Monday, September 03, 2012

Promotion and criticism

I hardly dare say this, but the fuss over R J Ellory's 'sockpuppetry' has me feeling distinctly uncomfortable and with alarm bells ringing. Of course his behaviour (in posting glowing Amazon reviews of his own work under a pseudonym and trashing that of his rivals) is highly reprehensible. But the thought immediately occurs to me: how far different is posting glowing reviews of your own work from the business of promoting your own work, as we authors are obliged to do nowadays? Well, yes of course it's different, but really, honestly, when I'm engaged in the business of promoting my own work I feel as though I'm doing something very similar. Because really, who am I to say my work is any good/worthwhile? Surely, that's for others to judge. Obviously you don't actually say that, that your work is good, but just standing up and shouting about it carries that implication. Doesn't it? Well, if it doesn't, if all you're doing is metaphorically standing there sheepishly and saying, Well I'm not sure if it's any good, but please, please take a look - well, frankly, now that I've thought about it, I'd rather boil my head than carry on being so ruddy beseeching. Actually, to be honest, I'll go further and admit that doing any of the tasks of promotion, asking people to review my books, putting word out about my readings etc etc makes me feel like a prostitute. I wish I could have the dignity of doing what I did right at the start of my writing career - hide right away behind my work and simply send it off into the world, where others could sing its praises or not. And as for Ellory, clearly he's responsible for his own actions, but the thought occurs that a culture in which the onus is on authors to get their books sales has surely paved the way for such actions...

And then there's the other side of it: his trashing of his rivals. Oh dear. Big bell ringing here. In the context of his glowing reviews of his own work, his negative reviews of his rivals sure look bad. But there's something worrying at stake here. Ellory may well have been on a campaign to do his rivals down, but he may well also have truly considered his rivals vastly inferior to himself - after all, we authors may be swilling in angst but we need a certain confidence about what we're doing, too, or we couldn't go on, and often have strong and negative opinions about those who are doing it differently. Yet I have read objections to Ellory's statement that he 'wholeheartedly regrets the lapse of judgement that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way', on the grounds that he is still however holding to those opinions. Well, maybe he is being disingenuous here, clever - taking an opportunity to publicly reiterate those opinions - but the reaction to this worries me: are we writers not allowed to hold negative opinions of the work of other writers - or at least, if we do, must we keep them to ourselves, and resist engaging in literary discussion that promotes our own agendas at the expense of that of others? Well, yes, I guess that's increasingly so: as others have pointed out recently, in a situation where authors are expected to market and promote their own work, and reliant on each other for cheerleading, we are ending up with a backscratching culture in which true literary discussion heads for the drain..

4 comments:

charleslambert said...

It's a horrible situation for writers, Elizabeth, and your analysis couldn't be more accurate, or more depressing. We're expected to make a constant noise about the exceptional quality of our own work, to become our own publicists, to pester other writers who might want to blog about us, or interview us, or endorse us, or link to us on FB or retweet some favourable comment, and all this is seen as perfectly acceptable - indeed, necessary - behaviour. What we're not encouraged to do is express doubts about the work we produce or that others produce, because writers may have doubts, but (self-) publicists don't. A writer acquaintance of mine (although considerably more well-known) never gives less than four stars on Goodreads (unless the author is dead or Dan Brown), presumably because he doesn't want to be seen as defending his own patch by slashing and burning others'. Which is all very well, I suppose, but shouldn't we also be defending the freedom to be involved in the critical business of reading, which is at the heart of our practice as writers?

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's a crucial point, Charles: the fact that critical reading is at the heart of a writers' practice, and yet our right to pursue it seems under attack.

chillcat said...

So much food for thought here. The promotion side attached to publishing a book is truly deadening - I wonder has it always been this way? I've never taken Amazon reviews seriously and this seems to confirm why.

adele said...

I think this is a very thoughtful and timely piece.