Monday, February 04, 2013

“The rest is marketing”

After listening to an eight-minute interview on NPR with a novelist who has a new book out (“She gamely answered the interviewer’s questions”), Patrick Kurp found that he was left with a “mild aftertaste of disgust,” even though his personal impression of the novelist was favorable. He could imagine himself enjoying a conversation with her. Why the disgust, then? As is his literary policy, Kurp turned to another writer to tease out an answer, to elaborate the thought. In this case the writer was L. E. Sissman, who said in his “Innocent Bystander” column in the Atlantic (a precursor of the book blog) that the “serious writer must take serious vows if he is to concentrate on his chief aim.” And among these is a “vow of silence, except through his work.”

“The rest is marketing,” Kurp concluded. Here he was alluding to the famous scene in the Bavli (Shabbat 31a) in which a derisive skeptic approaches Rabbi Hillel and asks him to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot. “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor,” he replied; “that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.” Likewise, Sissman was summing up the literary life while standing on one foot. Apart from the years of practice, the hard work, the sacrifice, the solitude, and the subordination of “the self as personality” to the “self as writer,” there is much else that may seem as if it were literature, but it isn’t; it is extraliterary; it is supplemental; it is mere commentary on the literary life.

From an early age I wanted nothing else than to be a writer. I didn’t know how to go about it, aside from reading my eyes out and writing so much I raised a thick horny callus on my middle finger, but from the beginning I knew exactly how not to go about it. I can remember the ads for Bennett Cerf’s Famous Writers School, which promised to teach me “to write successfully at home.” They made me vaguely suspicious, although I couldn’t say why. Believing that he was encouraging my ambitions, my grandfather, alav hashalom, bought me a subscription to the Writer magazine. I hated it, couldn’t finish the first issue, begged Grandpa not to renew the subscription. Advice for getting published, eight ways to make your manuscript stand out, how to find an agent, establishing an author platform, nine tips for marketing your first book—these hold out as much appeal for me as the book How to Seduce a Woman and Get Her Sexually Addicted to You in 5 Steps. The strategizing may even work, but what does the lucky winner end up with? A man who hopes to marry a woman is not thinking about seducing her.

In The Elephants Teach, I pointed out that the first practical how-to guides to writing were primarily by women. (A couple of them, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, both dating from the ’thirties, are still in print.) The relentlessly practical tone of these books identify them for what they are—self-help books. Not all of them are like Esther L. Schwartz’s So You Want to Write! (1936), which treats literature as a commodity that might contribute hard cash to the household income. But they are unanimous in rejecting what Schwartz calls “quality” and “artiness”; they laugh off the view that writing is, as Brande taunts it, a “holy mystery”; they urge young would-be writers to avoid what Margaret Widdemer in Do You Want to Write? (1937) calls “the highbrows.” Their attitude is easy to understand. Since women’s writing was not taken very seriously by male critics in the ’thirties, those critics’ claims for highbrow literature—the demands for quality and artiness, the hush surrounding literature’s holy mystery—must have seemed like rules for excluding women. Practical advice was women writers’ revenge on the men’s club.

Times have changed. In the 21st century, Sissman’s “serious writer” is as likely to be a woman as a man. Take one of my favorites. Marly Youmans is, as John Wilson of Books and Culture describes her, an “invisible novelist.” Although four of her novels were published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, she had to settle for Mercer University Press—not even a major university press—to publish her remarkable Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, a deeply Christian novel in an age that has been said to have abandoned the novel of belief. Her most recent book is a blank-verse epic. A writer who has more resolutely stood her ground against the tide of literary fashion would be difficult to name. And yet Youmans insists that it is “impossible” to “say ‘no’ to marketing.” To do so, she says, is to yearn for a “fairy tale world where no such work is needed.” As Ellen Olenska says to Newland Archer, “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?”

