The writer as performer

By this stage in my freelance writing career, I fret that I’ve made myself unemployable in the ‘regular’ workforce because I struggle with the panoptical logic governing most jobs. By ‘panoptical’, I mean the ways in which employers require their workers to perform their work as if always observed.

Merely doing the work – meeting deadlines, solving problems, hitting KPIs – isn’t enough. We must be seen to do it. We must be physically present throughout the day. Moreover, evidence that we are pursuing our allotted tasks – and no other unauthorised activities – must constantly be visible on our computer monitors and audible to our co-workers.

But we are also expected to make ourselves emotionally available to our jobs. As Melissa Gregg documents in her 2011 book Work’s Intimacy, contemporary employers demand enthusiasm, loyalty, friendship and passion from workers without necessarily offering increased salaries or job security in return. Meanwhile, communication technologies bleed the panoptical surveillance of the workplace into previously private times and spaces.

Self-employment, choosing my own workspace and setting my own hours seem to me like attractive ways to push back against workplace panopticism. I’ll be valued professionally for the quality of my work, rather than for the performance of that work. All I need to do is file the story and submit the manuscript … right?

Wrong. Despite its cherished myths of creative exceptionalism, writers are like all other workers in that their bodies, thoughts, histories and feelings are expected to be present and available in their work, the production of which is rendered public and transparent.


Selling the self

‘Telling a story is the first step,’ writes American author Sean Beaudoin at Salon. ‘Having that story read and enjoyed and interpreted and understood is the second.’ He goes on to describe the social media promotion he hates to do, but knows he must if he’s to find a readership.

One of the writing industry’s most pervasive mythologies is that of the pre-discursive, pre-neoliberal artisan. This ideal writer communes with language on a profound level, unhindered by commercial considerations. Discerning readers seek her out for her pure literary merit. This cloistered ideal stands in contrast to the actual industrial conditions of writing: the exhausting affective labour of asserting and ingratiating oneself ‘as a writer’, both online and in person.

In a recent essay for the Guardian, novelist Jonathan Franzen confesses to worrying about ‘the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement’. These gentle souls, Franzen writes, ‘want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word … [and] were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels’.

But the pressures on writers to self-promote and cultivate ‘personal brands’ did not begin with the advent of blogs, smartphones, ebooks or social media. For every Marcel Proust or Emily Dickinson working in virtuous seclusion, there’s always been a Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde or Charles Dickens embarking on a blockbuster speaking tour. Lord Byron, who delighted in his notoriety, was perhaps the first celebrity writer in the contemporary sense; he even inspired Byron fanfic, including Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon and John Polidori’s The Vampyre.

Describing self-promotion as ‘pimping’ piggybacks on our culture’s longstanding association of prostitution with disgrace and desperation. English satirist Ned Ward wrote in 1698, ‘The condition of an Author, is much like that of a Strumpet …  viz. That the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune, hath forc’d us to do that for our Subsistence, which we are much asham’d of.’

Like Beaudoin, like Franzen, and like most other writers of my acquaintance, I find online self-promotion shameful. I want to be respected, and feel I won’t be if I promote my work too aggressively. I try not to bombard people with too many posts. I try to avoid both boasting and the even more obnoxious humblebragging.

Awkward shame is the normative mode of writerly self-promotion; writers who promote cheerfully, boldly and successfully are disparaged as ‘shameless’ hacks. Yet even writers’ critiques of self-promotion are self-promotional. Franzen’s screed was published to promote his new book, The Kraus Project; Beaudoin was hawking his novel Wise Young Fool.

I update my blog, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, labour over online Q&As and agree to unpaid radio and TV spots in the vague hope that it’s ‘building my audience’. But performing to an audience is not the same as mobilising it.

Several years ago I was on a workshop panel with a ‘social media expert’ in a black skivvy and headset mic, with a PowerPoint presentation and everything. He made writerly self-promotion look instrumental: if you did this, and that, you couldn’t fail to land that book deal or shift those units.

I asked: what if I am doing all those things and am still not successful? His only response was, ‘Well, you mustn’t be doing them right.’ That’s because self-promotional labour isn’t instrumental – it’s speculative, and only fuzzily correlated to financial success or career stability. While writers are constantly urged to ‘take control’ of their careers via online self-promotion rather than ‘passively’ delegating this work to an agent or publisher, selling the self is not a performance of agency. It’s a performance of visibility.


Demonstrating the process

The trajectory of the ‘author’s journey’ is as ritualistic as the ‘hero’s journey’ described by mythologist Joseph Campbell and codified in Blake Snyder’s influential screenwriting manual Save the Cat! And every author’s self-promotional campaign must capture and amplify certain key moments – the ‘story beats’ – in the writing process.

Novelist Andrea Goldsmith and her partner, the late poet Dorothy Porter, would mark each other’s every publishing milestone, ‘because celebrations are few and far between in writing and we did not want to miss any opportunity,’ Goldsmith told the Age’s Jason Steger. When the finished books arrived, Goldsmith and Porter would toast them with champagne and arrange them on a shelf above the TV to see how they’d look in the shops. On the publication of Goldsmith’s latest novel, The Memory Trap, the author felt Porter’s loss keenly. ‘It’s not the same celebrating with people who aren’t writers,’ Steger reports, ‘so she wrote a piece about it, took some pictures and posted them all on her website.’

