Or: Self-Promotion and Keeping Perspective in an Increasingly Narcissistic World
Last Week on NPR I heard a story that disturbed me. It was about a study that linked increasingly narcissistic Pop Music lyrics with an increasingly narcissistic culture. That our culture today is increasingly narcissistic isn’t entirely news anymore. It’s part of the world we live in.
I was born smack in the middle of “Generation Me“, but my childhood was distinctly old school. So at risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon constantly harkening back to a golden age that never was, I was raised to believe in other virtues. Humility, for instance. That’s a virtue that is completely at odds with the rampant narcissism of our culture. It’s not really possible to be both humble and narcissistic, not in any cognitively meaningful way. Isn’t that right?
There’s something else that seems at odds with the idea of humility, at first blush, and it strikes at the heart of what writers must do, and what successful authors have mastered: self-promotion. And especially in the light of my “revelation” for this week: my first ever professional publication, this has really been on my mind of late. Is the “virtue of humility” truly at odds with the need for self-promotion? Is it possible to navigate these narcissistic waters while keeping with a down-to-earth outlook?
And then, as if anticipating my ruminations on this topic, along comes this article in the New York Times on the subject of author self-promotion, and the long sordid history thereof. Or more accurately, as if to mock my delusions of remaining humble while trying simultaneously to toot my own horn. The article tells of what authors across the ages have done to make a name for themselves. Famous authors of the past have done incredibly gutsy and even obnoxious things to get their name in the eyes of the public. Celebrity endorsements were not uncommon.
Today even Stephen King or Dean Koontz or JK Rowlling, the blockbusters of blockbuster writers, aren’t well-known for their “celebrity endorsements”. Maybe that’s because our culture today celebrates a different kind of celebrity: sports stars and pop musicians and movie stars. But the fact is that these days authors seem a great deal less in-your-face than the authors of the past, if in fact the sorts of stories highlighted in that NYT article were de rigueur. Not that it has impacted the ability of the general public to recognize these big names. Even non-readers know who King, Koontz, and Rowling are. Maybe that’s because the quality of their work speaks for itself. Or maybe that’s because they’ve ridden the wave of incredible buzz and effective PR. Or maybe a lot of things. To the unpublished (or even, maybe not unpublished, per se, but I certainly don’t have any books in print), the process by which fame and celebrity are accrued to well-known authors is a bit of a mystery. There’s certainly PR, and money, and great writing involved in the equation. But what’s the balance of it? And how does an author’s public persona play into that equation, if at all? Those aren’t all questions I can answer, yet, but I’ve been thinking about them just the same.
How do successful authors navigate this? There’s Sci-fi author John Scalzi, for instance. He seems to fall more toward the “narcissistic” side of the spectrum. (I’ll note that I regularly read and enjoy Scalzi’s blog, and this isn’t meant so much as a condemnation as an observation.) He plays it up in humorous and interesting ways on his blog. But in fact, the narcissism seems false: it’s a veneer that makes his blog and his public persona interesting and amusing. It’s part of how he sells himself and makes himself accessible to readers. It’s sly and ironic and self-aware. And for him, it works. On the other end of the spectrum I could take Brandon Sanderson.
It’s hard to describe with specificity exactly what Sanderson does differently than Scalzi, or vice versa. Clearly, Brandon thinks his books are pretty great, and he’d love for you to read them. But his language seems less brash, less tilted toward braggadocio. He isn’t trying to be clever or ironic or funny on a daily basis. His blog consists mostly of tour and con schedule updates, promotional updates, and links to extra material related to his books and to the writing podcast he hosts with a few of his writing buddies. Whereas Scalzi blogs frequently about his family and home life, on Sanderson’s blog you’d be hard-pressed to come away with any impression of the man himself except as professional author. On Scalzi’s blog you see a reflection of the man through (presumably) a fun-house mirror. On Sanderson’s blog you see a business card. Both are impressively successful authors.
Meanwhile, I’ve (sort of*) met Brandon – and I know he’s a personable, likeable guy. Scalzi, I don’t know but I can assume the same is true. That’s part of their public persona as well. In some ways, I suspect it’s both easier and harder. You’re in your own skin, and you can just be who you really are. At the same time, you lack the comforting anonymity of internet interactions – and even though authors aren’t strictly anonymous when the blog or present themselves online, there’s still a distance to the interaction – and that can be stressful for people who aren’t openly gregarious. The pressure to perform, to be likeable and intelligent and the center of attention, can be downright paralyzing for the more introverted writerly types.
I’ve talked about the public face we writers wear. But I still haven’t gotten to the heart of the question I’m pondering. Is it possible to be humble and yet to also effectively self-promote in an environment where obnoxious narcissism is increasingly the norm?
