Among creative types—specifically authors—there is a lot of focus on aesthetic, and building a brand, and it results in a loss of authenticity within the writing they’re trying to promote. This is not a universal rule, but we are starting to lose touch with what it means to produce ‘good work.’ If a facade is built to pre-determine the outcome of reception, positive or negative, then where does that leave the product that’s been constructed? It’s difficult to become a writer and gain a following when millions of others are pursuing the same exact goal, but how do you expect a piece to stand on its own when you’ve turned yourself into a character that is more recognizable than anything you’ve ever produced?
Unfortunately, in order to get people to even read your book you have to be somebody. Nobody browses Amazon.com and buys a book with a poorly designed cover from an unknown self-published author. It doesn’t matter how good your writing is, if you don’t play the game then you’ll remain in a state of limbo.
Over the past five years contemporary authors have turned themselves into memes. Before social media there was a watered down version of this in play among commercial advertisers and mass marketers—branding writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Bret Easton Ellis based on controversies both planned and unplanned. But now everyone is a self-promoter. And most are looking to manipulate you into liking their work.
Above all else, a following is what is considered most important. Followers will smile and eat up anything you have to offer. There are those who will be critical, but they will be in the minority. We, as a culture, are shrinking our general audiences to concentrate on niche markets—feeding the fan base with little regard for those outside of it.
But is that a good thing? That depends on what your intent is when writing.
If your intent is to connect with readers—to send out a message, have them question an element of life, or think critically, then no. That is not a good thing. Because you are the equivalent to pop music. And there’s nothing wrong pop music. As a matter of fact, it’s nice to listen to. But I’m not looking to take anything away from a Lady Gaga song other than brief enjoyment and maybe a catchy tune that’ll be stuck in my head afterward.
If your intent is to say, “Hey guys! Look at this thing I made! Don’t you like it as much as I do?” then sure, go right ahead. That’s in all of us. We all have egos. We all want praise. But at least be honest about it. It’s not as shameful as what others would have you believe. You can make a living that way and buy into your own hype. But keep in mind, if you do write to feed the fan base then your work will turn into cardboard.
The mark of an authentic artist is not someone who caters to his or her demographic. You have to allow yourself to accept the fact that not everyone will understand your work. Not everyone will like your work. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. On the contrary, if you can polarize people in a way that will force them to analyze what it is they’ve taken in—then you’re doing something right.
However self-marketing on the internet has done something to skew that. You have to work harder to get noticed. And that’s where character-building comes in. Who are you? Are you the good guy, the bad guy, the weirdo, the liberal, the conservative, the religious zealot, the atheist, the vegan, the meat-eater? What are you? You aren’t a person. You’re a label. You’re a two dimensional shade. Because people don’t want ‘people’ as artists, they want someone who they can associate one or two words with.
Your readership will grow if you turn yourself into a character—but at an expense. Once people think they have an idea of who you are then they’ll expect one thing in particular from you, or they’ll perceive your work in a certain way. That’s how artists fall into traps, cycles of repetition. Feed the fan base, get praised, stay afloat.
But it is possible to play the game and escape on your own terms. You can cash out at any point without riding the wave into a void. Tao Lin played the game and maxed out with Taipei. There is a way to manipulate the system and have it work in your favor if you’re clever and observant enough.
Do what you need to do to get recognized and then shrink once you’ve garnered the attention of those who matter. It may be the only way to become noticed and avoid an artificial existence in what has largely been considered a decaying medium.