Having watched my writer friends hit those story beats, and then hitting them myself with my first book, I understand the thrill of being initiated into a writerly community, and the urgent desire to perform this process in public. The offer of a publishing contract. A successful funding application. Champagne when the manuscript goes to print. Seeing the cover image. Posing for selfies with the finished book. Spotting it on the shelf in a bookshop. The first public reading. Signing the first copy. The launch. The anxious wait for reviews, and relief if they’re mostly good. Appearing at a writers’ festival.

‘The great white hope of writing,’ says Beaudoin, ‘is to reach the point where you no longer have to pimp yourself at all, where you tap into a weird alchemy in which you suddenly have enough name recognition and sales that word-of-mouth and momentum do all the work for you.’

Two of 2013’s most successful Australian novels – Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project – have that procedural momentum. They’re snowballing: hitting all the right beats and keeping on beating. Winning manuscript prizes. Bidding wars. Massive advances. Jousting on the bestseller lists. International editions. Film options. Kent’s authorial journey was so screen-ready it got its own episode of Australian Story.

Not me, though. I recently realised, dispiritingly, that my author’s journey is now ‘over’. My book has been moved off the ‘new releases’ shelves, is no longer being reviewed and my publisher has moved on to the next author. I asked my writer friends how they overcome this malaise. They gently reminded me that books don’t vanish without an accompanying authorial performance; they are still quietly sold and enjoyed years later. Yet my friends almost unanimously recommended I keep moving. Start the journey again with a new book. See if it sticks this time.

Then there’s the micro-process of the actual writing. The artisan ideal holds that creativity is ineffable and idiosyncratic, but there’s more interest – and more money – in thinking of writing as a craft that can be acquired via how-to tips, workshops and tertiary courses.

The Wheeler Centre’s ‘Working with Words’ interview column has a question on whether creative writing can be taught. It’s fun seeing various authors squirming on this barbed hook, trapped between their belief in native talent and their obligation to acknowledge the procedural value of a formal writing education.

Writing in the Guardian in July, Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield offered a caustic summary of her process while writing her debut novel Malarky: ‘I sat in a library surrounded by medical students and made it up.’

To deliberately obfuscate one’s writing methods – refusing panopticism – is to be a delinquent writer. ‘The fact is that many of us are fascinated by the creative process,’ literary publicist Ruth Killick chided Schofield, also in the Guardian. ‘Is it so wrong to be curious?’

Not necessarily. But who’s the ‘us’ here – and why do ‘we’ find creativity so exciting?


Performing in person

In her Overland review of Shane Salerno’s recent documentary Salinger, Tara Judah observes that the film was bizarrely uninterested in the late American author’s literary output: ‘Instead of interviewing Salinger scholars, we hear from Salinger biographers; instead of hearing from professors who teach his work, we hear from actors who have read his work.’

Salinger was notorious for his refusal to perform a public self. He embodied the artisan ideal described so lovingly by Franzen. And as New York Times reviewer AO Scott notes, Salerno’s ‘aggressively anti-literary’ film posthumously punishes Salinger by obsessively scrutinising and speculating upon his private life. ‘Salinger moved to the woods of New Hampshire partly to escape the intrusions and indignities of American celebrity culture,’ Scott writes. ‘Salinger is that culture’s revenge.’

Despite the valiant efforts of Roland Barthes, we still believe a writer’s work is a conduit to her private feelings and experiences. This is the essential asymmetry of panopticism. The reader feels she’s glimpsing the writer’s unguarded self, but the writer works from the assumption of being observed. Any air of intimacy she projects is illusory, since even the most confessional memoir is selective and strategic.

My book has a calculatedly personal tone and is deliberately larded with first-person anecdotes and reflections. This performance of intimacy came very unnaturally to me. That’s why I was recently irritated to see a Goodreads reviewer note primly, ‘I now feel like I know far more than I need to about [Campbell’s] personal body insecurities.’ This reviewer actually knows jack shit about my inner life. She knows what I chose to put in the book to serve my rhetorical purpose.

The apotheosis of this performed intimacy is to see the author in the flesh, at a public reading or a writers’ festival. The Emerging Writers’ Festival brands itself as ‘the festival for writers’ – because most mainstream ‘writers’ festivals’ aren’t for writers. They’re for readers.

At these events, writers enjoy the breathless adulation we associate with rock stars, the uproarious laughs we associate with comedians and the rapturous awe we associate with religious leaders. In their physical presence, the fact they produce books recedes oddly.

By the time a writer performs in person, readers already know her appearance, biography and career trajectory. They’ve followed her through the informal virtual spaces of blogs and social media. They’ve lapped up the most banal details of her daily routine – the stationery and software she uses; her research techniques and methods of overcoming writer’s block; the rhythms of her working day in her favoured shed or study or cafe or library.

Schofield writes, cynically, ‘There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture.’ Readers seek the presence of published authors, she suggests, in order to imagine becoming writers themselves. Perhaps the performative intimacy conjured by writers is so seductive that, in Schofield’s words, they ‘become a vessel through which other authorial fantasies can flow or ferment’. You’ve observed their work in such detail that it doesn’t seem so hard to do it yourself.

But it is hard. The energy and resilience required to perform and promote one’s writing are insultingly out of proportion to the money most writers make. Traditional trade unionism has struggled to combat the atomisation and presence bleed of the contemporary workplace; likewise, writers are ill equipped to evade the panoptical expectations that even infiltrate their critiques of their working conditions.

Just as white-collar supervisors and managers enforce panopticism because they subscribe to corporate myths of productivity, so the primary drivers of writers’ self-performance are their readers, for whom myths of artisan creativity are seductive and meaningful. But writers do not have to embrace those myths too. Indeed, it’s vital that we decouple the dignity and intellectual satisfaction of writing from the visibility of that labour.

Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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