The oddity of death and remove, in today’s social media age
I’m currently reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the posthumous collection from Denis Johnson. Expect a full review shortly. But in the meantime, I am struck by the odd, unrealistic disappointment that I will not ever be able to meet the man, get a signed book, or exchange social media messages. Our current pop culture landscape has created an expectation — good and bad — that writers are accessible. And it’s odd when they’re not.
In the mid nineties, I worked at a bookstore and met a number of leading writers of the day. I was there in the early stages of George Saunders’ career. I think he might have just stopped working a day job, if I remember correctly. I actually got paid to sit at a bar with P.J. O’Rourke. Thom Jones came through and drew pictures for me. I drove Mikal Gilmore to the airport and he had the heaviest suitcase I ever lifted in my life. Book tours were a big thing and if you worked at an important store, you got some cool experiences.
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As John Grisham’s career took off, we became his default office for a period of time. Grisham was great about signing books and he was one of the first (in my experience, anyway) to do massive book tours. We always had signed copies in stock. Somewhere along the line, the tone of fans and customers shifted. Maybe it was around the time of The Client but folks would be offended or upset if they couldn’t get a signed book. People spent the night, camped outside, prior to a book signing, queueing up all day. Grisham would sign for hours, taking periodic breaks with a squeeze ball to work out the kinks in his hand. People got mad if they couldn’t get one, even if they hadn’t put in the effort to stand in line all day, and just showed up at the last minute.
I remember people complaining that they had to work that day, that we were being unfair to folks who couldn’t come down. “Bono doesn’t check my schedule when U2 arranges a gig,” I thought. “Why do we expect authors to be different than rockstars?”
This was long before the Internet and social media. Back in those days, if you wanted a signed book by Charles Frazier or someone, you had to call around to bookstores, or send off for printed catalogs from rare book dealers.
Around 2005, we launched Slushpile.net and I started emailing authors I admired. It was pretty easy to reach people back then. Folks were using the convenience of technology but they weren’t jaded yet. In our culture, writers are minor celebrities. Even a J.K. Rowling or a Stephen King don’t come close to household recognition of a Kardashian. Writers were, and are, “celebrities” in the broadest sense of the word, but they need to work hard. In the early days of the mainstream Internet, writers didn’t hide behind publicists or handlers like a Brad Pitt or an Mick Jagger. They maintained their own sites. They were accessible.
At the same point, more and more bookstores came online and you could easily see who was signing at a Book Soup in Los Angeles or at Powell’s in Portland. You didn’t have to travel to a physical store and stand in line to get a book signed. You just clicked.
Social media obviously changed things dramatically. Even if you didn’t share direct messages with your favorite author, you followed along their adventures.
All of which brings me to this odd place of being disappointed that I will not be able to interact with Denis Johnson, one of my favorite writers. I won’t be able to see him at a bookstore. I won’t be able to get a signed book. I won’t be able to interact with him in any way. There is a distance, a remove, that cannot be overcome at this point.
I’m annoyed that I feel that way because our entire culture has shifted into this mode. I’m not terribly different than those folks who originally complained about signed books from John Grisham. Maybe I don’t actually yell at a college age bookstore clerk about it. Maybe I’m not mad per se. But, if I’m being honest, on some level, I am disappointed.
Denis Johnson left behind a tremendous body of work that will influence generations. Jesus’ Son alone would be enough to sustain us, but he also wrote so many other great books. We shouldn’t need anything else. It’s just a weird time in our culture that we kind of expect a more.