Artistic licence: Are we selfie-absorbed? 16 November 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

The other day, I was having a little trawl around the internet – one of those supposed five-minute jaunts where you blink and it’s been an hour – when I happened upon the Instagram account of an acquaintance of mine, a nice guy who works in publishing. I’ll follow him, I thought.

But then I had a look at some of his pictures and came upon one of his recent shots – a self-taken close-up of his naked torso. To be frank, although he’s a good-looking guy, it was more than I bargained for on a Monday (although I’ll admit to examining the picture closely, the better to confirm my disapproval) and not what I’d expected from him – he’s not a model after all. But if it seemed vain or bizarre of him to put it up there, it had certainly racked up a lot of likes, the currency for popularity on the social media site.

He’s far from the only person at this lark. In the brief time I’ve been active on Instagram, I’ve come across countless selfies – the word for a self-taken picture – of users in the changing rooms of shops, pub toilets and swanky hotel bathrooms, anywhere there’s a large mirror basically. Some post fairly racy pictures, some confine themselves to face selfies.

Confession time: although I’m definitely not into randomly ripping off items of clothing for the dubious benefit of a few hundred Instagram followers, I post face selfies, too – and they’re actually fun: a visual diary of a hairstyle, a holiday, a festival or simply a gloriously vain experiment in finding an Instagram filter that hides all wrinkles and highlights your best side. So, I’m not exactly in a position to play moral guardian about the whole thing. I couldn’t care less what anyone wants to post, egocentric or otherwise.

But you have to admit it’s a strange phenomenon, this trick whereby many of your circle are pointing phones at mirrors in public, and touching up their make-up to take a picture of themselves. The question is whether the new trend for narcissism is an innocuous enough past-time. Presumably, unless you trip over yourself while taking the selfie, it’s unlikely to do you much harm, right? And what’s so wrong with having a nice (if overly flattering) picture of yourself? If celebrities are allowed their photoshopping, then surely we mere mortals can permit ourselves the indulgence of an iPhone camera and a decent filter? That hideous American trend for selfies at funerals aside, a selfie doesn’t seem like the worst of hobbies we could indulge in.

Equally, an Instagram account is also an opportunity. Whether you’re a professional mid-career or a teenager just figuring your life out, Instagram offers a brand-building platform for its users. Forty million pictures are uploaded to Instagram daily, and – as studies have shown – the more provocative the picture, and the smarter the hashtags accompanying it, the more likely it is that the person will get more followers and build their brand. It’s a kind of self-generating fame that will be pointless for some, but may translate into a career for others: budding photographers, models, stylists, television presenters and journalists may all grow fanbases from their obsessions with Instagram and Twitter.

Still, you can’t help but feel a slight prickling of discomfort about the whole thing – a sense that selfie culture may also be selfish culture; that we all might, like Narcissus, wind up dying next to the pool having realised that our reflections can never return our love. Perhaps our spiralling interest in ourselves is already translating into a lack of interest in other people.

A friend of mine was talking about social media recently. “No one reads Twitter anymore,” he pointed out. “They all just post stuff, but they don’t read other people’s tweets.” Imagine that, a world where we endlessly talk and never listen? If everyone is on the stage, after all, who’s left to be in the audience?

Artistic Licence: Tiring and uninspiring, 25 January 2015, by Nadine O’Regan, The Sunday Business Post

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can cope with it anymore. What am I talking about? The increasingly omnipresent inspirational quote.

Don’t get me wrong. I like and admire the pithy words of Oscar Wilde (“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”). I approve of the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi (“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”). I think Stephen King has a lot of pointers to offer on the art of writing (“Amateurs wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”). In fact, I’m even keen on what some celebrities have to say – anyone who’s been through the Hollywood grinder must have something to tell us about life, right? But I confess, I’ve reached a tipping point. Is it possible to be exhausted by inspiration? Is it okay to admit that sometimes you don’t want to improve your life, body or soul?

Lately it seems like everywhere I go, somebody is trying to offer me an inspirational quote. Social networking site Instagram is a feast of them, with people offering up pictures emblazoned with pithy lines, designed to engender hope and thoughts of self-improvement. “Just wing it!” advises stylist Angela Scanlon via her Instagram page. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”.

On Tinder, inspirational quotes are a constant: singletons are frantic, it seems, to sum up their personalities with a line uttered by someone else. Even on Facebook, friends and family are getting in on the act. On the site recently, I was confronted by an article called “24 pieces of life advice from Werner Herzog” (the piece includes the pithy line from the director, “there is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it gets you the shot you need”).

