Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Sandra Parshall

What would Ernest Hemingway have said if he had tweeted?

What topics would Edgar Allan Poe have blogged about?

What would James M. Cain’s Facebook page have looked like?

It's difficult to imagine how writers managed to sell books in the pre-computer era. How did they get by without web sites? And weren't they awfully lonely without the internet?

The social networking and online marketing made possible by computers and the internet have become so much a part of the writing life that many of us feel we can’t have a career at all if we aren’t plugged in, tweeting, blogging, and constantly updating readers. Writers are everywhere on the internet, blabbing about ourselves. This has a definite downside. We’re like the movie stars who appear on public streets with torn jeans, two-day b
eards, and dirty hair.

The mystery is gone.

We have no secrets left because we’ve used them to fill the insatiable maw of the blog machine. We’ve written about our bad habits, our phobias, our food fetishes, our pets (ali
ve and dead), our siblings, our parents, our spouses, our kids, the bully who beat us up in sixth grade, the teacher-nun who humiliated us in eighth grade, the waiter who served us with lukewarm coffee and a bad attitude, the drycleaner who ruined our favorite coat, our hangnails. If there’s anything left that our fans don’t know about our lives, all they have to do is wait. Eventually it will all become blog material.

And we complain, incessantly, that we don’t have enough time to write.

How easy the writing life was before the internet existed. Sit down at a typewriter and write – that was it. No e-mail to answer, no Twitter followers to connect with, no blog to produce, no web site or MySpace page to update. I can’t help wondering how certain writers from those pre-internet days would have coped with the demands made on 21st century writers.

Hemingway would have been a natural for Twitter. A limit of 140 characters per tweet? No problem for Papa. And he could have blogged about his six-toed cats. (Hey, I’ve blogged about Hemingway’s cats – see note below – so why wouldn’t he?) William Faulkner would have had a little more trouble with Twi

Truman Capote was born to blog – but born too early, alas.
Imagine the feuds that inveterate gossip could have ignited, and kept going indefinitely, if he’d written a daily blog. Give Norman Mailer a blog at the same time and we’d really have something interesting going on.

What writers from the past do you think would have embraced today’s online promotional opportunities? Who would have fled in horror from the mere suggestion of blogging and tweeting?

If Agatha Christie had been addicted to blogging, would she have kept in touch during her mysterious 10-day disappearance?

Was Raymond Chandler a MySpace kind of guy, or would he have preferred Facebook?

Would Arthur Conan Doyle have named his blog for himself, or would he have called it

And what would Hemingway have said if he’d tweeted?

NOTE: I wrote a while back about the USDA’s efforts to remove the 50 or so cats from the Hemingway property, now a museum, on Key West. (Please don’t ask how the Department of Agriculture became involved. I’m as baffled as you undoubtedly are.) If you haven’t read about the resolution already, you might like to know that the five-year battle ended with construction of a fence to keep the felines from wandering off the grounds. Most of the cats are descendants of Snowball, a six-toed cat Hemingway received as a gift in 1935. The USDA concluded that they are healthy, happy, and well cared for by the museum staff.


Darlene Ryan said...

I have to admit a Norman Mailer blog could have been interesting.

Julia Buckley said...

I would have LOVED to read the blog of Dorothy L. Sayers, as well as of P.G. Wodehouse. My laugh for the day, every day.

Sheila Connolly said...

Do you think these authors would have felt the need to reach out and touch everyone else? We still treasure the image of the creative genius locked in solitude (and working on wonky typewriters, or worse, by hand!). How would their books have changed if they had stopped every fifteen minutes to update their fans on their progress? And good heavens--they had to rely on word of mouth (and the occasional newspaper review) to sell books!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

That wonky typewriter is still on display in Havana. A friend took a picture and sent it to me. In fact, an attendant at the Hemingway house offered to sell it to her for $100, but she resisted temptation and left it for the public to see. Jane Austen would have been a natural for email. All those letters and notes around the village were the preindustrial version.

Sandra Parshall said...

Many authors of the past were great letter writers. Imagine the great collections we would have lost if all those letters were e-mails that the recipients deleted after reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you said these things. I've been thinking for a while about what an absolute waste of time this instant social network idea is, and how it must be detracting from writing and life.

Debbi said...

Never mind what Dorothy Sayers would've thought of blogging. Imagine what Dorothy Parker would've said.

Sandra Parshall said...

Parker and Capote's blogs would be the ones I couldn't live without.

Rob Wallker said...

I suspect that in their day, authors like Poe and Conan Doyle, and in a later day, authors like Hemmingway had to do their "bit", had to dance to the monkey grinder's music in order to SELL their books -- until one day Academia declared these authors Must Reads! When I went to college, and before college in high school, "everyone must read so-and-so" was in vogue, and this at a time before computers, websites, clam chowder recipes on line. Authors have more access to more "outlets" for marketing, and I think authors have always availed themselves of new technologies to get their books into the marketplace and new methods of doing the same. We all know how terribly hard time of it Poe had getting his work out there -- very few outets indeed for the short story then as now. The more an author can beat his own drum, the better I say as no one else is going to do it for him. No one knows the work as well as the person who created it, and no one believes in it more.

There is always an interest among fans of a given author as well, and man I would love to go back in a time travel machine and meet all my favorite authors, especially the best marketeer of his time Mark Twain who was not so shy as Poe.

rob walker

Sandra Parshall said...

If Mark Twain had been on Twitter, he would have been impossible to shut up! A constantly stream of pithy, unforgettable observations.

Meredith Cole said...

I think Dorothy Parker would have loved Twitter, too--her slammers were all short and to the point.

What a great post, Sandy! It's no wonder that writer retreats are so popular--these days we need to uproot ourselves in order to get away from our cell phones and the internet so we can concentrate on writing another book!