off-putting message. “Not too close, please. I am an author. It is my work, not me, which matters here.”

Today the written word no longer quite cuts it. Our busy interactive culture demands engagement – warmth, movement, perhaps a bit of personal background. For a professional author, the easiest and most logical way to join this game is to boldly go into cyberspace and create – or have created – a website.

So I am about to have an online presence, a cyber-me. It was not a sudden spasm of ambition or vanity that prompted the decision but a vague sense that I was about to be left behind. It is 2009 and professional survival is the only priority. The city in which I have pitched my little tent seems to be crumbling all around me with booksellers, publishers, wholesalers and newspapers experiencing a major recession freak-out. It was difficult enough getting their attention in the good times; now they are hiding under their desks and refusing the answer the telephone.

Yet there are still readers out there. I’m almost sure there are. An author needs to be able reach beyond the usual intermediaries, who are now distracted by crises of their own. So, a website it is.

Every writer has – or should have – an inner marketing department which keeps business ticking over while his inner editorial department has lofty creative thoughts. My marketing manager is thrilled by the website decision. Readers, journalists, maybe even people who can offer me work, will soon be able to sample the rich variety of my output. They will warm to my personality. Never mind the book trade problems: readers – in their tens, maybe even in their dozens – will be able order copies of my books.

The inner editorial department has its doubts. There is the question of time. For a website to have any kind of point at all, it should be a live and developing thing. A static site, which is never updated, is little more than a computer version of a tattered old poster and can do more harm than good. It takes work to keep the thing alive – words and thoughts which, it might be argued, could be put to better use.

The best author websites are daunting. Jeanette Winterson, a pioneer in the area, has a site teeming with surprises, and debating chambers full of her readers and fans chatting about Jeanette. It is like a well-run country, whose monarch makes occasional pronouncements, the import and content of which are then busily deconstructed and discussed by her subjects. It is impressive, the hectic, ever-changing kingdom of Winterson, but it makes my head ache.

With the exception of a few obvious show-offs, most professional writers value the space they keep for themselves. A level of reclusiveness, they have discovered, is the only way to get work done. With a website, all that changes. You are invading your own privacy. Your personality and the events, thoughts and pictures from your life become part of a product on display.

It must eat into the soul, surely. The Quiet American would not have been the same book, if Graham Greene had written a blog telling his readers that he was having a really interesting time in Vietnam and was thinking of setting a novel there. Imagine Virginia Woolf with a website of her own, confiding to her online community that she was mulling over thoughts about a character called Mrs Dalloway. Something would be lost in cyberspace.

Any half-decent book is the result of holding back, of allowing stuff to bubble away within until it is cooked and ready to be written. A website – a live, busy website at least – might well be a cybernetic version of the kind of chat which any experienced author knows is the death of a book. “If I talk about anything I’m writing, that’s the end,” Ted Hughes once told an interviewer. “I can’t write any more. If you give it away by talk, then you don’t give it away through writing… All the steam goes out of it.”

Computers are not only changing the way we think and read; they are affecting how writers write. There tends to be less steam and more warmth. A good book is the result of a process that is intense and internal. Online communication is the very opposite: its whole point is that is chummily collaborative.

Newspapers columnists have been forced to become aware of this trend. The prevailing theory, propounded by champions of the blog and increasingly accepted within the industry, is that the new media, as it calls itself, is leading to a new kind of communication. The days when a writer merely presented an argument are gone, it is said. Today the expression of an opinion is merely the first step. Readers then respond and engage in an on-line debate, to which the original writer might contribute. Through this fog of chat, a shared truth will emerge, the fruit of interactive engagement. The great barricade between writer and reader has been demolished and beautiful revolution of co-operation has been born.

Seductively egalitarian, this idea is of course dangerous piffle. Writing is not a team sport. Interactivity is in this case, fake activity. The result is invariably bland, predictable and inconsequential.

But, in spite of all the worries of my inner editor, I find myself looking forward to the birth of this cyber-me. It might offer a new, alternative social life in which I could meet other authors and readers, as well as the inevitable nutters, through my computer screen. Professionally, it might open doors. It could even be something of an adventure. Couldn’t it?

Spring 2009