If you’re marketing yourself online, if you’re working toward branding yourself, then experts warn you to avoid issues too personal or negative. Stay positive, inspirational, or, failing that, remain neutral. Don’t betray pessimism or low self-esteem or negative feelings or despondency.
In other words, don’t whinge.
For writers, branding isn’t concerned solely with their books; instead, branding is concerned with the writer—i.e., it’s creating an easily marketable persona who might inspire potential readers through engaging them while implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, plugging a book, short story, article, blog post, et cetera.
Your content, we’re told, and the tenor of your conversations and online activity should reflect the kind of books you’re peddling. If you write quirky tales, then your content should reflect that. If you write didactic narratives, then your content should reflect that.
But what it you write experimental fiction? What if each novel you write is told in a different voice, written in a different style, employs different structures or literary theories, and are sometimes cynical and pessimistic and depressing?
What if your books aren’t easy to market? What if you can’t compare them to writers currently represented by literary agents and signing deals with corporate publishing houses?
And what if your novels dwell on depression and cynicism and depression? Can you discuss those experiences and sensations without compromising your attempts to manufacture a successful brand?
Of the many novels I’ve written, I’ve disowned all but five. Of those, none resemble anything published by mainstream publishers. Or those five, two are structurally idiosyncratic and complex.
I’m proudest of the last novel I wrote—rewritten in 2013, revised in 2014 and again in 2015. It is structured to mimic the neurophysiology of what James Joyce referred to as the “Ineluctable modality of the visible.” It focuses on other modalities, such as aural and tactile. But the neurological processes of memory and imagination drive the piece, and its structure, unlike anything you’ll encounter in fiction, for good or ill, mirror those processes.
Without summarizing the novel here—because there’s no point, really—I will mention it’s, at core, about death and memories. The lead, a woman, is struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother and father, sister and wife while trying to orient herself in the face of an onslaught of memories and flights of fancy.
Another lead—Daulton, a fictional portrayal of the author—is trying to overcome the trauma of a miscarriage while dealing with his father’s death. The story is non-linear, something like a cross between Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Andre Breton’s Soluble Fish, among other novels, philosophical texts, and paintings, so it is neither synchronic nor diachronic but both A and B.
The novel ends with a suicide attempt by Daulton, but since the book isn’t linear, that doesn’t necessarily mean the story ends with Daulton’s suicide.
Given the weight of the material, its cynicism and bleakness, as well as its uncompromising structural complexities, and compounded by its lack of desire to explicate what is occurring, it’s not a novel agents trip over each other to read.
(In the book’s defense, all the puzzle pieces are either explicitly or implicitly embedded in the text but the text itself doesn’t show the reader how the pieces fit together.)
To my mind, it’s the best book I’ve written. It’s also the book I’m eager to see published, and, like my other novels, it’s one no one is likely to publish—you can’t sell it in a sentence or a paragraph without misrepresenting the nature of the book, its structural idiosyncrasies, and its unflinching complexity.
Considering this novel, and my desire and ability to reinvent myself whenever I write a story or a novel, considering the literary ventriloquism I’ve honed over the past two decades, I’ve found myself fixated on a single idea lately, what psychologists might call monoideism: how does a writer who doesn’t write the same book in the same style with the same voice more than once brand himself?
Now more than ever, branding—which is to say, developing a coherent and consistent persona—is crucial to developing a name for yourself, and when you write the kind of books I write, novels, as I said above, agents and corporate publishers aren’t tripping over themselves to sign, the odds of developing a viable brand which might lead to followers, potential audiences, and a book deal seem as plausible as transitioning phenomenology from a philosophical system to a legitimate branch of science. Or, to put it bluntly: my fixations and ambitions don’t augur well, re: scoring an agent or a book deal.
I’m now 36. I’ve written well over a dozen novels over the past twenty years, none of which are easy to sell, none of which are easy reads, none of which are accessible enough to appeal to agents or publishers.
Now, with each passing day, I feel as though I’m enduring the long and slow death of a dream, a dream I’ve harbored since 1995, a dream I feel slipping away from me.
Depressed and despondent, a shattered self-esteem and depleted confidence—these experiences and sensations inform my life from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep; and, as a result, I haven’t been able to write anything other than two short stories since 2013.
Thinking about my last novel, about the end of the book, about the suicide attempt by a fictionalized iteration of me, I now wonder if the suicide attempt unconsciously represented an implicit knowledge of the death of my dream of becoming a writer represented by an agent and signed to a publishing house—that is, a writer people will be able to read.