Under All This Noise: On Reclusion, Writing, and Social Media

June 21, 2013 | 3 books mentioned 25 6 min read


I recently made the mistake of confessing a fantasy to a friend. I told him I dreamed of being a reclusive writer. Tame, I know, given the whole point of a fantasy is to go whole hog. Yet isn’t there something incredibly seductive about those mysterious figures who hide away? We imagine them toiling away in a remote mountain cabin or a Manhattan apartment and only rarely, and with much fanfare, releasing dispatches through an intricate web of agents and lawyers, dispatches that allow an anxiously waiting reading public to make sense of the chaos that has become our world. A guru who bursts forth every thirteen or seventeen years like a cicada.

Hermit, Thoreau wrote. I wonder what the world is doing now.

My friend cut to the chase. “You’re not famous enough to be reclusive,” he said. “Actually, you’re not famous at all. Maybe you’ll get some traction after you’re dead?”

Apart from the obvious — i.e., there’s always death and the possibility of posthumous resurrection — my wise friend might also be right that a person might need a certain amount of celebrity in order to be known for having disappeared. And to my discredit, deep down, I admit this is pretty attractive. I want to retreat from the world and think and write in solitude. At the same time I wouldn’t mind a few readers knowing I’m out here being all mysterious.

Orner? Wait, didn’t he kick for the Vikings?
No, no I’m talking about the writer, you know the dude that vanished…

A genuine recluse, of course, wouldn’t give a damn.

Lately, I’ve wondered if this odd fantasy is rooted in my uneasy relationship with how connected we all are with each other these days. Not long ago I was at a Literary Festival (so much for being reclusive) and I attended a panel discussion about the future of the book as the book. The prognosis, I learned, is inconclusive. Might have a few actual physical books in the future, might not. Only one thing didn’t seem in doubt at all, and that is the future of the writer of these inconclusive books. This future, we were told, is directly tied to having a personal online presence. A writer, one panelist declared, who doesn’t personally reach out to readers via social media is DOA.

This was alarming for several reasons. One is that I’ve tried it. I’m never quite sure what to say. I’ve shared things my friends are doing. “Teddy Finkel just got back from the trip of a lifetime in Banff!” I’ve also posted a few things I’m up to as well. But each time I’ve done so, there’s this dread. The impulse — now an industry — to spread good news about oneself far and wide has become soul-crushing. It makes me want to retreat into the garage (where the Wifi can’t find me) with my outmoded books and unfinished manuscripts. Maybe I’m just not that good at being myself. I’ve come to see social media as a skill like anything else. Some are talented at it; others, less so.  I’m a mediocre interior decorator also. Nor can I cook, change the oil, or dance.

And yet if I don’t I’m DOA?

There is, though, a larger issue at stake. For me, the whole point of fiction has always been to forget about me. To paraphrase Eudora Welty, the most elemental aspect of the art of fiction is the challenge of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. I spend much of my life trying to live up to Welty’s gauntlet. There is something about the increased demand that fiction writers speak as themselves that feels like a violation of what I used to hold so sacred, the tenet that it is not about me but about the characters I create. I’ve always considered inventing people and introducing them into an already crowded, indifferent world to be an act of faith. The only faith I’ve got. It’s my way of saying that I love this planet and its people in spite of everything we do every day to kill it — and each other.

Obviously, social media itself isn’t the trouble. The crux, as I see it, is that lately the substance of what we create is often considered almost incidental to the way that we writers, personally, market our product. We now must sell our books like we sell ourselves. During the panel discussion on the future of the book, for instance, what goes inside the books in question received passing, almost grudging mention. It isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this trend. Just yesterday I read a piece about pricing in self-published e-books. Apparently $3.99 is the sweet spot? Sweet spot? Am I a dinosaur to wonder what this $3.99-dollar book is actually about?

And yet, paradoxically, I find that this almost fanatical focus on sales over content might provide the alternate route of escape. No need to flee to the cabin in the Bitteroot just yet, as appealing as this sounds. Maybe I can live out my reclusive dream by hiding in plain sight, by choosing not to engage personally on-line, to declare myself, on my own terms, DOA.

