24 June 2012

Building a platform

Image: Schnäggli 

The internet is awash with advice for authors. Much of it, often from people who are themselves not very well known, concerns promotion. We are told to “build a platform”, which means, besides making oneself visible and available, establishing a “brand”.

My first published novel appeared in 1978. That autumn I was interviewed, at length, on national TV, in a documentary about the public’s reluctance to try new writers. The thrust of the interview, broadcast just in time for the Christmas book-buying spree, was that unadventurous readers were missing out. The Stone Arrow and its naive author were held up as examples of the new and exciting, etc., etc.

What was the result of this gush of praise, coming as it did from Auntie BBC, that infallible arbitress of all that is correct? You guessed it. If my royalty statement for the period is to be believed, the programme had no effect on sales at all.

Though I have managed to sidestep the humiliation of bookshop signings, I have been interviewed on radio, in newspapers and online, and none of this has done anything much for my numbers. Surely most people are sick and tired of writers plugging their books; I know I am. The chief value of such plugging is to make the audience aware of the existence of a new work by someone they already know.

It is part of the symbiosis between publishers and broadcasters, and has contributed to the Hollywoodization of book-publishing that has squeezed mid-list authors out. Publishers get free publicity and the broadcasters get free, or cheap, editorial matter to fill the space between the ads (or, in the case of the BBC, to justify the iniquity of the telly-tax).

Unknown authors appearing on TV can be an embarrassment. Unless they have done something interesting, as opposed to merely writing a book, or unless they are extroverts with a fund of amusing anecdotes, if they register at all it is probably negatively. There is something uncomfortable, even unpleasant, about being begged to read someone’s book, akin to the feeling generated by a tin being rattled in one’s face by a charity that one has never heard of and may be dodgy. It approaches the shores of moral blackmail. “I went to all this trouble to write 100,000 words: the least you can do is read them.”

Just seeing an author in the flesh can be off-putting, likewise knowing anything else about him (or her). In my twenties my reading went though a Japanese phase. It began with Yukio Mishima and brought me, via Masuji Ibuse, Yasunari Kawabata and others, to the limpid, thoughtful prose of Shusako Endo. Even in translation, their works intrigued me, imbued as they are with a sensibility so utterly unlike the British.

Mishima’s books were the most accessible, since he was the most Westernized Japanese writer I had then read. He understood how to build a narrative, but mostly I was impressed by his electrifying powers of description.

At that time I knew very little about Kimitake Hiraoka – “Yukio Mishima” is a pen-name. I recalled that he had committed suicide in bizarre circumstances in 1970, and I was nonplussed by the narcissistic author-photo on the jacket of the Secker and Warburg hardbacks, depicting a top-heavy body-builder in hachimaki and loincloth, posing with a Japanese sword. Nonetheless, I read whatever of his I could get my hands on.

In my inexperience I could not see the vacancy at the heart of Mishima’s oeuvre. John Nathan, his biographer and one of his translators, made him very angry when he wrote that reading a Mishima novel was like “attending an exhibition of the world’s most ornate picture frames”. The title of Mishima’s 1963 novella Gogo No Eiko translates as An Afternoon’s Towing. Though apt, this would not have been good for English-language sales. At his wits’ end, Nathan presented Mishima with a list of alternatives. Mishima craved the Nobel Prize in Literature (one went in 1968 to Kawabata, an infinitely superior artist) and chose the pretentious The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, perhaps in an attempt to impress the judges; I feel now that, sadly, pretension vitiates much of Mishima’s work.

Having read what I could of him, I discovered Nathan’s biography and rather wished I hadn’t. If I’d known at the outset what I know now, my reading of Mishima would have been different. It might not have happened at all, which would have deprived me of pleasure, as well as much instruction in descriptive, narrative and critical technique.

