There’s a fine line between selling books and selling out.
Last week, the folks at the popular crime fiction blog 7 Criminal Minds (which includes our own Art Taylor), weighed in on the importance of character names. I’ve been mulling that topic over a lot lately but, inexplicably, nobody over there asked for my opinion. That’s cool. Invite was probably lost in the mail.
I’ve been thinking about names because I’ve been thinking about marketing, and more and more writers are using the same promotional technique: Writers offer readers, upon winning a contest, the opportunity to have a character named after them in an upcoming book.
I don’t mean to call out anyone’s marketing efforts because, look: Book-selling is brutal. And you want to thank the people who bought your work, made time to read 300 pages of your writing, maybe even posted a review or sent you a nice note. I get that. Plus, it gives readers the chance to become inseparable with work they love.
My last column was about the writer, reviewer, and college professor Alan Cheuse, who passed away the day after it was published. I remember once when a student asked him if the names in a story were important, Alan promptly made us read James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Afterward, he went through the story and explained its layers of symbolism, and how the characters’ names played into the mythology Joyce was constructing. It’s dispiriting, and a little funny, to imagine students analyzing some story a hundred years from now, and the instructor explaining that a character was named because “some guy won a Facebook contest.”
Maybe it doesn’t really matter because, seriously, how many of us are going to have our work studied a century from now? It’d be nice. Probably not going to happen. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or devalue our work in the process, all for the sake of a few sales.
Listen: I have absolutely no dignity. I’d run naked through a ‘Skins game if everybody at FedEx Field agreed to buy a copy of You’re As Good As Dead (I’d also not do it if they all bought my book; really, just buy my book).
If it were possible for me to sleep my way to the top, I absolutely would (my wife would hopefully understand). I’ve held a bunch of goofy contests designed to bring my work to a larger audience. I have no problem prostituting myself. But I’d never compromise what’s inside the book.
Books are one of the few commercial-free venues we have left. The idea of marketing making its way inside the pages is just kind of…gross. And, remember, this is coming from the same guy willing to streak past Kirk Cousins for a few thousand sales (standing by the phone, Snyder).
There’s a bigger issue here, and it’s the ugliness of marketing. Advertising and art have always had an uneasy relationship and, in all likelihood, even those artists who disdain commercialism have a keen understanding of how their image has been manufactured, and how that image can best be sustained (as Thomas Pynchon helpfully explains in this clip). But there must be some understanding of the difference between whoring ourselves out and damaging our work.
This column is about writers, but I’m ending it from the perspective of a reader. I love knowing that, in a good book, there’s a story beneath the story. It’s exciting to dive off the iceberg and swim down deep into cold waters, seeing what meaning is submerged.
Not all of us can write like Joyce, and a lot of us simply don’t want to. But some of the beauty in reading is when you can feel the love a writer has for his or her work, the realization that you’re reading something devoutly honest. Never forget the value of remaining uncompromised.
(New Jersey! This Saturday, I’ll be reading at a Noir at the Bar in New Brunswick, hosted by the fiercely talented Jen Conley. There are a bunch of great writers in the lineup, and it should be a fun evening. Also, booze. Check out the event page for more information.)
E.A. Aymar's second novel, You're As Good As Dead, came out in June.