Don’t do it, the experts cry. Besides being a recluse has been out since Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah. Forget it, you want to be read, you got to sell baby sell.

But do we? Really? When for so many of us out here have a hard enough time inventing lives that aren’t our own?

It may say too much about me that I take my life not only from Eudora Welty, but also from the beautifully goofy movie Say Anything. I’m a child of the 80s, what can I say? You remember Lloyd Dobler? I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed…

I take solace in the example of writers who, in spite of all trends, have gone another direction. On my desk, right now, I have a book of poetry by a man named Herbert Morris. Aside from his six books, the fact that he attended Brooklyn College, and the date of his birth (1928) and death (2001), almost nothing, as far as I can tell, is publicly known about him. The man clearly wanted it this way.

coverOn the jacket of What Was Lost, his last book, published in 2000, there is no author photo, no biographical information, and no acknowledgements. Richard Howard deepens the mystery with a quote: “Always the dark stranger at Poetry’s feast of lights, Herbert Morris has returned to haunt the banquet with these fifteen notional ekphrases, surely the most generous creations American culture has produced since Morris’s own Little Voices of the Pears.”

It took me three dictionaries to track down the word ekphrases. A gorgeous word, it means a concentrated description of an object, often artwork. Apt as it applies to Morris whose poems are all about paying attention – truly seeing.

I may have found my recluse, minus any fame, in this dark stranger. I only have his poems, not his personality, but they are exactly what I need. For me it takes great concentration to read What Was Lost, and thus, I slow way, way down as I follow the tangled, meandering thoughts of his intensely lonely characters. Morris may be a poet, but he is also, to my mind, among the most hypnotic fiction writers in contemporary literature. I fall into a Morris poem the way I do into a Sebald novel. It is a whole immersion into the intensity of a moment.

Morris writes of other people, sometimes well-known people, such as Henry James or James Joyce, in moments of profound isolation. One utterly breathtaking poem “History, Weather, Loss, the Children, Georgia” is about a photograph taken of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as they sit in a car before a group of schoolchildren. The photo was snapped just before the children began to serenade the president. The poem begins slowly, exquisitely, as Morris constructs the scene through the smallest of details about the children. They’ve been rehearsing all week for this occasion. Their mouths are poised, frozen forever in little O’s. Even the threads of their clothes receive attention. As does the hand printed banner, Welcome Mister President. Only toward the very last lines does the poem zero in on Franklin and Eleanor themselves. These two icons may be long dead, as is this haunted moment in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1938. And yet, and this is where the poem aches, Franklin and Eleanor are not historical props but rather two vulnerable human beings sitting together — apart — in the back of an open car. The poem delicately, yet vehemently, chastises Franklin for “his wholly crucial failure” to do something pretty simple and that’s touch his wife.

or once, once, whisper to her
intimacies any man might well whisper
on the brink of the heartbreak of the Thirties
(the voiceless poised to sing, air strangled, sultry,
the music teacher’s cue not yet quite given…

I imagine Morris, whoever he was, staring at this photograph so long and with such absorption that Frankin and Eleanor began to sweat in the humid air. And still Franklin’s fingers don’t reach for her. The poem mourns the loss of so many things, including this touch that never happened.

Ultimately this is not only what I crave as a writer, but as a reader of fiction. I want living, breathing, flawed characters on the page. Now more than ever I want to know about private failures not publically shared triumphs. Herbert Morris gives us the miracle of other people in their intimate, unguarded moments.

He may not have trumpeted himself when he was alive. He kept himself apart, and the details of his own life out of the equation. Perhaps as a consequence he may not have sold many books, but even so he found his way to my desk. I dug him out of the free bin outside Dog Ear Books in San Francisco. How can I express my gratitude to a man who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator? And think about it, how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, telling us things we need to hear?

Photo courtesy of the author.

is the author of two novels and two story collections, including Love and Shame and Love and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. His book of essays Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. He teaches at Dartmouth College.


