The world is ruled by extroverts. Or so it seems, particularly if you’re an introvert. It’s not just open plan offices, call centres which force customers to speak to an operator instead of allowing customers to make contact in a way that suits them or the suggestion that shyness is a form of arrogance, rolling 24-hour news channels that need instant responses and pull in analysts to over-analysis a celebrity’s comment or tweet ad infinitum, but the current trend of encouraging people to be their own brand and self-promote.
In an age where publishers and editors struggle to justify spending money on promotion, writers are often left doing their own, often with no guidance. Fine for extroverts who like thinking aloud, running ideas past other people, asking for others to put them forward and who love being asked about who they are, why they write and where they get their ideas. Tricky for introverts who would rather let their writing speak for itself and talk through writing blog articles and making carefully prepared speeches. Especially so where publishers have ditched the slush pile and rely on recommendations and commissions: a climate where people who are not backward about coming forward thrive.
Shyness is not a form of arrogance or even self-absorption. Someone who says “I’m shy” and then expects the person to whom they are talking to offer reassurance and keep the conversation going, is not shy. But rather someone who defines themselves through victimhood and turns life into something that happens to them, instead of something they can make happen. These are the would-be writers who can’t bring themselves to submit work to editors because it will only get rejected or struggle to find time to write because they have too many chores to do and assume the door is closed even before they try to open it. They demand a stage, but ill-prepared for their performance, make excuses and are too self-absorbed to accept self-responsibility. A shy person may be hesitant and nervous, but rarely ill-prepared and all too ready to take responsibility if the audience aren’t thrilled by the performance.
Shy people are the wallflowers who hang around at the edges of social gatherings, watching who interacts with whom. They will have a small arsenal of small talk but will dry up or opt to listen if the person they are trying to engage with fails to respond or launches into a monologue. Their self-consciousness stems from being all too aware that what they say or do has an impact on the people around them, that words can hurt, that saying the wrong thing can cause severe embarrassment, that even the wrong body language can be misinterpreted. So they would rather listen and wait to get their phrasing right before speaking. They complement the extrovert.
However, shy writers have no problem submitting work to editors: sending emails or packaging poems into envelopes and waiting for a response is natural. On their own they are far too busy researching, reading, writing, practising and honing their talent in readiness to send it out into the wider world. This is not self-absorption but simply a preference to rehearse without an audience being present. To get on and do the job without necessarily being seen to do it and without talking about doing it.
The difficulty lies in speaking up and self-promoting. It’s not easy when your default position is being a sounding board to become the one making a sound. It is easy to drop off the radar when others are asked to make recommendations and become forgotten. Even published writers can find themselves overlooked or marginalised and that doors are closed even though they have tried to open them.
There’s nothing new here. When literary criticism looks back to the 1930s, there’s a tendency to focus on the Eliot-Auden axis and overlook the women writing and getting published alongside them. History has preferred Florence Nightingale’s story to Mary Seacole’s.
The solution isn’t to continue to ask introverts to overcome their natural tendencies and become extroverts. Nor it is to create anthologies and similar initiatives that feature only work by introverts as this merely ghettoises the writers involved and confirms their status as marginal. If we are all performers, who is the audience?
What’s needed is a shift in focus from writer to writing. Will you be buying J K Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” because it’s a good book or because it is written by her? Will “Harry Potter” fans fall in love with her writing for adults simply because they loved her writing for children? They might but it’s not guaranteed. Adults who enjoyed “Harry Potter” may not enjoy “The Casual Vacancy” even though they are a natural potential audience to market to.
When you go into a bookshop do you see signs saying “women writers”, “male writers”, “ethnic minority writers”, “writers with disabilities” or signs saying “poetry”, “thrillers”, “non fiction”? Which is more helpful?
Unless you’re a man who refuses to read anything by a women, chances are you’ll prefer signs that point to the type of writing, not the writer. Readers have favourite authors, but they are also interested in good writing in their favoured genre, regardless of who wrote it. Daljit Nagra reverted to his real name after running up against the limitations of writing about the experience of being from an ethnic minority in Britain under the pseudonym Khan Singh Kumar and being pigeonholed and expected to write nothing else. In focusing on the writer’s brand, readers are done a disservice because the quality and variety of writing available gets overlooked and underpromoted.
To avoid being done a disservice, readers need to get more involved. Readers need to start blogging about their favourite authors, reviewing books they love and liking author Facebook pages, following their favourite authors on twitter and drawing publishers’ attentions to favourite pieces of writing.
You are no longer a reader but a brand-evangelist: spread the word.
By Emma Lee