This article, by Anne Trubek, originally appeared on The New York Times Sunday Book Review on 1/6/13.
Since the 19th century, the common conception of “the author” has gone something like this: A young man, in his garret, writes furiously, crumpling up papers and throwing them on the floor, losing track of time, heedless of the public, obsessed with his own imagination. He is aloof, elusive, a man whom you know only by his writing and the portrait in his book.
Writers themselves have sustained this myth, asking readers to keep their distance from authors, who should remain enigmatic. W. B. Yeats remarked that the poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.” T. S. Eliot further argued that “the progress of an artist is . . . a continual extinction of personality”; forget about getting to know the figure behind the words: “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” On his Facebook page, created by his publisher, Jeffrey Eugenides recently expressed similar sentiments. In “A Note From Jeffrey Eugenides to Readers,” he described his joy at meeting them, but concluded by saying he doesn’t know when or if he’ll post on the page again: “It’s better, I think, for readers not to communicate too directly with an author because the author is, strangely enough, beside the point.”
But readers are not heeding Eugenides’s advice, nor are many writers. Why? For one thing, publishers are pushing authors to hobnob with readers on Twitter and Facebook in the hope they will sell more copies. But there’s another reason: Many authors have little use for the pretension of hermetic distance and never accepted a historically specific idea of what it means to be a writer. With the digital age come new conceptions of authorship. And for both authors and readers, these changes may be unexpectedly salutary.
Salman Rushdie told me he enjoys Twitter because “it allows one to be playful, to get a sense of what is on a lot of people’s minds at any given moment.” He has written more than a thousand tweets — “OK: Philistinism (destroying bks bec you don’t care abt bks) is not fascism (destroying bks bec. you DO care). But both destroy books” — and more than 150,000 people follow them.