  1. It is pretty easy to “hide in plain sight” and yet have a large “online presence.”

    I do miss the way “being a writer” was when I started out in the 70s. I learned from my creative writing professors at Brooklyn College and from the other writers of books I met in New York City — people who might be, in some respects, both well-known and anonymous when such a thing as possible — as well as the truly more anonymous writers and editors I met in what we called the “small press” world of little (literary) magazines and small book publishers, that basically a writer’s job was to write. You had editors to edit you, publishers to publish your periodical work and books, and it was their job to do publicity, marketing, sales. You were expected to cooperate, but if you look at a book like one that was important to authors back then — Nancy Evans and Judith Applebaum’s “How to Get Happily Published” — you’ll see they advise authors to carefully fill out the forms for the publicity departments of publishers, to cooperate with your publishers if they wanted you for the rare opportunity to be interviewed on a radio show or by a local newspaper or do other kinds of “publicity.”

    When my first book was published in 1979 by a small commercial New York publisher, I wanted to do more, so I wrote (postal mail, of course) letters to some newspaper and magazine editors and critics and I got myself mentioned in some gossip columns in New York newspapers (for example, Liz Smith in the Daily News, who put in a column item). The publicity I generated probably didn’t do a thing for sales because most bookstores didn’t carry my (hardcover) book despite its being reviewed in the standard sources (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus) and a variety of the Sunday book review pages of newspapers around the country.

    My experience was not unusual. I knew people who achieved a lot more success — reviews in Time or Newsweek or perhaps People; excellent reviews in the New York Times Book Review (almost the only place that really mattered, except I discovered after I was reviewed there, the small press publishers of my books still couldn’t get the books taken by the very powerful jobber Ingram, who controlled a good percentage of bookstore sales — and books were then sold only in bookstores or bought by libraries, or, if you were really wonderful, famous or lucky, by the Literary Guild or Book-of-the-Month Club, which is how most people like my parents or the parents of everyone I knew, got the majority of their (hardcover) books: through the mail.

    Sometimes it was months before a review of your book in a magazine or even a newspaper in a different part of the country would come to your attention, or your publisher’s. There was simply no way to create “a presence.” There was no online. In the early 1980s I managed to get my name into South Florida and New York newspapers a lot, through a series of publicity stunts — running for the town council on a platform of giving horses the right to vote, starting the Committee for Immediate Nuclear War, heading a group to keep the falling satellite Skylab from crashing down on people’s pets — but these were essentially art works, publicity for publicity’s sake, and while they got me known as a funny guy, were unrelated to my being an author.

    The only real activities I remember that sold books were going to “book and author luncheons” where all the people were not literary types but mostly nice old ladies and gentlemen who bought my books after meeting me, listening to me chat, and eating the kind of dinners you got in the banquets of the county committees of political parties or the Junior League (don’t ask). And those were very rare, maybe two or three a year if you were lucky.

    The people I knew who were really successful authors, even when young, probably did less than I did to sell their books. They didn’t have to. It was not their job. And in fact, people would look down on you if you engaged in self-promotion; it was declasse and vulgar and creepy.

    At writers’ colonies like MacDowell, Yaddo and Millay, we had what was thought to be the ideal writer’s life: isolation and solitude (except at dinner time and evening activities), as little contact with the outside world as possible. We had studios — at MacDowell, ones not in sight of any other, and lunch would be delivered, and phone calls were rare and uncomfortable — you had to make expensive long-distance calls from a dungeon-like booth and everyone outside could hear your conversation (highly unusual and intrusive in those days). Very few people went to the tiny TV room with its three or four shaky stations. There was postal mail and the daily delivery of one copy of the New York Times to be shared by over two dozen people. But there was natural beauty, and long walks, and exciting dinner conversations with other writers as well as composers and visual artists. It was heaven, the kind of isolation normally only afforded by rich and famous writers and artists.

    Reading this, I wished I could have made you a child of the 1950s, as I was, or earlier, instead of a child of the 1980s. I am online for too much of the day. Posting and clicking, we waste our powers. For what?

  2. Thank you for passing along the information about Herbert Morris. And a new word “ekphrase.” This means that Friday is already well spent!

