Why must we always spoil things? If I’d typed that next to a little blue bird, somebody might have replied “Evergreen tweet” or even *gestures at all this*, but as so often, it is Twitter itself that has been the engine for the latest bout of egregious parade-pissing. Then again, Twitter provided the mechanism for the joke in the first place, so perhaps I’m guilty of buying a ticket for a parade-pissing contest and then complaining about getting splashed.
In any case, it was an all-too-brief journey from the moment at which the novelist Cormac McCarthy appeared to send some amusing tweets in response to lamentations from his publicist (“Terry”) about his lack of interaction with “this infernal website”, in which he variously reassured readers that he was still alive and wondered grumpily what a soundcloud might be, via the certainty of the gathered crowd that it was a parody, followed by their amazement at the account’s blue tick that “proved” that it wasn’t, to the final (probably) revelation that Twitter had made a mistake and it was all a big old hoax after all.
Those who had sussed it all along were jubilant; those who had fallen for it were caught ruefully napping in the game of competitive social media smarts. Meanwhile, an employee in the Department of Verification either packs a cardboard box or celebrates their swift promotion. Impossible to tell which.
What a shame we weren’t allowed – or didn’t allow ourselves – to believe for a little longer; to have followed the dismissive pronouncements of a novelist so in tune with what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America”. I doubt McCarthy would have cared; he shuns the limelight, and once told Oprah Winfrey that all you really need is food and shoes. And he’s survived worse – including the announcement of his death in 2016: another Twitter hoax from that peculiar Italian guy who seems to get a kick out of telling people that their favourite writers have kicked the bucket and calling it satire.
It was that particular prankster, Tommaso De Benedetti, who gulled me, a couple of years ago, into expressing sincere sadness at the passing of Alice Munro, who was, of course, still alive and well; previously he had pretended to have elicited negative quotes from Philip Roth and John Grisham about Barack Obama and a positive endorsement of Silvio Berlusconi from John le Carré. None had ever spoken to him.
What is it about writers – and especially those who, like Roth and Munro, get put into the category of “posh” fiction – that so excites our interest? Literature is, compared with music, sport, film and TV, a minority interest that provides few celebrities, if we take celebrity to mean getting snapped at airports, in love trysts and while putting the bins out. That’s why publishers get so excited when an actual celebrity puts pen to paper: it makes life much easier when you’re ringing The One Show if people know what you’re selling.
Perhaps therein lies the appeal. The image of a writer – taciturn, solitary, possibly tortured and definitely given over to the thinking of great thoughts – is one that has endured long past the dawning of publishing’s modern era, in which authors must be nimbly hurling themselves from airport to bookshop stock-signing to literary festival, all the while keeping on top of a conglomerated industry, ever more complex rights deals and, unless they’re lucky, a variety of side-hustles. Once in front of an audience, they must on no account mention any of this prosaic nonsense, but cleave instead to the notion that they have the most privileged job in the world. Cut to a queue of three people waiting to buy a copy, one of whom wants directions to the loo.
But the image is powerful, and persists to be both revered and ridiculed. The reverence stems from the idea of a giant brain, immured before a typewriter, making up stories that the world doesn’t know it wants; and so does the ridicule. It is a mad thing to do, writing novels, and those who don’t do it simultaneously regard those who do as somewhere between weirdo and seer, to be hailed as a genius when it works out and an empty vessel when it doesn’t. All the better, then, when one is ensnared by the lure of the public forum, and exposes themselves to the same risk of embarrassment, unpopularity, censure and foolishness as the rest of us.
If I were Cormac, I would steer well clear. There are lots of writers on Twitter, and some of them have turned it into a little art-form of its own. See, for example, witty, naughty and ever compassionate Marian Keyes, currently live-tweeting Love Island; foul-mouthed and furious John Niven; Susan Orlean, who last year delighted her followers with an as-it-happened account of accidental drunkenness. I am currently watching Mad Men for the very first time just because Booker-shortlisted novelist Brandon Taylor is too, and have been won over by his judgment that it is Seinfeld with better furniture (he has never watched Seinfeld either).
But I don’t think that level of close analysis of daily life and popular culture is up Cormac’s street. I note that a recent tweet from his impersonator had him voting in a sandwich-based poll. It is surely not too long before merch appears, at which point we will truly know we are at the end of The Road.