Category Archives: Authorial brand

Reid and I: a writer’s double life

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion Of Creation (1892). Public domain (Wikimedia)

Reid’s public self at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

In 1960 a very short story called ‘Borges y Yo’ appeared in Argentina. Its author, on the verge of becoming internationally famous, was Jorge Luis Borges. Translation soon made this story widely known under the English title ‘Borges and I.’ It begins abruptly: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ The first-person narrator goes on to describe someone who is almost identical with himself, but from whom he feels somewhat alienated.

‘It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.’

Ultimately they comprise an inseparable dyad, as the story’s final sentence suggests: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’

It’s an amusing way of depicting the tense relationship between any literary figure’s public persona and the more private self who quietly does the writing.

In the opening piece of his essay collection The Writing Life (2014), David Malouf considers the distinct selves involved in writing and living. ‘There’s a gap,’ he says, ‘a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self … and the self that gets the writing done.’

Another essay in the same book, ‘When the Writer Speaks,’ picks up the theme:

‘The real enemy of writing is talk. There is something about the facility of talk, the ease with which ideas clothe themselves in the first available words, that is antithetical to the way a writer’s mind works when he is engaged in the slower…deeper business of writing.’

Malouf refers to a short story by Henry James, ‘The Private Life,’ in which the narrator is astonished to discover that the person who publicly poses as the admired author Clare Vawdrey, entertaining people with plausible literary conversation, is not the person who, invisibly secluded, writes Vawdrey’s books. There is an arrangement of convenience between those two distinct people. As Malouf remarks, James’s tale dramatises a fundamental truth about literary activity: ‘The social self is a front…behind which the real writer can hide.’ The latter is ‘a creature of solitude, of the inner life.’

Like any writer, I’m acutely conscious of this tension described by Borges, Malouf and James – and I feel quite ambivalent about what often seems to be my double life. When I glance back at the ‘Events’ page of my website I’m reminded of the umpteen different literary and para-literary activities that have engaged much of my time in recent years. I’ve attended numerous meetings related to the writing life, such as Board sessions of the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve given presentations under the auspices of the Copyright Agency, WritingWA, the State Library, national and state English Teaching conferences, the National Trust and other bodies. I’ve run writing workshops for several schools and for groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre. I’ve lectured on literary topics to metropolitan and regional branches of the Mature Adults Learning Association, and to U3A and Probus groups.  I’ve been a featured guest speaker at several different literary festivals. I’ve given countless talks about my books in libraries, town halls, universities, community centres, bookshops, local museums and other venues. Book clubs have invited me along to the-author-meets-his-readers discussions. And so on.

While I enjoy all such encounters, I’m also haunted by Malouf’s admonition: ‘Too much time talking about writing, not enough doing it.’ Perhaps I should follow the example of Henry James’s Vawdrey and hire someone to impersonate me in public so that, unobserved, I can get on more productively with the solitary task of writing?


Signature, brand and authorship

signaturesWe’re all familiar with book-signing rituals, sometimes staged in conjunction with readings or launchings and sometimes sponsored by bookshops. They serve to promote sales, since the buyer of a book tends to attach special value to a copy signed by the author. Often the signature accompanies a personal inscription, even if the author has never seen the buyer before – ‘To [Did you say Daisy or Maisy?], best wishes…’ Embarrassment can follow – most notoriously when, at a book signing in Sydney in 1964, British writer Monica Dickens was handed a copy by a woman who muttered in a broad Strine accent what Dickens assumed was her name. The author signed the book To Emma Chisit, only to discover – as newspapers gleefully reported – that the woman had just been asking ‘How much is it?’ (No no, that’s not my moniker, Monica…)

But what exactly does an author’s autograph signify? John Frow’s recent book The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies (UWAP) includes a chapter on ‘Signature and Brand.’ Among other points, Frow argues that an authorial signature ‘has become intrinsic both to aesthetic and to market value.’ So when I scrawl my autograph on one of my publications, this action symbolises the fact that the book belongs simultaneously to two ‘regimes of value’ (Frow’s term): artistry and commerce.

I interpret this to mean that, having originated as an individual creation, a book is then taken over by mechanisms that reproduce and distribute it in large quantities. In the process of being replicated it becomes a mass-produced commodity, and so an autographed copy is seen as rendering it more personal again, restoring something of an individual-writer-to-individual-reader relationship.

By the way, Wikipedia told me something I hadn’t known about book signing: that it’s no longer confined to printed copies. ‘The growing popularity of ebooks and ereading devices’, says the Wikipedia article, ‘has inspired the development of software – such as Authorgraph (formerly known as Kindlegraph and renamed to reflect its expansion to include all ereading platforms) and Autography (for iOS devices) – that allows authors to digitally personalise ebooks by including autographs, dedications, and photographs, and to provide such personalisation remotely as well as at in-person book signings.’ I confess that I can’t see much point in an electronically signed copy.

A brand, Frow argues, is a signature’s corporate counterpart. What they have in common is the power of a named identity. Amplified by market mechanisms, an author’s personal name can offer brand recognition – something like a trademark, assuring prospective consumers that a particular book will provide the same quality of reading experience as previous products issued under this same person’s name. Frow remarks:

Books by the small number of established or emergent celebrity authors are the subject of intensive advertising and promotional campaigns which centrally involve the marketing of the persona of the author in chat and talkback shows, book signings, festival appearances and literary lunches.

Where does this leave writers who aren’t celebrities but are still urged to develop and spruik an ‘authorial brand’? It may seem simple enough: just formulate and promulgate a succinct summary of the kind of thing you write. But a powerfully attractive brand would need to offer a lot more than that. Requirements for becoming a star would ideally include glamour, notoriety, influential advocates, major prizes, cross-media prominence, and fabulously generous multiple-book contracts with instant translation rights in many languages etc etc. (Sigh.)

Meanwhile, what about the possibility of devising an exceptionally ornate way of inscribing your name, so that immense crowds of book-buyers will queue up for the sheer privilege of seeing you autograph their copies with the flamboyant curlicues of your famous signature?