Speaking to the Manager seems to be having a moment. Yesterday, Bret Stephens, NYT opinion writer and Freeze Peach advocate, wrote an email to an assistant professor who made a (completely overlooked) joke Tweet comparing Bret Stephens to a bedbug. In the email, in which Bret maintained emotional control, he invited this assistant professor to come call Bret a bedbug to his face over a nice family dinner. He also copied the university’s provost.
This man is not slick, but he’s not meant to be. We’re not meant to believe this cartoon of “come to my house, my wife will make a nice pasta, you will call me a bedbug in front of my child” is how a remotely normal, polite person in a conflict behaves. Bret here is performing his class. All he wants to do is communicate he can speak in a particular upper class register, then wait for the peon to get fired.
That associate professor is also an author He’s got a 2016 book out from the Oxford University Press. I think everyone’s dealing with the Speaking to Your Manager craze, but writers (and other content creators) in particular seem especially hard hit. This is because we create consumer goods, and we are expected to step out and flog them by our employers and publishers. Act as combination sales people, customer service reps, and imaginary friends to potential buyers.
This isn’t working out well.
About a year ago, video game writer Jessica Price got fired for telling someone who likes video games a lot that liking video games a lot isn’t remotely the same as writing them, and that no, she didn’t find the point of view of someone who does not write particularly useful. My agent, on his podcast, talked about this phenomenon. He talked about how his authors, especially women, get him frequent “Have you HEARD what your CLIENT is doing ONLINE?” emails. In the wake of harassment I received, recently spoke to a TV writer and g*mergate target privately. She said her writing group chats have a channel devoted to vent about the letters all of them get. Being a writer now involves a constant background noise of entitled mostly (but not entirely!) conservative POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS who want you FIRED IMMEDIATELY.
And some of it is just power tripping, like Bret. In gamer circles (and increasingly in writing circles), the power tripping is wrapped in sort of pseudo-progressive language. Someone is a gamer. Someone is a reader. Brave new categories to identify with, assign values to, and wouldn’t you know it: they’re not just a consumer category, but working class and oppressed. THE most working class and oppressed, in fact. And this insistence that these empty categories are marginalized identities is used to frame bizarre, gross, overstepping behavior – stalking, lying, criminal behavior (including threats, doxing, and SWATing) as social justice work. Let me be clear, I am not objecting to social justice work. I am saying that consumers threatening workers is not and will never be social justice no matter how it is framed.
And the way you know this is the case is by looking at the targets. The target of these harassment campaigns isn’t “journalism,” it’s marginalized individuals. It’s not publishers, it’s (most often) queer and women writers. I’m gonna be perfectly real: there are fascists in the writing community. They aren’t shy about who they are. They love attention.
They don’t get harassed.
Jessica Price, in the tweets that got her fired, identified that what she was being asked to do, to treat a man who was not her professional peer as her professional peer, was emotional labor. That it was sexist. I agree.
An additional dimension, however, is I think writers, recently, have been given the additional burden of having to be in a parasocial relationship with their audience. It is not enough to say “Here: a book!” You’re supposed to be sharing your life with your ten thousand besties. As a person, yeah, it’s irritating to have to be available to a dude who wants to use you to feel better about himself. As an Aspiring Social Media Influencer? Of COURSE you wanna hear what one of your besties thinks about writing craft!!!!
And if we don’t, that’s unprofessional. It’s uncivil. And that framing doesn’t just make it a nice way of getting an edge; it makes parasocial pandering non-optional. I’ve seen people call this change, at turns, the way things have always been done (bullshit) or a new and progressive raising of the standards on how we treat one another (SUPER bullshit). Heaping additional emotional labor onto marginalized creators and sharing all of our business is not a win for marginalized people and Miss Manners. Literally the opposite.
I believe this expectation to build a parasocial following as a matter of “being professional” started roughly when writing advances cratered in the wake of the 2010 recession. I don’t think this entirely a coincidence, although Twitter becoming A Thing around then is certainly contributory. We’re scrabbling for pennies, so maintaining a desperate Stepford Wives servility is, I guess, a very marginal edge.
But dirty secret: social media doesn’t move product. Even in genres and publishing modes that rely heavily on social media, your social media platform (like Twitter and Facebook; I’m not including mailing lists) probably translates to one sale for every 100 followers, with the rest coming from other marketing channels.
This is not great. And while yes, if you can build a following of at least a million and ask all million your besties to buy the book and end up on the bestseller lists because 1% of a mil is ten thou and that’s a good start, these are edge cases. They require an immense amount of labor, they’re not a sure thing even if you put in the work, and being constantly available to the entire world isn’t great even for the people who “succeed.” Especially marginalized writers. The most likely scenario is a writer will spend a lot of time building a social media platform, make themselves very available to readers… and end up with a following of 600 people. Hundreds of hours of work, six books.
For those of us with access to traditional publishing and its marketing channels, there’s a better use of author time. Seriously.
There’s an old story of a basketball coach giving a star player laps for shooting the winning shot of a game. When the player whines this is unfair, the coach says that yeah, he landed the shot, but nine times out of ten, the player should have passed the ball. It’s a bad strategy.
Publishing does the opposite. It wants us all to be the star player who makes a statistically unlikely basket. It wants us all to put ourselves out there and be the next social media star.
And what I propose is… what if we did better?