There’s a myth about artists that I fell for once; that writers are not business people so they should rely on others who are. The corollary is that becoming world famous is all about talent, and you leave the promotion to experts.
These days, of course, self promotion is the buzz word, because of the Internet, because of social networking, because of eBooks. It’s the new wave.
Or is it?
“For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed.’ Who said that? Joe Konrath? Bob Mayer? Amanda Hocking? No, it was Balzac. Stendahl put it another way: “Great success is not possible without a certain degree of shamelessness, and even of out-and-out charlatanism.”
We all know about charlatans. How many authors game the review system on Amazon? But wait – this is not a new thing. Even Walt Whitman notoriously wrote his own anonymous reviews; “An American bard at last!” he raved in 1855. “Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded.”
Captain, my captain; thou art shameless.
But give Walt a break. Self promotion is what all authors did before the Big6. Back in the fifth century BC a debutGreek author named Herodotus organized his own book tour, sailing from Asia Minor to the Olympics in Athens so he could read his Histories to the well-heeled spectators. The 100 metres was always prime time – especially then, when they ran it naked.
Even the eBook revolution and Twitter has been done before. For example, in the 19th century, there was an explosion in the number of newspapers in Paris, and editors all over the city were being bribed for review space. Every wall in the city was wallpapered with posters advertising the latest bestseller. Why oh why do I dislike Paris? Because Spam was invented there.
In 1887, even Guy de Maupassant joined in, paying for a hot-air balloon to glide down the Seine with the name of his latest short story, “Le Horla,” painted on it.
Paris was also the setting for perhaps the greatest author publicity stunt of them all. In 1927 Georges Simenon – the author of the Inspector Maigret novels – agreed to write an entire novel while suspended in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Members of the public were invited to choose the novel’s characters, subject matter and title, while Simenon hammered out the pages on a typewriter. He had a seventy two hour deadline.
A newspaper advertisement promised: “A record novel: record speed, record endurance and, dare we add, record talent!”
Unfortunately, it never happened; the newspaper financing it went under. Simenon didn’t mind; he pocketed the advance and lived off the publicity forever.
It’s not only authors who have made a living from their own legend. Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, better known to you and I as Pablo Picasso, was a master at self promotion. “It’s not what the artist does that counts, but what he is,’ he once said.
Like Lady Gaga and Madonna, he became famous for being famous. It’s said that once he was having lunch in a restaurant and drew some rough sketches on a napkin. The restaurant owner invited him to sign the napkin in lieu of payment. Picasso replied: “I wish only to pay for the meal – not for the entire restaurant.’
Once he was interrupted while sunbathing on the beach by a boy sent by his parents to ask for a signed sketch. He gave him one – on his bare back. ‘They’ll never let him bath again!’ he crowed.
Are either of these stories true? I don’t know. The point is they gained credence and that was what was important to Picasso. Stories like that made him world famous.
But the best example of self fabulism is Salvador Dali. Was he eccentric – or did he plan to be that way?
Anyone who has seen his exhibition will have noted how he copied absolutely everyone in the early days until he found his own ‘style’. Was his branding just as cooly planned? His behavior often drew more attention than his artwork; his long cape, walking stick, and upturned waxed mustache were recognized everywhere. He even traveled with a pet ocelot, Babou.
The writer who branded himself best was Ernest Hemingway. People who have never read Hemingway know what Hemingway wrote. He was the king of the photo op, posing on safaris, fishing trips and in war zones. He spruiked for Pan American and for Parker Pens; he even appeared in beer ads, for Ballantyne Ale.
“You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. But I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish. We keep it iced in the bait box with chunks of ice packed around it. And you ought to taste it on a hot day when you have worked a big marlin fast because there were sharks after him.”
This is not to chide Hemingway. Papa Doc simply wanted more people to read his books, and we are the better for it. He was a promoter, not a hack: “I have turned down all sorts of propositions, deals, etc. and have kept the product pure. Whatever it is, it is as good as I can make it and I have not corrupted it by working for the coast nor doing things I thought were shitty and would hurt me as a writer no matter how much money they brought in.”
So hats off to Hemmo, and all the high profile artists mentioned here. They simply knew how to brand before anyone knew what branding was.
I’ll finish this now. I’m going to put on a monocle and hang upside down naked from the shingle of my local indie bookstore and write haiku in a plexiglass bubble for the next forty eight hours.
It’s my new brand. Wish me luck.