I think Youmans may have misunderstood Kurp. I don’t think the literary life—the life of serious writing—is a “fairy tale” any more than I think (or than she thinks, I’d wager) that some writing, the writing also known as literature, has been called “serious” only for the sake of keeping women out. There is literature and there is marketing. A writer may or may not have to market her own book, but if she does so, she is no longer writing; she is marketing. For a serious writer, there is something vaguely distasteful about the need to market one’s books. Perhaps the source lies in class feeling, an ill-defined condescension to the life of commerce. Or perhaps the source lies in an impatience to get back to writing, the querulous feeling that one is wasting unrecoverable time in the pursuit of something other than literature. Whatever its source, the distaste is real and not to be denied. And when those of us who are serious about writing hear someone publicly talking about her books—hawking her wares instead of letting her prose do all the talking—we realize that we are not hearing about literature at all, but about the acceptable substitutes which are offered to a world not much interested in literature. We experience the same involuntary unease. It is impossible to live wholly for literature, but it is disgusting that we cannot.


Marly Youmans said...

Oh, that's a great response, and one with which I agree. Alas.

I suppose that I should confess that after amicably parting from my second agent (Liz Darhansoff), I simply didn't bother looking for another and relied entirely on presses that invited me to submit or asked for a particular work which they had seen in part. Make of that what you will--I do see that there are a number of things implied by such action and inaction!

D. G. Myers said...


I make fun of this line behind closed doors, but probably only because it has meant so much to me. Recall what Thomas More says to Richard Rich in Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. Rich wants a position. “Be a teacher,” More urges him. “Who will know?” Rich says impatiently. More replies: “You. Your pupils. God. Not a bad public, that.” Perhaps it might even be enough to know that you have moved readers like me.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I remember seeing Leonard Cohen being interviewed a few years ago. He was asked to explain the background to one of his songs. I felt I had a pretty clear idea what the song was about* and that Cohen was being disingenuous in his response. I asked a friend - 'Why didn't he just tell the truth?'
'Why should he?' my friend replied.

The more a writer discusses or clarifies his work, the less room s/he is leaving for readers to bring their own interpretation to it. And given that talking about your work is a crucial part of marketing it....

* of course my interpretation could have been completely wrong. It's a possibility.

Paul Digby said...

A thoroughly satisfying read, this.

When society no longer recognizes excellence, we are all in an impoverished place.
I say, 'sing loudly' if your voice is beautiful!
The meek will not inherit the earth unless they can be found...

Dave Lull said...

Dorothea Brande's book is still being recommended by women writers such as Hilary Mantel and Sophie King:

Marly Youmans said...

I have no doubt that being "The Artist of the Beautiful" in the way Hawthorne meant is a worthy thing--and that I am quite lucky to have some readers who love my books.

But I don't really object to having a few more! And don't mind saying that I do feel a certain responsibility to my publishers...

On the issue of talking about the work: I think it's quite doable to talk about a novel or poems in various settings without giving away the secret heart of things. As a matter of fact, most interviewers don't approach that area but tend to ask questions that are matter-of-fact and often tangential to what matters.

That said, I did recently answer some interview questions in a way that seemed too forthcoming to me. And won't do that again. Lesson learned.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Hopefully I am misunderstanding you, but this all seems quite wrongheaded, both from you and Kurp.

"And when those of us who are serious about writing hear someone publicly talking about her books—hawking her wares instead of letting her prose do all the talking—we realize that we are not hearing about literature at all, but about the acceptable substitutes which are offered to a world not much interested in literature."

This is confusing and not a little vexing. Do you claim that as soon as a writer talks about his work, the work is no longer serious writing? That it is tainted somehow? Or are you saying that only writers of non-serious literature talk about their writing in public? I know you are a fan of Howard Jacobson, but if you google him, you will find dozens of interviews where he talks about his books, very likely intending to convince readers to buy copies of those books. Does this make The Finkler Question nothing more than an "acceptable substitute," offered to "a world not much interested in literature?"

I guess I don't understand why it so discomfits you when a writer--even a serious writer--looks up from his work to say, "I would like it if you bought a copy of my latest." Yes, this is marketing, not writing. It is, as you say, "extraliterary." It has nothing to do with the quality of anyone's writing. Again, I hope I am misunderstanding you.

D. G. Myers said...

Odd that a writer with a strongly developed historical sense like Hilary Mantel would recommend an eightysome-year-old writer’s manual without some acknowledgment or recognition that its advice has a history.

Susan Malter said...

When I completed a novel, I loved the idea of going from city to city to meet people who wanted to see the woman behind the words.

"How did you dare?" they would ask me.

Then, when no agent asked to see the manuscript, and I started prostituting myself with a blog, I no longer enjoyed the idea of marketing.

Writing and selling are completely different tasks. If I could sell well, or write a halfway decent query letter, I would probably love it.