From cutely emblazoned coffee cups to a bewilderingly diverse array of greeting cards, inspirational quotes are the new constant, a feature of everyday life.

In small doses, inspirational quotes are a great thing. Who wouldn’t like to be better? But reading and taking to heart too many inspirational quotes does a rather uninspiring thing – it turns you into an inspirational-quote-spouting turnip, less of a person than the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.

Consider the case of Conor McGregor, the UFC fighter who has ingested so many inspirational quotes that he’s now like Maya Angelou with better abs. Cut McGregor and the man bleeds the things, many of them dreamed up by himself. “I am cocky in prediction. I am confident in preparation, but I am always humble of victory or defeat,” McGregor has said, adding – in truly humble fashion – that he expects other fighters to use his words as inspiration. (One suspects they might prefer the guy who talked about stinging like a bee.)

IQOS (inspirational quote overdose syndrome) is no fun. It makes you into a composite; a rattlingly anxious collection of quick-fix aspirations bundled into the shape of a person. At base level, the need for these quotations suggests the insecurities being carried around by so many. If you’re always trying to fix yourself, the implicit assumption is that you cannot be happy with who you are. In his novel The Corrections, American author Jonathan Franzen wrote compellingly about this tension in modern society, and his perception that in our rush to improve and self-correct, we might be failing ourselves in a larger sense. (If all of us were perfectly hip, his character Gary notes, “who would perform the thankless work of being comparatively uncool?”).

So here’s a thought: maybe now we’ve hit the end of January, we could ban inspirational quotes for a while and we could simply start from where we are. We could be ourselves, not our idea of what others think we should be. We could . . . oh hang on, do all these sound like inspirational quotes? Well, like Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. You’ll just have to excuse me this once.

Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013)

What does it take to become a success in the world of online self-publishing? Is there a particular kind of novel that is more likely to do well in an electronic format? And if there is, how would one go about writing such a book?

These are the kinds of questions that you don’t find authors and publishers debating much yet, but perhaps they should. Glance around your nearest bookshop or Amazon.com, and you’ll find a million manuals that explain how to create a novel, using chapter headings such as ‘Learning Your Craft’ and ‘Ten Rules for Good Time Management’. But few of these manuals discuss the importance of the space into which a novel is delivered, and what it means for the authors who are publishing now.

Make no mistake about it: publishing online is a totally different proposition from doing it on plain old paper. Think of the strain on the eyes of reading in an ebook format, for example. Think of the harried reader who buys a Kindle to read on crowded commutes. Think of the modern world, in which a million types of entertainment compete for our attention. And think of who is succeeding in this new world, and why.

Many self-published books which began life in an electronic format have now succeeded beyond the authors’ wildest expectations. Take the eyebrow-raising Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, for example; or new bestseller Wool by Hugh Howey, which is about to be turned into a big-budget Ridley Scott film; or Switched, the debut novel in the million-plus selling Trylle Trilogy by the 20-something Amanda Hocking.

What do these books have in common besides their humble origins? Actually, quite a lot. All the authors in question write within specific genres: S&M (EL James); dystopian fantasy (Howey) and trolls (Hocking). They are suspenseful and attention-grabbing, using blunt, effective (and sometimes very poorly rendered) prose to keep and hold readers. They are short, but allow for the possibility of sequels. They lack profound messages. “My goal was to keep people reading,” Hocking has said. “They have to ignore everything else and read the book.”

In his latest book, How Music Works, David Byrne talks about the importance of context in the area of music. The Talking Heads founder says that the type of music we make is vastly influenced by the space into which that music is delivered: so we get drums in a tribal space, which carry well over distance, and plaintive choir singing in a high-ceilinged church. At CBGB, for example, the small room lent itself well to the performance of punk rock – a sound which would have seemed ridiculous if performed in a church. The Ramones and Mozart both understood intrinsically what would work for their particular type of arena. They knew that environment plays a huge role in shaping the music.

For this new type of publishing space, it should be obvious that we need a new kind of book: one that grabs the attention fast, doesn’t bother with fancy language, relies on a clever idea and can be made into a series of books incredibly easily. Readers who choose to read in electronic formats will naturally want a different kind of prose. And the world of writers will have to learn to provide for that. So maybe it’s time for those self-help manual authors to take a leaf out of a new book – and begin to think about what it means to be a successful author in today’s world of e-publishing. After all, increasingly, it’s where the big bucks lie.