Thoughtful or self-promoting?

Haruki Murakami is perhaps the best-known Japanese writer in the world, so when he started a temporary ask-anything website, it was no surprise that he was swamped with over 30,000 messages and questions from fans. To stem the tide, he had to suspend the website temporarily just to catch up on his promise to answer.

The undertaking raises more questions than it answered. In this day and age of Twitter, where the “real words” of celebrities can be read instantly by thousands of people, the very idea of direct communication takes on new and confusing meanings about the importance and meaning of writers and writing.

Murakami is a very appealing and charismatic figure to his many readers around the world. But it is one thing to want to read his books and quite another to want to ask him for advice.

The questions he received range from his thoughts on war to the recent Hong Kong protests to Bob Dylan. Other questions asked the writer how to lose weight or what animal’s ability he would like to magically acquire.

Fans, as well as nonfans, might ask Murakami, though, what interest he has in writing back to question-posers so directly? Has the fame of being such a commonly read author made him feel too far away from the average reader? Or perhaps did he feel that the pressure of writing long, complex novels could be released by the short, unstructured answers of online postings?

In one response, Murakami wrote: “I like this kind of conversation, which takes place just between you and me. No one in-between at all. It reminds me of a direct democracy, like the one in ancient Greece. We gather in the open and exchange statements, but only sometimes.”

If such online postings are the kind of free, open exchange needed for democracy, they are welcome. But if his question forum is a vehicle for self-promotion, it risks devaluing his words.

Let’s hope that Murakami uses his new online presence to show how writing can be used for meaningful exchange on the world stage. Many writers have taken strong stances on ethical and political problems in the past. In the past, Murakami has spoken out on issues such as war, nuclear energy and the freedom of expression. His novels contain controversial and troubling issues that clearly connect to readers around the world.

Whatever his views and intentions, Murakami can help his many readers to understand that the pen, or the keyboard, is still mightier than the sword, and that words, when they come from trusted and thoughtful sources, continue to have relevance and meaning in the lives of readers.