Let's all be thankful that we have the right to free speech (for the most part) in These United States. We can say whatever annoying thing, whenever we want (for the most part), and not live in fear of government censorship. It's the right that has kept us from bottling up our complaints and aggravations until they reach the bursting point and we start taking over television stations and holding government figures hostage so we can get our message out into the world. Yes, the right to blather on is a Very Good Thing. But it doesn't follow that we should open our mouths every time something we think is clever occurs to us.
I'm talking about writers, here, primarily, but also anyone who wants to sell something to the general public.
The temptation has never been greater. We have unlimited opportunities to speak our minds: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs, blah, blah, blah. The available material is priceless-- particularly political material. Some boob is out there providing absurd sound bites, secretly recorded rants, ridiculous hair, or risky ideas every twelve seconds. One could easily come across a hundred hysterical or outrageous items a day that beg to be shared. But should you indulge?
My thought: Not unless broadcasting your political or social opinions is way, way more important than putting food on your table. If you're already famous, no, it doesn't really matter. If you're a non-fiction writer, or a writer whose fiction is necessarily topical, and people pay for your opinions, then go ahead and sound off. Those are pretty small groups, though. The majority of writers, bloggers, visual artists, freelance folk, etc., can't afford the luxury.
Put yourself in the position of the reader--say, a reader who has never read your blog, or picked up or purchased one of your books before. Reader Y has just read a review of your work in the Happy Valley Times or seen an ad on Goodreads. Reader Y thinks, "Hey. Wonder if this writer is on Facebook," and trots with enthusiasm over to your page. And the first thing Reader Y sees is an uncivil rant excoriating So-and-So Politician's position on universal health care or illegal immigration. Reader Y may love your position and click right on the handy link to your website and then on the big, fat purchase button. Yay! But what if she's on the OTHER SIDE OF THE ISSUE and, to top it all, you've declared that anyone who would vote for So-and-So Politician is dumber than pond scum? Then, you've just given her a reason not to buy your book, and maybe even inform her friends that you sound like a big, thoughtless jerk.
You might say that you don't want some crazy bitch who occupies such a ridiculous position to buy your book anyway. So, there! You might say that anyone who would let something as important (or trivial) as a political joke or point or rant interfere with their appreciation of your Golden Word isn't worthy of your time or attention or energy. You might say that people don't really care about that kind of thing, that they just care about THE WORK. Yeah, maybe. That happens. But it also happens the other way 'round. If you're a writer who isn't already established as a big earner, are you willing to take the chance of alienating a large percentage of the book buying community?
Readers--particularly readers of fiction--invite the writer into some pretty intimate spaces. Not just their living rooms, but their beds, their kids' rooms, the inside of their heads. As writers, we're already head-cases from the get-go. We get to let the crazy out in our work: our extremes, our tender insides, our freaky visions. That's what people are looking for--but professional work is always edited for content and style by ourselves or professional others, so that it's entertaining, or at lease consumable. As human beings, we writers live in ways that most readers find unfamiliar and a little odd--for example, our habit of sitting in rooms for long periods of time communing with invisible people...well, let's just say, some of us make for awkward, real-life dinner guests.
Am I advocating self-censorship? No. I'm advocating self-control.
When I go to writer conferences, and hang around with successful writers--people whose names are way bigger than the titles on their books--they rarely talk politics in the bar, and (almost) never on panels (Though I have witnessed some cringe-worthy moments when the writer didn't read the crowd well at all). Why do they stay reticent? Because conferences are still professional events, even after a scotch or two (or three...okay, maybe not after three). The professional writer knows that there are editors, publishers, other writers, and, most importantly, readers in the vicinity. The key word here is professional. Professionalism has to extend to social media as well.
Facebook--as large as it seems--is like high school, and everyone wants to be popular, witty, and beloved. It's easy, when you're in close quarters, to want to take up the popular call, and to get caught up in the emotions of the crowd. (And don't start with the "I'm there because I have to be." FB and other forums are vast exercises in exposure, and not a little vanity. No one likes the people who are there for negative attention--that's just creepy.) Resist the impulse. Be an original, not a joiner.
Of course, the openness of the interwebs means that the personal lives of very few people are completely opaque. If a reader is very curious, a little digging will probably turn up a writer's religion, political leanings, sexual orientation, marital status, children's names, favorite place to buy books, or pizza. Some people would call that research, others might call it, uh, stalking. That information is available, not advertised. And they're facts, not opinions.
If you're a rebel-writer, and you don't give a damn about selling books to more than a few like-minded people, or don't care what anyone thinks, more power to you. But it doesn't take a whole lot to give the appearance of professionalism: Just sit on your hands until the impulse passes in order to stay the hell out of your own way.
Readers: Do you agree? Would you rather know a writer's opinion on issues of substance, or would you rather just read their work?
Writers (If you're speaking to me at all): What's your experience? Do you agree it's unprofessional to mix politics with promotion and social networking? Or is it important that a reader know and understand your positions and principles?