PR stunts of the literary greats

Tony Perrottet's "How Writers Build the Brand" for the New York Times Sunday Book Review is a fascinating look at the ways that great writers through the ages have sought to present themselves to the public through the press, from Stendhal's admitted "shamelesness [and] out-and-out charlatanism" to Hemingway's carefully staged hyper-macho photo ops. Even Herodotus did a self-funded book-tour in 440BC that climaxed with a recitation of "Histories" to the Olympic Games.
Such pioneering gestures pale, however, before the promotional stunts of the 19th century. In "Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris During the Age of Revolution," the historian Paul Metzner notes that new technology led to an explosion in the number of newspapers in Paris, creating an array of publicity options. In "Lost Illusions," Balzac observes that it was standard practice in Paris to bribe editors and critics with cash and lavish dinners to secure review space, while the city was plastered with loud posters advertising new releases. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant sent up a hot-air balloon over the Seine with the name of his latest short story, "Le Horla," painted on its side. In 1884, Maurice Barrès hired men to wear sandwich boards promoting his literary review, Les Taches d'Encre. In 1932, Colette created her own line of cosmetics sold through a Paris store. (This first venture into literary name-licensing was, tragically, a flop).
It goes on and on. Whitman astroturfed anonymous reviews of his own books; Nabokov asked photo editors to "feature him as a lepidopterist prancing about the forests in cap, shorts and long socks" and Virginia Woolf had British Vogue's fashion editor take her on a fashion remake in the boutiques of Paris.

How Writers Build the Brand (via The Awl)

(Image: Ernest_Hemingway_on_safari,_1934, Wikimedia Commons/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.)


  1. Which of course means that for Cory’s next book tour, he will be flying around the world in a hot air balloon and red cape, beaming twitter adverts as he goes. Which would be awesome.

    1. I knew 2 guys who lived next door to Hunter. They had a conversation which they would do:
      “Hunter’s an asshole.”
      “No, Hunter’s all right.”
      “Nah, he’s an asshole.”
      and so on and on. I mean, they KNEW him but they still weren’t sure.

  2. Mind you Nabokov actually WAS a lepidopterist, and the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

    1. Thanks for saving me the time to clear Nabovov’s reputation. There is a big difference between self-promotion and having more than one pursuit in life (however, it may be a bit unusual to excel at both).

  3. I’ve often thought about doing something to build hype for my own work, either through crazy PR stunts or astroturfing, but to me, it just feels sneaky and wrong to attempt to build interest using these kinds of methods.

    Knowing that the greats of the past behaved this way frees me from some of the scruples that were weighting me down. From now on, every BoingBoing comment I make will be shameless self promotion!

      1. > Hey, I like your work!

        Thanks! I’m glad to see that my aggressive shameless self promotion campaign is working!

        Would it be fair to say that the small number of artists embracing the creative commons and open source movement are a modern example of these kinds of PR stunts?

        I know some no-budget filmmakers who release their work cc-by-nc-sa because they feel that free work has a built-in audience who are attracted to the work simply because it is free and open.

        The last two albums from Nine Inch Nails were cc-by-nc-sa, and everyone talked about the free part, no one talked about the music itself.

        And I don’t want to put words in Cory’s mouth, but *I think* I read a quote or statement somewhere that was attributed to him, saying “if everyone made their books free, I’d have to try something different.”

  4. Someone’s gotta explain to me why hunters love to do that
    Smiling Predator/Dead Prey end-of-hunt photograph.

    I guess the Hemingway photo is better than most. Usually the dead
    beast is sprawled out with its eyes open, mouth gaping,
    or tongue out. Or, the hunter will HOLD the dead animal’s
    head up for the camera, by the antlers perhaps. (“Smile for
    the camera!”) Which to me is the epitome of Fail.

    1. Hemingway presents his view of big-game hunting in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. It is a short story and it is good and honest.

  5. Popular historiographer Julius Caesar conquered Rome and made himself dictator for life. Your little safari doesn’t look so butch now, does it Ern?

    1. There should be a movie about Saddam Hussein as an aspiring novelist who took over Iraq to secure a market for his works. “I came, I wrote, Iraq” or something.

  6. I love the hot air balloon novelty; it’s very buxom and seemingly opulent. I’d prefer that to the hordes of aimless trumpeters on Twitter.

  7. People that can do that sort of self-promotion are a total mystery to me. I have a website where I’ve put my hacker-themed writing online — all under Creative Commons and completely free of advertising of any kind — yet I *still* resist promoting it for fear of sounding like a total douche.

    And also, I suppose, because I’m worried that it’s kind of weird and not worth crowing about.

    At a fundamental level, I find it very hard to shout ZOMG I’M SO AWESOME LOOK AT ME!!! about anything. If I were an extrovert, I probably wouldn’t spend a lot of my free time inside, alone, writing.

    I know some people write because it’s their livelihood, and in this media-saturated world they have to jockey on a daily basis to keep from been drowned out by the flavor-of-the-month competitor. And damn, sometimes I’m really glad I’m not one of you.

    But then I wonder if anyone but my local circle of friends will see anything I create.

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