Would Dickens Have a Blog?

Charles_DickensA few years ago, I pondered aloud whether Dickens would get a literary agent if he were trying to become a published author today. I was throwing out some thoughts on what “classic” novels are, whether writers should try to write like the “classics,” and whether those are the kinds of books that attract literary agents today.

I want to follow up on that somewhat by asking if Dickens would have had a blog. That is to say, how much has marketing changed within the publishing industry since the time of Dickens, or, for that matter, since the time of Hemingway, or Stephen King?

The old stereotype of the writer was the recluse in his writing den pounding away on a typewriter, churning out page after page of prose, his wastebasket full of crumpled paper. The writer separated himself from society, living a hermit-like existence, only coming out for the occasional interview, or to buy groceries, or use the bathroom. Maybe to bathe. Marketing was something the publisher did. Ad campaigns, PW write-ups, press releases, bookstore promotions, etc. All the writer had to do was keep churning out the magic.

These days, however, we hear how much new authors need to be “out there.” They need to carve out space on social media, get a Twitter account, discover Facebook, maybe even start blogging. And a web page is a must. We also see writers doing book tours, conventions, conferences. In other words, the days of the reclusive writer are numbered.

I’ve noticed a lot of young writers dive into this new world with gusto and without fear. They seem to be quite socially engaged, comfortable with their cyber existence, promoting their latest books to their friends, doing blog tours, and generally being a social media presence. It is, perhaps, older writers who flinch a little at the new world and new expectations. Is it fair of publishers and readers to have these expectations?

In short, I think yes, it is. This is not Dickens’s publishing world anymore. It’s not even Stephen King’s publishing world, or J. K. Rowling’s. Within the last 10-15 years, in tandem with the social media explosion, people have become much more aware of the broader world, and captivated with the idea that people in many different time zones are but a Tweet away. This blog is read by people not only in the US, but Canada, England, Australia, Singapore, and many other countries (I know, I’ve seen my stats). This article you are reading might also be read by people I’ve never met, and may never meet. It’s the closest thing I can get to being published without actually being published. This is a phenomenon that, until 15 years ago, was unheard of.

If social media had been around in the early 1800s, would Dickens have used it? I think so. If Stephen King could have posted to Facebook when CARRIE was published, do you think he would have? Why not? And when the first Harry Potter novel came out, would J. K. Rowling have excitedly Tweeted all her friends? I see no reason why she wouldn’t have. And this is why publishers are anxious for new writers to use social media, to reach out to their readers in a way that’s too nimble and direct for publishing houses. And what’s more, the modern reader expects his or her favorite writers to be more accessible. That doesn’t mean a writer can’t have his privacy. But it does mean the days of the author-hermit are gone.

Writers like King, Rowling, George R. R. Martin, and others can do without social media if they so desire because they found success in the days before there was such a thing. I believe if they were starting out now, they too would have to embrace technology. I would even go so far as to say that any writer who thinks they can get started in the publishing industry today without an online presence, or without being more socially engaged, is kidding themselves. That doesn’t mean we have to be as active online (and offline) as, say, John Green. But it does mean at some point we need to climb out of our introvert shells and say hello to the world, and find that it’s really not so scary after all. Especially when, most of the time, you can do it effectively from behind a keyboard.

What do you think? If you’re a writer, does social media scare you, or are you excited by the possibilities? Do you think Dickens would have had a blog?

20 thoughts on “Would Dickens Have a Blog?

  1. AJ Blythe

    I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I certainly haven’t embraced it like the younger generation, but I do use it – albeit in fits and starts. I’m trying to get better at being more consistent though.

    I certainly don’t understand why people feel the need to air their dirty laundry, or talk about every moment of their lives, but there is still a lot to enjoy in the social media world.

    As for Dickens… not sure. There are many successful authors today who don’t use social media. It definitely doesn’t define your success. It’s possible he would have. After all, he is known for being a ‘social critic’ and what better environment for that than a blog ;^)

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      I agree, some people just spill Too Much Information for no particular reason than, it seems, an inflated sense of how much anyone else really cares about the minutiae of their lives. I think the rule of thumb for sharing life details on social media is to make sure it serves a purpose and entertains. If you’re going to blog or Tweet about your colonoscopy, do so in a way that makes me laugh, engages me, and has a purpose.

      Honestly, I think the reason most successful authors don’t use social media that much (with some notable exceptions) is because they became successful before the social media revolution, which really wasn’t that long ago. Any writer who gained fame before, say 2005, probably doesn’t need a blog–they already have a large, faithful following. However, I can almost guarantee that if those same writers were trying to get published today, their agents would be telling them to get a website and open a Twitter account.

      That’s an interesting thought: if Dickens did have a blog, what would he blog about? I could see his posts getting quite political, which would probably give his agent fits–“No, Chuck, you can’t say that!!” 🙂

      Reply
  2. Angie Arcangioli

    Great post. I like this question.

    I think social media has changed the reclusive life of many souls.

    I don’t know if Dickens would have had a blog. I don’t know enough about him but I think Julia Child would have.

    Blogging is a great way to keep in touch with people who choose to follow you.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Thanks, Angie. I agree, Julia Child most likely would have had a blog with recipes and anecdotes. Probably would be quite entertaining.

      Reply
  3. John Davis Frain

    Against my desires, I will “maybe come out to bathe” as you suggest. But that probably means Pinterest should not be my first stopping point in the world of social media. Alas, all the things we must think through. Nice post, Colin, enjoyed it!

