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Kvetching Interlude

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I suppose it was inevitable, but yesterday I got to the point in Barber’s book where he talks about writers and writing and selling books, and it said exactly what I should have expected it to say.

I suppose that is not exactly fair to Barber.  He said what almost everybody says these days no matter where they are politically, or even if they are politically.  It’s not that books have become a commodity–they always were that, in spite of the Romantic notions of tortured genius creating from the depths of his soul–but that the writer has become a commodity.

And it’s with the writer as a commodity that I always find I have my problem.

Let’s be clear here.  I do not have anything at all, in prinicple of otherwise, against turning writers into public personalities, much like  politicians or rock stars.  I’ve always wished there was a television program for writers that would be something like Inside the Actor’s Studio, which would have ITAS’s broadness of definition for what constitutes a “writer.”

For those of you who haven’t seen it, ITAS is a filmed interview with an actor or director, at least supposedly in front of an audience of students at the Actor’s Studio in New York.  When the show first started, it featured mostly older actors with big reputations but no longer big careers–like, for instance, Paul Newman.  It has since because a Very Big Deal, and everybody wants to be on it. 

But by everybody, ITAS means everybody, so you get “serious” actors and directors and you get the case of The Simpsons, as the cast of the Simpsons.

I’ve always wished there was a television program like that for writers, something that would interview Stephen King and Norman Mailer, Dan Brown and Danielle Steele.  I’ve been told by people who should know about these things that nobody would watch it.

Well, whatever.  I just wanted to state up front that I’ve got nothing against publicity for writers (as well as for books), and nothing against writers as celebrities.  My problem is that I’m me, and that me doesn’t seem to exactly function well as that kind of thing.

No, that’s wrong. Function is not the word.  I’ve never tried to function as that kind of thing, so I don’t know if I’d do it well or badly if I got there.

I do know that I do not naturally do the kinds of things that would get me there.  I am probably the least self-promoting writer I know.  I haven’t been to a Bouchercon or an Edgars dinner in over fifteen years, and when I did go I went mostly because Bill did and wanted me to come. 

Bill was good at this kind of thing.  He was larger than life in almost every way, and he was definitely what I think of as one of those people who glow in the dark–one of those people who are just who you look at if they’re in a room. 

I, on the other hand, aside from not having gone to conferences or Edgar dinners or meetings of the Mystery Writers of America, haven’t had a picture taken in over a decade, either, so that when the people from the Tunxis writers festival came asking for something they could use for publicity, I didn’t have anything.  I didn’t even have a cell phone picture. 

I did have cell phone pictures of my cats.

I’ve got the Facebook page, now, but I haven’t a clue what to do with it, and every year when I’m asked to write the St. Martin’s blog for a week, I end up talking about serial killers or murder methods or anything but myself.

And I’m not, like I said, saying that any of this is a good thing.  It’s just what I do naturally.  If people kick me in the butt–ask me to speak, for instance, as they have been lately, or ask me to write an article about myself (see Ladies Home Journal about fourteen years back), I’m more than happy to do it.

It’s just not the kind of thing that occurs to me.

And it’s not just me.  P.D. James was like this at the beginning of her career, and that may have had something to do with the fact that she very nearly lost her contract and went into career eclipse after Death of an Expert Witness.  It was only the success of Innocent Blood that changed that picture. 

Had there been no Innocent Blood, most of my favorite James novels might never have been published in the United States.

On the other hand, even being good at self promotion doesn’t seem to help some writers who write very good books.  There’s Fidelis Morgan, for instance, who did a series set in Samuel Johnson’s London, and who is also one of those people who glow in the dark and an actress with a serious resume in the UK.  I don’t know if she’s still writing in England, but she hasn’t been published here in a while, and that’s too bad.  She does really nice work.

The idea seems to be that the writer should present herself, or himself, as the focus of a lifestyle identification–people don’t love the books so much as they want to be just like the writer.

That’s why getting a book on Oprah’s Book Club doesn’t have “legs.”  OBC always promoted the book, not the writer, so people would read the book and then go off and look for other books, not other books by that same writer. 

People are supposedly as interested in what J.K. Rowling wears and where Dan Brown vacations–and especially what Stephen King’s house is like–as they are in what goes on in the books themselves.

I don’t know.  I’ve never been like this with anybody, even as a child or an adolescent, except for the characters in books.  Even my fascination with Hemingway in Paris was more a fascination with characters in novels and short stories in Paris. 

And although I have nothing against the general public adopting me as their role model, somehow I can’t see it–middle aged lady, lives in the country, has grown children and recalcitrant cats.

