Writing is the business of procrastination. Anyone who tries it figures that out. Twitter is a flow of distraction. Some writers, fearing this, avoid the app. Others embrace it as a natural means of putting off their actual writing, because Twitter provides the semblance of writing while never demanding what the writer demands of themselves when staring at a blank page. The stakes are lower — or so you’d think. Instead, what you tweet has potentially huge ramifications, because you’ve put less thought into it, and many more people read Twitter than read books.
You also might think that a broad assemblage of writers, editors, publishers, literary agents and critics on the site, usually called “Book Twitter,” would be mostly peaceful by nature. But the people of this virtual ecosystem have taken upon themselves the duty of ensuring that books are recognized as an essential and sanctified good. That imbues all discussion with a kind of terror: What if books were diminished, or worse, taken away from us? More generally, this dread becomes: What if my form of engagement with books, or with writing, was judged to be wrong, null and invalid?
The question is haunting because books are inaptly conflated with knowledge, too, and therefore those deeply invested in the medium are always at risk of pedantry and prescriptivism. You cannot say how one “should” do something in this field without inviting contradiction or correction from a person defending their own precious wisdom.
The above tweet, an indirect reply to another tweet, and since deleted, ignited a backlash of its own, and then a backlash to that backlash. Summarizing the arguments would be as torturous as reading them for yourself, and besides, if you’re a part of Book Twitter, you already have your settled opinion. Nobody else could possibly care. This style of discourse arises from the tectonic friction underneath the flimsy consensus that books are good, a subterranean pressure that needs release in a quake or eruption now and then, along the same old fault lines. Should adults be reading YA fiction? Are some favorite books red flags? Is the western canon still relevant in today’s classroom? Do characters have to be likable? Must literature have moral value?
Whatever the topic, it’s cover for one universal concern: Has my mode of existing in this space been undermined? In the case of whether certain writers read enough, you have on one hand the authors who find any quota arbitrary and implicitly unfair. On the other is a business infected by existential unease, a community of writers who, faced with a general public that is ambivalent at best toward books, are reading as much as they can, often to support one another in such a hostile market. That’s not to say they don’t read for pleasure, or to hone their own craft, but to point out how the disagreement allows either side to feel both maligned and righteous in their rebuttal. The writer is forever lamenting their betrayal by another writer, even when they had no tangible fellowship, have never met and, in fact, have nothing to do with one another.
A regular comment in these circles expresses the yearning for the literary feuds of the past. Though it’s not as if we’re short on drama itself. What’s missing from Book Twitter’s repetitive slap-fights is the force of singular persona, agency and iconoclasm. The principals only appear to share an environment — really, they’re yelling across the distances that, in a pre-digital age, would’ve precluded the opportunity for disagreement. And before they reach the substance of the matter, their voices are lost in the crossfire of rival armies come to answer the call they have answered time and again. Parallel rebuke, total exhaustion, followed by the re-entrenchment of the tastes, habits and priorities you had already, along with a disgust that attaches not to any individual but an amorphous “them” you perceive as the unwitting saboteurs of art.
The only way to win, it seems, is to log off and read a book. Or write one.