A Huffington Post article titled “How Social Media Changed the Way We Read Books” caught my eye this morning. What I find most intriguing about what Maddie Crum has to say in the piece is her point that an author’s decision to use social media can sometimes backfire on them. Where social media works brilliantly as a promotional tool for some, it has the exact opposite effect for others, often causing longtime readers and fans to reevaluate their respect for an author’s work. And, almost always, that reevaluation does not go in the author’s favor.
I’d curated a list of Twitter accounts that more or less pandered to my precise interests. News sites that specialize in deep dives into the uncanny, authors who manage to employ their style in 140-character observations.Instead -- and I’m sure you’ll relate to this painful experience -- what I got was a rash of strangely dogmatic tweets from an author I like, Joyce Carol Oates. “This is sad,” the National Book Award-winning author wrote, “Please consider ‘fostering’ these orphans ... ” Embedded in the tweet is another tweet from @citykitties, and a link to adult cats in need of owners.“God,” I wrote a coworker. “Joyce Carol Oates is everyone’s most condescending friend.” What I meant was that this type of tweeting -- sharing something tragic yet too specific to be engaged with meaningfully in quick, offhand conversation -- was uncomfortable to read. What I didn’t say was that I was confused and bothered by the dissonance between the words I was used to reading under her name, and the words she proliferated daily. (Bold type is mine.)
Joyce Carol Oates (which is especially sad for her longtime fans) is the perfect example of how an author can misuse a social medium like Twitter. That Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific authors working today cannot be denied, but her fans seldom complain that a new novel or story of hers feels rushed to market or editorially neglected. Fans appreciate that the wait between Joyce Carol Oates novels and short story collections is a very short one compared to most other writers of her stature. Oates cares about her craft – and it shows.
And that is precisely why her Twitter comments can be so disturbing. Suddenly Oates has exposed herself as someone not above countless inane postings about her cat and all those homeless kitties out there in the world…the type of post that makes most of us roll our eyes even when they originate from family members or close friends. If Oates were just another “cat lady” it might even be kind of cute. But that’s far from the largest problem with the way that she uses Twitter.
The bigger problem is that Oates has exposed herself as a condescending, close-minded bigot when it comes to people who disagree with any of her extreme left-wing political views, and she uses Twitter as the pulpit from which she preaches her beliefs to those of us too stupid to agree with her. This is a woman whose published work always appears polished and filled with well considered, reasoned words. Her political rants on Twitter are the opposite. Her “tweets” are filled with unreasoned exaggerations, clichés, and outright lies vilifying those who do not see the world through the eyes of those who live in the social bubble she and her colleagues and friends have quarantined themselves within. After all, how can her views possibly be wrong or biased if everyone she knows and speaks to every day of her life agrees with her?
Her Twitter words are not well considered; they sound just like every other rant I see on Facebook or Twitter. They are degrading – and, in the long run, she is the one being degraded.
I have been reading Joyce Carol Oates since the early 1980s and I own over 100 of her books in hardback first editions. I have read almost all of them. I even bought one last week that I’ve been looking around for a while for – but I wasn’t very excited to find it and I have no real desire right now to read it. And it makes me sad to have to say that.
I’m just not sure that I “trust” Oates enough to read her with the same respect that I used to have for her. It’s not that I only want to read the work of authors whose political views match mine; it’s not that at all. But I do find it difficult to read the work of authors, who if they knew me, would have so little respect for who I am and how I see the world. No, respect is a two-way street, and I’m not at all sure that I even want to be on Joyce Carol Oates’s street anymore.