There’s a line in Christopher Nolan’s wonderful film, The Prestige, where suave Robert Angier tells his dishevelled rival-in-magic, Alfred Borden, exactly what drove him to seek the adulation of the audience. ‘Because no one cares about the man in the box,’ he says. It is a film full of great lines but this is one of the best, revealing, as it does, the nature of obsession and the need for recognition.
I have often thought of the writer as ‘the man in the box’, hiding behind the scenes, never venturing out of their self-imposed exile, living vicariously through their characters. For years, most writers have been content to do this, yet today they no longer have the choice. A writer must be a salesman and rep and corporate hand shaker; they must be able to climb out of the box and engage with the world, to make themselves accessible to their readers and fans, to be constantly visible. Cultivating a mystique through silence (Salinger, Pynchon, McCarthy, DeLillo) is no longer a viable option. You’ve got to be out there, networking.
The negative effects of this can be measured in the characters lost to tweeting, rather than being put on the page. Social media eats into the time you could be writing and thinking, but it also does something far more dangerous: it makes you a participant in the world, not an observer of it. There was a reason we were in that box to begin with.