    Your essay reminded me of a Post article I read a year or so ago about Edward P. Jones, the Washington DC short story writer and novelist, whio is for those of us who live here our own James Joyce. Mr. Jones is a quiet, shy, wonderfully eccentric person, lover of the Judge Judy show, and cooker of “burned up” roast chicken. He is possessed of total confidence in his gifts, knowing nothing about a novel but its first image (bouquets of flowers at the altar of a church) who will spend countless quiet, solitary years waiting for the entire work to speak to him.

    The article writer remembered seeing him sitting in the midst of a group of strenuously networking, loudly self-promoting authors at some event (the hallmark of one of these is how often you notice someone’s eyeballs move past you once they check out your name tag and you are found insufficiently important). The irony was that the one person in that room with a truly sublime “product” to promote that night was obviously uncomfortable and out-of-place.

    I take heart knowing that Mr. Jones is somewhere in DC right now, quietly working on his novels and burning more chicken.

  3. As a recluse who writes about the era of Franklin and Eleanor, thank you for saying what many of us are thinking: this burden of constant self-selling is just too much.

  4. I find this idea of the reclusive writer captivating as well. It must come natural for some, or for some writers, be an expression of psychology. For instance, J.D. Salinger has long held a warm place in my heart, and I find that his mystery only added to his appeal.

    My poetry professor once found herself in the same grocery store as him, and once he left, someone whispered to her, “Do you know who that was? That was J.D. Salinger!” I can only imagine how thrilling that brief encounter must have been.

    I grew up when the Internet was still young, and remembering those early years, everyone was rushing to get online, to share in this new mystery. As so much began to be shared willingly, everyone’s online presence became a public record. Anxieties about this newfound public life are no doubt common, now.

    I share my writing victories and failures with whoever wants to read them. Whether they do is up to chance. I also think this online persona becomes an extension of the writing life, because it requires a skill, a crafting of words, all the things writers love. It is also quite possible to become so comfortable with the online persona to the extent that one becomes reclusive in their living breathing life. Nonetheless, even J.D. Salinger has to go to the grocery store.

  5. Golly, and here I thought I was the only person in the world who adored Herbert Morris. I’ve been reading his books for decades. So nice to “meet” a fellow fan. Perhaps introducing fans of obscure poets to each other is what the Internet does best, after all, because through it, I’ve been introduced to another author–you.

  6. Peter Orner: This is too ironic. I once sat in on a series of talks you gave as a writer in residence during one of my two semesters at Bard College before I moved on to cheaper pastures. I literally just emailed about your thoughts on this topic last night. I couldn’t have asked for a more thorough breakdown as this article you’ve published today. I just finished up a book and am debating whether to go it alone, get an agent (which seems like a grind) or some combination of the two. My temperment leads me towards reclusion personally, and all the sell-sell-sell stuff seems like the advice of a Type-A’er. I need to re-read this article to gleen more advice from it. After several years totally outside the world of letters the idea of going from writing-reclusion to engaging the market place with open arms seems pretty tough. But then, I guess there’s no such thing as a free sandwich.

  7. In the past, the writer depended on readers to say to each other, “You’ve got to read this!” Now, it’s the writer who must say to the reader, “You’ve got to read this!”

    IMO, self-promotion adds an undue burden on to the writer. Isn’t that what agents and publishers are for? They should be the ones using social media to promote their authors.

  8. Thanks for this salubrious knock to the side of the head, Mr. Orner.

    As you discovered with Herbert Morris (and beautifully articulated), they are out there. Day and night, in any given locale, they’re hard at it. Our novelists and poets, who strive away in shabby rooms, reverse the ruling formula daily: they live in order to work. They may win no honors and receive no grants. They may not hobnob with famous elders. But they comprise, in their dedication and lack of ‘prospects,’ a force of pure, unpaid human creativity in service to something larger and more lasting than themselves. Their incentive? Destiny. Their inspiration when faced with privation and self-doubt? Bygone literary gods who struggled much the same. Their rewards: How to name them? But they more than mitigate the annoyances of thin wallets, scant praise, nonexistent reputations.

    On the rear flap of an old edition of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny & Zooey I recently discovered the following testament, penned by the novelist himself, and well worth framing above one’s desk:

    “It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.”

