Grace in the marketplace

In lines I quote often Yeats wrote:

For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes?

I think about these words often when I consider writers and readers and the marketplace. The need or desire to succeed, feed one’s children, make a name, ‘breakout’ (in a rush, not a rash).

Urgent marketing is not new. The idea of artists ‘dancing as fast as I can’ goes back a long way, whether it is being ingratiating to the monarch or marquis whose patronage could make a career, flattering the senior poet (in Tang China, say) who could do the same thing, or tailoring one’s actual work to the taste or expectations of the day. (You want sad-eyed-clowns, I’ll give you sad-eyed-clowns. With fangs!)

Most of the time I am genuinely not judgmental about peers who work the room (or cyber-room) ferociously, and it would be hypocritical for me to thunder about this: I am writing this, I am now cautiously on Twitter, people have created a website and Facebook page for me. I am not hiding, though there have been times when I have thought it is better for the art if one does

But I will admit that I do make judgements when some lines are crossed. We all have our lines, in everything, really. Trashing a ‘rival’ anonymously (then lying about it), as one very major historian did on Amazon in the UK, crosses. Buying a hundred five-star reviews from a business that sells them – crosses. A bestselling writer instructing, on her webpage, her very large army of readers in the step-by-step process of going to Amazon to register and then post those five-star reviews (to counterbalance too many one-stars) – crosses. Getting fans to rate a book before they read it – crosses. Amazon allows it. Grace does not.

My guess is a lot of people might share this view (though not all). Some of my other ‘lines’ may not elicit majority agreement. I don’t like hustling for award votes, asking people to ‘do me a solid’ and vote for my book in some popular-vote competition, even though that has become a norm, how they are won. I am delighted if readers support a given book of mine, if they inform each other that some vote is happening. I just find the hustle on my own part inconsistent with any sense of a proper way to be in relation to those to read my work. I take them – and the work – too seriously,

This is all evolving, as the culture (especially online) evolves. Authors and readers are more interwoven than ever before. If I give a ‘bravo’ reply on Twitter to some reader’s witty remark that made me smile, that really is something new, something that simply did not and could not happen when I was starting as a reader – or a novelist. I can (and I will) link to an essay or review of one of the books if I find it generous and intelligent. That feels like encouraging thought, highlighting insights I am pleased to see out there. (If someone pans a book I am less likely to link for two reasons: I am not a masochist, and if I disagree with the comment, linking it would have to come with a rejoinder explaining why, and life is short, art is long, time matters. It is easier to link a piece when the tacit implication is ‘I am happy to see this’.)

But the Yeats quote at the top was brought to mind yesterday by reading, in the New York Times, a piece about reviews being ‘disappeared’ on Amazon. (The full article is here, but may be behind their firewall, for non-subscribers, not sure:

The mystery novelist __________, for example, does not see anything wrong with an author indulging in chicanery. “Customer buys book because of fake review = zero harm,”

I say no, I’m afraid.  I agree with this quote, later in the piece:

“A not-insubstantial chunk of their infrastructure is based on their reviews — and all of that depends on having reviews customers can trust,” said __________, a science fiction novelist.

I don’t want to get into a detailed explanation of why I think ‘zero harm’ is just wrong. (This is already a very long post.) If I were to do so, it would involve an analogy with steroid use in sport (the ones playing honestly in a world of limited resources are harmed, among others.)

I am more saddened than anything else that the hustle mentality has so greatly eroded a parallel world of dignity, grace, at least aspiring to classiness. Treating readers (or potential readers) with some measure of respect, not as targets to be bagged – or used. Interaction needs to function with some awareness of this, or maybe I’m just wrong. The article in the NY Times focuses on Amazon and reviews, but that is just a single element in all of this.

If someone can say (and sincerely believe) that chicanery (lying, really) involves zero harm in the book-buying world, that person and I are inhabiting very different mental and moral spaces even if we both want to feed our children.

It is not a new divide. Self-promotion has always been an element of the artist’s life. Different artists, in the past and today, had and have different standards as to what they are comfortable doing in order to sell. All things being otherwise equal, the better promoter is more likely to succeed in commercial terms. One issue is whether those are the only terms. (For some they are.) And another issue is whether our culture allows us to draw (or even see) a divide between aggressiveness which might be tacky, and dishonesty, which is something else.

I spend time urging readers (those reading this!) to shape their own sense of where lines might be drawn. Yeats wrote ‘Were neither shamed in his own/
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes’ … that puts some power, some response, some pursuit of class, in the hands of the ‘neighbours’ too. That’s you.

One thought on “Grace in the marketplace

  1. Perhaps this is too jaundiced a view, or maybe it is way over on the other side of the scale, naive I mean. I cannot remain detached enough to decide. The culprit here in my mind is commercialism as a substitute for integrity.
    What Mr. Kay cites as lacking in grace is unfortunately in the ascendant in many walks of life. He has mentioned some of them already, understandably focusing on the literary world. While this look into the politics of literary awards and reviews – be they professional or fan based – is mildly distressing, these political tactics had to be sourced from somewhere and their origins are more concerning for me.
    It is disgusting to the point of making my guts tired that there is an overwhelming prevalence of “the ends justifying the means” in the world political tactics come from. What makes this even worse is that this is at the expense of ideas with any integrity at all. Worse still, as the quoted stanza from Yeats implies, the tactics are succeeding and thus being adopted and abused in arenas ostensibly cloaked in competitive integrity.
    Perhaps surprisingly, Yeats also offers hope in and of himself moreso than his words. I can clearly remember people of integrity offering ideas of substance to be debated selflessly on their merits long after Yeats published the words Mr. Kay has quoted above.
    As bad as things can seem now, maybe just maybe the wheel has turned far enough, that we are cycling back to a time when that integrity of ideas and actions mattered more.

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