Although few authors know it at the time, a moment of truth occurs quite early in their careers. It is when a questionnaire arrives from the publisher requesting, among other things, a brief biography. The point will be made, often with some force, that this little “About the Author” paragraph is an intrinsic part of the promotional package. Nobody, least of all in the busy world of the media, will be interested in a writer who merely writes.
For the keen young author, modesty is not an option. A spot of biographical glamour – zany jobs, a chequered career, a drug habit, perhaps a hint of family heartbreak – is needed. The fact that most authors, particularly the good and serious ones, tend to be quiet, scurfy types whose most exciting adventures take place in the brain or on the page, presents no problem to publishers. They have been goosing up the facts of their authors’ lives long enough to know that biographical dullness can fixed. When I first started writing, a brilliant PR woman explained how the system worked. The previous week, she told me, she had sent a couple of greyhounds around to one of their authors in taxi. Later that day, he was to be interviewed for a “Me and My Pets column”, the problem being that he had no pets.
Only the most confident young writer, or the most stupid, will refuse to play this game. It is not a question of vanity but of getting himself, and therefore his book, noticed. In those early days, I did my best to be interesting. I appeared on radio phone-ins, usually talking about anything but books. I was described in one piece as having regular employment playing the guitar while sitting on a Harley-Davidson motorbike in a West End restaurant. I was photographed with a chicken on my head. I was a true professional.
As authors become more established, a rather mysterious process of division occurs. A few of them slip effortlessly into the fake persona created for them by publicists. They discover that the sleek PR version of themselves – clear-eyed, confident, ambitious but in an attractive and amusing way – suits them rather better than the scruffy reality. They are easy to recognise, these authors, and their personality overhaul invariably helps their careers. They appear at all the right literary venues, and become stars of the talk show circuit, adept at what is known in the trade as “sofa chat”. They are the lions of literary festivals, turning in performances every bit as polished as that of an experienced actor. Perhaps that is what they have become – a brilliant impersonation of their quieter, writing selves.
But most authors are not like this, and realise rather quickly that, unless one is born with a talent for self-promotion in one’s DNA, publicity for its own sake is worthless.
The question is whether it is actively harmful to a writer. Could it be that excessive exposure, the need to create a fiction in one’s life, a public self, can eat into the soul of a writer, pollute the imagination? Does it affect the way that one is read? One of our best known novelists has complained that somehow his personality stood between the reader and his books, but that process does not happen by magic. The author, by becoming a media star, has played his part.
It turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that Cyril Connolly’s warning about celebrity as an enemy of promise has resonance to this day. The aim of the author, he said, should be “to refuse all publicity which does not arise from the quality of his work, to beware of giving his name to causes, to ration his public appearances, to consider his standards and the curve of development which he feels latent within him, yet not to indulge in gestures which are hostile to success when it comes.”
On the face of it, the evidence suggests that, even today, the more authors avoid exposure, the better it is for their writing. In America, where publicity has an almost religious significance, many of the great novelists (DeLillo, Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, Roth, Pynchon, Anne Tyler) avoid interviews and photographs with varying degrees of determination. In the writings of those who are celebrity-authors, from Norman Mailer to Jay McInerney at Bret East Ellis, their own personality tends to become a theme in their books. Easton Ellis brilliantly satirised literary celebrity in Lunar Park but his parody of writerly self-absorption was widely mistaken for the real thing.
Over here, at all the major festivals, they can be found strutting the stage, the alpha authors. At a time when readers are as fascinated by writers as what they have written, these acts play well. Authors tend to be judged by their performances rather than their books. Indeed, by the end of the show, the book often seems superfluous.
Authors who fail to play the publicity game eventually discover that something odd and paradoxical takes place. Their “About the Author” paragraph shrinks. The longer they write, the less there is to report about them. All they have done is write books, an activity which, on the back flap of a cover, is neither exotic nor surprising. The publicists admit defeat.
For many of us, it is a marvellous moment. On my last book, my life was reduced to two lines and the offer of a photograph politely rejected. . “We believe in minimalism when it comes to author biographies,” said the editor.