allonymbooks posted last week on The Guardian‘s new ‘Authors, tell us about your work!‘ page, and was interested to see that a debate had begun over whether it was appropriate for individuals who don’t normally post comments to The Guardian‘s pages to sign up simply to promote their novels. Contributor kushti had said, ‘Oh my, what a lot of writers have appeared on this site all of a sudden. I shall continue to stick with my policy of keeping to my secret identity and not promoting my books here, but thanks for the offer and good luck all.’ Contributor R042 observed, ‘This is where clicking on peoples’ [sic] usernames is useful; it tells apart those who registered to use this forum, and those who already contribute regularly to the site on subjects other than their own work.’
There are echoes here of the awkwardness I discussed in an earlier blog about self-promotion, but also of a somewhat more critical position I am becoming increasingly aware of as I trample through the ether: that the more blatant and frequent self-promotion that swoops on any and all opportunities on the internet and social media is considered crass by some authors who are choosing their opportunities more selectively. What can be interpreted from the comments above is that a pre-existing presence in the Guardian’s online community is a pre-requisite for being taken seriously when you promote your novel on that page. This implied equation of ongoing contribution being a function of value and credibility is common in other places – the UK Amazon Kindle Forum on Goodreads is a very cheerful place to talk about books, and is very welcoming of indie authors, but the moderators are clear that it is preferred that authors do not just “drop a promo and run”.
This ties in inevitably to the recent ‘sock-puppet‘ revelation concerning RJ Ellory’s penning of complimentary Amazon reviews about his own work and less generous ones about others and it proves, if nothing else, that the internet is a very complex environment in which to qualify identity. From dating websites to online gaming, newspaper comments to facebook and even passwords, we have constant opportunities to project better, nicer, stronger, cleverer versions of ourselves to others and back onto ourselves. Yet even these very best versions of who we are seem to be expected to play by the same rules as the real communities we belong to – cordiality, participation, respect, truthfulness – even if we implicitly accept that that truthfulness might be relative rather than absolute.
RJ Ellory might have got away with it, one supposes, if he hadn’t got his multiple reviewing identities in a tangle, which brings us back to the other point raised by kushti and R042: the function of the username in projecting, protecting or disguising identity. How many of us have just one username for our online presence? Like actors playing a range of characters, usernames give us a way of responding to context and of separating out those contexts and versions of ourselves. I already post to The Guardian from time to time on an eclectic range of topics that take my fancy, but just as I do not want my multiple novelistic identities and creations to become entangled with my professional life, so I did not want my occasional public reactions of praise or frustration to become entangled with allonymbooks and Evie Woolmore‘s novels, and thus sway potential readers who might be more put off by my opinion of Dan Lepard’s bread recipes than my perspective on literary fiction.
In this culture of knowledge entitlement, we have been encouraged to believe that we have every right to know everything about our interlocutors, those known to us or those we shout at on the television. Not unlike a footballer whose wondergoal is overshadowed by an indiscretion in a nightclub the next evening, I would like my writing, and my writing-about-writing to be separate from my other, occasionally clumsier achievements and, like kushti, I would rather keep my voices separate. But that does not mean I have abandoned the community values of cordiality, participation and respect, even if the ‘truth’ of my identity is more complex.