It’s become such that in our society the word “humble” and its etymological relatives have taken on negative connotations. If someone is “humble” they’re physically unattractive. We don’t exalt humility because that’s humiliating. (Did you see what I did there?) Humility isn’t for ourselves: it’s for our enemies and those we loathe. It’s not for the proud and arrogant: it’s only for those who are more proud and more arrogant than ourselves. In our culture, humility is no longer a virtue – if it ever really was. And yet I’ve always believed and internalized the maxim that humility is a virtue. It’s part of the fabric of who I am.
My first run-in with the inevitable tension between self-promotion and humility came when I was in High School. I had been nominated for a special academic recognition called the “Governor’s Honors Program”. Those who participated in Governor’s Honors came from all across the state where I lived and spent a couple weeks of the summer on the campus of a nearby university participating in classes and other self-fulfillment activities in a program of their choice. Essentially you picked a “major” and spent those weeks taking classes and developing your skills in that area of study. There’s just a few caveats: first, you have to be nominated. Second, there are a limited number of seats, so you have to make it through a rigorous selection process. And that includes a series of interviews.
I was interviewed by a panel of selection committee members, including one who was then my current U.S. History teacher. I thought I was doing well. Then came the moment of truth, the clincher, the question that separates the proverbial men from the boys: “Why should we pick you to represent our school at the Governor’s Honors program?” I had never encountered a question like this before.
There are a lot of things I could have said. Most of them would have been true. “Because I’m really dedicated to my education, and this opportunity will allow me to excel.” “Because I will best represent the quality and caliber of students at our school.” “Because I am one of the smartest students in this school and have the most to learn from an opportunity like this.” “Because I really want to go.” “Because I’ll make you proud for selecting me.” But what did I really say?
My humility bias took over. It should already have been clear to the committee how great I was. They saw my transcripts. They’d just been interviewing me for a half-an-hour. And I’d seen the other candidates. We were all honors students, we were in advanced classes and we were all the smartest kids in our class. “Well, we’re all worthy candidates,” I began, “And in some ways I’m no better than any of the other candidates…” I don’t even remember what I said after that.
Later that day, my U.S. History teacher took me aside and lectured me on learning how to sell my own achievements. She was disappointed in how I responded to that question. She knew how smart I really was. She knew I was possibly the smartest student in my grade. Definitely in the top 5. (In fact, I did graduate in the top-5.) She knew what I was capable of, and she knew I’d do the school proud. But I’d scuttled my chances of ever finding out how I’d represent the school or what I could learn at Governor’s Honors by failing sufficiently to toot my own horn.
It was a hard lesson to learn, and for years I was bitter about it. Did I really want to participate in a program where you had to be a crass braggart to get in? Surely not! Would I really want to be surrounded every day by a gaggling horde of top-flight narcissists – people who can’t stop going on and on about how great and stupendous and wonderful they were? Surely I’d rather have my eyes gouged out with white-hot pokers! I even commiserated with others – both those who failed to pass muster and those who attended the program but were disillusioned by it… Did you know, gasp, that most girls come back from Governor’s Honors pregnant! It’s totally true. Well, it’s things like that I told myself to assuage my shame for not having been picked. Because I had a humble streak, sure… but I also knew in my heart-of-hearts that I was one of the smartest, if not the smartest, person in the school and that I deserved that recognition**. I shouldn’t have to actually tell anyone that – it should have been clear just by meeting me. Did not the radiance of my supreme intelligence go before me like a flash of lightning before a clap of thunder, like a herald before a king?
Oh wow. Humility, meet narcissism. Narcissism, meet humility. Let’s hope you two get along, shall we? Because you two are going to be roommates for a long time.
So maybe the relationship between the two is a lot more complicated than I first thought. It’s not simply a spectrum with narcissistic personality disorder at one end and clinical depression at the other. As I wrote in the opening lines to a flash fiction story some months ago: “Every man is the hero of his own story. I’m no different than they.” It wasn’t just the character in the story saying that. It was me, too. Deep down, I guess, I’m as narcissistic as everyone else. And maybe that’s not really new in our culture so much as that the open expression of that narcissism is more common. And I guess it’s the open expression that I still find myself uncomfortable around.
