art above by Emmanel Laflamme

In a recent essay in The New York Times (“Why Authors Tweet”), Anne Trubek writes about how contemporary writers resort to tweeting as a way of “socializing” with their readers, with the goal of increasing their “fan base”.

Fans feel good when they know that the writers they go about fanning (an action-verb that perhaps connotes a nobler form of flattery) fan them back with tweets about their daily chores and personal details.

When the “mythic” writer steps down from her pedestal, as it were, and materializes into a person, common enough to chat with common people, she gains followers.

Doesn’t this sound like a strategy to maximize the sales of their books? If a writer keeps her fans happy, her books sell.

But, what happens when the happy fan base writes back to the writers, offering them their feedback?

Trubek mentions the likes of T.S. Eliot, who believed that good writing is done when the writer is least in consort with the public. True. In Eliot’s time, the writer was a “mythic” figure with uncommon abilities and an Eliot would shrink from the notion of consorting with his readers via a social media platform like Twitter.

Yet, step back a bit, and consider the kind of reading public that such writers interacted with.   Eliot received feedback from readers like Virginia Woolf, who could cut him to the core with their sharp criticism, but which eventually helped Eliot raise the standard of his craft.

Today, the writer feeds the likes and dislikes of a community of fans, who may not have the best feedback to offer back to their favorite writers, except for telling them how good they “feel” about the poetry or prose in question.

Ian Patterson, writer for the London Review of Books, draws attention in a blog post (“Embarrassingly Bad”) to the ecstatic reception of the poem “Stephen Lawrence” by Britain’s poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Much of the positive commendation has come from the Twitterverse.

Duffy’s poem pays tribute to the memory of Stephen Lawrence, a black Briton who was murdered by two white goons in 1993. The Lawrence trial had acquitted the alleged murderers, but has been reopened recently, in light of new discovery of evidence of tampering with the investigation.  It’s a racially charged story.

The poem, too, panders to the politics of the story. Patterson condemns Duffy for having done good politics, but written bad poetry. One suspects it’s the poem’s multicultural ethos that has won the hearts of its fans.

Patterson is a critic, not one of Duffy’s Twitter fans. His reading of the poem might be an incisive one, but it cuts Duffy to the core, while her Twitter fans uplift her to the skies because they couldn’t care less about the technicalities of the craft of good poetry.

So, who would an author benefit from in the realm of his or her craft? The critics or the tweeps?