Jonathan Franzen’s Platform that Writer’s Don’t Need Platforms

EmergencyTwitterWasDown_fromFlickrA recent quote from Jonathan Franzen’s interview with BBC 4 caught my eye, and when I read the quote, it raised some very difficult questions for me and my writing.

The quote from the radio interview read, “I see people who ought to be spending their time developing their craft and people who used to be able to make their living as freelance writers.  I see them making nothing, and I see them feeling absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion.”

This wasn’t the first time something gave me misgivings about social media and blogging.  Joe Bunting recently wrote a piece for The Write Practice in which he implored writers to declare that their stories are their platform.  The stories should speak for themselves.

I read the comments left by readers on Bunting’s post and found that many of them struggled with social media and blogging.  They felt it took time away from the real work of writing stories.

As the blogger for Word Savant for the last year – having gained humble followings on Word Press and Twitter – I asked myself, are all these blogs posts, tweets, and comments really necessary?  Or is it a colossal waste of time?

WHY I STARTED THIS BLOG

In June 2011 I read an opinion piece in the NY Times by Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  As an introvert living in a world made for extroverts, Cain’s piece was empowering.  Her short bio explained that she had a blog and was publishing a book about introversion.

Her book wouldn’t be published for several months, so I followed her blog, which was largely about the valuable qualities of introverts in our society and how they can be successful.  Meanwhile, I waited for her book to come out.

When the book was released, it was a bestseller.  Exactly how she accomplished this is hard to say, but one thing is for sure.  Before the book’s publication, Cain used her blog to gain a following.

At the time I was another nobody writing a novel.  I saw an opportunity to publicize my writing before my book came out.  I thought perhaps if people read what I wrote and liked it, then maybe they’d want to read my book.

But I had precious little writing time as it was.  I didn’t want to put time into a blog that could have been used for writing my book.

I didn’t let the question go, however.  I mulled it over, and a year later I was ready.  Sometimes you walk a path, and you know eventually you’re going to arrive at a certain end point, but you can’t do that until you’re ready.  My gut told me now was the time to do this.

So I started a blog about nothing other than writing.  It’s my reason for breathing.  I love anything book, writing, and publishing related.  I geek out, when I find an article about the conflict between traditional and e-book publishing.  I have never understood anything as instinctively as I do writing.

HOW I ANSWERED THE TOUGH QUESTIONS

So these were some scary questions to ask.  What if I had allowed myself to be tempted by these new-fangled media outlets?  What if I was on the completely wrong path?

And then came this feeling of, “but I like my blog.”  Sure, it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s especially hard to balance blog and novel.  But I think this blog is good for me and good for my writing.  Because of it, I have faced some gnarly challenges.

It challenges my chronic perfectionism.  I closely guard my work until I feel it’s just right to show people.  As a blogger, I have to get over it.

It makes me meet deadlines.  When it’s been too long in between blog posts, I think, “Shit I better write something.”  And I just write something.  Anything.

It has reconnected me with the practice of writing for its own sake.  For the first time since high school, I’m liberated by a free-writing practice.

Most important of all, it makes me speak up.  I tend to be a private person, and I hold back my true opinions out of fear of creating controversy.  I have been less bold for fear of attracting haters.  But after considering Franzen’s outspokenness I thought, screw it.  Let the haters hate.

EVERYBODY HAS A PLATFORM

I agree with Franzen.  Authors don’t need platforms to be successful.  But they do need marketing.  It’s naïve for a writer to think that they can write and publish without any marketing.

Platforms are a marketing tool for authors to connect with readers.  Franzen’s interviews were marketing tools, just like a blog or a Facebook page are marketing tools.  He recently released a new book.  In order for people to read it, he needs to reach out to them.  So, he does some interviews.

Some of us don’t have BBC or Oprah Winfrey knocking on our doors.  So we take control of our own destinies and use what’s at our fingertips.

Radio interview or blog, either way a writer’s got to hustle.

The irony of Franzen’s comments is that he has a brand and a platform.  His brand is that of an author who refuses to use social media and instead uses traditional forms of media as an outlet.  His brand is that an author’s online presence is overrated.  This is a face and a voice that readers easily recognize.

After decades of writing, this is the path Franzen has chosen for himself.  It’s up to me, you, and other writers to find our own paths.  It may be traditional media, online media, or a combination of the two.  It’s a decision writers should make for themselves.

Social media use is a hot topic for writers, who already struggle to find time to write.  I’ve struggled to answer these questions myself and find a balance.  In my next post I’ll share helpful tips I’ve learned along the way that can help you find that balance.

Since I started writing this post, I read and interview with Jonathan Franzen on Scratch, a new online magazine about writing and money.  It’s fucking incredible.  Whatever your position on these issues, go read it.  Franzen shares some thoughtful insights on publishing, e-books, social media, and serious fiction.  If you’re like me and you geek out on writing and publishing, this is a great interview.

To read this interview – and the articles mentioned above – check out the links below:

Jonathan Franzen “coerced” quote

Joe Bunting’s post on The Write Practice – My stories are my platform.

Scratch Magazine Interview with Jonathan Franzen

What do you think about this topic?  Are platforms overrated?  Is an online presence necessary?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    Jonathan Franzen has the luxury of not having to sell books, because he makes his living from speaking engagements and awards and teaching. He may not self-promote as an author, but that’s because he’s primarily a lecturer, and he’s established that brand in the academic community that employs him.

  2. JH Mae says:

    I’m not sure how necessary it is, because I don’t think you can’t apply one piece of advice to every writer. I have backed off a little from social media marketing only because it doesn’t fit in with what I’m trying to do and honestly, I would rather spend more time writing. I think the wisdom that a writer’s work should speak for itself does have merit. However, no writer is going to be recognized if she doesn’t do just at least the bare minimum. It’s a tough one. Personally, I’m not a huge blog reader, and I wouldn’t buy a book just because I read someone’s blog or Twitter feed. I use that opinion to inform whether I think blogging and tweeting is worth my time. The scary fact is: the writing game may just be luck.

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