Digital writing: If only community weren't so communal

Digital writing: If only community weren't so communal

We were onstage to talk about writing and The Community at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference in New York this past weekend.

Such a successful conference as #WDC15 — we'd be naming it "the best ever" if we were doing the Olympics — is a community unto itself, of course. Like Brigadoon, Writer's Digest (WD) rises from the mists, flourishes for three days as a city of 900 writing-enthused citizens in the ballrooms of a Manhattan hotel, and then dissolves into tweeted memories until next year.

But it's hard to underestimate how tightly this "community" thing has seized publishing's creative corps. You know why, right?

The editor Carla Douglas in Kingston, Ontario said it well in a tweet during The FutureBook's #FutureChat not long ago:

Once writing was the loneliest of professions. Now it's the most social.

What has changed? Need we say it? — The Internet's arrival means that people who once worked in inspired isolation now are online, gossiping, exchanging tips, bucking up each other, cheering each other on, frequently making secret review-and-boosterism pacts with each other, solitary no more. The business of the self-publishing world, in particular, is conducted in the 24/7 electronic corridors of the Web.

What you rarely if ever hear is someone gently saying, "Well, my cherished friend, is it just possible that those gatekeepers were correct in rejecting your work?" Wonderfully intentioned positivism eclipses the genuinely thoughtful, difficult exchanges that we like to think might have ennobled a lunchtime shared in Montmartre's heyday. "What if it's not any good, my love?" -- this is largely an unthinkable thing to ask, unspeakable, even by the "close" friends of one's far-flung digital village. There are pockets of honesty, surely; short and potent Twitter lists of friends one might ask for a straight answer. These are rare and never widely visible. 

Honesty has never been easy, has it, even in the best of society's engagements.

But what are the costs of all this community? — beyond, of course, the perfectly understandable drive to celebrate this new facility to support and nourish each other?

Eight of us from Writer Unboxed, the much-lauded collective Web site co-founded by author Therese Walsh (nearest the camera in this shot), were impaneled on Saturday, halfway through WD publisher Phil Sexton's fine programming of the Writer's Digest conference. WD editor Jessica Strawser did a great job of moderating our little mob somehow. Walsh has written up the session, herself, at the site. We are all regular contributors to that site, updated with a new essay daily. One of our Saturday octet, Vaughn Roycroft, also directs an associated but separate Facebook group that carries the same name. 

Writer Unboxed is one of the best, which is why I'm glad to work with it, of course. Its daily contributors are, for the most part, working professionals, not aspirational authors, and we have a nice breadth of background, perspective and experience. Nothing here is meant to put Writer Unboxed in a negative light, it's just the jumping-off point.

In regard to both the main Writer Unboxed site and the Facebook neighborhood, I asked the audience to consider coming to Writer Unboxed, and then purposefully leaving Writer Unboxed, leaving community, closing the digital door, getting back to the writing, remember it?

Of course we remember the writing. But do we remember that the best of it is always informed by the singular intelligence of its author? 

Because I could not stop for Death...

Imagine what the Reaper might have had to do to get Emily Dickinson's attention if she were online, right? Not now, damn it, I'm trying to tweet.

I'm having these conversations only in back channel. The authors, both traditionally published and self-published with whom I'm discussing this — yes, online! is there any end to these ironies? — don't feel that they can speak out about what may be a growing challenge: what is all this community doing to the writing itself? I'm outing a certain issue here because our practitioners don't feel they can do it and face the wrath of the community, which is as insistent on its own rightness as Elias Caneti told us it would be.

But what does change when the work, it's mental and emotional place of creation, is being pawed and fingerprinted and picked over by so many others? What changes when the development of the idea is wrapped in the endless embrace of back-fence summertime gripe sessions?  

We know that there are too many books. (We have yet to sort out just who we might ask to stop writing, please.)

Do we know what community is doing to them?

One place to look, along with Dominique Raccah: Wattpad

Perhaps the most accomplished presentation of the Writer's Digest weekend was given by Ashleigh Gardner (pictured during her presentation), founding c.e.o. Allen Lau's emissary from Wattpad. Over the years, I've watched Gardner's assurance grow in these settings to the point that she now delivers a devastatingly clean, hype-free explication of her realm.

Here's what today's focus on The Community means about Wattpad: One goes to it to write as if in a storefront window. Where all can see and comment and advise and advocate and nudge and needle and condone and cajole a writer-at-work. One writes there in public, in other words. 

