Where’s Wally?

(Or why Twitter and Facebook are bad for your confidence)

This is the usual dinner party narrative:

“So, what do you do then?”  – asked with polite interest.

I try to keep my face neutral.  “I’m a novelist.”

The answer is still quite new, and my natural response is still somewhere between grinning with pride and faint embarrassment at the perception that I’m showing off.

“Oh, really?” – asked with genuine interest.  “Will I have heard of you?  What’s your name?”

Now, there used to be a light sprinkling of glamour around authors.  It sparked people’s interest and made you stand out somewhat from the crowd.  Traditionally it meant you had an agent and a publisher and so presumably at least two independent people thought you had talent.  Not so nowadays.  Too often the next question is: “Self-published?” as if self-publication meant you couldn’t write (not always true) and were indeed just a show off.

But when you confirm that you do indeed have an agent and a publisher and your sales are not too bad, the response is still heart-warming.  “Wow, that’s interesting,” (or something similar) “I must have a look on Amazon.”

And you feel just a little bit special.  You write words which other people want to read.  You create characters who come alive in other people’s heads.  As one of my favourite reviews of The Brief says, “I kept wondering what the characters were doing after I finished the book.”

I recently left the Bar, and there are only 16,000 or so barristers in the whole of England and Wales.  When I started practice in 1978 it was half that number.  Everyone in the profession was familiar with “the runners and riders”; the up-and-coming juniors, the battle-scarred senior juniors, the brilliant silks and the duffers, those with no real practice but who clung on by feeding off the scraps from others’ tables.  It was easy to know your place in the rankings.  Basically, as long as you didn’t get caught with your trousers down in the clerks’ room or your hand in the till, if you were any good you would slowly rise to the top.  Merit was recognised.

Having returned to writing for the first time in 25 years to an age of social media, it was a bit of a shock to discover that there are, literally, millions of authors out there.  Every author appears to have a Facebook page and is on Twitter.  And every one of them is apparently the author of a best seller and the next “Best thing since…”  Every nanosecond Twitter twitches with another bit of self-promotion, until it becomes a white noise of voices shouting “Me!  Me!  Me!”  I have had a picture in my head of the wonderful “Where’s Wally” cartoons.  In the US it’s “Where’s Waldo.”  You’ve seen them: a sea of people, and somewhere in the jostling crowd is Wally wearing his distinctive red and white striped shirt and bobble hat.  The purpose of the cartoon, the trick, is to find Wally in the throng.  I feel like Wally – lost in a sea of others, hoping to be spotted.

I grew up in a time and a profession when you didn’t shout about your achievements, you let them speak for themselves.   Self-promotion just wasn’t classy.  Indeed, for most of my practice at the Bar barristers weren’t even allowed to have business cards because handing out a card implied you were touting for business.  It was frowned on even to have lunch with solicitors (the source of our work) for the same reason.

But everyone tells me that nowadays there is no choice but to join the clamour.  Without a social media presence, unless you’re willing and able to invest massive sums of time and money in marketing and PR, you won’t be noticed.  It’s a business and your book is a product.  Sell, sell, sell!

I loathe it.  I have real characters inhabiting my head who insist on having their stories told.  They are real people to me and, it appears, to the small band of reviewers who have stumbled across them.  They are not the sort of people who want to be the subject of fairground loudhailer advertising.  “Roll up!  Roll up!  Read the story of Charles Holborne and his struggle to stay on the right side of the law!  Watch as he displays his dysfunctional family relationships!  Marvel as he has sex!”

It’s just plain unedifying.

So, although I have a Twitter presence and a Facebook page, and several very patient experts have tried hard to instruct me in how they should be used to improve my “social media profile” you’re not going to find me using them very often.  Every now and then I will share my thoughts with the small band of people who know about these postings, and I will do my best to reply in kind to those fellow authors who are so supportive and who tweet and post lovely things about my writing.

But I won’t be shouting much from the rooftops, as it’s too dispiriting and it’s against my nature.  You’ll have to look for me somewhere out there in the ether, wearing my red and white striped jumper, looking modest.

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