Me, Inc.

18 Dec

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet

T.S. Eliot

eyes without a face

I was talking with a fellow writer a few weeks ago. He gave me some sage advice. “Your second book should be like your first book, but more so.” I asked him to ‘splain me what he meant by that. He said, double down, take whatever you’re doing and make it what you are known for. “Make it your brand.” Specifically, he told me to write something under 75,000 words, that exemplifies what kind of writing people will expect from me. I replied that while I had just written a collection of short stories (which you can and should buy here), I now wanted to write an epic comic novel. He said that was a dumb idea. I said that he was a dumb idea. He said something untoward about my mother. I said that what he said about my mother was mostly inaccurate, then told him that the excellence of his own mother’s bedroom skills was a knowledge I had acquired the previous evening whilst in his childhood bed atop his Star Wars sheets, and would he like to see the video?

Needless to say, I don’t like to be told what to do. Most writers don’t and most men don’t. These two species of humans are particularly stubborn individuals. We think we are right, especially when we are wrong. The advice this guy gave me was actually pretty sound business advice. Many of the most successful writers are brands. Stephen King didn’t just stop writing horror after Carrie White mindtorched her high school. Sue Grafton knew what she was getting into with A is for Alibi. Almost every Agatha Christie novel is like an episode of Law & Order, easily digestible murder mystery comfort food. One can tell how important the brand of a writer is by the difference in font size between the title of the book and the name of the author.

Many think that branding, or self-branding, is a form of marketing. But marketing is about selling a product, while branding is about defining the product and fashioning one’s creative output around that definition.  Branding is intentionally pigeonholing oneself into a specific type of style or genre. It’s like saying: “Because my first book was about vampire Nazis from outer space, from now on I can only write about vampire Nazis from outer space.” It may make really good business sense to keep writing the same thing over and over again: the market – a/k/a readers – knows what it’s getting. “Oh, look, it’s the new Jacob Mendelsohn. I love his mixture of taboo sexuality and spacefaring bloodsucking Aryan goosesteppers/moonwalkers.”

But what if I don’t want to write that? What if I want to write a children’s book? Business plans make perfect sense for many businesses, except perhaps art. One didn’t tell Picasso that he had to keep using blue, nor Hemingway that For Whom the Bell Tolls was far too wordy for a Hemingway novel. (No, I am not comparing myself to these two, so shut up, thanks.)  Art just happens. For those who think that their words will allow them to quit their day jobs, it should be pointed out, yet again, that writing and art are the worst get rich schemes, quick or otherwise.

J.K. Rowling didn’t say to herself, “Hey, I will be the ‘boy wizard’ writer. That’ll nab me literally billions of dollars.” She wrote a good book, got lucky that the right editor read it, kept writing and improving as a writer, and the rest is history. Those who want to emulate Rowling fail to realize that imitation may be flattering, but it also tends to lack the spark of creativity. The imitators who try to brand themselves as the next so-and-so live in a fantasy world where writing is easy and the payout is in movie rights.  The immense – and I mean, seriously, fucking gargantuan – number of young adult/coming of age/fantasy/sci-fi books that are currently being written attest to the lasting power both of Rowling’s storytelling abilities as well as her financial successes.

Many struggling writers imagine themselves becoming the next Rowling (young adult, fantasy, rich), George R.R. Martin (most definitely not young adult, fantasy, rich, awesomely bearded), Stephen King (horror, fantasy,  rich, Sawx Nation Fan. No. 13), and forget that being the next something always means you will never be the first of anything. I don’t want to be the next [INSERT AWESOME BUT MISUNDERSTOOD WRITER HERE], I want to be the first Jacob Mendelsohn.

***

Branding itself comes from the business world. We all know what Coca Cola and McDonalds are. Those brands are legendary. Successfully branding a product or company allows people to identify with it. But products and companies are inanimate objects. The Supreme Court may say that a corporation is a person, but should we intuit therefore that a person can be a corporation? Even if we mean corporation in a metaphorical way, should individuals manufacture personae merely to serve their business plans?

What we sacrifice for brand named-ness is our authenticity. When people ask me what I write about, especially on this blog, my explanations are occasionally vague. Is that a problem? Of course. Naturally, I would love to say that “I write about movies and TV,” or “I write about technology,” or “I write about sports,” or “I write about politics,” or “It’s a blog, I write about myself, duh!!”  But I write about all of those things. And I’m not going to stop just because it is impeding my brand from expanding into new markets. (I hated writing most of that last sentence.)

That very same writer I spoke with a few weeks ago asked me about my blog. I told him “I write about what I feel like writing about.” Once again, he told me that this was not good for marketing, for my brand, for making $$$$. If I restricted myself to one niche topic – let’s say, oh, twerking – not only would I probably run out of things to write about very quickly, but I would also be betraying myself and my own ideals as a writer. In short, I would be selling out. He then inquired as to how else would I make any money and write for a living, and I informed him that there are less reputable ways to make money in this world, e.g., his mother.

***

This piece entitled “Do Public Intellectuals Exist Anymore?” posits that

One of the primary reasons public intellectuals no longer exist…is this specialization. Writers, especially those on the Internet, have their little fiefdoms, and that’s about it.

The idea of the public intellectual here is more of a polymath: someone whose knowledge and expertise span a variety of topics. The public intellectual may not be a master of any one trade, but he is the jack of all of them. He is the renaissance man of the mind, a person who can speak on a plethora of subjects not because he is an expert in them necessarily, but out of the quality that differentiates creators from mere imitators: curiosity. Curiosity is the desire not for answers, but the need to ask questions. To wonder, what if? Intellectuals cannot be pigeonholed or branded, their curiosity will not allow it.

Arguably one of the best bloggers is Andrew Sullivan, who one can describe as gay, Catholic, Conservative (British), but who is also impossible to define. What sets him apart from so many other online presences is his desire to further his own knowledge and to then impart it upon his readership. He is just as interested in politics as he is in the arts, will write equally about religion and economics. Sullivan is also unafraid of changing his positions and calling himself out on what others might call flip-flopping.

Sullivan’s writing is fearless. He will criticize others and is not afraid of the petty snark and sarcasm directed his way. I actually agree with Sullivan probably less than 40% of the time, but I love reading him because his arguments are exciting, intellectually complex, and – most importantly – authentic. The best thinkers and the best writers are those who can actually change your mind, or at least make you see things from different points of view. Sullivan excels at this. He doesn’t have a brand. He simply is who he is.

I think branding is more than just a marketing scheme to sell more product and make more money. It’s also a means to cloister oneself from the intellectual rigors needed for true success. That success is not measured by awards or money, but by artists meeting and exceeding their own expectations. After J.K. Rowling finished with Harry Potter, she wrote A Casual Vacancy, a serious book for adults. The book was greeted with mixed reviews. Personally, I liked it. In discussing whether she considered writing the novel under a pseudonym, she said:

In some ways I think it’s braver to do it like this. And, to an extent, you know what? The worst that can happen is that everyone says, “Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids” and I can take that. So, yeah, I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, “Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you,” then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.

It’s so easy to live in fear, to live in our own pigeonholes, our comfy niches where we do not have to think about the potentials of criticism and failure. But bravery – artistic or not – means not only confronting failure, but giving him a slap on the back and saying, “I’ll beat you next time, motherfucker. Next time.” 

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