Writing. Really, it’s no big deal.
It’s the shameless acts of self-promotion that are hard for most of us.
We live in a world where the advances in digital technology have made writing a book not so much an achievement but an obligation to anyone with access to a Microsoft Word program. It has also made the opportunities for self-promotion almost limitless.
Write the equivalent of a long email and you are required to bombard friends, relatives and people you meet in the lift with Facebook alerts, followed by a shit-storm of tweets and YouTube trailers. It is now considered the industry standard.
These days even a print publisher will expect you to do pretty much everything but put ink in the presses and choose the font for the typeface.
Okay. I’ll do it.
Yet still I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all a touch shameless. I have these bad dreams where I’m a snake oil salesman at a county fair in 19th century Idaho, standing on a box and haranguing passers-by, giving free candy to their kids to lure them to buy.
In others, I am standing on a street corner in a short leather skirt, chewing gum. Won’t do anything for less than seven bucks fifty.
It’s not Tolstoy, is it? It’s not Hemingway.
Or is it?
“For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed.” Who said that? No, it wasn’t Neil Gaiman.
It was Balzac.
The problem was highlighted recently when an author by the name of Ray Dolin, writing a book about the kindness of Americans, was shot in the arm by a passing motorist while hitchhiking across the country. Terrible, right?
Except it later transpired that he’d actually shot himself, in a desperate attempt at self-promotion.
(You see? It works! He’s getting free publicity right here.)
Or, as Stendhal said in his autobiography : “Great success is not possible without a certain degree of shamelessness, and even of out-and-out charlatanism.”
Ray is just following in the footsteps of celebrity authors from before the time of Christ. For example, in 440 B.C. a novice Greek scribbler named Herodotus paid for his own book tour around the Aegean.
He got his big break during the Olympic Games in Athens, when he got a gig at the temple of Zeus and read excerpts from his “Histories” to the city’s smart set. It was like being on Oprah, except with chitons.
More recently, Balzac observed that in 19th century Paris it was common practice to bribe editors and critics with cash and lavish dinners to secure review space. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant even sent up a hot-air balloon over the Seine with the name of his latest short story, “Le Horla,” painted on its side.
Le Horla is about a man going insane. Shortly after its publication Maupassant actually was taken off to an institution by the men in white. Or was it just another piece of blatant self-promotion?
Even sham reviews on Amazon are nothing new. Back in the day, Walt Whitman was bigging himself up this way – anonymously, of course: “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.”
O captain, my captain. Even John Locke was subtler than that.
It was Georges Simenon, author of the Inspector Maigret novels, who raised the bar. In 1927 he agreed to write an entire novel while suspended in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Members of the public were to be invited to choose the novel’s characters, subject matter and title, while Simenon hammered out the pulp on a typewriter.
Tragically, the newspaper financing this little stunt went bankrupt. But the publicity was priceless and for years afterwards journalists still described the event as if they had actually been there.
And then there’s Hemingway; surely America’s grand old man of letters, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, would not stoop so low?
Better believe it. Papa could have showed Nike or Coca-Cola a thing or two about branding.
Not only did he set up photo ops on safaris, fishing trips and war zones with the shamelessness of a whore on the hustings, he even posed for beer advertisements and endorsed Pan Am and Parker pens. He pursued the limelight like it was a thousand-pound marlin.
Papa was a tart.
He wasn’t alone. John Steinbeck recommended Ballantine beer after a hard day on Cannery Row; even Virginia Woolf was lured away from discussing philosophy and ethics with her Bloomsbury pals to go on a shopping expedition at the French couture houses in London with the Vogue fashion editor in 1925.
So look, I’m up for it. Want me to flog toothpaste? My contact details are at the top of the page. Write a book outside a nightclub? I’ll write one inside if you like. Shoot myself in the arm? Just on the way to the shop now to buy ammunition.
But as Hemingway and Steinbeck both liked to say; just for God’s sake, buy my book!
And to prove to you just how shameless I am, here it is: