As Jonathan Franzen and JK Rowling are parodied on Twitter, Ceri Radford looks at the rise of the sarcastic tweet, and asks how this social network is fuelling literary spats
Photo: Finn Beales 2012
Publishing used to be a closed world, characterised by impenetrable cliques and the long wait for musty brown self-addressed envelopes to appear in the post. That, however, was in the days before sites like Twitter brought writers, readers, editors, publishers and agents together into a seething mass of instantly updated, publicly accessible sniping, moral support and badinage.
Last week’s #JonathanFranzenHates hashtag - in which bookish Twitter users roundly mocked the author for dismissing the site as “unspeakably irritating” – is just one of a number of instances which show how the use of social media is opening up literary circles. The sort of sparring that may once have occurred only in waspish letters to the editor of the London Review of Books now plays out in real time on the internet.
Meanwhile, for anyone struggling to decipher what is actually going on with the publication (or not) of their book, the #publishingeuphemisms hashtag, which began when the agent Jonny Geller started tweeting a few home truths, is an education. Examples include: “this is too literary for our list” = it’s boring, "sadly we are publishing a similar book to this next spring" = it too has a beginning, middle and end, and "all our focus is on the paperback" = the hardback tanked.
Since any Twitter user can join in by using the same hashtag, ideas like this spread quickly, in this case from rogue agent to writers only too happy to lift the lid on the slippery half-truths and glib hyperbole of their industry: ”literary-commercial cross-over”: “Has a plot but not too many adverbs” contributed the author Nina Bell. “Eminently marketable”: “This author looks fit” added Catherine Fox.
A shared sense of humour holds most literary hashtags together. If brevity is the soul of wit, then Twitter is its trumpet, allowing users to blast out their pithy jokes in no more than 140 characters at a time. Whatever Franzen says, that is often enough.Following the news of JK Rowling’s first book deal for adult fiction, the hashtag #RowlingforAdults was swift to materialise, with lines like “Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate” and “Ginny Potter And The Daily Bottle of Pinot Grigio While The Kids Are At School” (from @Popehat). Puns are almost as popular as Harry Potter. On another thriving hashtag, #literarydietquotes, the author Julia Kinghorn contributed “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps on this paté paste until the end of time”.
None of this is as simple as writers turning to Twitter to publicise themselves and their books. At best, the site offers a surrogate sense of community to authors sat at home with only their computer screen and a houseplant for company. From my own experience, dipping into bookish circles on Twitter is like a trip to the watercooler, a morale-boosting break from the isolation of slogging towards 80,000 words.
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