There are many misconceptions about Wattpad. Let me give you a quick round of clarifications from Gardner's razor-sharp commentary. These are tight excerpts from the horse's mouth on Saturday:

We are the world's largest community of readers and writers, more than 40 million...Wattpad is a social network, first and foremost...serial, social, and mobile...85 percent of our traffic is coming from mobile devices...45 percent is 18 to 30 years of age...we appeal to the younger millennial audience...Wattpad is the largest site in The Philippines and is growing very fast in Turkey...The most common misconception is that we are a self-publishing platform...100,000 new sign-ups are received daily, that's a new Wattpadder every second of the day...there are more than 100 million stories on the site so far...nonfiction and personal storytelling are growing very fast on the site... original storytelling...Unlike Goodreads, where criticism, reviews, are the product, Wattpad is about support, enthusiasm...We are not a publishing site, it's more about fiction is a huge part of our platform...we see a lot of "real-person fan fiction"...users read 13 million hours of fan fiction at Wattpad last year...a lot of writers will write their [first] drafts on the site...then they have a built-in fan base..."Casting" on Wattpad is saying, "I see Brad Pitt as this character"...share your story with your social media...native advertising...we're on track to pay more than $1 million this year to writers [Wattpad users who are hired to create companies' native ad copy on the site]...

Think about what you want to do and think about the tribe to support you in doing it...

The tribe to support you might include Sourcebooks c.e.o. and publisher Dominique Raccah — The Bookseller's FutureBook 2013 Innovation Award winner as Most Inspirational Digital Publishing Person. You'll remember that she has had for two years an arrangement with Wattpad for, as we wrote, "editing and producing Wattpad-branded editions of YA stories in print and as ebooks...distributed through Sourcebook Fire, the publisher's YA imprint."

More recently, Sourcebooks has begun advertising directly to the Wattpad community members that they can step around issues of agenting or other pesky representation and approach Naperville, Illinois, directly through the site's tagging system: 

Hi, in case you haven't met us, we're a book publishing house based outside of Chicago. We publish all kinds of great stuff, including authors who got their start on Wattpad...Up until now, if you wanted to submit your book to a publisher, you would usually need to write a query letter, mail or email in your submission, wait to hear back, maybe you'd need to find an agent — but no more! Now you can submit your story to us just by tagging your story on Wattpad, and we will be in touch if we are interested in talking with you about publishing your book. Use the tag submit2sourcebooks on your story and we'll take a look.

And what if a not-funny thing is happening to literature on the way to The Community?

Have a look:

Since when did the community become our moral compass—our viability and ethics as writers determined so much by our team spirit? What if the community and the kind of participation it involves are actually bad for my writing, diluting my writerly identity, my ego and my id, and my subservience and surrender to the craft? What if I just want to make something? What if all this communing actually hurts the primary means by which I set out to participate and communicate—my writing itself? What do I do then? I mean, why can’t I make art in my clerestory abyss and snub the community without feeling like a snotty little brat? Why can’t I?

This is Meghan Tifft, University of Colorado teacher and author of The Long Fire, due out later this month. She's writing this week at The Atlantic, An Introverted Writer's Lament. Take a look at the 100 or so comments and you'll see that that it takes a good bit of nerve to write as Tifft is doing. 

The Community does not particularly like being questioned. (Nor does it like itself very much. Note how many reactions to Tifft's column are actually wrestling matches between commenters. These are mild reflections of the peculiar anger and hostility in The Community. I've been writing about those things lately, myself, at Writer Unboxed and here at Thought Catalog.)

What Tifft is getting at — or what's getting at her — is the fact that The Community, easily as much a marketplace as a village festival, imposes its own imperatives and energies on the writer:

For many, this inclusion is stimulating—it feeds the creative impulse, warms it with community spirit, keeps the mind and heart percolating. But it’s not right for me. I still don’t like where it’s taking me personally, the way it’s coercing me and guilting me and laying down standards and requirements for my viability, complicating my very simple ambitions with all this clutter: get your name here, network on this platform and that one, take photos, give a talk, show up.

I'm glad to see Tifft in this tiff with The Community, and I'd like to see more discussion of what's at hand. 

No one has any trouble understanding now nice it is for a previously lonely writer to find what feels like friendship and comrades in self-expression online. And no one here would presume to tell a writer whether her or his temperament is right for such interaction. 

But from the standpoint of the work itself, of what we have when we finally turn to our books and look at our output and hope for the best, there are two considerations here:

  • Is The Community as widely appropriate and helpful a development for writers as its loud proponents want us to believe it is?
  • And what effect may these wholly unprecedented digital vesting rights among authors have on our literature?

We'd be very interested in hearing from you if you'd like to comment.

Main image - iStockphoto: RawPixel