Friday, April 29, 2011

A Certain Degree of Shamelessness


What's wrong with literary self-promotion? Is it crass to energetically promote a novel or collection of poems or short stories that you have worked long and hard upon, and from which you hope to make a few dollars? Is there something immoral about an author renting out his image to build up his brand? Why should only rappers and athletes have their names on sneakers?
Columnist Paul Devlin asks these questions at the beginning of a 2006 article entitled "For Whom the Shill Tolls: Hemingway's Lost Work for Ringling Bros. and Ballantine Ale." In the piece, Mr. Devlin points out that Hemingway's self-promotion (while doing ad spots for these companies) was completely in keeping with American literary tradition. "Unlike their European counterparts, who could rely on the patronage of kings, nobles, or government-funded churches, American writers have long had to keep an eye on money, marketing, and 'self-legendizing.'" 


An essay in today's New York Times shows this American "self-legendizing" in action, in the person of nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman:
Walt Whitman notoriously wrote his own anonymous reviews, which would not be out of place today on Amazon. “An American bard at last!” he raved in 1855. “Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded.”
While Devlin sees this self-promotion as particularly American in nature, the New York Times essay shows that being born a European has never been a sure guarantee of patronage. Writers have had to resort to these sorts of Walt Whitman shenanigans ever since the days of clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. 
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. 
This self-promoting trend did not stop with the "father of history." Book parties abounded at Oxford during the Middle Ages thrown by clergymen aspiring to be authors. Hot air balloons soared over the skies of nineteenth century Paris with the names of newly published short stories painted on the sides.


And today? Do we still have the same need to self-promote as did Herodotus, Whitman, and Hemingway? Absolutely! A Washington Post article from 2009 says: 
Book publishers actively market and promote authors, of course, particularly the big names, but for thousands of writers it's a figure-it-out-yourself world of creating book trailers, Web sites and blogs, social networking and crashing on friends' couches during a tour you arrange.... Authors are expected to behave like mini-entrepreneurs. 
The one thing that has changed, however, is the public perception (and self-perception) of the people who engage in this kind of self-promotion.  "In the intervening years," writes Devlin, "our culture has become increasingly preoccupied with 'authenticity,' and the reclusive genius seems more romantic to us than the swaggering boaster does." 


As one of the thousands of writers in a "figure-it-out-yourself" world, I must admit that I often feel a sense of great awkwardness in thrusting--or attempting to thrust--my work into the limelight. "Is it crass," Devlin asks, "to energetically promote a novel...that you have worked long and hard upon, and from which you hope to make a few dollars?" I suppose not, but it doesn't exactly feel noble either. 
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. 
The most revered of French novelists recognized the need for P.R. “For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed,” Balzac observed in “Lost Illusions,” his classic novel about literary life in early 19th-century Paris. As another master, Stendhal, remarked in his autobiography “Memoirs of an Egotist,” “Great success is not possible without a certain degree of shamelessness, and even of out-and-out charlatanism.” Those words should be on the Authors Guild coat of arms.

1 comment:

  1. Now I don't feel so bad about needing to promote myself. The stories about Herodotus' and Whitman's self-promotion made me laugh.

    I actually prefer the American tradition of self-promotion to the old European system of patronage. I'd feel like a "kept author" if I had to suck up to a rich person and rely on him or her to fund all my efforts.

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