Death of a Novelist: Identity and Social Media

The demand on the novelist is simple: intimately understand what it means to be human– all the anger, joy, sorrow, weakness, triumph, beauty, brokenness– and depict this humanness in a raw but poetic work of fiction that simultaneously makes readers laugh, cry, and contemplate life (and death), while dramatically and indefinitely altering the way they perceive both themselves and the universe.

As if this weren’t already the most insurmountable job description in the world, the novelist is bombarded with perpetual social criticism, whether real or imagined, that posits the write-life as futile, dreamy, and useless, adopted only by those few who were too indolent and pathetic to enter the (gasp!) real workforce, that place where paychecks are actually predictable.

Enter self-loathing, a spontaneous identity crisis, and a self-induced aneurism.

But never fear! Gone are the days that novelists are sequestered to the unfathomable depths of their own loneliness. Need a shot of pleasure inducing dopamine? Look no further than Facebook. And then Twitter. And maybe some Instagram. Snapchat anyone? But wait, I’m a professional: Linkedin.

Three hours later, soul sufficiently balmed by positive reinforcement by total strangers in the form of abstract “Likes” (and slightly less abstract comments), the novelist is ready to commence writing, wholly unaware of the influence social media has upon her mind and emotions.

Enter second identity crisis.

I’m only being a tad facetious. Or not. Beneath this desperate hyperbole lies two simple truths.

  1.  The novelist is expected to understand, empathize with, and accurately depict the human condition in all its many facets.
  2. Social media really does undermine the novelist’s ability to complete number 1.

Before every angsty novelist begins chasing me down an alleyway shouting, “But a solid platform is the straight and narrow pathway to success!” allow me to sketch out four demons of social media that every novelist (and, indeed, every human) should be aware of:

1. It recalibrates the mind to anticipate– even expect– instantaneity.

Every time you post, like, follow, or text, dopamine, a highly addictive neurotransmitter, is released into your brain. (Just for reference, dopamine is the same chemical that is released when you drink, smoke, gamble, or, ironically, fall in love). The constant and instantaneous release of dopamine that takes place through interaction with social media configures the brain to anticipate and expect instant gratification. This effect is not reserved to social media, but can creep into other areas of life as well. Relationships. Career. That novel that you started yesterday and wanted to finish today… Impatience abounds.

“Okay, so get to the point,” the impatient novelists plead.

The point: Impatience is the antithesis of excellence. Because I can safely assume that you are neither Shakespeare nor Fitzgerald, I can also safely assume that if you (and I) want to produce works that display our highest excellence, we’re going to have to work at it. Patiently. Persistently. Agonizingly.

Impatience and the desire for instant gratification necessarily lead to the production of half-rate works of literature that belong nowhere but an agent’s rejection pile. (Qualifier: this is not to suggest that all works on the rejection pile are half-rate.) As Nicholar Carr aptly puts it in his The Shallows, “We no longer have the patience to await time’s slow and scrupulous winnowing” (pp. 171). We instead prefer the novel, the immediate, and the popular.

2. It enables and encourages superficiality

Social media encourages users to coat their lives in an impenetrable veneer, hiding weaknesses, concealing flaws, and camouflaging struggles. On social media we create our personas not as we are, but as we would prefer to be perceived. Our lives are perfect. Our smiles are white. And we never (ever) struggle with self-loathing. We hide our faults at the risk of becoming superficial caricatures, our identities hinged on perfection and ultimately lost in a world of our own creation.

Do I think that you should pour out your darkest secrets onto the guillotine that is the internet? Good grief, no. Share what you want, remaining aware that superficiality can be habituated: superficial profile, superficial novels. After all, how can you write like no one is watching when you’re so desperately absorbed with your inerrant online self-image?

3. It contributes to distractedness

In brief, web usage, including social media, has been linked to higher levels of distractedness and difficulty of concentration. Again citing Carr, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (pp. 116). Excessive web use is a form of self-induced ADHD.

4.  Technology, social media not exempt, undermines our capacity for emotion and empathy. 

This is not hyperbole. Embrace that visceral rock in your gut. Cue calling up a friend, maybe two, and ensuring that no, you have not become a sub-human robotic mutant incapable of human emotion. Although that is more or less possible.

According to a Carr in his discussion on a 2009 study titled “Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion,” “The more distracted we become, the less we are able to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions” (pp. 221). Meaning? The realm digitalis essentially possesses the power to undermine that which makes us most human: our ability to experience rich, nuanced emotion. Our technological addictions are remaking man in the image of the machine.

“But the platform! My platform! However will I be successful without it?” As an author, you probably won’t. Which is why I’m not here to tell you to vanish from the face of cyberspace (I tried that for six months and, while gloriously refreshing, began to fade into self-induced oblivion). We are not obscure monks living in rural Ireland. To be successful today, you must be known, and social media happens to be the best method self-advertisement. Its uses are unprecedented. Think: Arab Spring.

But when your identity becomes tied to your online profile, you have ceased to control social media and it has begun to control you. You have been remade in the image of the machine.

So, five suggestions, some more practical than others:

  1. Limit your social media usage. Not only is this a step away from the bone-trembling propensities listed above, but it also leads to lower rates of depression and higher fulfillment in life. Yes, work on your platform. No, don’t check your Facebook feed multiple times a day. Or an hour. Nothing kills a novel like an afternoon lost in cyberspace. Instead, enhance focus, curb distraction, enable empathy, pursue excellence, and finish that novel.
  2. Experiment writing longhand. Not only is this an excellent exercise in concentration, it also facilitates fluidity of rhetoric. (I speak from experience on this one.) Cumulative sentences, poignant description, and tear-jerking, blow-your-mind metaphors abound when writing longhand. Probably in that order.
  3. Refocus on the goal, or telos, or writing in order to reorient your habits. Is your goal to write narrative that sends readers reeling, questioning all that is life, pursuing the transcendent, experiencing beauty? Cultivate habits that align your life with your goals. Your writing will follow.
  4. Embrace the arduous process that is creation. Recognize that just because you’re writing slowly doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. As Van Gogh bemoaned, “I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort and disappointment and perseverance.” True for Van Gogh, true for you and I.
  5. Recognize that there is beauty in brokenness. To embrace and understand the depth of the human soul is fundamentally the novelist’s errand. But when our online presence is a effort in superficiality, we undermine our capacity for seeing beauty in imperfection. It’s there if only we dare search for it.

We do ourselves a disservice when our identities are capitulation to technology, no longer reflecting God’s image, nor even in man’s image, but rather the image of the machine.

We do ourselves a disservice when our identities are capitulated to technology, no longer reflecting God’s image, nor even in man’s image, but rather the image of the machine. The highest aspiration of the novelist, to reach out and touch the deepest parts of the human soul, becomes unattainable when what it means to be human is lost in a deluge of tweets, posts, and likes.

Ever found yourself sucked into the vortex of social media to the degradation of your worth or the worth of your literature? What did you do to recalibrate your habits and your identity? Share your experience below.

Recommended readings: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love. Enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Death of a Novelist: Identity and Social Media

  1. Excellent read! This topic is something which I have been pondering for quite some time now. I find habit, more than anything, is what keeps me going back to the Facebook feed, day in and day out. I think it’s about time I kick that habit in the butt! Thank-you for creating in me a sense of urgency. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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