‘She is too reserved for the big internet world,’ read the message pounded into a keyboard a fortnight ago at hypersonic speed typical for B, post-Gutenberg’s inseparable friend at roughly ten years old. ‘She does not promote herself at all, but all the same has a whole lot of faithful admirers and buyers, so she remains old style.’
This description of a shy artist, K, lucky enough to have been born into a family exceptionally well-connected with prosperous buyers of art, gave us pause. Our immeasurably dear B — who only ever posts her own work online in disguise — was signalling a preference for arts workers who adopt the old unwritten creed of aristocratic reserve. Once, this might have been our choice, too – because we share K’s innate, incontestably genetic, cringing-violet introversion and dislike of egotistical puffery. These days, we are less sure of its rightness – for at least three reasons.
• Everything to do with attracting attention to new art and literature, even mere blogs, has become confusing — at least as perplexing as those members of the ancien régime marched to the guillotine in revolutionary France in spite of siding openly against their lofty origins. B, for example, had introduced us to K’s work with a link to one of her pictures – a serene, meditative portrait in the yellow-brown-ochre palette that Paul Gauguin often used in his time in the South Seas – and a request to vote for it on the web site of a gallery using a contest as a promotional device.
By coincidence, this happened in the same week in which we witnessed a fight between two writers who had entered one of the many online literary contests nowadays, also designed for audience-building. One of them was accusing the other of an attempt at vote-rigging – a charge that struck us as dubious. The accused writer had done no more than openly suggest reciprocal voting – that they each vote for each other’s entries.
How, we wondered, is that any different from the latest evolutionary leap of the old ‘gentleman’s game’ of traditional, print publishing – behaviour to which Private Eye routinely draws its readers’ attention, with nearly audible guffaws? In its 26 July-8 August issue, for instance, spotlighting recommended summer reading by literary power brokers in London newspapers:
”Tasha is my sister-in-law,” declared Lee Child, selecting a Tasha Alexander novel in the [Mail on Sunday]. Robert Winder’s book about Wisden, “for which I wrote a foreword”, was David Kynaston’s pick (Times). And “I can’t wait to read my friend Mark Lawson’s astonishingly expansive, hilarious and heartbreakingly dark The Deaths,” gushed Julie Myerson (Observer), enthusing too about a novel from “the latest to be published from my husband’s creative writing MA”.
Such advice was most influential – with the naïve and unsuspicious — when the recommenders hid their ties to authors. Post-Gutenberg is all for letting in the sunlight and dropping the pretence of objectivity. But after that, the point of such recommendations is – precisely what?
• Aristocratic reserve has passed its sell-by date — for aristocrats. Long before the internet sped up the digitisation of human life in every pore, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, avidly promoting tours of Chatsworth, his ancestral pile, were only among the most successful English grandees hawking their ‘brand’.
With unabashed Teutonic frankness, the home page of a successful expatriate painter (and wife of a friend lost to distance and time) announces its owner, in gold-on-black lettering, as ‘Antoinette Baronesse von Grone’. From there, she proceeds immediately, without any timorous beating about the bushes, to
I was born and raised in Northern Germany, in a village that has been the seat of my family for over 500 years.
• Declining to dirty your hands with audience-building for yourself can mean failing to acquire any power to help other people.
Post-Gutenberg has long discouraged friends from initiating even semi-intimate conversations in the comments section of this blog because we can find clubbiness on other blogs off-putting. Even so, we liked last week’s justification of e-barn-building by Cally Phillips, an engagingly exuberant, extempore Scottish blogger (yes, we follow each other’s blogs):
It’s an interesting thing this ‘you read my book I’ll read yours’ It seems that there’s a notion that we should think there’s something a bit suspect in that (like trolls or sock puppet alerts) but hey folks, that’s part of what ‘indie’ writing is about. It’s about finding people you have some kind of a connection with – and guess what – you’ll probably find you might like their writing.
Of course sometimes they write in genres you’re not that familiar with (or claim not to like – for me thrillers and sci fi) But sometimes it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone. And when folks bother themselves with my writing, yes I do feel some compunction to ‘explore’ the worlds they have created and ‘meet’ them through their writing. I’m not ashamed to say that. […] I don’t think that being mediated by gatekeeper, guardian mainstream publishers guarantees me a ‘good read’ and I’m happy to take the responsibility on for myself to find what I want to read. And if, in the process I make virtual (or real) friends of other writers, I’m not going to be embarrassed about that. It’s a good thing.
[Y]ou can read things you’d never have read while you grazed from the mainstream trough. And that’s no bad thing. Unless you want all your reading pre-packaged and homogenised off the supermarket shelves (in which case I’m sure you’re not even reading this!) […] If you like what someone writes TELL THEM. And tell other people.
Anyone who resists the new honesty about connections and self-interest risks being outed anyway, as in a delicious item in the other edition of Private Eye last month – featuring one Sam Baker, a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar, recommending a novel by Jonathan Grimwood:
”From the moment I encountered four year-old Jean-Marie d’Aumout sitting on a dung heap eating beetles, I was obsessed by this sensuous tale of one man’s search for the perfect taste,” she raves. “Part Perfume, part Pure, 100% original.” In a fit of absent-mindedness, Baker omits to add that Grimwood is also 100% her husband.
No publication pretends to despise the internet more than the net-spurning Eye does. Yet – as we have shown in an earlier entry, here – no rag is more gloriously infused with the take-no-prisoners spirit of the blogging world.