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Should authors shut up and let their books do the talking?

Sometimes I really hate it when writers open their mouths. I was reminded of this recently when I heard that Naomi Wolf had been banned from Twitter for spouting outlandish ideas.

Apparently, sometime between writing The Beauty Myth – a book that was influential to me when I read it as a teenager – and now, she has developed a penchant for formulating dangerous and ludicrous conspiracy theories.

Rather than discouraging women from falling for the myths promoted by the beauty industry as she did in the past, during the coronavirus pandemic she has been using social media to espouse her own anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

Her claims that the COVID vaccine was: a “software platform that could receive uploads” was only the latest of a series of strange claims made by the writer in recent years and she was banned from Twitter to widespread applause.

I can’t deny that all of this has cast a shadow over a book that I used to hold dear.

Wolf is not the only writer who I wish had not opened their mouths – or their Twitter accounts. Most social media users will be familiar with the criticism JK Rowling has faced for her views on transgender people.

While I believe JK Rowling’s books are the works of a genius, it’s hard to see how she could have waded so blithely into an issue that would create so much hurt to a marginalized community.

When recalling the joy that the Harry Potter has given me and my 10-year-old son, I prefer to wipe from my mind the comments that JK Rowling has made, separating her artistic self from her social media persona.

Then there was Joyce Carol Oates who clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but in her talking event, didn’t seem to suffer curious and educated interviewers either. She was rude and impatient, and I have not read any of her books since. Perhaps that is my loss, but I figure there are many good writers who are kinder to those taking interest in their writing.

All this makes me wonder whether writers should leave their books to do the talking.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen any time as soon as publishers increasingly call on writers to build social media followings and talk to their readers. And in many ways, that move is a massive positive for readers.

I love listening to my favourite podcasts, hearing writers explain the thought processes that led them to create certain characters or plotlines. One of the first things I do when I finish reading a book is to search for their interviews on The Garret, Words and Nerds or the ABC’s The Book Show.

Recently, after reading Infinite Splendors, I listened with fascination as Sofie Laguna reflected on her characters’ experiences, and exposed themes and ideas that I hadn’t even noticed while reading her book.

I love seeing Margaret Atwood’s posts pop up in my Twitter feed, and I greedily devoured every word she uttered in her appearance on the stage in Melbourne. She seemed so wise and measured, and someone whose opinion I wanted to know about everything.

I felt the same way when I attended a talk by Helen Garner; I am never the person to stand up at question time, but in my mind I reeled off all of the things I wanted to know her thoughts on.

When listening to Richard Flanagan, the author of the Narrow Road to the Deep North, I fell a little bit in love with him for his intelligence and his compassion. So too, Arundhati Roy with her accent and thoughtfulness.

I had a deep sense of regret that I would probably never attend a dinner party with Alexander McCall Smith when I heard him interviewed on the radio – he was hilarious and self-deprecating and it made me love his books even more. It was easy to see where the loveable Mme Ramotswe’s voice originated.

All things considered and despite some challenging ideas – or perhaps because of them – it is a positive that writers’ voices are increasingly heard outside their novels.

Ultimately, these are people who ponder the big questions and answer them in the form of literature, and if actors, models and influencers can spout their opinions, so should the writers who we trust to reflect and help us interpret the world. If their views expose their own insecurities, traumas and prejudices, that does not make their work or words less worthy, but perhaps even more so, as these flaws only reveal their humanity. While their literature might have been edited, shaped and polished over many years and by many contributors, their off-the-cuff comments can be far more revealing.

Even if their opinions might sometimes be challenging, isn’t that the point of philosophical and social debate? Few issues are clear cut, and the more clear, educated and intelligent voices that can be heard, the better. And if it all gets too messy, there is always the mute button.


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