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Monday, March 01, 2004

The perils of publishing, part XIII 

As Maud pointed out, Robert McCrum is, indeed, on a roll, as he goes on about the plight of a twentysomething novelist whose first book was hyped to the nth and then suffered block in writing her second. Nothing terribly surprising, alas, and so I'm more interested in McCrum's closing comments in his column:

Apart from the justly renowned big guns, there are two kinds of writer at work in the English-speaking world today. First, there is the 'writer', who enjoys wide media coverage and is an expert manipulator of soundbite culture. The 'writer' has virtually no readership and keeps him or herself in play by the constant massaging of the literary media. Then there is that almost-forgotten figure: the writer, who stays at home, keeps regular hours, does the work, accumulates a readership and is virtually invisible.

As the Croatian critic Dubravka Ugresic has observed in her important collection of essays, Thank You For Not Reading (Dalkey Archive Press), the former is usually 'a second-rate talent' whose sole ambition is to become 'an unavoidable literary reference'.

The latter is the author of a book you and I might actually want to read.


With all due respect to McCrum, I have to wonder what exactly he thinks he's describing. Yes, there are authors that fit his mythical second bill, but more and more, publishers are demanding that their authors stump for fans, sales reps, booksellers and more in order to keep themselves in play and keep their books in some kind of public consciousness. But then, he's also talking about literary fiction and my slant is genre fiction, where perhaps the rules are very different in terms of writer visibility and necessary promotion.

Is there such thing as too much? Absolutely. In fact, some believe that all this publicity madness is just that--madness. A literary agent recently said to me that she feels publicity, in the end, doesn't sell books--they live and die by the writing. I admit to having taken that statement with some skepticism in light of just how successful juggernaut books like THE DA VINCI CODE or, to a lesser scale, Joseph Finder's PARANOIA have done list-wise and sales-wise. But as someone who has long decried the trend towards a book a year, there's a point where authors simply have to learn to say "no" to increasing demands on their time. Because in the end, the reason for all those bells and whistles--at least we hope--is the book he or she wrote in the first place.

But writer invisibility? Not in this world. People want to know a little something about the people whose book they read. Sure, one still can get away with a minimum of exposure and still sell, at least initially. Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE got all its buzz after release, not so much beforehand, and only then did she get interviewed to death and tour all over the place. But having mentioned that, a massively long tour has never seemed to me the way to go. Do we really want exhausted writers going to stop after stop delivering the same spiel over and over? Sure, the fans only hear it once, but it's no longer fresh in the writer's mind to say the same thing repeatedly. Never mind how disheartened they can be when only 2 people show up at a signing.

So once again, a happy medium seems to be the proper solution. Because ultimately, what lasts is not that a writer was a media darling or visited every bookstore known to man and entertained all the sales reps--it's the quality of the writing. And while it's obviously important, and even necessary, to promote a book accordingly, all those unjustified HypeMonsters I keep referring to will fade into the ether, and the good stuff will rise to the top.


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