So, I guess I am saying that an unsuccessful hooker is not going to enjoy the work as much as an expensive call girl--as if she can like it. Actually, it really isn't even a question of enjoying the writing experience, is it? And, of course, I cannot speak for the unsuccessful call girl or the other.

In the meantime, it would be better for the work to magically find its readers so that writers can stick to writing.

Thank you for the interesting post.

D. G. Myers said...


Let me recommend Bruce Bawer’s essay on literary interviews in Unrelenting Readers, edited by Paul Hedeen and me (Story Line, 2004), pp. 261–79.

Bawer concludes that “there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by them. The important thing is to admit that most of the time, one is merely being entertained and not edified—to acknowledge that the majority of literary interviews fall squarely into the same category as movie-star biographies, literary party gossip, talk radio, and Entertainment Tonight.”

B. Glen Rotchin said...

In an ideal world great novels will find great numbers of attentive readers, like a clarion call. In this noisy world it's hard for anything, let alone the beautiful melody, to be heard above the din.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Dr Myers,

Ah, I see you were talking about the interviews as a cheap substitute for literature. I can't disagree. I almost always find myself wondering why NPR can't interview more interesting writers, about more interesting books.

Andrew Fox said...

David, I've always thought that the act of storytelling requires two participants in order to be complete: the storyteller, who provides the superstructure of the shared experience, and the reader/listener, who, in interpreting the story being told, brings his or her own experiences and memories to the shared activity and, when things go well, paints the bare walls of the story with his or her own colors.

Until fairly recently, finding the second participant in the storytelling activity was the responsibility of the writer's partners -- his or her agent, editor, publishers, booksellers, etc. In today's rapidly evolving marketplace, though, more and more of that responsibility has been shoved onto the shoulders of the writer. Most writers don't care for this change -- and it's a HUGE change -- because writers recognize that writing and selling are two separate skill sets, and many writers (not all) are not very comfortable or confident in their abilities regarding the latter.

It's not helpful for anyone to sneer at a writer trying to market his or her work; one might as well sneer at a dog trying to walk on its hind legs (the wonder of it isn't that the dog doesn't do it well, but that the dog can manage it at all). Some fortunate writers discover that they have a true talent for selling themselves and their work. The rest of us, realizing that our work will not live without an audience, that our stories will be only half-formed without readers or listeners, walk on our hind legs as best we can, suffering whatever humiliations ensue.

Marly Youmans said...

My, you have turned over a stone and found living creatures underneath! What interesting responses: now what to do?

You know, I thought Sam Schulman's twitter comment amusing ("Show-offs. The only honest writers are those who desert their families for their book publicists"), but I remembered my long-ago discovery of how many other writers share a single publicist at a major house. The average writer desiring to run away with a book publicist would have to run off with the publicist's wrist or baby toe. It's only through the magic of synecdoche that most writers have "a publicist"!

D. G. Myers said...

Sam Schulman’s amusing tweet can be found here.

Anonymous said...

Is a writer who steers clear of marketing a bit like an artist who remains indifferent about anyone buying her paintings?

I think I hear the falling tree in the forest metaphor in all of this somewhere.

Jenny said...

For me the amateur writer, the involuntary unease comes from the prospect of my creation now turning into a commodity (is this adolescent thinking?). For me the voracious reader, I need help finding a good book in the torrent of offerings.

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

There’s long since Kurp merely vituperates; which is a thing of the fake prophets. He sounds embittered and nasty, envenomed and puffed—up, always giving lessons, dismissive and patronizing; I am quite unconvinced of the quality of his literary choices—to an European, they seem parochial and all—Americana. There’s something very unpleasant, resentful and rancorous about Kurp’s remarks, an unmistakable nastiness, the righteousness and sternness of a legislator—he merely gives edicts, etc.. Hence the moralism, and the risible indignation of his stern vituperations. He is dismissive and inquisitorial, eager to spot the heresy, and to reprove.
I do not think Kurp was alluding to Hillel, but to an overused cliché of rhetorical punch—‘the rest is silence’, etc.. It’s an usage of a very dubious taste, but it shows the nature of Kurp’s self—image—the prosecutor, the one who dismisses with a jarred grimace. His touch is heavy with bitter resent; his knowledge, parochial and very uneven.
Unlike Hillel, Sissman can’t sum. He merely indulges in a low—brow sermonizing, to comfort the feeble—minded. He sets, indeed, the precedent for Kurp’s posturing. That the ‘serious writer’ dislikes marketing is a petitio principii.
And the ‘mere commentary’ is still within the Torah, I believe; useful and interesting.