    We all know well the benefits of social media—and yes, these have their place. But it’s crucial to remember that a “platform” is not a placenta. By contrast to the ever worsening jones for constant technological communion, for networking and “promo,” we may still reflect that a primary benefit of being solitary is that it facilitates BEING, that natural state of the soul in which you find yourself “in the moment,” as they say. Right here, right now. And art-making—perhaps most obviously the art of writing—is all about being in the moment. Montaigne pioneered the personal essay while sequestered in a gothic tower. Thoreau’s unclassifiable work of genius, Walden, resulted from a two-year stint alone in the woods (which was itself simply a supplement to his lifelong habit of solitary country rambles).

    If the Internet and mass media in general promise to save us from ourselves, if solitude is now completely avoidable, still literature fructifies offstage, and, e-megaphones and Twitter “followings” notwithstanding, it will remain true that most of the world’s deserving works are fated to exist in undeserved obscurity while the authors do wage labor in factories, retail stores, or academe—or simply scrounge for food. 99.9 per cent of all worthy literary creators live by this truth, and it’s a truth existent through the ages.

    If these realizations actually make nothing easier, they may somehow console, at least for those serious young writers amongst us—or the old, still struggling ones—who recoil from the new cultural expectations of mediated extroversion. You, friends, are firmly in a tradition (a ghostly community, as Cynthia Ozick would say) of existential literary struggle. Stay the course!

    Some more solidarity:

    Ozick: “Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace. … Art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction. The fraudulent writer is the visible one, the crowd-seeker, the crowd-speaker, the one who will go out to dinner with you with a motive in mind, or will stand and talk at you, or will discuss mutual writing habits with you, or will gossip with you about other novelists and their enviable good luck or their gratifying bad luck. The fraudulent writer is like Bellow’s Henderson: ‘I want, I want, I want.’ If all this is so—and it is so—then how might a young would-be writer aspire to join the company of the passionately ghostly invisibles? Or, to put it another way, though all writers are now and again unavoidably compelled to become visible, how to maintain a coveted, clandestine, authentic invisibility?” (from Ozick’s PEN/Nabokov Award acceptance speech)

    Don DeLillo: “When my head is in the typewriter the last thing on my mind is some imaginary reader. I don’t have an audience; I have a set of standards.” (Paris Review, Fall 1993)

    “The general effect of increasing commercialization and of the compulsion to sell ever larger and larger quantities of a few books to a public which does not really care about them, must surely be that the position of the writer who writes as well as he possibly can ‘to please himself’, becomes less tenable. … The American malady is a spiritual one, the commercialization of spiritual goods on an enormous scale, in the same way as material goods are commercialized. … In the country where culture is ‘sold’ enormously, it is sold as something other than culture and tends to become something else in the process.” —Stephen Spender, from “The Situation of the American Writer” (1949!) (found in The Making of a Poem)

    “We are only ourselves, however rampant the desire to upload and exponentialize individual identity. There is only consciousness singular, self-contained. A myriad selves. Spheres that may touch, at most, other spheres. The social consciousness, a thing collective in nature, made up of the mass, larger itself than the sum of its parts—such consciousness does not exist, but is the mere dream of the technologist.”—G.P. Leed

    Rilke: “Young person anywhere, in whom something is rising up that causes you to shiver, make use of the fact that no one knows you. And if they contradict you—those who take you for a nobody; and if they give you up completely—those with whom you would associate; and if they pretend you don’t exist on account of your dear ideas: what is this clear danger, which holds you together inside yourself, compared to the cunning hostility of later fame, which makes you impotent by scattering you? Beg no one to speak of you, not even contemptuously. And when time goes by and you mark your name coming around amongst people, take it no more seriously than everything else you find in their mouths. Think: it has become poorly. And put it away from you. Take another name, any, so that God can call you in the night. And hide it from everyone.”–The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (this translation M. Allen Cunningham)

  9. Excellent, Mr. Cunningham. How about just one more quote, this one hangs over my desk:

    Italo Calvino: “However—and this is the point—it is worth it. Or rather: one does not ask if it’s worth it. We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all. Even if we did not have a single reader any more, we would have to write; and this not because ours can be a solitary job, on the contrary it is a dialog we take part in when we write, a common discourse, but this dialog can still always be supposed to be taking place with authors of the past, with authors we love and whose discourse we are forcing ourselves to develop, or else with those still to come, those we want through our writing to configure in one particular way rather than another.”

