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February 15th, 2008

You Are A Marketable Entity, My Son

Over on Rjurik Davidson's blog, he and Andrew Macrae (andrewmacrae) are discussing the way an author represents him or herself publicly. In this case, the discussion starts with me and the blog drama that was here last week.

Here's Rjurik:

So what about Ben's so-called whinging? Well again, I don't understand people getting all worked up about it. I mean, it's his blog. If you don't like it, don't read it. If he wants to write about his personal feelings, that's fine by me. If I get bored, I just skip the entry. But is it unprofessional to write about your inner world publicly? Again, are people stupid enough to think that writer's are some kind of self-help triumph stories that wander through the world in a state of transcendental emotional control? I mean, it just doesn't add up. Think of, well, Philip K. Dick again. Or Hunter S. Thompson, or the Beats or ... you get the message. I hear Dostoyevsky was a right royal prick. So what? If he wrote a diary online, I reckon I might read it. In any case, I think most of the controversial stuff on Ben's blog gets him readers, and his personal reflections too.

I think about all of this because I too write personal stuff on my blog and have been known to, um, post about my personal feelings at given moments. I don't get too specific for my own personal reasons, not because I think it will damage my career. But if you think it will, I'd love to know why.


Here's Andy:

I don't want to engage much with the specifics of this, but I will say in general why I think it's a bad idea to disclose a book's poor sales in the same forum that is used to promote the work: it damages the perception of the book. This is not a simple "sales = quality" equation, but because of the way demand and desire work. We want what's in demand. We want what other people want, what's cool and popular. Like it or not, books circulate as commodities in the market place, and their value is in excess of whatever literary qualities they may also contain. (As an aside, literary value is something that accrues over time, which is why I think your Dick analogy is inappropriate). Disclosing that a current book is not in demand has the effect of reducing the perception of its value in the market. Which is fine, if that's what you want to do, but I do wonder what purpose that serves. Maybe you'd say it's an honest assessment of the reality of the situation, but if the goal is to sell more books, making public comment about poor sales seems counter-productive, or at least unnecessary. In any case I doubt it will do any harm to Ben because he backs himself up by writing consistently good fiction and, as you say, his blog is widely read precisely because it is controversial. Hell, here we are still talking about him a week later. Go Ben!


I like to think that this blog isn't read because it's controversial, myself. It probably is, but I prefer to think that it's read because it's interesting.

At any rate, I tend to think both of them have a point and, since I'm making this post, my opinion is a mix of the pair, and I'll outline it a bit for you. The blog has always operated as a way to advertise my work--a way, at the very least, to introduce my work to people--but I personally dislike the fake shine a lot of advertising puts on, and so the blog has never been about creating an image of myself to sell to you. I'm not a pop starlet who has to fake her virginity for you so you can buy my albums; I'm not a politician pulling a party line and keeping the disagreements in the background for the sake of unity; I'm not a manager who tells you that the business is doing well when its not, and that I agree with all decisions from up high. I'm a writer and I'm a writer because I don't like that regular, every day life lie that so many people live and interact with as if it is real.

I am in the business of art, and art, though a lot of people have an allergy to the word, is about emotion, about connecting with people, and about rising above the social politeness and organisation that we're all subjected to each day. My work, if I have to describe it to you, aims to do that: to connect, to give you something outside the ordinary, to make you feel, think, and react. Good, bad, whatever: that is, at the end of the day, it's goal. Now as far as I'm concerned, that's a fine way to live a life, and I try and live like that and, to take one step further, in the business of art, I think that is also fine, and so when I talk about myself, and I talk about my work, I talk about it naturally, the way I live, the way I write.

Still, Andy's point about devaluing work is a good one, however. It does concern me that people may have come away from last week thinking that the book they had purchased was, somehow, devalued. In truth, it shouldn't. The book has had a rough ride: it took close to two years to reach publication, was said to get a three thousand print run, and then changed, after the delays caused chains to cancel it, to print on demand, wherein the first copies of the book were fucked, to be polite. Only recently I heard that bookstores couldn't order it because it was listed as canceled. That, through all this, a hundred and sixty seven of you actually bought the book, fucking amazes me, and makes it all that much more a precious thing, and if I was the kind of author who shilled to you, I'd tell you all that you had an obscure little treasure--but lets face it, the fact that it is so obscure has been a rough kind of ride for me, the author, and it's messed with my head at times, left me feeling down and out. But I don't believe that telling you (and telling anyone) is damaging to me. You're not trained seals told what to think and when to clap or sigh (which, unfortunately, is what I think a lot of advertising thinks an audience is) and if I told you otherwise, if I lied and said everything was shiny while just showing you the reviews, you would see through that as the fake spin it is, and it would be damaging.

I'm not going to please everyone with this attitude, but I know the people who please everyone, and the way they live doesn't agree with me. The truths are told in corners, in backgrounds, and in whispers. It works for them, and that's cool, but it doesn't work for me--of course, as you can see by comments on this blog, and a quick conversational tour through certain people in real life, my way of things is not without a downside.

But that's life, you know?