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

More annoying is that Kurp obviously misunderstood Sissman, who only wrote against the writers who made ‘a second career as a public figure’, like the two novelists; they marketed not only their novels, some of which are remarkable, and others, good or very good—instead, they marketed themselves, as entertainers, as shock characters, etc.. Is this also the case with the writer whose probably bland interview disgusted Kurp? Sissman meant the novelists who become public entertainers, media stars, etc.. He said nothing about giving radio interviews.
The two novelists mentioned with disdain were public figures unlike most other authors; they both had a taste for histrionics, and indulged in it freely. Whether they merited the astringent sermonizing of Sissman, it’s another matter; yet they certainly didn’t deserve Kurp’s.
If two novelists weren’t the greatest, it doesn’t follow they weren’t very good. There are degrees, but Kurp is too busy holding the tables of the Law!

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

Sententious and apodictic sect.

Dave Lull said...

Terry Teachout sees writers' marketing of their work "as part of being a professional writer":

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

But I am going to say one more thing—I write a blog (as a matter of fact, six blogs—three Blogger, a couple of Wordpress, a LiveJournal)—the host here writes a blog—we all write blogs—yet, for a free Saturday, it’s more likely that an intelligent reader will pick a novel by Vidal, or Mrs. Mantel, or Mrs. Youmans—than one of our blogs, for an enjoyable read.
The seriousness, dears, isn’t a matter of topic. Something isn’t serious because we deem it so, and we write it with stark intentions, frowning and underlining. By the way, most of what is printed in ‘Ellery Q. Mag.’, most YA fiction are literarily more achieved than our blogs, they do something, they achieve something our blogs can’t, and never will.
Blogs themselves might seem quite extra—literary, and writing one, an abdication from the high standards—just like writing columns might be deemed quite a non—literary activity; though starker, grimmer, etc., a column of harsh advice seems far less literary in shape, to me, than an average detective story—and this not because the column lacks narrative fiction, but because it lacks the uplifting, heartrending, etc., charm we call literariness—yes, Darwin’s treatises are in—not only his—but columns like the one quoted supra, aren’t—they’re no better than radio interviews—so why aren’t Sissman’s columns an abdication—why isn’t the writing of blogs? The ‘seriousness’ isn’t in the intentions—always vague—but in the results.
I get more, as literature—not as fiction—from an average Sci—Fi story, or a Broadway play, than from reading a whole blog. ‘Edification’ doesn’t need to be sour, unappealing and not tempting. Some of us reed for joy, not for off—putting sermons or labored rants, reeking of narrow—mindedness.
So, is there ‘something vaguely distasteful’ about the need to write blogs and to spread, albeit free of charge, one’s ideas, half—baked notions, etc.? Shouldn’t we stick to writing only serious books and scholarly studies, instead of drawing lists and chatting? By the high standards, blogging isn’t very ‘serious’; and no, none of us became—at least yet—Montaigne—and the worthy essays still go to the magazines, and don’t get to appear on our blogs. So one senses some hypocrisy when the author of a blog talks about wasting time; a blog isn’t better than an interview (except when one is Curval or Horguelin, and even with these two, matchless bloggers …). Otherwise, what the best bloggers provide is also a lame substitute, a mindless waste of time. So judge not. Remember Hillel. As a matter of fact, interviews are generally better than blogs, I find. Seriousness doesn’t mean gloom. Perhaps some are gloomy about writing. Hearing a talk means hearing a talk, not written literature.
Don’t we waste time by writing blogs? And why do we mention our own books in blog posts—and provide links to ‘Amazon’?
This is so silly.
I would be more tactful when disjoining ‘edification’ and ‘entertainment’; and there are still, on some shelves, countless volumes of edifying works by 17th century dissenters and Covenanters.
And I should also add that the more manly a man is, the more aware of the need for strategizing (the woman is also aware of this, in the real society the woman does anything to seduce, gain and charm the one she loves). Love knows strategizing, seduction, and pretty everything else; otherwise, it’s a chaste, blank feeling of tepid admiration.