  10. Mr. Orner — great article. Thanks for sharing. I’m not a writer myself, so found your perspective and insight fascinating. To take a step further back, though, your article really makes me wonder about how this social media phenomena, this requirement of author to create a defined public character, influences a reader’s relationship to and interpretation of a writer’s actual work…is it possible for the author’s public facing image to be so omnipresent in our psyche that it could overshadow their actual work? Like their reputation is so blue, we would stop perceiving any of the red or yellow in their writing. All we see is the hue of the author’s persona in their work and in their characters.

  11. Although I have a site for my current novel (the one it feels like I am never going to finish), I have already decided that, should I write more, I will not have an online presence for it. It’s too time-consuming and the payoff isn’t really worth while, in my opinion. While a J.K. Rowling or a Stephenie Meyer can rustle thousands of fans, for most people the acquisition of thirty or forty extra people isn’t worth it. I am now taking the opposite view of the one commonly expressed today: an author would do well to distinguish and differentiate him or herself by *not* having an online presence like everyone else. Perhaps a mystery man like Mr. Morris has, in the long run, the right, as opposed to the trendy, idea. Remember, this whole social media thing is only about five years old. It’s risky to pass judgments that begin, “From now on…”

  12. It’s the snootiest restaurant that has its phone number unlisted and doesn’t accept reservations. It’s the most sought-after car dealer who does not do special deals or trade-ins. It’s the most hoity-toity credit card that charges a fee and makes it feel like your privileged to be a member. Maybe it’s time writers took some of these as their models. Publishers, too. Mass and massive success aren’t the only way. Often, they’re a big mistake.

  13. There’s a typo: “No so long ago” you wrote (the opening few paragraphs of the essay.) Just to let you know!

  14. Another typo. Perhaps it should be, “It took me three dictionaries to track down the word ekphrases.”

    Wonderful essay and lovely comments. This urge to resist fame’s siren song is an honest and right one, I think, born of the writer’s instinct to protect and preserve the soul, to guard the source from which we speak when we speak well. It is difficult to identify with precision just what all of this attention seeking does to our capacity to create, but there is something debilitating in it. What does it profit us, really, if we gain the world’s notice yet have nothing to say worth the reading let alone the saying?

    Thank you, Peter.

  15. I love this piece. There are times when I truly enjoy social media, and I’ve met a great many interesting people through it, including several who I’d count among my closest friends. But I was discussing social media with a writer friend the other day, and the practical problem with social media participation, we agreed, is that philosophical issues surrounding overexposure and a desire for reclusion notwithstanding, maintaining an active presence on social media can eat up a fair amount of time. I’m less active on social media than I used to be for this reason. We’re all struggling to balance our writing with our day jobs, time is always short, and there is so much reading and writing to be done in the offline world.

  16. The Mysterious Writer Without a Face
    Among an I number every time larger of authors that walk in the shadows detached the mysterious C.S. Scriblerius, believed is a pseudonym as of Twelve Hawks. The mysterious man without face announces his production as a writer that nobody saw and whose identity is the subject starting from their writings pages. Everything that it is known about those authors MAGICAL MYSTERY TRAVEL and their works as “Percyfaw Code”,de Scriblerius, made available by limited time as e-book in an apparent strategy of marketing of enormous success in the web and “The Traveler”, Twelve Hawks published amid the style of Hollywood hype where disembarked in the list bestseller of the newspaper The New Times.The mysterious to Thomas Pynchon’s same style, Philip Roth, JD Salinger,B.Traven, Cormac McCarthy, authors C.S. Scriblerius and Twelve Hawks “live out of the grating”, meaning that you chose roads no so conventional in the market editorial, using like this other means for popularization of their works,and, hindering of they be tracked.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.