I appraise the front cover of the latest edition of my favourite American writing magazine and note that it is bursting with bits and pieces about platforms and brands. Leafing through about a half dozen pages, I come to the editor’s column. Typically, she intros the issue with a couple of hundred or so choice words. Her monthly rousing call this time stresses the centrality of platform and brand in every writer’s arsenal. How will one stand out in a crowded marketplace otherwise, she hastens to ask, in an age when anyone can upload a book on the internet and call him or herself a writer?
I think back ruefully to the time when platforms were things you stood on at bus and railway stations. As for brands, I had never exactly cared for them, beyond let’s say developing an occasional leaning for one make of running shoe over another. Was it now incumbent on us writers to tweak ourselves like any other advertised gadget? Was the actual piece of writing – the poem, article, story, book, whatever – of less consequence than our advertisement?
Delving deeper into the issue I read about boy and girl wonders who seemingly sit staring at their computer screens 24 / 7. Their lives alternate between turning out the odd phrase for their works in progress and feverish platform erecting. Do they ever, I ask myself, step outside to look at the sky, breathe fresh air, feel the sun on their faces?
I chuckle at the thought of what Samuel Beckett might have had to say on the subject. The Nobel laureate averred that what counted was the writing. The rest only distracted, like a person’s appearance might distract from knowledge of who they are at their core. I am this sex, this religion, this, this, this … but none of that necessarily is who I am.
How would writers such as Beckett and his Irish brethren Joyce, Behan and Yeats, for example, have fared in the present day? None, with the possible exception of sartorial Joyce in his Italian years, were that photogenic. Many of the homeless people I lived and worked with in Ireland years ago were the spitting image of the country’s literary lions. These were true writers ‘of the people’. They could be as angry, ill and ugly as sin perchance as they liked and revel in the fact. Why not? The work was what mattered.
There will always be writers who buck the trend, but those who wish to create and nothing but create in the digital era will have their work cut out maintaining their gun-shyness. At the same time, it is still possible to read and judge blind. In other words, pick up a book without knowing a thing, and caring even less, about the author’s breakfast or other preferences, intimate relationship history and what they look like.
Arguably, two of the most talented natural born poets of the twentieth century were singers in rock bands, Jim Morrison (The Doors) and Ian Curtis (Joy Division). They were also the undisputed front men of their respective quartets. One of the reasons the popular music industry swallowed both up at early ages may have been that neither could go on contending with the pressure of having to continually perpetuate personas alien to who they really were.
But even in the music arena there can be exceptions. Pink Floyd made a good fist of letting their music speak for itself despite the tide of mega success on the relentless gravy train. Legend has it that the very late discovered US singer / songwriter Rodriguez used to perform with his back to the audience. He would not be the only one.
Morrison, incidentally, once remarked that we were in an age (he was speaking in the 1960s) when fame of an enduring variety only ever accrued to figures such as politicians and assassins. John F. Kennedy, on the one hand, and Lee Harvey Oswald on the other have certainly brought home the validity of that. It would be hilarious, if sobering, to discover lurking behind the next extremist none other than a writer at work on their platform and brand. Somewhat like the pathetic figure at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
As a rule writers do not make good rock stars. Nor do they seek the sort of copy that is grist to the mill for pop stars, actors and reality TV hotshots. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; let them be the ‘pretty’ ones. Enough! Time to hammer out the next page … and the next page, like a marathoner churns out miles. Because, as Sam said, nothing else matters.