Now You See Me: Social Media and the Visible Artist

Ren Iwamoto

Book publishing is a quagmire. Some things have hardly changed since the 15th Century, and others have evolved beyond recognition; combined with the immediacy of the internet, sure footing turns to muck. Perhaps one of the starkest changes comes with broader cultural shift as social media gives people access – or at least the illusion of access – to corporations, politicians, celebrities, bosses and coworkers, everyone. Naturally, this includes content creators. Traditional and digital artists, novelists, tattooists – if you’re creating something, it needs to be visible online. However, it’s not simply the content that needs to be there. Consumers want not only the art, they want the person behind it. They want someone to give context, to answer questions and, if something is wrong, to blame.

In some ways, this is a good thing. Social media thins the barrier between creator and consumer, and this has made it easier to hold uninformed – and sometimes downright bigoted – creators accountable. At least once in 2019, a debut novel had its release dates pushed back in response to criticism. This can be an important tool in educating writers (at least those willing to learn), protecting readers, and creating a more diverse and accessible literary landscape. That said, the book I have in mind – Amelie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir – is by an immigrant writer of colour, who made a public apology, explained her stance and intentions, and changed her release date in order to revise her novel. Books by white authors which have received similar criticisms have been widely defended by their creators and the publishing teams behind them without any material change. In a tense sociopolitical clime, art can be a mouthpiece for the progressive ideas we need or the overly-conservative ones we should be trying to leave behind. 

On the other hand, having a front-facing online profile is like opening Pandora’s box. Content creators – especially and particularly Black women – can face constant barrages of harassment online. Racial and misogynistic slurs and threats are often just a tasting menu of online harassment. 

The relationship between creator and fan is equally fraught. For some fans, it can be fun and rewarding to interact with their favourite authors online, to have the questions answered, their fanart shared. Neil Gaiman titillated readers of his and the late Terry Pratchet’s novel (and viewers of the show of the same name) Good Omens by confirming the more-than-platonic nature of the main characters’ relationship (the fact that this is somehow just as good as if they had a canon on-screen relationship, and not the literal definition of queerbaiting, is a whole other thing). J.K. Rowling titillated readers by turning out to be a huge transphobe. Such is the duality of man. 

But content creators are not friends with their fans. Earlier this summer, best-selling YA and adult fiction writer V.E. Schwab took issue with a reader’s comment on Twitter. She “quote-tweeted” her response, allowing her followers to see exactly what and to whom she was responding. Her fans instantly came to her defense with great vitriol. While Schwab deleted her tweet shortly thereafter, it was a stark reminder that there is a significant difference in power between a creator and a single consumer, irretrievably amplified by the fact Schwab is white and her critic a woman of colour. You can’t be friends with someone who has the power to direct and deluge of hate-mail your way – even if they do it inadvertently.

Social media also offers a fresh view on book reviews. Practiced at least since fiction came into being, and probably before (the KJV Bible has 4.4 stars on Goodreads), authors have always read the reviews of their work and many have responded to them. It’s only recently, however, that an author can be immediately and explicitly made aware of a negative review, and have the ability to respond with equal immediacy. Many authors have noted they only want to be “tagged” in positive reviews. 

My personal opinion is that authors shouldn’t be tagged at all. Reviews are for readers. Often reviewers – especially bloggers, who get access to coveted advance reader copies (ARCs) – are the first line of defense for those who want to avoid certain types of content. No one would know, for example, that Michelle Ruiz Kell’s All of Us with Wings features a relationship between a twenty-eight-year-old man and an seventeen-year-old girl if not for reviewers, as the official summary gives almost no indication of it. A reviewer telling me, a fellow reader, how much she disliked that isn’t the author’s business, because the author knows her own content. A reviewer telling me they hated the style or the characters of a book – or otherwise loved them – is between me and the reviewer. Unless the author is going to rewrite their shit to my exacting specifications, they don’t need to know what I thought.

The waters grow ever murkier when social media connects creators to other creators and industry professionals. For many authors, their social media accounts are part personal, part professional. Pre-order campaigns, industry news, interviews – all these are interspersed between their personal thoughts and pictures of their pets. This isn’t a bad thing (for years now, celebrities and even corporations have put forth an I’m-just-like-you rhetoric), because authors are indeed people. They’re allowed to have thoughts and feelings and pets. As in real life, that doesn’t mean you have to like them or their content. 

But when you’re social media also constitutes part of your professional profile, you can’t just block whoever you don’t like. Publishing is an industry where networking is king, and maybe James Patterson can afford to be out of the loop, but you, Emerging Writer B, cannot. Expansive application of Twitter’s “mute” function is often a must. 

In the end, all artists need thick skin, especially if you’re creating content around sensitive issues, but also need to be open to criticism, especially if you’re creating content around sensitive issues. (One might want to listen, for example, if your swastika-laden painting is so widely misinterpreted as to get you banned from Fringe Fest.) When making yourself available online, be prepared that not everyone is going to like you or your work. And when it doubt, block that bitch.

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