How Much of What Kind

by Joan Frank

December 2017

"Please don't worry about asking—you should. One should always do what they can for their career."

That's what Elizabeth Strout told me two years ago when I wondered—apologetically—whether she might blurb my then-new novel. Elizabeth had to decline that time, pleading work of her own. But she'd previously given a lovely blurb to an earlier story collection of mine.

Her words reassured me that I was not monstrous to have ambition: a fear that still lurks, I think, in the hearts of many writers. One should always do what they can for their career. That was the payload to hold close. Most writers sense it instinctively. The nature of the world at hand, pleasant or not, commands it.

The tricky part? Deciding how much self-promotion, and what kind, may be good—for the writer, and for her readers.

I've seen writers I truly, deeply admire announce their awards and accolades so constantly on Facebook that soon I find myself (with the best of will) sick of them—actually groaning aloud to be staring once more at their book's cover, an article about them, or photos of them jauntily sampling truffle fries and Malbec in sexy international cities they're being paid to tour.

I doubt I can again stand to see the words "honored and humbled." For heaven's sake (I scold the writers aloud, alarming anyone else in the room). Enough already. We get it.

I also sense that it's difficult to slam on the brakes in the midst of that overdrive to push, to do everything to help gain one's work visibility. Maybe the habit's a form of gluttony. Or paranoia about dead-endedness; about invisibility. We've been required by publishers, editors, and agents to take up the drum-beating task. Competition, they tell us, is hysterical. There's no longer a choice. Suck it up, and act. We're so constantly, fiercely primed to do whatever it takes to flog our work, I can itemize a sample list off the top of my head:

Establish a web presence. Write a blog. Create a Facebook page for the book. Create one for yourself as an author (not as a private citizen). Make a book trailer. Tweet your head off. Post every review: every award, translation, sale of rights. Design product tie-ins, contests, giveaways. Throw a book-themed party. Arrange interviews on television and radio. Skype. Give readings. Speak to classrooms, book clubs, libraries. Schedule a tour and hit the road with as many cases of the book as you can squeeze into your car's trunk. Sleep in the car if you must.

Relatedly: Finance it all yourself. Unless you've got hot buzz escorting you straight out of the gate, you'll probably have to.

Some writers can afford to hire publicists. None, among those I've asked, has yet confessed to me that they felt actively dissatisfied with their publicist. At the same time, I never sensed that whatever any publicist accomplished felt clearly measurable to these authors. So the question "is it worth it?" still floats - assuming one has money for it in the first place.

Some writers simply can't stomach self-promotion. They hang back, bitter or sad or fatalistic. Others see no reason not to fling themselves into the game like acrobats. I imagine there's little they would not do, including sing the national anthem at a ballgame.

It seems reasonable to assume that a working writer must strike a bargain with herself about what she is willing to do to help her work gain visibility; that these choices will likely be made on a case-by-case basis―but that also, she'll stay mindful of some bottom-line of oversaturation, of Enoughness: awareness of the moment when readers will turn away, numbed by the ubiquity which can morph into something close to satire―like a Woody Allen film where everybody at the dinner table has turned into a rabbi.

The supreme paradox? Most writers are not only not sparkling entertainers by nature, but rather their stark opposite: intense introverts who can't wait to run away, slip back into pajamas and thence, their Happy Place: surrounded by books and papers, in bed or at the beloved desk.

For each of my own eight books, I believe I did pretty much all I could within bounds of money, taste, and optimizing relationships. But at some self-evident moment, as the window of novelty starts to shrink, I've packed up my booth in the marketplace and (crazy-relieved) slunk back into quiet, private life—and with that, of course, new work. I do sense that most writers long for this moment—gaspingly glad when it arrives. Especially the pajamas.

Is it monstrous to have ambition? The question faces in two directions: for observers of the drum-beating author, I think, it's a philosophical debate about when exertions start to work against her. For the author herself, the practical translation is "how much of what kind, for how long?" The answers emerge—always—individually, fine-tuned by personal style, and by levels of what writers might call the Ordeal Threshold.

Surely the fundamental logic of shepherding completed writings from birth into the world is solid. Even some of the most famously miserable, messed-up artists on earth had naked ambition for their works. We write (or paint or sculpt or dance) to speak to somebody, even to just one other somebody. And in the chaotic noise of the present world, getting heard takes much more doing. Elizabeth Strout's words can remind us.

The lesson?

Get out there. Get the basic promotional work done. Fine-tune it to your taste.

And then have the wits, dignity, and faith to go away―until the next book.

Joan FrankComment