On developing your public image

The word from the new editorial regime at The Author is that the team has to buck up its ideas. There’s too much gloom in our pages, for a start. The emphasis from here on is going to swing towards a sunny, positive vibe. Members of the editorial committee have been instructed to answer their telephones with the words, ‘Hi, I’m an author and I’m feeling good today!’ At the last editorial conference, we were each told to come with a ‘reason to be cheerful’ from our own working lives. I mentioned that Bloomsbury had forgotten to send me their usual six-monthly reminder of an unrecovered advance dating from 1996, and just about got away with it.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be difficult smiling on through. This month brought news that has confirmed that the show-offs are now officially running the show. The rest of us – mousy, self-effacing types content to remain in the shadows and to allow our work to speak for us – will have to change or start looking for a new job.

It seems that, in the bright, sunlit age of celebrity, modesty and privacy have no place. Words on the page – stuff that didn’t even happen, for heaven’s sake – no longer quite cut it. Reality is the thing – not real reality, but a goosed-up, media-friendly version of it, as in reality TV, with enhanced colour, a decent plotline, unforgettable characters and a few snappy punchlines.

Here is what is going to happen. As from next year, according to an informed source on the book trade grapevine, one of the major publishing conglomerates will be including what is known as an ‘add-on’ in its paperback editions: an 18 page section about the author – a short biography, a list of other books available and an in-depth interview about the work and the life.

The commercial logic behind this development is indisputable. Over the past decade or so, the public image of an author has become an increasingly important part of the sales pitch to booksellers and the public. For the professional writer, anonymity is no longer an option – or, if it is, it should be so fascinating and extreme that it can be turned to promotional advantage. The great recluses of our time – Pynchon, Salinger, Cormac McCarthy – may have added to their mystique by being invisible but, for the rest of us, there are no sales in obscurity.

18 pages: it’s a lot. Some authors may believe that to fill that final section, or to provide the material for a website, it is enough to be yourself, with your little life, your views about your work, your plans for the future, but frankly this is so naïve as to verge on the unprofessional.

The trick, apparently, is to use your talent for fiction on your public persona, to hold a fairground mirror up to your past and present reality and create a heightened, distorted version – scary, amusing, touching, vulnerable – of the real you.

Some lives will need less enhancing than others. This year’s Man Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre will have no problem with his 18 pages, having had the good fortune to have led a rackety, eventful life involving drugs and money problems, personal crises and unpaid debts. Other authors have been, as the tabloids say, to hell and back – Will Self with his drugs, Hanif Kureishi with the end of his marriage, Frank McCourt with his childhood.

If you are lucky enough to have been through some disaster in your past life, remember that it should presented as a prelude to happier times – frankly, no one wants to read the work of someone who has been to hell and is still there.

So be positive. Writing has saved you; it has helped you walk from the darkness of ordinary living into the light of creativity. Bear in mind, as you work on your public persona, certain basic guidelines.

1. Speak joyfully about your latest book. It is never a good idea for an author to publicise the private agonies involved in the writing process. If a book was painful to write, the thinking goes (wrongly, of course), it will be painful to read.

2. Avoid all discussion of money. Members of the reading public are attached to the romantic ideal of writing as an expression of the soul rather a way of making money. Boasting about a large advance, or blubbing about a small one, will seem callow and vulgar.

3. As a general rule, angst and aggression play well but, if you must attack a fellow author, choose your target and your timing carefully. Tibor Fischer hit the jackpot this year with a pre-emptive sneer at Martin Amis’s new novel because it was currently a fashionable position to take. Three years ago, it would have seemed mean-spirited and self-serving.

4. Never complain about your agent or publisher. However grim and heart-rending your experience of incompetence, idleness and general bone-headedness among those who are meant to be your professional associates, the effect of writing about it will, without fail, have only one effect: you will appear to be a whingeing loser.

5. Avoid sweeping statements about the current state of the literary scene, particularly if they can be used against you. Heed the wise words of Jonathan Franzen: ‘When a writer says publicly that the novel is doomed, it’s a sure bet that his new book isn’t going well; in terms of his reputation, it’s like bleeding in shark-infested waters.’

These are basic rules, most of which professional authors already understand. They simply involve looking beyond the pale, anguished face you see in the mirror every morning to a new, larger-than-life, semi-fictional you – friendly, generous, successful yet, deep down, the kind of person a reader might like to have as a friend.

Remember, above all, that you are an author and you feel good today.

Winter 2003