Friday, August 24, 2012

Is Social Media Making Us All Too Vanilla?

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Several recent blogs made me think about the writer’s role and how social media has made us all so likable and homogenous.

First there was Sandra Parshall’s great piece on Poe’s Deadly Daughters in which she asked the question: Should writers keep their opinions to themselves online so they don’t offend readers? She mentioned instances in which readers said they would never read so-and-so’s work again because of something they had posted on Facebook or Twitter. I’m guessing it was something political, and the readers were of the other persuasion.

This has weighed on my mind because I have succumbed to self-censorship. Every day, I make a choice to not post links to liberal commentaries I enjoyed. When others post political statements I agree with, I’ll click the Like button but typically won’t comment. My thinking is that conservatives buy novels too, so why offend them? But it also makes me cringe. Until this point in my life—when I became a very public person—I’ve always spoken freely and said what I thought. Maybe too much so, I hear my husband say in my head.

I even moved The Sex Club—my bestseller and a book readers loved—out of my Jackson series and into the standalone thriller list, because the book is political and I didn’t want to lose readers before they even gave the series a chance. But now Amazon wants to market it as part of the series, and I said yes. I’m a little worried about the backlash, but I’m also happy to take ownership of my politics again.

The other interesting post that dovetailed into this discussion was in Slate magazine and subtitled The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture. The author made the point that when writers friend, support, and Like! everyone, it becomes nearly impossible to give an honest critique of their work. How can you say something even mildly critical about a novel if the author just gave you an online hug?

In my experience, most writers are by nature really nice people. We’re typically very supportive. We want to help each other, and post great reviews on Amazon, and retweet book links. And l love it. I’m part of that culture. But is it honest? If I were a professional book reviewer who didn’t know some these authors personally, would I have a different assessment of their work? In that scenario, my loyalty would be to readers, to give them a full honest appraisal of the book.

If I post on Twitter than I’m reading a particular book and someone asks me if I like it—and by then I’ve stopped reading it—what do I say? If I post that it was too slow for me, I risk offending several people and maybe that reader will decide we must like different books so they won’t bother to try mine.

This is why I don’t read much fiction or talk about what I read—unless I love it. And I turn down almost all requests to review novels. My nature is to be supportive—often to an extreme—but I also have a loyalty to my readers, and I shouldn’t steer them toward books just because those writers are my friends whom I have great affection for.

I love social media and connecting with people and I’ll keep doing what I can to cultivate friends and encourage people to like me. But some days, the self-censorship makes me not like myself.

What do you think? Is the online writer community too nice? Do you ever wish you could cut loose and say something critical or political—without losing readers or friends?


  1. Are we becoming more vanilla? No, I think we're just becoming more famous. There's a certain amount of graciousness and guardedness expected of people who live public lives. Thanks to the social media, that's what we've started doing. It's not much different than the movie star who either has to smile and put up with people snapping pix and asking for autographs, or getting a reputation for being rude (and hurting their box-office).

    I have at least one writer friend who only "friends" his honest-to-God friends on Facebook. Everyone else, he directs to his author's page. That way, he gets to let his hair down, so to speak, on his personal page and be a gracous professional on his author page.

    As far as giving nice reviews, that is a problem. I do think that friends shouldn't ask friends to write reviews unless they're strong enough, friendship-wise, to handle the truth. I tell my buddies, "If you can't say something nice, say something snarky." And truly, if there's something wrong with my book, I'd like to know, although I'd prefer a private message instead of a public review.

    I have another friend who is a wonderful writer, and wrote a book in a completely different genre. I was looking forward to reading it, and they were EXPECTING a review of it. It is a bad book. What makes them wonderful in one genre killed them in this one. I gave it as positive a review as I could, but it was awkward and I think they might have seen through my very PC words. I've sworn never to do that again. Too painful.

  2. This article resonates with me, LJ. As a teacher, I could never say what I really thought to students, their parents, or the principal. That was sometimes frustrating. And as an editor who wants to attract clients, I also have to watch what I say on Facebook or Twitter, so I don't usually get into political discussions, unless it's something I can't keep my mouth shut about like some AH politician talking about "legitimate rape"!!

    And the reviews thing is a whole other can of worms.

  3. Two more thoughts:
    It seems appropriate to enter some political discussions as long as we're selective and present ourselves professionally. And too much self-censorship is pointless, because those who vehemently disagree with us are not going to read our work anyway.

  4. Very thoughtful post, L.J.

    This is something I've actually given a lot of thought to lately. When I started using Facebook, I didn't have many readers. Then my audience grew, and with it, so did my social media followers. For a time, I often bit my lip or refrained from posting or liking things because I worried I might offend some of my readers or even potential ones.

    I've never posted about politics or religion--and never will--because I feel these are two things that are extremely personal and best kept to oneself. Speaking of them never brings about anything positive, and it bothers me when others try to shove them down my throat.

    On other topics, though, I've decided I owe it to myself and my readers to be as genuine as possible, and as long as I'm not overtly offensive or rude, it's okay to voice my opinions and be who I am. I'm human, just like everyone else and being human doesn't mean sacrificing my individuality.

