Okay, I have a brand, right? Right. It’s a grim thing to acknowledge but after all why be euphemistic about it? People buy my book or pay for this newsletter for multiple reasons, but part of it (presumably—I mean the alternative is quite grim to contemplate) would be because they dig me personally. Not, I suspect, as a person—my teeth are terrible, and I find interacting with children difficult, and both are quite charmless, if not morally dubious—but as a figure, a brand, a network of associations. It’s awkward to talk about this, especially when I haven’t written for a while, but let’s entertain the prospect, because I am on the cusp—the very cusp!—of attempting to sell a commercial book for the first time. To sell something you need to know what the brand is. And I do not know what my brand is. So I am once again asking for your help.
When I met the person who shortly afterwards became my agent last year, she asked me what I would want from an agent. I said I wanted someone to help me make sense of the various things I do. I suppose it is not just writers who have this problem: “does my job reflect my values” is after all quite relatable, on espère, and perhaps so is “why is my partner the way he is, why do I want a partner of this type—do I, even?” (In my case, I do: I suspect one of the less “relatable” things about me is that however complex my thoughts about my husband’s life and work, my feelings about him are quite simple—I’m fucking infatuated, smitten, cuntstruck.) So what are the things I do?
✅ I write about Victorian literature, often in ways that have been shaped by a psychoanalytic tradition of reading pre-C20 texts;
✅ I make dumb jokes, often of a desublimating nature—the difference between desublimation and bathos, meanwhile, is more important to me than that between good and evil;
✅ I post slutty pictures of myself on Twitter and Instagram. No point being euphemistic about this. I’m a highly trained specialist in literary studies, but I also present my boobs for delectation on social media. Why? You know why—because I want to, and I can;
✅ I get stuck in to various political controversies, especially those around prison and police abolition, trans civil rights, and the cultural politics of universities.
Now, is there a brand here? Certainly “slutty professor” is a kind of brand—though there are more professional sluts than professors who deploy it (although I‘d cite the work of my brilliant senior colleague Juana-Maria Rodriguez as a counterexample). “Millennial” seems to have some of it: ruthlessly driven and over-productive (to the point of being both infuriating and arguably counter-revolutionary), irreverent but good at manipulating existing power structures for my own benefit, and comfortable with forms of affirmation that gen x-ers find cringey or trite. But there are many millennials and I am trying to sell a book—so how to differentiate myself? (By the way I was born in 1983, so I’m cusp.)
I also think—this is awkward, but I think it’s true—I think my brand includes some notion that I am good at what I do. Even though we’re not sure what it is. “Good” in a capable, millennial, “self-starter” kind of way—even (to my horror) a “girl boss” kind of way. Which is to say my brand more resembles the negative stereotype of a Warren voter than that of a Sanders voter. I’m not sure that this aspect of my brand would survive much contact with my working day, where I am typically a little more absent-minded-professor than people might expect, but c’est la vie; it is the brand, and we service the brand after all. And perhaps I shall become more competent and capable, if the brand rewards me for doing so! I’m sure that my colleagues and students would be pleased if we could shave a couple of hours off my average response time on a work email.
But I’m not trying to be all dystopian today. You see, I need your help. You all have, at some point, clicked on something of mine that brought you here—which means that collectively, you know a good deal more than I do about my brand. And that information would be useful to me. Out there, in the world of marketing departments, this is called “market research,” but here it is just us girls, just having a cozy chat. (Is coziness part of my brand? Why not? Answer me!) I was chatting with a friend last night, who sold a book recently for a lot of money (successful friends: part of the brand? plz provide examples.) and her advice to me was to develop a strong sense of who the most mainstream reader of my book could be without changing the book.
I liked this exercise, but I was terrible at it. I initially said that it was “writing about sex, and who doesn’t like to read about sex?” My friend responded “don’t pitch me on the topic, pitch me on the reader! Describe the reader!” Suddenly I remembered images of women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway, and perhaps enjoying the bumps of the carriage more than previously they would. So: commuters, which means “young professionals,” where “young” means “millennials.” Millennial women! My friend nodded sagely as I finally began to decipher the riddle. Are these commuting masturbators homosexuals? Probably not, or at least not all of them. Some—perhaps most—are women in straight relationships, feeling for themselves the shittiness of straight relationships. (There is a word for this: “heteropessimist.”) OK: I am pitching to a successful, straight, busy young professional who kind of loathes or resents straightness as a structure of feeling. But why would such a reader give a hoot about Jude the Obscure, or Mars Attacks!, for that matter? Perhaps they were English majors and don’t get to use their undergraduate passions often enough in their day to day life. Do we have a brand yet?
Assiduous readers will have noticed a switch taking place: at this point, the “brand” is produced not through extrapolations of my character, but through a quasi-economic modeling of your behavior, starting with where you live (one of the fifteen American metro areas with a subway system), what kind of job you have (clerical; hence “commuting”—traveling during rush hour), how you fuck (str8ly and unsatisfactorily), and what you sentimentalize (literature; Victorian literature being preeminently sentimentalizable). Lest any of this feel condescending rather than bracing, the description could fit me quite easily, at any point of the last twenty years—it is only as I leave the “young” part of “young professional” behind that my sex life begins to feel more worth celebrating than quietly, bitterly ruing. But the fact that it is my experience too merely makes me susceptible to my own brand; it is not the me-ness of that profile that characterizes the brand—in so far as it is a brand, it is a model of you, not of me. At least, that was how my glamorous and successful friend was encouraging me to think.
Now, I’m a pathological narcissist, and I have some questions about this method—surely my brand, my quiddity, my whatness, should focus on me (of whom there is only one) rather than you, of whom there are many? And yet of course it cannot be so. For there is only one of me, and if my brand depends upon— 37 year old Victorianist transsexual, married to minor (but beloved) celebrity, apt to get into public fights but then appear suddenly morally ennobled—then my book is not going to sell. And how I want my book to sell; I want it, do you hear? I must have. Give, for I want.
Now, wanting aside, perhaps I could stoop to ask you, dear readers, two questions, and ask you to respond either here on the thread or over email to me.
One, who are you? Do you know others like you? Are you alone in this terrifying and hostile world, or are you one of a group? Is the group with you, or remote? Why are you reading this? How did this moment arise in your life? Who are you, to read these words, and to ponder their intrusive significance? What’s in this for you, dear reader?
Two, who am I? Do you know others like me? Am I alone in this terrifying and hostile world, or am I one of a group? Is the group with me, or remote? Why am I writing this? How did this moment arise in my life? Who am I, to write these words, and to ponder their intrusive significance? What’s in this for me, hypocrite écrivaine!
Oh and a bonus question: do you guys all like Sally Rooney, or— ✂️