What complicates this further is the often love-hate relationship writers have with their own work. I’m sure not every writer has this neurosis… but many of us do. We finish a project, and in a heady rush of self-congratulatory euphoria generated by finally typing the words “The End”, we privately declare the finished work the best piece of literary work EVAR!!!1!ONE!! Everyone should read what we’ve written. Everyone will love it. We will become instantly rich and famous for having created this written slice of perfection. And then we re-read it a few days, weeks, months, or even years later, and privately lament that we’ve written the worst bit of literary tripe ever! It’s riddled with grammatical errors, or purple prose, or cardboard characters, flat dialog, a boring plot, or whatever other example of failure. It’s that easy to go from literary high to low – and for our expectations to swing from unrealistically, even narcissistically high expectations to complete devastation at the suckitudinousness of our writerly skills. I’ll never get published, we privately wail, I’m a horrible failure and everything I write turns to mud and ash and poison and suck.
But if we’re going to get over the hump of “unpublished, undiscovered author” and make it down the road to the happy land of “published, successful author”, we’ve got to hold on to that enthusiasm. We’ve got to believe in the product we’re trying to sell – to believe that what we’ve written is something of quality, something of worth, and something that people will want to read. In certain respects, we’ve got to be narcissists about what we’ve written – because if we don’t believe that what we’ve written is special in some way, how are we ever going to convince someone else that it’s at least worth taking a look at?
Which brings me back to the public persona, as a writer, and self-promotion.
I gave two examples of different paths toward creating a public persona and self-promoting. As I hope is obvious, I’ve chosen neither path. In fact, each writer has to go their own way. Which means it’s never going to be easy. There are no pioneers to follow – you can try to follow those who have gone before, but ultimately you find you have to pioneer your own path.
The current climate makes that an especially dicey prospect. In a time of relentless, dare I say even narcissistic broadcasts of “look at me, look at how special I am” filling every corner of the media landscape, how do you get your message heard? Is it even possible to stay grounded and outwardly humble and get your message out?
And there’s the rub. In a culture of narcissism, each new “look at me, I’m special” is just noise. We’re collectively filtering that stuff out. Because sure, you’re special. But how does that help me? If we’re all equally narcissistic, then no one of us has any more reason to listen to the narcissistic rantings of any one other of us.
Surely, the successfully published writers have somehow managed to cut through the clutter. Yet for each writer who is successfully published, there are about a dozen writers whose work is just as good and deserving to be read who has not broken through, yet. And for each writer whose work actually is wonderful and deserving to be read, there are about a hundred more who actively believe their work is wonderful, but who are – not to put too fine a point on it – wrong about their beliefs. And each of those not-yet-so-wonderful writers is only too happy, more often than not, to squawk as loudly as they can while trying to tell the world about how great they are. They have to do it, because they do believe in their work, and that’s the only way they’re going to get their work noticed, right?
Ultimately, I don’t have any answers. I can only do what I think is best: both for my public persona and for my career as a writer, or my career as anything else for that matter. So I blog. My blog isn’t a writing blog: I don’t have daily bits of advice or inspiration for other writers – I’m still learning, same as you. It’s a blog about a writer. Sometimes I write about my family, but I don’t plaster them all over the internet. Sometimes I write about what interests me (which, more often than not, is something to do with fantasy and speculative fiction, because that’s how I roll). Sometimes I’ll even write about myself, because, hey, that’s a topic I know pretty well. Hopefully I come off as grounded, as a nice guy… even as humble, because that’s also how I roll. Hopefully I also come off as pretty smart, and someone you enjoy reading – especially if you’re a fantasy and speculative fiction geek like me. Because I like writing, and I like writing fantasy and speculative fiction and about fantasy and speculative fiction, and I like interacting with other folks who like reading about fantasy and speculative fiction. And when it comes down to it, I believe I’m a good writer. I believe that what I write is interesting, well-written, fun to read, and worth something. I believe I’m as good as some people who are published (though certainly not as good as others). I hope others will agree, and I hope I’m not in that category of writers who aren’t actually any good – yet – but who helplessly believe they are.
But I also hope I don’t come off sounding like a narcissist.
Even if, deep down inside, I am one. Just like everyone else.
*”Sort of” in the sense that I stood in line for a signing and listened to his banter with other con-goers, and I sat in a front row for a couple of his panels and listened to him speak and interact with the audience, other panelists, the con-staff, and various super-fans whose names he knew. I have not had the opportunity to participate in that culturally-significant meeting ritual wherein we exchange introductions and shake hands. Don’t know if I ever will…
**Mostly true, perhaps. Imagine the culture shock when, upon entering Grad School at one of the top-rated colleges in the country, my experience went from “usually, with maybe 80 or 90% probability, one of the top-five smartest people in the room” to “near certainty that there were at least five people smarter than me in the room, and a good chance at a fair number more than that.” Or in other words, from being on top to being roughly average. Perspective and relativity, perhaps. I’ve learned I need a lot of perspective, in life, and could still use a lot more.