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