Doesn’t seem quite like the right sort of thing.

I would have dismissed all this as just Barber blithering, except that it’s the kind of talk I’ve heard in the business, and it seems to be largely conventional wisdom at major publishing houses.

But maybe it’s just another one of those things, another desperate attempt to explain what it is that makes people buy books.

Because it’s sure as hell the case that nobody knows–and no, it isn’t “give them a good story,” because lots of good stories are not selling squat.

I’m going to go finish this tea.

Written by janeh

April 27th, 2010 at 7:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Kvetching Interlude'

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  1. I don’t know why people want to identify with others – which must be at the root of the thinking that the way to sell books is to create a public persona potential for the writer that readers can identify with. It’s not something I’ve ever done. I’ve admired lots of people over the years, sure, but my reaction to people I admire is either ‘I could never do that’ or ‘I should/could/want to do that’, not ‘I really would like to see their house’, or buy the same pen they use, or wear the same clothes they do. I can see that a lot of people obviously do have a massive and very profitable (well, not to the people) obsession with various famous people. I just don’t understand it; I don’t feel it myself. It’s obviously not a universal characteristic of the human race. But people do tend to assume that things they feel are universal – especially if they can be turned into money, and celebrities can be very profitable.

    I liked your ‘affinity fallacy’ – maybe it applies here – I really want to know what my favourite actress wears and does when she’s relaxing at home; lots of people pay lots of money to find out what their favourite actors do at home; therefore everyone wants to know lots of private details about their favourite people in any field, and will pay lots more if they can find them out.

    But of course, there’s always the risk that they will find out that the actress (or writer) is a disappointment – isn’t the same as their most famous character – and stops watching the movies or reading the books.

    I hadn’t seen any of Fidelis Morgan’s recently, and I don’t know if they’re being published in the UK – I rather liked them. She had a small part in the Jeeves & Wooster DVDs I watched recently, as the rather ineffectual mother of an unpleasant young boy, which reminded me that I knew of her as a mystery writer.


    27 Apr 10 at 8:00 am

  2. I think, as a reader, I’m a little hurt. Understand, I have a good many author biographies around the place, and volumes of interviews. But I bought them because I knew and loved the author’s work. I have never in my life bought a book because I knew something about the author. I’m not sure I even know someone who would do that–certainly not among my friends.

    You buy books when someone tells a friend “You need to read METZGER’S DOG” or when you pick up a comic book and Stan Lee is putting in a good word for THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Reading is a contagion. There’s a woman in Scotland reading Sharyn McCrumb’s ZOMBIES OF THE GENE POOL right now because years ago BIMBOS OF THE DEATH SUN caught my eye on a paperback rack.

    Which is the other half. I agree that writing a good story may not be enough. Someone has to begin by reading a book without a recommendation. Maybe it’s the right title or an arresting cover, to get the book in my hands, and an interesting blurb and good writing when I open it at random to get it to the cash register.

    But there’s something about the book. And believe me it’s not the photo and capsule biography of the author. I don’t necessarily even believe them.


    27 Apr 10 at 4:52 pm

  3. Readers who enjoy a particular writer will read whatever that author writes. But if what sells books written by unfamilar authors is also what makes library patrons check those same books out: front and back covers, titles, sometimes the synopsis blurb on the inside covers. Not photos of the author, biographical notes, or the promos on the back by well-known authors. If there’s an actual excerpt of a positive review on the back, then maybe. I read the first page or two after I’ve read the jacket blurb. And, if the writing suits me, and the characters, dialog and setting interest me, then I’m sold. But as a librarian, I don’t buy a great number of books anymore. I live in a very small place and there’s not really room.


    27 Apr 10 at 7:21 pm

  4. And recommendations by friends with similar taste. And sometimes an author interview on NPR and the author reads a page or two. Generally not books on talk shows, because I don’t watch them.


    27 Apr 10 at 7:28 pm

  5. RAM has been the undoing of me. That and Amazon which made it possible for Australians to buy many books, eg Jane’s, that are simply not published in this country. And then, Jane’s reading lists and frequent recommendations led to me rekindling my interest in many areas that I haven’t explored since high school. Net result? The house is now too small to hold my books.

    Bad Jane.


    27 Apr 10 at 7:54 pm

  6. No, Mique, good Jane! You’re enjoying it, what else is there? You can always find a place to put another book.

    Just don’t listen to the appeals of your wife. I’ll give her my husband’s phone number if you like and they can commiserate.


    28 Apr 10 at 9:52 am

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