Writers as Sellers: A Model of Contrasts

First, Ann Patchet writing about book tours in The Atlanic Monthly:

I can never get very far from the niggling belief that something about book tour is inherently wrongheaded, that the basic premise of authors selling their books is a flawed one. Most people who are capable of sitting alone day after day, year after year, typing into the void are probably constitutionally ill-suited to work a room like a politician (though I am not, in fact, afraid of public speaking, and I’m good at it). We’re a country obsessed with celebrity, and trying to make authors into small-scale Lindsay Lohans does nothing but encourage what is already a bad cultural habit. Reading, no matter what book clubs tell us, is a private act, private even from the person who wrote the book. Once the novel is out there, the author is beside the point. The reader and the book have their own relationship now, and should be left alone to work things out for themselves.

Then there’s this extract from a post by Julie Just at the NY Times book blog Paper Cuts, entitled Stephenie Meyer, Live in Concert.

One advantage Stephenie Meyer has over most best-selling writers is screaming teenage fans. Fans who scream even when tech guys cross the stage before she comes out. Then again, Meyer’s sold-out appearance at the Nokia Theater in Times Square on Friday evening was sort of a rock concert. The cheerful and modest author, a Mormon and mother of three boys who lives in Phoenix, Ariz, was appearing with Justin Furstenfeld of the angsty band Blue October.

Using the word “awesome” more often than the host from MTV News, Kim Stolz, Meyer answered questions about her wildly popular “Twilight” young adult series and its final volume, “Breaking Dawn,” which went on sale at 12:01 Saturday with an announced first printing of three million copies.

Judging by the T-shirts in the audience (mostly worn by teenage girls), what was on the fans’ minds was the epic tension between the two would-be lovers vying for the series’ heroine, Bella Swan: Edward Cullen, a devastatingly handsome 17-year-old vampire, and Jacob Black, a werewolf who, in the logic of the series, could give Bella children and a somewhat normal, if hazardous, life. “Team Edward” T-shirts out-numbered “Team Jacob” T-shirts at least 10 to one.

Meyer’s audience clearly don’t see their responses to her books as a private act, per Patchet. They want to share them with each other, and with the author. The fact that Meyer is writing for (but quickly expanding beyond) a YA audience might have something to do with that, but I don’t think it’s just about the age of the readers in this case — it’s about the nature of the performance.

Meyer, because of her huge success, has been taken up by the publicity machine and is being processed as product. The machine needs product, or it would be spinning its wheels in space. Patchett, intelligent and talanted as she may be, hasn’t been subjected to this same process because her books haven’t sold enough copies. This actually has nothing to do with merit. I’m not trying to argue that Meyer is a better or worthier writer than Patchett, or, in fact, the opposite. Just that Meyer’s book tours are bound to be events, as carefully stage managed as rock concerts, because of the money behind them and the money to be made by them.

I guess that’s a problem that most writers would love to be stuck with.

By the way: Team Jacob, all the way.

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2 responses to “Writers as Sellers: A Model of Contrasts

  1. This post reminded me of a brilliant article by Milan Kundera which appeared in the Review section of the Guardian in March 2007 (it has since been removed as its copyright expired) – in which he muses over the death of literature due to the proliferation of mediocrity and also reflects on the relationship between author and reader, suggesting that different types of writing invite different levels of (re-)interpretation by readers. If I remember correctly, and going on my own feeling, novels allow for the widest margin of understanding – the ‘lyric self’ of characters such as Madame Bovary allowing for self-identification by the reader through a whole range of subjective social/political/gender filters, while short stories are more limited? RE: your comparison, it seems Jacob might be rather 2D as a character? Therefore appealing to a YA audience who prefer simple dichotomies of good vs. evil? Authors who are capable of “shutting themselves away” and writing more complex characters may therefore statistically be less likely to: a) WANT publicity b) desire to engage with the vast and myriad interpretations their readers may have, as they themselves undoubtedly have their own version – and it could often feel intrusive and unbearable to them?

    I’m rambling now, as my new-born son kept me awake ALL night – I’ll send you the article if I can find it.

  2. nancyrawlinson

    Yes, please, do send me the article if you can find it. I just went looking for it online to no avail, but found this quote, presumably from the article you mention, on Kundera’s Wikiquotes page:

    “The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish.”

    Sounds about right. Also from the Wikiquotes page, I discover that Kundera has been quoted in The Canine Hiker’s Bible: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace. ”

    As a writer and a dog-lover I can agree with both of those quotes, though I can’t help thinking that Kundera never wrote his comment about dogs intending to shill for some service guide to the Adirondacks. I guess that’s what happens when you put your words out there — they can be used for purpose you never intended.

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