    But that's just me, and I realize it's up to each person to decide whether to turn up or down the volume.

  5. Do I ever wish I could cut loose? You betcha! Will I? Probably not about anything important when I'm online.

    I think there was a time when I would have been comfortable expressing all of my views, including both my political opinions and religious beliefs. But there are two things at play now: the polarization that seems to make otherwise rational people into irrational zealots for their cause; and the fact that over the years almost all of my views and opinions have changed. Some only a little, others a lot.

    It's either very brave or very foolish for authors to stand on a soapbox and make proclamations to the world. Surely potential readers will be alienated by virtue of their single-minded passion. However, if we can be low-key, thoughtful and inclusive of other positions, a certain amount of honest expression might be most welcome.

  6. Drew, thanks for commenting. I'm curious, do you discuss religion or politics with anyone? Friends or family? I ask because we've banned political discussions from our extended-family gatherings, but I talk politics with my friends all the time. My religious views can get me in trouble, so I keep those to myself and immediate family.

  7. I don't discuss those issues with most people because I know they're emotional hot buttons and doing so only creates hostility and hard feelings. Besides that, I'm extremely uncomfortable around zealots who insist I believe what they do. Like you, my religious beliefs are not common. I don't push them on others out of respect and would like to be treated in the same manner.

    Having said that, I have selectively discussed my views with people I trust and who I know don't have an agenda. But that's an intellectual scenario, not an emotional one where two people benefit--not just one.

  8. I made a decision shortly after joining Facebook that politics and religion were topics I wouldn't discuss on social media. This can be difficult for me because my platform is built around social issues and personal growth. Social issues often butt up against politics quite hard.
    Early on, I would comment on other people's political posts, especially to point out what I thought were honest errors, such as posts of things Snopes had shown to be false, until I realized how often the poster didn't care that the item posted spread lies or half truths. At that point I realized any attempt at participation in the discussion was a waste of my time.
    People believe what they want to believe and if they believe it strongly enough to post lies to support their beliefs, they aren't interested in a rational discourse that might solve problems.
    While I would like to say I never consider how expressing my beliefs will affect book sales, I'd be lying. I don't like the idea of alienating readers.

  9. Great post, LJ -- I was actually considering this just the other day. I've always kind of worn my politics on my sleeve, but in the past few months as I've begun to see more followers with vastly different viewpoints than my own, I've definitely put the kaibosh on speaking my mind on the hotter topics out there. Part of this is because I don't want to alienate those readers with dissimilar viewpoints, but part of it -- as Andrew pointed out -- truly is because I feel such things are deeply personal, and I think it's neither fair nor particularly effective to force my viewpoints down other people's throats. Like you, I'll still 'like' the postings I agree with, but for the most part I refrain from putting any such postings on my own wall (With the exception of occasional animal rescue bits, but I figure I'm pretty safe there... If there really are people who get annoyed that I want to save puppies and stuff, they probably wouldn't like my books anyway). I was feeling guilty about this the other day, so it's nice to know there are other writers out there struggling with the same thing. Thanks for another illuminating post!

  10. I don't discuss politics or religion because I don't want to. I know too many people get way emotional over it and it's not worth them offending my other friends. I receive emails when another friend posts things that are way out there. Usually these conversations happen when I'm not even online.

    Readers don't want to be preached to about anything. I know of a few that shun writers that talk about politics. If you write a book that includes politics in the story line that would be a hard one, but I imagine that there are other aspects of the story that hopefully will take center stage.

    I don't tell anyone what book I'm reading unless I love it, and then I'll probably post a review on my blog. I don't have as much time to read as I would like, but I do still make an attempt.

    Thanks for another great post!

  11. I think Drew put it well when he said that nothing positive comes from talking about politics or religion. And while there are times that I may vehemently disagree with the views someone's trying to force on me, I'll force myself to smile and keep my mouth shut.

    Many years ago, I got into one of those heated political discussions with someone close and the relationship has never really gotten past it. I thought we were close enough that we could strongly disagree, but I learned that the politics/religion hot button runs right to the core of who someone is and should not be pressed under any circumstances.

    You can also tell from the length of the replies on this topic that this one hits people hard.

  12. I agree with Drew - nothing positive comes from talking politics or religion, but sometimes it's really hard for me to keep my mouth shut. When I see people (especially on my FB feed) posting politic things I blatantly disagree with, I have to work to step back.

    Sometimes I wonder if it's a mistake, but as an up and comer, I certainly don't want to alienate anyone. But then I wonder, would people have the same respect for me? Several FB friends don't, and it can be frustrating.

    Great topic, and I commend you for choosing only to talk about books you loved. That's a tough one, too.

  13. Timely post. I totally self-censor. I also have a rule, never write reviews, especially not for authors I know personally.
    Love to let down my hair and just be myself, but that's for my family and friends. My readers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions and political persuasions and I always keep that in mind before opining something someone might find offensive.
    Once in a great while I'll say something a little controversial, but I do my best to rein it in.


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