Comparing our lack of seriousness about books to the attitude of the poverty-stricken but book-desiring inhabitants of Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing also said this:
There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.Now Dominic Proctor's notion of 'branding' authors, as he describes it to Danuta Kean, seems essentially a good one. His idea, if I read it correctly, is that at present publishing is geared to retail structures which treat books as commodities to be sold alongside other similar commodities, (3 for 2s etc). This means that each book loses its individuality and becomes divorced from a writer's oeuvre and turns into a 'one-off' product. Such a system, as so many writers have found to their cost, places no investment in either an author's career or in the long-term life of a book (authors dropped when their first books don't 'sell', books shifted back to the warehouse and pulped after a very short shelf life) and ignores the potential of word-of-mouth build. Instead, he says, publishers should be building what he calls a 'brand' to attract a community of readers around an author's entire oeuvre.
So far so good - great, in fact. And here's Joanna Prior, marketing and publicity director at Penguin, on how Penguin helped Zadie Smith to break out of what Danuta Kean calls 'one hit wonderland':
“A lot of what it comes from is an unshakable belief that you have the ‘real thing’ on your hands, that you have an author who is going to write for a career not just one book.” Such belief, she believes, should fuel publishers’ confidence to create distinct identities that set authors apart. In the case of Smith this meant an emphasis on her distinctive name using bold cover design and tactical publicity that showcased her as a voice for a new generation.
Well, again, that sounds smashing. But didn't you notice all those journalists commenting, as Doris Lessing intimates, on Zadie's youth and beauty, and didn't they put plenty of stress on her personal background?
It's one thing when an author's work is the brand, it's another when the brand is the person of the author. It's dangerous, actually, as Zadie was clearly indicating when not so long ago she pointed out wryly that she'll be old 'and ugly' soon.