OK, I’m the first to admit I’m subject to a not insubstantial influence from Ginsberg, Cassady, Patti Smith and various other parts of late mid twentieth century American countercultur — but this really has nothing to do with navel-gazing, primal screams or the Age of Aquarius. Just like those slightly awkward elements of hippydom, though, this is one of those topics that makes authors shift uneasily in their chair, shuffle and generally look for an exit.
I get why writers resent the question: “What do you stand for?” You can understand it in two ways. First, it sounds like a segue into a discussion of branding and marketing, and both of those are somewhat distasteful topics. And in a way it is about this. In a way.
Second, many of us feel that what we write and who we are are two fundamentally
different things, and asking a writing “what do you stand for?” feels like it’s eroding that essential boundary between the private and the public.
I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable (ah, well, I think we know that’s a lie – a lot of us *need* to be made to feel uncomfortable, especially when it comes to art. But not in a bad way!) but I want to throw some things out there to go away and think about. I will be talking about all of them in some detail over the coming weeks either here or at my new blog The Cynical Self-publisher. For now, I’ll leave it at concrete suggestions and hinted reasons and hope to get you thinking.
- This is the one to appeal to the side of you that wants to get your books read. Thereare *lots* of books out there. Hundreds of thousands of them are really very good. Even if you write in the smallest niche, there will be reams of books around that aren’t too scruffy. If a reader is going to pick your book next then it’s not good enough to be one of the crowd. You have to stand out. They have to want to read your book more than any other. This is the point that interests me the least personally. I’ve just started a self-publishing advice blog, The Cynical Self-publisher, that focuses on the artistic side of self-publishing and generally steers in the opposite direction from all the blogs out there that will tell you how to sell, sell, sell.
- “What do you stand for?” is at the heart of one of the key things about writing –
voice. I know it’s a truism there are as many different views on what voice is as there are people to ask but here’s my contribution. A couple of days ago John Logan used Stanley Kubrick as an example of a creative who shifted genres with great ease. It’s also true to say that even if you’d never seen it before, you’d be able to spot a Kubrick film from a very short piece of footage. That’s what voice means to me. It’s what profilers mean when they talk about serial killers having a signature that stays the same even when the MO changes. Yes, this is visible through technique, throughoutward signs, but what it boils down to – in the case of serial killers and, I would say, of artists – is the basic need that your art fulfils, the central thing inside of you that you’re expressing. This will happen whether you are aware of it or not, but being aware of it is the kind of artistic self-knowledge that will allow you to work in the light rather than the dark, to make those tough editorial calls about structure, about what stays and what goes, and maybe lead you to modes of expression you wouldn’t have considered if you were working in the dark. It will, in other words, enable you to get what’s on the inside to the outside more faithfully – and that’s what art’s all about.
- Which brings me to my final point. I’m a confessional artist through and through. To many people that means I have introspective numpty running through me like a stick of rock – can we have a look inside to find out? Stereotypes and defensive joking
aside, and with the observation that I was a student during the heyday of Young British Art, for me the purpose of art is for the artist to take their inner truth and externalise it. This has nothing to do with autobiography in the general sense – it’s not about facts about your life. Rather it’s to do with something far more fundamental in terms of your relation to the world and your experience and the worldview that has percolated through all that. Your art is, literally, your mark on the world – faithfullyexternalising what is internal only to you is the way that mark becomes yours. Obviously this is just my point of view. It’s not particularly popular – the notion of the death of the author seems to have become the dominant doctrine in literature. You can think of it in terms just of your voice, but the point remains the same – you will never produce your best output unless you look right inside and figure out what’s there.
So, who are you? What do you stand for? They’re not just hippy memes. They’re the most important questions you can ask.