On Being An Opinionated Novelist

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’ve often wondered how appropriate it is for a writer to share opinions on issues unrelated to their work. Particularly ones of a political nature. Specifically I wonder if I share too readily and express my opinion too often. Recent crises, particularly Brexit but not limited to that sequence of events, have brought this thought to my mind.

A quick look at my twitter will make my opinion on Brexit clear enough (to eradicate all doubt – it’s my personal opinion that the campaign was conceived and executed in grave error) but I’ve by no means been anywhere near vociferous about it. But any attitude that is not complete withdrawal from the public arena allows one to be open to challenge, and perhaps to respond to it. Is it right that an author attempting to build a profile on twitter ends up going down a rabbit hole of twitter rows?

There is another more serious issue, one perhaps more “exact, intimate and tribal”, to quote Heaney, i.e. closer to home. It’s the unspoken, shared knowledge that one simply does not say certain things against certain people or bodies if one wants to get on in the arts world, particularly locally. One does not criticise the way things are done, even when harm is done by those very ways. It is more important to know whom to flatter and please, whom not to alienate, than to fulfil one’s duty as an artist and go – like a fire-driven arrow – straight for the most invulnerable, protected, vested interests, in order to hurt them. As a historical novelist, I have to be careful that the history is not too recent, too local, or too concerned with those still-living.

Folk worry that the arts can be stifled by the lack of a government department. I worry more that they can be stifled by the threat of a solicitor’s letter.

The third concern is that some opinions are not vote winners for a potential readership. There are a few stances that I find personally unconscionable and commercially repellent and would be wary of anyone who expressed them, author or no. I don’t believe I hold any deal-breaking opinions, but I am always mindful of the fact that my posts reflect not only who I am, but the work I wish to see sold. That doesn’t mean that you have to be completely bland. Confronted by someone telling him that bashing a right wing politician might mean he would lose readers, Matt Haig retorted on Twitter “I just held a referendum with myself and I don’t care.” I doubt if that caused him any commercial damage at all!

However. I often think that social media is probably an unsuitable platform for me to be on for any length of time, since by nature and chemical aspects of my brain I lack reserve. And there is nothing like telling me I can not say something about something to make me really really REALLY want to say something about something!

But there is also the hazard of saying too much. If you become rent-a-ranter, always roaring about things on Twitter or Facebook, do you take away from the force of your words on the page? Do you compromise your work by sharing yourself too freely, offering your opinion too plentifully? Do you simply become…well…irritating?

What do others think?

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On Being An Opinionated Novelist

9 thoughts on “On Being An Opinionated Novelist

  1. TU says:

    I’ve been wondering about that — I don’t have a novel out but was still trying to build up readership around fiction, so I set aside a personal account for personal rants, while keeping my fiction account for reads and reviews. Both ended up bland and unread, plus maintaining two accounts was a pain. Then Brexit happened and I went into rant mode which may or may not look the least bit pretty, but did inspire conversation and I gained followers. Of course they may not be interested in my fiction so much as the stream of angst. I won’t be maintaining the online angst for longer than a few days* and it will revert to chats about books, but when I asked a colleague if the stream now looked entirely unprofessional, he said it looked “rounded”. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, I’m not sure if I’m striking the right balance, and if I were selling a novel, I’m not sure if I’d hit the same balance as I do now. Then again, a few political points haven’t done JK Rowling or Michael Rosen any harm?
    Short answer: I don’t know, but I say what I think anyway, within the limits of decency (most of the time). For what it’s worth, I love your forthright moments (while appreciating all your points above). Interesting times.

    (* By “days” I may mean “years”,)

    1. The “rounded” point is important too. Better to sometimes express a strident opinion or two than totally concern oneself with BUY MY BOOK!!! ELEVENTY!!!!!! tweets. I don’t think marketing works unless there is an organic element to it. This might mean losing some readers, but then again that’s better than not gaining any at all by degenerating into an empty mouthpiece.

  2. I do think this is a very sensitive matter.
    Personally, it’s a life rule of mine to never speak about politics and religion unless I know who I’m talking with, so as a result, I’m very cautious on social media about these matters too. But as I say, that’s a rule I follow everywhere.

    This said, I do partecipate in discussions when I find the discussion intersting.

    It’s a very fine balance for an author. We are human beings, so we have opinions. Never expressing an opinion makes us less human, I think. So what I try to do is expressing my opinion where I see the environment is healthy and avoiding heating up at the matter at all costs.
    Not a foolproof method, I know, but it’s the best I’ve found… so far 😉

    1. Yes. Twitter is a phenomenon where there is such an outpouring of updates and emotional reactions to each of these that it is hard not to make some sort of comment at some stage. It’s slightly easier when the event is not directly hitting your own personal “red buttons”. Then I find it harder to keep quiet.

      It’s also nearly as difficult to stop and change the subject when people just want to talk about one thing all the time. But sometimes you run out of things to say and you’re fried emotionally and have nothing left to engage with.

  3. I’m not sure. I don’t talk about religion but politics is another issue. I can’t abide people being tricked and I certainly can’t stand people in power taking monies that others are unaware of. The current example is Console but one that I got involved in was the IFA scandal back in November. I was appalled. It was like Animal Farm when the pigs and the men looked alike (yes, the IFA had turned against the farmers such was the amount of money being paid to the head honchos not to mention the lies that were told). I ended up being asked to go on Prime Time. I did wonder if speaking out would damage my reputation as a blogger and an author but it doesn’t seem to have done – more people know about me anyway even if they are strong IFA advocates and didn’t like my stance. A significant number of people contacted me afterwards to say well done.
    I think it is important that any business person limits the rants to issues that really matter and to give praise where it’s due as well as criticism. Criticism should be deserved.

    1. I think that when it’s a matter of strong principle you have to speak out. I’m no farmer but yes it did look poor. I did have a similar issue when the Kate Fitzgerald affair broke. I guess we all have different hills we are prepared to die on!

    2. “I think it is important that any business person limits the rants to issues that really matter and to give praise where it’s due as well as criticism. ”

      Yes, very important. And when I genuinely enjoy a book, or am glad someone is doing the right thing, I want to sing it from the rooftops!

  4. I retweet political sorts of things, but don’t tend to post anything very political that much. Mostly because unless I have some kind of specific insight into a topic (eg worked in that field, etc..) I’m not sure I have much to offer.

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