Jennifer Weiner to Jonathan Franzen: Twitter Isn’t Evil and All Writers Are ‘Self-Promoters’

How do we classify a popular novelist’s Twitter feed: is it marketing? personal branding? public relations? It’s a bit of a grey area. But, as Jennifer Weiner so politely told Jonathan Franzen this week, social media is a necessary tool for any writer who wants to engage with his or her audience.

Yes, this is a literary spat, but stick with us: it will feel very familiar to anyone in marketing, advertising or PR.

We like Franzen because he writes good novels, but he’s also an ivy tower contrarian who feels compelled to talk down to the young and unenlightened among us. This week The Guardian ran an excerpt from his latest long-form essay opus under the frightening title “What’s Wrong with the Modern World?”, and it’s an epic rant. Some key points:

  • The instant gratification of social media is destroying our ability to focus and create real value
  • Marketing has led us to define ourselves by the brands we buy (“I’m a Mac guy”)
  • Amazon reviews are the worst thing that ever happened to publishing
  • Writers who engage with the public via social are diluting the integrity of their profession

These are generalizations worth considering, but we’re more interested in his personal attacks on fellow authors who turn to social media to “brand” themselves.

Franzen takes time out from pondering the work of early 20th century satirist Karl Kraus (we’d never heard of him either) to berate Salman Rushdie, “a novelist who I believe ought to have known better”, for “succumbing” to Twitter. He then writes that, because “responsible book reviewers” no longer exist, novelists are reduced to “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion” at the expense of their own self-respect.

Here’s the thing: Franzen didn’t need to share his Guardian piece on Twitter or Facebook, because 10,000 people already did it for him. He seems unaware of the fact that very few other contemporary writers suffer from this horrible curse; he could put his name on almost anything and sell it, because most people know who he is whether they’ve read his books or not.

Jennifer Weiner’s response in The New Republic is both a well-written self-defense and a primer on the nature of the modern market. First, she points out that many perfectly respectable writers—even old schoolers like Joyce Carol Oates—use Twitter to share thoughts and prompt dialogue about everything from gun control:

To drug laws:

To basic topical humor.

Some of these authors post messages about upcoming books or readings, but they’re not really direct marketers because, as Weiner writes and everyone in our industry knows, hard sell “spam” messages like “read this great NYT review of my book!” don’t fly anymore unless they’re surrounded by more interesting stuff. As Weiner puts it, “Twitter’s more about the conversation than the sale”. Familiarizing the audience with your personal brand by snarking on The Bachelor isn’t technically “self-promotion”, but it works like so:

Weiner writes that society fixtures like Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote would have taken to social media like bored teens to YouTube, and we think she’s right. Do we respect Junot Diaz more for avoiding Twitter? Nope. It’s just another version of “the long-time practice of getting…books into readers’ hands by any means necessary” (her words).

We will never choose to watch a full episode of The Bachelor, and we probably won’t ever read any of Weiner’s books—but we certainly know who she is now, and she makes a compelling argument.

Writers, marketers and PR professionals take note.