More Than Writing

Recently, I read an article in The New York Times called “How Writers Build the Brand.” It begins,

“As every author knows, writing a book is the easy part these days. It’s when the publication date looms that we have to roll up our sleeves and tackle the real literary labor: rabid self-promotion.”

My friends who are writers seem to fall into two categories when it comes to self-promotion. Some of them enjoy it and do it almost instinctively. Some of them, the majority, seem to dislike it. I was talking to a friend recently and said to him, “If you’re serious about a writing career, you need to actually work on it. How do you think you might do that?” He said, “I don’t know, write more?” I think many writers believe that: if they simply write more, submit more, the writing career will come. But the friends of mine who actually have writing careers don’t do that – or not just that. They do in fact write more, but they are also the ones who publicize themselves and their work.

The article goes on to say,

“In this era when most writers are expected to do everything but run the printing presses, self-promotion is so accepted that we hardly give it a second thought. And yet, whenever I have a new book about to come out, I have to shake the unpleasant sensation that there is something unseemly about my own clamor for attention. Peddling my work like a Viagra salesman still feels at odds with the high calling of literature.”

I think many writers dislike publicizing themselves for two reasons. The first is that they are genuinely introverts, and publicizing yourself takes different skills than just writing. Skills that don’t necessarily come easily to introverts. When you publish a book or story, you put your work out there. It’s in the public sphere, but any response you get will be to the work, and it will be indirect. Your work will be reviewed, commented on, but you will not necessarily see those responses unless you seek them out. And they will not be about you. When you publicize yourself, the response will be direct and it will be to you. If you do a reading, people will come or not, laugh or not, applaud or not. When you join facebook or twitter, people will decide whether or not to friend or follow you. When you write a blog, they will decide whether or not to read what you have to say, and they will comment. When you write a book or story, the response cycle will take six months to a year. When you write a blog post, the response cycle will take a day.

For someone who’s an introvert (which, by the way, I am), it’s difficult to make yourself and your life so public. Perhaps it’s less difficult for me, because a long time ago I decided that when something scared me, I was going to do it, on principle. That gives me practice.

The second reason is that we’re taught there is something unseemly about publicizing yourself. This comes from the days when writers were ladies and gentlemen – indeed, writing was one of the few ways a lady could make serious money while remaining respectable. We like to think of writing as a high calling. Which is why it’s good to read an article like this one, in which the author tells us,

“In such moments of doubt, I look to history for reassurance. It’s always comforting to be reminded that literary whoring — I mean, self-marketing — has been practiced by the greats.”

You see, the great writers have always publicized themselves. As the article tells us,

“Hemingway set the modern gold standard for inventive self-branding, burnishing his image with photo ops from safaris, fishing trips and war zones. But he also posed for beer ads. In 1951, Hem endorsed Ballantine Ale in a double-page spread in Life magazine, complete with a shot of him looking manly in his Havana abode. As recounted in ‘Hemingway and the Mechanism of Fame,’ edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, he proudly appeared in ads for Pan Am and Parker pens, selling his name with the abandon permitted to Jennifer Lopez or LeBron James today. Other American writers were evidently inspired. In 1953, John Steinbeck also began shilling for Ballantine, recommending a chilled brew after a hard day’s labor in the fields. Even Vladimir Nabokov had an eye for self-marketing, subtly suggesting to photo editors that they feature him as a lepidopterist prancing about the forests in cap, shorts and long socks. (‘Some fascinating photos might be also taken of me, a burly but agile man, stalking a rarity or sweeping it into my net from a flowerhead,’ he enthused.) Across the pond, the Bloomsbury set regularly posed for fashion shoots in British Vogue in the 1920s. The frumpy Virginia Woolf even went on a ‘Pretty Woman’-style shopping expedition at French couture houses in London with the magazine’s fashion editor in 1925.”

I want to find that fashion shoot! According to the article,

“But the tradition of self-promotion predates the camera by millenniums. In 440 B.C. or so, a first-time Greek author named Herodotus paid for his own book tour around the Aegean. His big break came during the Olympic Games, when he stood up in the temple of Zeus and declaimed his ‘Histories’ to the wealthy, influential crowd. In the 12th century, the clergyman Gerald of Wales organized his own book party in Oxford, hoping to appeal to college audiences. According to ‘The Oxford Book of Oxford,’ edited by Jan Morris, he invited scholars to his lodgings, where he plied them with good food and ale for three days, along with long recitations of his golden prose. But they got off easy compared with those invited to the ‘Funeral Supper’ of the 18th-century French bon vivant Grimod de la Reynière, held to promote his opus ‘Reflections on Pleasure.’ The guests’ curiosity turned to horror when they found themselves locked in a candlelit hall with a catafalque for a dining table, and were served an endless meal by black-robed waiters while Grimod insulted them as an audience watched from the balcony. When the diners were finally released at 7 a.m., they spread word that Grimod was mad – and his book quickly went through three ­printings.”

Did you think we had invented publicity? A hundred years before Anne Rice went to signings in a coffin, the actress Sarah Bernhardt was sleeping and being photographed in one.

