You will be excited to hear that I am in the middle of some serious revamping for this site. The changes will make it even more informative for you and even more fun for me. And you’ll think it’s more fun, too. In the meantime here is an entertaining article from the Washington Post that analyzes the bizarre, mind-numbing proliferation of bland memoirs. Also, if you are without a book and would like for me to tell you what to read, try reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami or, if you’re in the mood for non-fiction and you wonder why no one has ever explained to you why Mormons are so weird, read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer.
Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”
The trenches of publishing can be equal parts reward and frustration. It is amazing to have a publishing house, no matter the size, respond to your work. You engage with the editor, work through drafts, commission an artist, read the proofs and then bam: boxes and boxes of books. The unrepentantly indie Fractious Press risked such a kindness with my collection of short stories, I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things.
What do you do with all of these books? Sell them, of course. Distribution can be a nightmare for large houses and indies alike. Marketing a book is more of an uphill battle than ever in our forget-me-now culture of constant media noise. And so were born internet literary stunts.
While Tao Lin certainly didn’t invent the form (check out this April 25, 2000, Village Voice article about a McSweeney’s internet stunt) he sits high atop the virtual landfills of digital fodder created to promote the written word. Since 2005, Lin has dutifully maintained a blog that antagonizes and engages readers. Recently he ran a contest where his devotees were asked to watch a video of him reading and then guess what drug he was on (mushrooms). Everything Lin does online serves to promote his books. Or is it just about promoting himself? In the current issue of Bookforum Joshua Cohen examines this notion in his excellent review of Lin’s latest book. Regardless of what you think of Lin’s persona, or his writing, the extent of his influence on prioritizing an author’s persona can be seen in how this past May his publisher, Melville House, took it upon themselves to inaugurate the Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers. When it comes to internet stunts, Lin might be the most prolific but he isn’t the only writer hoping to go viral in the name of raising awareness about a new book.
With my collection of stories, Fractious went the traditional promotional route, sending out galleys and finished review copies to both print and select online outlets. But nothing really came of it. Meaning that outside a small number of people, most of whom I know, no one really knows about this book.
So, after reading on The Rumpus about Mickey’s Hess’s “I will blurb any book within 24 hours” literary stunt, I decided to send him a PDF for yucks. Sure enough, in about twelve hours he had something for me: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering an author’s troubles, but what it does do is really change my preconceived judgments about certain things.”
A few weeks ago, Hess posted a revised blurb on his personal blog: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Overcoming obstacles such as toothaches, his gently androgynous narrators (all fictional characters) are driven by two things: tough-minded exclamations and 21st-century anxieties.”
Everything else aside, I can tell you that there is not a single toothache in the book. There is, however, a story that involves children losing their baby teeth, painlessly. Am I surprised that Hess hasn’t actually read all of the stories? Not really. Perhaps Hess’s ultimate motive was to create a spectacle of stunts? Make examples of those, like me, who take part in, fall for, such a stunt? Only he can say. I feel like asking would feed into the stunt more – and I acknowledge that writing this piece makes me truly complicit in engaging self-promotional activity.
But thinking about it more, maybe Hess was really calling into question the validity of promotional blurbs, printed or otherwise. Litanies of hyperbolic praise have long adorned the front and back covers of books (writing at Red Room in 2009, Matthew Pearl credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with being the first author to blurb a book, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career“). The purpose of the jacket blurb is obvious: if you like Author A, then you’re sure to like Author B, whose debut has been raved about by Author A.
Sit around with enough agents and editors and blurbs will come up – the bigger the name issuing the blurb, the better. Writers tend to know other writers, but many blurbs come in via professional associations – sharing an agent or publisher – so in a way they are also stunts, promoting one person’s words using someone else’s words by virtue of doing a favor for someone you may or may not know very well.
Adjective-heavy, blurbs try to relay a book’s tone, its author’s approach to storytelling boiled down to a sentence, maybe two. While jacket blurbs might not be as connected to the cult of personality as certain online promotional tactics, they still aren’t really about the writing. They are more about the writer and what he or she does with the written word.
The internet provides an outlet to anyone that wants to pipe up about something. This has changed how the public becomes aware of everything, whether a book, movie, storewide sale or a politician’s stance on an issue. In the pre-internet book trade, awareness was created through specific outlets, very much influencing the new books we found out about by via high-profile reviews and interviews. Today, with some degree of perseverance, you can find out about pretty much anything with a simple search and some mouse clicking.
This leaves large and small publishers alike, as well as self-published authors, vying for attention. So, is there a difference between traditional promotional activities and internet stunts? I suppose people talk more about stunts, but then they are talking more about you and not your writing. Promotional marketing tools can be very savvy about blurring the line between objective critiques and ads. Which, after my little foray into this world makes me wonder, more than ever: How much of consumer culture is about actual content?
(Image: for sale, from hive’s photostream)
From the WSJ, a story of how the Cuban government has licensed franchises of La Bodeguita del Medio, a watering hole where Ernest Hemingway supposedly once hung out. “The concept clicked, and La Bodeguita outlets spread across Latin America and European cities including Paris and Berlin. Even in former communist capitals like Prague — where some locals call the restaurants ‘McCastro’s’ — the Hemingway link attracts business.” It sounds like a Cuban Hard Rock Cafe that’s Hemingway-themed rather than aging rocker-themed. My favorite part of the story is the lead paragraph:A life-size likeness of Ernest Hemingway greets diners entering La Bodeguita del Medio bistro near Stanford University here. Patrons at La Bodeguita del Medio in Prague order The Old Man and the Seafood plate. And in London’s new version of the same restaurant, which opened last month, the owner says Hemingway novels will be available for perusal in the men’s room.Separately, and more seriously, an article about how The Nature Conservancy came to own Hemingway’s last house, in Ketchum, Idaho.
As Banned Books Week closes, we naturally have news of more attempted book bannings. In Atlanta, a woman is leading a crusade to have the Harry Potter books removed from school libraries because they are “an ‘evil’ attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion.” And in Houston, in a particularly poorly conceived move, concerned parents are trying to ban Ray Bradbury’s anti-censorship tome Fahrenheit 451, after a student was offended by “the cussing in it and the burning of the Bible.” Although these efforts are distinguished by being ill-timed, they’re really no different from the book banning attempts that so frequently make the news. It seems like nearly every week there is a new book banning story to read as I look through the newspaper book pages.It has occurred to me, in reading all of these stories that these attempts to ban books almost never succeed, and that if any of these would be book banners read the paper they would know this. It follows then that a lack of curiosity, awareness, and probably education are all factors that breed book banners. The smaller one’s world is, the more likely he is to want to ban a book. In this way, the book banner is like the fundamentalist who desires to impose an irrational act on others in the name of blind faith. It is disconcerting to me how much noise these attempts sometimes make — the battles can rage on for weeks in local newspapers and at school board meetings. Still, it is heartening that books are so rarely banned, and that so many are often willing vocally to defend them.