Sunday, September 04, 2011

Getting Seen as Publishing Paradigm

There's a scene in the movie Jerry Maguire where Jerry, a sports agent, is desperately fighting for a win for his fledgling new-paradigm agency on hand at the NFL draft. Client number one is on everybody's minds as the hottest thing going; client number two is Rod Tidwell, a hotheaded, self-impressed but underperforming lesser prospect. Jerry has obligations to both clients, but honestly, client one gets the lion's share of his attention, while Rod Tidwell is little more than client number two.

Rod is not above demanding fair treatment, however, so he confronts Jerry. Jerry's solution is to orchestrate a "walk through the room." The two start at one end and slowly make their way to the other, stopping intermittently as Jerry introduces Rod to star players, head coaches, team owners and media representatives. This is Jerry's strategy for Rod: Rod needs to "get seen."

Twenty-four hours later, Jerry has only Rod left; client number two had betrayed him and signed with another agent last-minute. A year later, Rod is the hottest thing going, and Jerry and Rod both get a happy ending. Rod got seen, and the pieces fell into place.

This is how we do it, isn't it? We gain and sustain whatever credibility we have--whatever authority, trust and even so meaningless a commodity as relevance--simply (and, increasingly, only) by getting seen. Celebrity magazines run photos of stars buying toilet paper as evidence that they're "Just Like US!" They run bullet lists itemizing the restaurants and bars and after-Oscar parties and vacation resorts where famous people have been spotted. Celebrity is the new normal.

It's not just movie stars and pop singers, though: journalists and politicians alike clamor to be among those seen at places of devastation, or at restaurants that carry the mystique of "the people" of a particular place. And it's not just journalists and politicians, either. Laypeople post photos and videos from every corner of our experience. We track down our image and tag it. We deselect unflattering photographs and make our most flattering pictures our persona. We brand ourselves with the places we allow ourselves to be photographed, or where we manage to convince people to photograph us. We get seen, then we make sure people see us getting seen. And on and on it goes.

Authors--at least authors of nonfiction--used to be relatively protected from this semi-salacious global positioning strategy. Of course there was a guild of peers among which they were known, but beyond the guild an author's thesis allowed and even required them to transcend such silly stargazing. That's no longer the case, of course; even among their guild, let alone beyond it, authors of the most pragmatic, utilitarian tome have to get out there and hustle it.

A troubling gauge of a proposed book's success, then, is the author's perceived aspiration to celebrity, a perceived capacity to get seen often by the right people, with the right people, in the right places. Fortunately for their families, thanks to contemporary technologies, much of this will to celebrity can be done from the couch; much celebrity-cultivation can be conducted through friend and follower counts and blog posts gone viral. But it's not solely virtual; wannabe authors still have to get seen in the real world with the right people, places and things, so much so that one wonders what time they have left to write.

Some of them don't have time left to write, of course; hence the phenomenon of "ghost writers." While ghost writers have been around a long time, their prevalence is growing; these "unseen" people take whatever content a named/seen author has time to dash off and turn it into something coherent and readable. They get paid for their trouble, and in many cases they get some name recognition four or five printings/years/million copies sold down the line. But really, what does it profit a person to gain a lot of money while losing their personhood? Ghosts are, existentially as well as strategically, immaterial. It's easy for an author or a publisher to imagine replacing one ghost with another simply to cut costs or to try something new.

The net effect of "ghosting" is that the notion that a book is a collaborative exercise is made more concrete. Not just cover designers and sellers and marketers and editors and distributors and manufacturers are partners in an author's effort; now even the writing is outsourced. In such an age, content itself becomes almost an afterthought; where the author is, what company the author is keeping and who the author is wearing have the capacity to gradually eclipse what the author is thinking or feeling or saying--or, more accurately perhaps, the author becomes increasingly the gloss painted over an idea that comes entirely from elsewhere. I can imagine the day when two authors introduce themselves to one another in a green room somewhere. "What's your name?" the first one asks. "Legion," the other responds, "for we are many." "What a coincidence!" retorts the first. "That's my name too!"

I'm told that part of the idea behind ubuntu, a worldview with its origins in sub-Saharan tribal Africa, is the need to differentiate spirit-beings from real humans. "I see you," one greets another, to which the other responds, "I am seen." This is functionally equivalent to Rene Descartes's "I think, therefore I am," in the sense that the net effect is to establish the identity, even the reality, of a person. But what makes it different is the need for two people, not one; it's the community that makes the individual human. "It takes a village to raise a child" is not an insight easily arrived at through Cartesian philosophy, but it's almost fundamental to ubuntu.

(I must quickly note that I may be confusing my folk-origins of ubuntu with the mythology employed in the movie Avatar. I haven't seen Avatar, but I'm told the blue people greet one another with "I see you." That, of course, came from somewhere, which may well be from the concept of ubuntu. My apologies if I've inadvertently mashed up the seed of a continent's civilization with a cheeseball plot device from an overrated movie.)

Anyway, I don't know what to say about this troubling trend of authors divorcing themselves from the task of writing, or the uncomfortable acquiescence of the publishing industry to the notion that some people should be satisfied being ghosts instead of whole persons, or that readers are becoming increasingly satisfied "reading" what only famous people have "written." One net effect--even and perhaps especially in Christian publishing, where I work--may be that famous people will be joined by pretty people, witty people, and eventually those pesky people that you friend or follow or otherwise indulge just to get them off your back, as the only people who get book contracts.

If you think I'm being overly alarmist, look at photographs of the stars of pop music before MTV and after: a shocking percentage of late-1970s rock stars were unattractive, whereas a couple of years later every star had a stylist, and no one without a stylist was a star. Video killed the radio star, indeed. Then consider the past eight presidential elections and ask yourself which candidate was more likeable, the one you'd rather have a beer with, and you'll find that the more natural entertainer was in every case the one elected leader of the free world. Then move to television and consider why Levi Johnston and Kate Gosselin and Snookie get to do whatever they want whenever they want to whomever they want, including publish a bestseller; it's because they wore down our defenses with their constant barrages of self-assertion.

This is the ephemeral environment we live and move and publish in. To be a writer is either to be utterly anonymous (the ghost) or arena-ready (the celebrity). There is precious little middle left for the craftspeople and heralds of messages who toil in private as a service to the public. As an author myself, I'm worried--mainly because I'm not popular or charismatic or good looking enough to be a celebrity, and I'm far too vain to be utterly anonymous. As an editor I'm worried--mainly because it takes a village to publish a book, and I'd rather live and work in a village populated by people than by legions and ghosts.

Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: there is a God who is Lord of all things seen and unseen, and to this God nothing is unseen. This God saw a slave girl named Hagar, who had escaped from harsh treatment into the harsh desert pregnant and alone, and offered her direction and purpose and hope. Hagar called this God "the One who sees me," and this God gave her a name and a story in his book. This God sent a letter to the church in Sardis, accusing them of having "a reputation of being alive" but in actuality settling for being mere ghosts. Nevertheless, this God offered those who defied the ways of their world to "never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels." No person is unseen by this God, and no publisher or author or reader or human being should ever forget it.

1 comment:

Winn Collier said...

Thank you, David. In a million ways, thank you.