If we admire a book, we must have something in common with its author. He or she shares our sense of humour, has a similar world-view, reinforces our prejudices, or, as Mishima did for me, leads us to perceive reality in a new and interesting way: some of these factors may be present in combination. We form a mental picture of the author which flatters the truth, since it is a projection, a mild form of hero-worship, perhaps. It can easily be defaced, leaving us feeling not just disappointed but cheated.

Vanity plays a large part in the writing process, inflated further by attention, but an author makes himself familiar at his peril. Much of what authors write online (like this post) seems to be directed at other authors and, while easing the isolation of authorship, is of little interest to the general reader. The author risks alienating at least as many as he impresses. And after all, what more can the fiction-writer want, by way of a pulpit, than the limitless scope of the novel? What can he usefully say outside it?

It is far better to let the books do the talking. The book is the thing; the book is sovereign. If the book is good, it will appeal to enough readers to start the word-of-mouth ball rolling downhill, accumulating more and more mass until it becomes unstoppable. Recommendation, not cajolery, is what gets books read.

So this talk of “platforms” and “brands” leaves me rather puzzled. I started out writing thrillers, but since taking up independent authorship I have written and made public whatever I pleased: that’s one of the joys of independence. This blog receives relatively few visitors: most come to look up details, or download cover images, of my ebooks, and what I post here is intermittent and varied. I tried Facebook, felt self-conscious and silly, and gave it up; I’m currently on Twitter, but most of the time don’t know what to tweet that isn’t trivial, forced, or shamelessly self-promoting.

My platform, if I have one, is my fiction, at which I work and work and work. I respect the reader, assume he or she knows more than I do, and to the best of my ability will not insult him or her with grammatical howlers or malapropisms. Above all I try to make the reading process enjoyable, because that is the surest way to get across what I want to say. The brand to which I aspire, then, is simply “storyteller”. I’m not a hero, or special in any way, but I do try to be good at my job, and more than that a fair-minded reader cannot reasonably ask.


L said...

Thank you for writing! You make many points here, and I have to say that your own writing has come to a place where it just blows me away!

On one point: I agree that it may be a disappointment when a fan (or potential fan) meets his or her literary idol, but it can also work very much the other way. Many are drawn to 'meet' the authors who capture their imaginations and hearts with the prose they write (no matter their private persona) – it's part of being fanatic. We find the good in them. But in a world where consumer markets convince us that packaging and presentation is e v e r ything, we are set up for disappointment. It is in their convincing that an author may fall short of a fan's 'expectations'. And it is the expectations that give birth to the disappointments. (What was the expectation that was deflated?) What was the artist to be that he or she was not? Expectation is sabotage we impose on ourselves with a lot of help from consumer markets. Although we try to remain vigilant and aware of this market sabotage, it is as difficult as ever it was. To my view, becoming disappointed in what one hears and sees of an author on a radio or television show is akin to judging a book by its cover... the cover – his/her cover - a form of enticement or conviction.

With regards to publicity, though, somebody has to say something! Otherwise, we are destined to live in the dark. Granted, the internet has and is changing the way we are exposed (better than TV and radio? Worse?), though we still must be exposed in order to be found, and that means putting ourselves out there in one way or t'other.

NB: For me, it's exciting to see the author off the page (so to speak) - to know that he eats egg and cress sandwiches and mushrooms on toast is somehow comforting - realistic. I suppose, too, people's interest in their celebs is likely what biographers bank on.

Elle said...

It is important to know an author – to know from where the voice and message emanate; to know his/her views.
It is particularly important in messages concealed as non-fiction. Without this information one cannot judge the value and validity of said message. In this sense, a 'platform' is essential - not as a marketing swindle, but an aid in establishing perspective.

Ben Duffy said...

I don't suppose any copies of this documentary survived, did they?

Richard Herley said...

Not as far as I know -- it was broadcast in 1978 on BBC 1, the producer was Chris Powell and the presenter Robert Robinson. It might be buried in the BBC archive, but I think that's unlikely.