Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The greatest stories ever sold

with 2 comments

Last week, The Rumpus published an essay I’d written about Jonah Lehrer, the prolific young writer on science and creativity who had been caught reusing portions of previously published articles on his blog at The New Yorker. I defended Lehrer from some of the more extreme charges—for one thing, I dislike the label “self-plagiarism,” which misrepresents what he actually did—and tried my best to understand the reasons behind this very public lapse of judgment. And while only Lehrer really knows what he was thinking, I think it’s fair to conclude, as I do in my essay, that his case is inseparable from the predicament of many contemporary writers, who are essentially required to become nonstop marketers of themselves. The acceleration of all media has produced a ravenous appetite for content, especially online, forcing authors to run a Red Queen’s race to keep up with demand. And when a writer is expected to blog, publish articles, give talks, and produce new books on a regular basis, it’s no surprise if the work starts to suffer.

The irony, of course, is that I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. I think of myself primarily as a novelist, but over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself wearing a lot of different hats. I blog every day. I work as hard as possible to get interviews, panel discussions, and radio appearances to talk about my work. I’ve been known to use Twitter and Facebook. And I publish a lot of nonfiction, up to and including my essay at The Rumpus itself. I do it mostly because I like it—and I like getting paid for it when I can—but I also do it to get my name out there, along with, hopefully, the title of my book. I suspect that a lot of other writers would say the same thing, and that few guest reviews, essays, or opinion pieces are ever published without some ulterior motive on the part of the author, especially if that author happens to have a novel in stores. And while I think that most readers are aware of this, and adjust their perceptions accordingly, it’s also worth asking what this does to the writer’s own work.

The process of marketing puts any decent writer in a bind. To become a good novelist, you need to develop a skill set centered on solitude and introversion: you have to be physically and emotionally capable of sitting at a desk, alone, without distraction, for weeks or months at a time. The instant your novel comes out, however, you’re suddenly expected to develop the opposite set of skills, becoming extroverted, gregarious, and willing to invest huge amounts of energy into selling yourself in public. Very few writers, aside from the occasional outlier like Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer, have ever seemed comfortable in both roles, which create a real tension in a writer’s life. As I note in my article on Lehrer, the kind of routine required of most mainstream authors these days is antithetical to the kind of solitary, unrewarding activity needed for real creative work. Creativity requires uninterrupted time, silence, and the ability to concentrate on one problem to the exclusion of everything else. Marketing yourself at the same time is more like juggling, or, even better, like spinning plates, with different parts of your life receiving more or less attention until they need a nudge to keep them going.

When an author lets one of the plates fall, as Lehrer has done so publicly, it’s reasonable to ask whether the costs of this kind of career outweigh the rewards. I’ve often wondered about this myself. And the only answer I can give is that none of this is worth doing unless the different parts give you satisfaction for their own sake. There’s no guarantee that any of the work you do will pay off in a tangible way, so if you spend your time on something only for its perceived marketing benefits, the result will be cynical or worse. And my own attitudes about this have changed over time. This blog began, frankly, as an attempt to build an online audience in advance of The Icon Thief, but after blogging every day for almost two years, it’s become something much more—a huge part of my identity as a writer. The same is true, I hope, of my essays and short fiction. No one piece counts for much, but when I stand back and take them all together, I start to dimly glimpse the shape of my career. I wouldn’t have done half of this without the imperatives of the market. And for that, weirdly, I’m grateful.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2012 at 10:12 am

2 Responses

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  1. I completely agree with you on the part that an author has to juggle between being reflective and introspective and being gregarious and extroverted! Earlier authors were only expected to create the, she/he has to sell the product as well…As it appears, some authors have managed to do it well, not because of their writing skills but due to employment of effective marketing tactics. There are shabbily written books hailed as great works when 100s of good ones have failed to make a mark…..It is really difficult for a writer who can work best when left uninterrupted in her/his long hours of solitude. This is the most important part of the creative process and must be respected likewise. Any disturbance caused during this period sets the process back by several weeks…and when writers are expected to become extroverted, smooth-talking marketing gurus, their real work begins to suffer.


    July 18, 2012 at 11:43 am

  2. Very true. Although if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that few if any books—especially novels—become bestsellers based solely on the author’s promotional activities. It’s all about bookstore placement and word of mouth. Nothing else makes much of a difference, at least not over the long term.


    July 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm

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