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Ha! Thanks, John. Honestly, it would be nice if we could just hide away and write, and leave all the people interfacing to the publishing professionals. That’s just not the way it works these days. May as well embrace the way things are… and the bathtub. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Lennon Faris

    Nicely put! I agree, I think the times have changed and it’s fair to expect authors to keep up. Readers knowing that they can be ‘close’ to their favorite author is a huge bonus for many, and it’s when there are unmet expectations that the audience (readers) are disappointed. I would like to read the blogs of some of those old timers 🙂

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Thanks, Lennon. Time and again I hear published authors talk about how much they enjoy engaging with their readers. Why should we shy away from the opportunity social media gives us to do that? I can’t imagine those “old timers” would have avoided Facebook or Twitter.

      Reply
  5. The Head Woozle

    Well said! There are definitely those days when I feel old and fusty and “just why do I have to do this social media thing anyway?” But as all my books have been self published thus far (although I am hoping to change that!) if I wasn’t out there on social media I would have been DOA with all my books.
    And the most surprising thing I discovered was that it was a panda pile of fun! My readers are so loyal that I think they would follow me into a burning building…well, at least they would “rescue” me from a roomful of baby pandas that were climbing all over me.
    The main problem for me is that is too much fun and I have to smack myself about the head so that I don’t spend too much time there.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Thanks, my panda friend! 🙂 You’re right–the danger with getting into social media is it can be fun. Too much fun. And a huge time-suck. That’s why I have a Facebook account, but rarely use it. I daren’t. Twitter and blogging take enough of my time as it is! 🙂

      Reply
      1. The Head Woozle

        Alas, I cannot resist. That’s where many of my fans resides…but I am in a (wait for it) FB group of writers dedicated to cutting down our time on social media, committing to a good hour of work before we so much check on email. It is actually helping me stay off till later in the day when I’ve gotten some work done, plus I love the irony.

        Reply
        1. cds Post author

          LOL!! That’s both wonderful and loaded with irony! A FB group dedicated to helping people cut down on social media time sounds to me like pacifists fighting for peace–but I understand what you mean, and I’m glad it actually works for you. 🙂

          Reply
  6. S.P. Bowers

    Social media does scare me, but I agree with you that it’s something we should learn to embrace if we want to be successful writers (what constitutes success is a whole other post). Didn’t Dickens publish some of his stories serially in newspapers? I think he would have jumped right into blogging.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      He did, S.P. Indeed, I believe a number of his novels were first serialized in “magazines” (which were more like newspapers back then), with readers anxious for each week’s installment to find out what happened next. Oh yes, Dickens would have been a blogger. No doubt! 🙂

      Reply
  7. Diane

    Being a GIANT history nerd and contrarian, I am inspired to wonder, “Did Charles Dickens ask himself whether Shakespeare would have (insert 19th-century publishing expectation here)?” Poe wrote criticism, and it’s hard for me to imagine him imagining Moliere and thinking, “Did he have to do this stuff?” 🙂

    It’s a fascinating question of philosophy, but like so much philosophy it doesn’t have enormous applied value in terms of me-getting-my-writing-done. Maybe the underlying curiosity we have is “how hard did they used-to have to work to support their writing (and why do I have to do so much work now)?” Maybe the fascination lies in the mechanics of publishing, especially at a time when it has changed so much and so fast. Maybe I am going down my own rabbit hole, as I am wont to do, and this is entirely beside the point.

    As to the point: Dickens’ modern fame being what it is (most people leave it at “His work is LONG – he was paid by the word!!” with no real context for nor understanding of that), there is a lot of appeal in the idea he’d have blogged his world-weary little tuckus off. I’m with you, Colin. He’d have been a great blogger.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Yes, the underlying point of the speculation is just that question: Dickens didn’t need Facebook or a website–why do I? What’s particularly fascinating, though, is the point you raise at the beginning: what *would* Dickens have done differently to Shakespeare? The typewriter wasn’t around until after the 1860s, so, like Shakespeare, he would have written long-hand. Probably the biggest change over those 200 years is in the printing and distribution of published works. And that really goes to underscore how much things have changed in the 200 years (approx) since Dickens.

      Dickens did make public appearances, and, I believe, even embarked on reading tours. Not so different from today…? Sort of…? 🙂

      He would certainly have been a great blogger. But how would he have faired in a Janet Reid Writing Contest? 😉

      Reply
  8. Lilac Shoshani

    I’m with you and Diane. Charles Dickens would have been a great blogger, but would have flunked Janet Reid’s Writing contests… :p

    Writers are communicators. Even if we are unpublished as of yet, we get to communicate our thoughts, stories and creative vision through our blogs. And that’s delightful. Great post, my dear friend!

    Reply
  9. Lucie Witt

    Interesting post, Colin. I really enjoy social media, especially Twitter, but find blogging more stressful (though I still enjoy it).

    Hemingway would have been great at Twitter. No unnecessary characters for that guy.

    Reply
    1. Colin

      Thanks, Lucie! Ha, yes, Hemingway on Twitter! 🙂 I struggle with Twitter because I’m try to find something interesting to say and often come up blank. Do you suppose people who are socially comfortable (e.g., can sit in a room of strangers and immediately engage conversation) have an easier time with Twitter? That would seem to make sense to me, but I don’t know if it’s true. It would explain my struggle. 🙂

      Reply

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