Great Writers Sometimes Tweet
Both Jonathan Franzen and Paul Krugman called Twitter a waste of time last week. But is the format inherently inimical to a productive life of the mind?
Last week, Jonathan Franzen offered yet another broadside against Twitter, the latest salvo in his longstanding campaign against the social network, which he finds irresponsible and irritating. That was right after Paul Krugman of The New York Times posted a blog item called "Death By Tweet," in which he says, " I have better things to do with my time."
Perhaps he does. But plenty of writers are on Twitter: Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart, Erica Jong, Nathan Englander, Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, Neil Gaiman, Paolo Coelho, Stephen Fry and many others. Does use of Twitter mean that these writers are wasting their time? That masterpieces remain unwritten while they peck out their 140-character thoughts on Miley Cyrus?
Hardly. It's rather that Twitter is a symbol, for the likes of Franzen and Krugman, representative of the whole Internet — and the whole Internet is nothing but a waste of time. Twitter is just a convenient scapegoat, with its silly name, restrictive format and unabashed love of celebrity (symbolized so perfectly by that blue checkmark of authenticity). Or, as Rushdie tweeted out in reply to Franzen:
Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 16, 2013
In fact, writers do waste a lot of time — it's almost part of the creative process, a sort of strategic indolence that lets the mind work out its problems. Or, as Don DeLillo — who is not on Twitter — once told The Paris Review, "A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it." That may have involved watching baseball (Marianne Moore) or drinking into the morn's wee hours (Hemingway, Joyce, take your pick).
Yes, Twitter is perhaps a more cloistered activity — but it need not be wasteful. Franzen, for example, said he was disappointed in Rushdie's use of Twitter, yet the latter rarely tweets more than once per day, and often goes several days without tweeting at all. Shtyengart, who uses both Twitter and Facebook, and who recently joined Instagram, is at least as prolific as Franzen in terms of his literary output.
In other words, there's no dichotomy of the sort Krugman and Franzen posit, between productive intellectual work and wasted Twitter time. We are all sometimes indolent; we all sometimes procrastinate, whether by tweeting or watching television or reading a trashy thriller. Whether we rise above that, whether we even want to, is another matter altogether.