As I spoke to Susan Orlean about the role the social web plays with her long feature articles and books, I couldn’t help but compare her to another famous writer for the New Yorker: E.B. White.
Like Orlean, White had decided to leave the frantic mania of New York City life for a much quieter one in the country, moving to rural Maine in 1938 (Orlean would move to Columbia County, New York, almost 70 years later). Both writers also continued to write for the magazine after their departure.
In his wonderful forward to “The Elements of Style,” Roger Angell, White’s stepson, described what it was like to watch his stepfather write commentary for the New Yorker every week from their Maine home: “The sounds of his typewriter from his room came in hesitant bursts, with long silences in between,” Angell wrote. “Hours went by. Summoned at last for lunch, he was silent and preoccupied, and soon excused himself to get back to the job.”
But though White seemed to enjoy the quiet solitude of his rural surroundings (he turned down several New York City editor and writer gigs while there), the move was much harder on his wife, Katharine, who had served as the New Yorker’s fiction editor.
“The part-time work she did on the farm in Maine was not nearly as satisfying to her as the first 12 years of full-time work in her New York office,” Scott Elledge wrote in his biography of E.B. White. White later admitted that he regretted the move to Maine precisely because of the hardship it placed on Katharine.
Twitter Keeps Orlean Connected
But unlike the Whites, who were mainly isolated from their readerships and forced to correspond with their editors via snail mail, Orlean has found a means to solicit immediate feedback and engage in the back-and-forth conversations she was accustomed to during her city days —Twitter. In fact, she said that if she had decided to stay in NYC, she likely wouldn’t be using the micro-blogging tool quite as often.
Orlean set up her account @susanorlean in early 2008 and at first didn’t understand the medium.
“When I started on Twitter, it was never with the express notion that this would be a way to talk to readers,” she told me in a phone interview. “I was encouraged to open an account by my assistant, and in the beginning I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what purpose it would serve or could serve. It took awhile before I could even figure out how you found people, who you’d want to follow, and why you’d want to follow them.”
It wasn’t long, however, before she was able to grasp what Twitter could provide in terms of reader feedback; to understand this radical change, consider the fact that when she became a staff writer for the New Yorker in the early ’90s, the magazine didn’t even have a Letters to the Editor page (it now has one called simply “The Mail”).
“I’ve always gone fairly long between stories, and during that time it really is like you fall off the face of the Earth, especially in a magazine like the New Yorker that doesn’t even have a masthead,” she said. “This has happened to me a million times, where I just haven’t had a story published for months and people would say to me, ‘Are you still writing for the New Yorker?’ Because they don’t have a masthead, when you’re not in an issue of the magazine, it’s like you don’t exist.”
Discussion with Followers
While it’s now common practice for reporters to use Twitter in the newsroom, Orlean is part of the small breed of journalists who goes months — or sometimes longer if she’s on book leave — in between articles. I can’t remember when I started following her — likely shortly after she joined — but when I did she had around 5,000 followers; these days she has over 100,000.
Unlike many major authors who use Twitter as a one-way broadcasting tool, she engages in back-and-forth discussion with her followers (compare the number of @ replies she publishes to the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who rarely replies directly to anyone on Twitter).
“I’ve always liked writing short pieces, and I’ve also always liked meeting readers,” she said. “I’ve always done a lot of public stuff — readings, doing Q&As — so once I figured out Twitter, the transition was pretty natural for me. It was almost like doing an ongoing book tour basically, or an ongoing Q&A session with readers. It suddenly made this new relationship that before had only existed kind of in real life, so to speak.”
But does this instant feedback distract her from her writing or inspire her to write more? Many writers complain that when writing a long work like a book it can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, miring one in the malaise of what some would call writer’s block.
“I used [Twitter] as a cheerleading squad as I was struggling to finish my book and people would be interested in watching me slog through by my postings of how many words I’ve written,” Orlean said. “And it became really interesting seeing people saying, ‘C’mon hang in there, you can do it.’ I found that fascinating. I never would have expected that.”
Balancing Promotional Tweets
With more than 100,000 followers, her Twitter feed obviously serves as a vehicle for promotion, both for her articles and her books. Not everyone is going to be interested in shelling out $30 for a book, and she recognizes that she has to be judicious in balancing her promotional tweets from those about, say, her home life.
“It certainly gives you a pre-selected group of people who have for one reason or another decided they’re interested in what you have to say,” she said. “It’s like having a mailing list, and that’s enormously valuable, especially as we’re moving toward a world in which who knows whether we’ll eventually shift the model to people self-publishing, and then you’re really going to need that mailing list.”
The New Yorker has always held a reputation as being a tightly guarded fortress, especially when it was under the editorship of the reclusive William Shawn. Given its rigorous adherence to fact-checking and drawn-out editing process, I wondered how open the magazine would be to the immediacy of Twitter, a tool that has been known to get journalists in trouble. It was just the other day that a Toronto newspaper released guidelines placing tight restrictions on what its reporters could tweet.
Orlean said that though members of the magazine staff took the time to get all the writers’ accounts verified, there hasn’t been any official discussion over how a writer should use the medium.
“I would be surprised if they came to me and said we don’t approve of your account,” Orlean said. “I think they would probably go on the assumption that if you work for them, by your very nature you probably would only be writing things that seem appropriate…I can’t imagine that I would ever want to write something the New Yorker wouldn’t want me to write. My interests and their interests are pretty seamless, and there’s nothing I would want to write under my own name that the New Yorker wouldn’t approve of because protection of my privacy and reputation is probably even stronger than theirs is.”
Perhaps Orlean’s most salient advice for journalists on Twitter came in a Gawker piece she wrote in response to Dan Baum, a former New Yorker writer who used the micro-blogging service to detail his firing from the magazine:
I have never met Dan Baum, and I wish him well. He hasn’t asked for my advice, but here it is, anyway: 1. Don’t be fooled by the one-way mirror quality of Twitter; it’s a peculiar medium that is more invasive than it might feel. 2. If I ever hire someone, please call and remind me to have him or her sign a “No tweeting when I get fired” clause. 3. If you decide to publish in a very public forum details of something that is somewhat personal, don’t complain when people respond in a somewhat personal manner. 4. When you are objecting to something written by a woman, using the word “twat” (as in, “[Orlean] launched a series of twit-for-twat responses…”) is not usually advisable.
Simon Owens is the director of PR at JESS3, a creative agency in Washington, DC. He is a former editor of PBS MediaShift. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.