Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How Major Writers Become Legendary on Twitter: The Case of Colson Whitehead

Yesterday morning at 7:14 AM, Calvin Reed, a writer and senior editor at Publishers Weekly tweeted the first of what became a popular literary-related trending topic of the day. He wrote "Much Ado about Twitter: novelist @ColsonWhitehead muses on Twitter, web distractions and BEA for PW's Soapbox. http://ow.ly/4GeQE"

The link led to a humorous article by Colson Whitehead in Publishers Weekly entitled "Better Than Renting Out A Windowless Room: The Blessed Distraction Of Technology" that focused on why the distractions of the internet and social media such as twitter might be less responsible than has been previously stated by writers for why they can't seem to complete projects. Whitehead's article, like so many of his writings, is full of funny and witty ideas.

Less than a minute after that initial tweet, Colson Whitehead retweeted Reed's post, and over the next 24 hours, more than 100 people tweeted and retweeted about the article.

In terms of trending topics about celebrities, uprisings in the Middle East, and the NBA playoffs, the twitter chatter related to Whitehead's article was relatively small. But in the small world of literature-related issues, the response to Whitehead's article over the course of the day was remarkable. To the extent that African American writers typically receive less attention, the popular trending topic focused on a black novelist was even more remarkable.

Of course, it's worth noting that well before the rise of twitter, Colson Whitehead had been on his way to becoming a major writer. In 1999, Gary Krist concluded a New York Times review of Whitehead's first book The Intuitionist, a novel about race and elevators, by noting that "if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors."

Consequently, over the last 10 years, Whitehead has ascended toward the upper floors, of the contemporary literary world at least, producing superb books, winning prestigious awards, and gaining respect and admiration from a broad range of writers.

So by the time he started his twitter account a couple of years ago, he was an established and widely known novelist. Still, twitter has given those of us who follow Whitehead's career more access to his writing and his talents for humor, wit.

The excitement and interest focused on Whitehead's Publishers Weekly article yesterday might reveal how twitter can help make a major writer become in more major or even legendary. Maybe. [I'm purposely using words like "might" and "maybe" for now as I want to highlight that I'm still thinking through things here.]

Many of the people tweeting about Whitehead's article included a sentence from the piece that they found interesting. For instance, several people included Whitehead's point that "If you can't muster will to lay off Gawker, how are you going to write a book?"

Many others presented Whitehead's statement that "The Internet is not to blame for your unfinished novel: you are."

Viewed in isolation, these two quotations may suggest to readers unfamiliar with Whitehead's writing that he is a tough, self-help coach. On the contrary, his writing in the article shows him to be funny and lighthearted.

Only the web-page managers at Publishers Weekly know just how much Whitehead's article increased traffic on their site. I imagine, though, that it was a tremendous increase, and the increase was in large part due to all the tweets and retweets.

It also helps that some of the folks who tweeted about the article and added favorable comments also had rather large followings. For example, at various points during the day, Maud Newton and Nathan Bransford, who have over 79,000 and 86,000 followers on twitter, respectively, were in the "top tweet" position in the "coslonwhitehead" subject area. They were "top" because their initial tweets about the article were retweeted more often than any other people who mentioned Whitehead.

When Newton and Bransford referenced Whitehead's article, they were doing so for an expansive group of people. It's likely that thousands of people were at least made aware of the Whitehead article since the more than 100 people who also tweeted about it collectively have large numbers of followers as well.

Months from now, I'm thinking that the details of Whitehead's article will fade from memory, but people will likely recall that Whitehead wrote something that they enjoyed and found particularly interesting. Our forgetfulness about the details combined with our remembrance of the general goodness, originality, and strength of the author's writing will, I think, contribute to building Whitehead's legendary status, so to speak.

Whitehead developed his reputation as a major novelist over a 10-year period. His development as a writer likely took longer than that. But the attention he receives on a big stage during a relatively small amount of time contribute to adding to the lore of who and what he is as a literary figure. 

It's no coincidence that I am writing about the move from major to legendary as the NBA playoffs are underway. The playoffs are a relatively short yet vital moment during the season and careers for talented basketball players where they have an opportunity to elevate themselves and their reputations. It's now cliche to say but quite evident that "the playoffs are where legends are made."

Like the playoffs, the production of Whitehead's article involved concentrated attention from large numbers of people observing a single event (in this case a publication and twitter activity) on a big stage, which allowed the key player to display his skills. To advance the basketball metaphor, we can think of Whitehead's article in Publishers Weekly as a defining shot. The kind of shot that is replayed over and over again.

In this instance though, Whitehead's "shot" was retweeted. Over and over again.

It takes a longer amount of time to read and thus bring attention to a writer's novel. But twitter proves conducive to bringing attention to short articles or news items. 

Years from now, when students and literary critics look at Whitehead's major "body of work," his short Publishers Weekly article will seem minor in relation to his award-winning novels. Yet, I believe that his short, almost humorous pieces like the most recent one contribute to why some readers seek out his major books in the first place.

In October when you're in a bookstore and you see that one of the novels on the "just released" table is called Zone One by Colson Whitehead, you'll likely remember that "oh yeah, that's the guy who wrote that cool piece that folks mentioned on twitter. Maybe his book is good too."

But more than picking up his book, the strength and humor of the writing for that article and its popularity on twitter will make Whitehead a little more memorable than say if he had never written the article, and it hadn't received so much attention.

And it's the hazy memory of the article and its popularity on twitter that will help transform Whitehead from a major author into a legendary one.

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