Why do writers do such mad, bad things, all to publicize their work? Because writers, and I mean great, dedicated, innovative writers (like the above), don’t care about being safe or genteel. If they did, they wouldn’t write the way they do. They care about their work, about making it the best it can be and getting it before an audience. The popular counter-example is of course J.D. Salinger. Who, intentionally or not, came up with the best publicity stunt of all by refusing to publish and becoming a hermit for thirty years. That sort of stunt works best when you have already been on the cover of Time Magazine.

Ultimately, if you’re a writer, how much to publicize yourself is your decision. But I will be blunt: the friends of mine who have writing careers, actual careers rather than simply writing, publicize themselves and their work continually, almost without thinking about it, as though the publicity were simply part of the job. As, nowadays, it is.

(I consulted the magic of the internet, but found only a photograph of Virginia Woolf that had supposedly appeared in Vanity Fair:

For the record, if Vanity Fair ever wants to photograph me, even in this unflattering sort of get-up, I’m available.)

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7 Responses to More Than Writing

  1. Nick Mamatas says:

    All those things are a lot more exciting than bookmarks and tweets reminding us all to vote in the Hugos or whatnot though.

  2. Will says:

    I think part of my reluctance to self-promote is that there are so many people out there promoting THEMSELVES more than their work…almost in an inverse proportion to the work they’ve accomplished, in fact. I think it’s easy to confuse the two, and I’d hate to be associated with those people for even a moment.

    I’ll admit, too, that I’m intimidated by the high noise-to-signal ratio, afraid that whatever I try gets overwhelmed in the clamor of all the other writers trying for attention.

    I tell people that you’re not a writer until your work is more important than you are, and that’s the guide for my career. Of course, I don’t have much of one despite some decent publications…probably because I’m not out grabbing people by the collar to come into my sideshow.

    You raise good points, though, and maybe the answer has something to do with what Nick said: if you’re promoting your work with some panache and creativity, riding to a signing for your gothic book in a coffin perhaps, that’s a lot less desperate and awful than pleading in Twitter or on Facebook for attention. It has a better chance of rising above the static, too.

    Maybe there’s something to be said for the flamboyant, Lady Gaga, semi-crazed approach.

  3. Will, your comment gave me a lot to think about. My next post may consist of some preliminary thoughts on how to do it. I think asking for stuff (votes, attention) is the wrong way to go. What Lady Gaga does is give her audience visual pleasure. And they want to be associated with her because she represents something in them that they want to express. She’s both giving and relating, which is very different from telling everyone that your story is up for an award. (Though I do that, I admit.)

    You wrote,

    “I tell people that you’re not a writer until your work is more important than you are, and that’s the guide for my career.”

    I think that’s beautifully put, but I’m not altogether sure I agree with it? Because when I look for a book, I look for a book by a particular writer. I want to read a Kelly Link story or a China Mieville novel, or whatever. I want their particular voices in my head, because I trust their voices and I know they will give me pleasure. So I think the author is important, I suppose because the work comes from the author, the work is often picked up specifically because of the author.

    I’m still thinking all of this through . . .

  4. Will says:

    Yeah, the problem with a pithy saying like that is that it misses all the nuances!

    I want nothing more (really!) than there to be an identifiable type of “Will Ludwigsen” story that readers seek out — and that’s definitely a function of voice and subject matter and something deeply personal. And the motivation for writing it is always, at some level, a certain narcissism (or, more nicely put, a desire to be heard for one’s unique voice).

    But I think that things go awry when you’re writing solely to be seen, when you’re promoting more than writing, when you choose what to write not based on what’s really personal (usually all those embarrassing passions we’re taught to suppress!) but on what makes you look good or cool.

    I think my little saying is about what you’re willing to risk (coolness, respect, love, admiration, security, comfort) to get something really wonderful and raw down on the page. And if you’re thinking too early about promotion, worries about how a story will make you “look” can short-circuit that process.

    Kelly told us at Clarion to follow our weird.

    Maybe it’s a really subtle distinction. Or a really obvious one that only I have to tell myself!

  5. Will says:

    Gah! I somehow posted the comment before editing that second-to-last paragraph.

    Kelly told us to follow our weird, and I guess I’m always chagrined when people follow their marketable instead — especially when they’re the same thing, done right.

  6. zunger says:

    I’ve seen a very similar syndrome among physicists. Many young scientists seem absolutely heartbroken when they finally realize that they won’t, in all probability, succeed in their careers simply by doing more science; they have to communicate, socialize their work, build reputations, do all of this dirty “networking” stuff.

    I do wonder how much of this comes from the history of the field – like writing, science was traditionally aristocratic, and self-publicization (gods forbid we use the word “marketing!”) would be exceptionally gauche – and how much comes from the myths we build about the field itself. People seem to come in to both fields with a notion that in this field, they can escape having to impress other people, and will be recognized for their skills and exceptional abilities alone. They’re marketed as a sort of intellectual introvert’s dream, and the image created by many of the top people in the respective fields tends to bolster that.

  7. pwlsax says:

    Writers are dependent on an unusually impersonal, venal, corporatist industry. To self-promote effectively, they need to cater to those traits to a high degree, while still, somehow, managing to get across that their work is good and worth while. Like many activities necessary in a late stage capitalist society, it requires intense compartmentalization and full commitment at once.

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