I’ve written and scrapped this post three times now, and while common sense would suggest that should probably scuttle the topic for good, I cannot. Talk of branding and authorship is stuck in my craw and I have to spit something out before I choke on it.
The topic was raised recently with a quasi manifesto written by YA author Maureen Johnson on her blog, which was further discussed on Coleen Mondor’s blog Chasing Ray, and later tossed around on Twitter as one of the weekly #kidlitchat discussions. Aside from the fact that all this discussion has diffused our creative energies the thing that I keep coming back to is why we constantly feel this need to label, explain, define, and codify the creative process to the point of making it easier for commerce.
The largest issue concerning branding and authorship, as I see it, is the fact that the actual definition of branding means different things to different people. For some it’s about marketing, a shortcut to being able to identify a product with an expectation. To others, the brand is simply a definition of a flavor, a way of setting an author and their work apart from others.
The path to branding gets further muddied when emerging writers are told they need to identify, know, and exploit their brand. At conferences the idea of branding gets tossed about among suggestions for creating a website and getting yourself connected on social networks like facebook and Twitter. Establish your brand, essentially. Maureen Johnson’s answer to all this is, essentially, To Thine Own Self Be True and stop worrying about brand. To editors and agents the dictum is: Be More Like Maureen Johnson and Be Out There.
The flip side is that unpublished authors are told, sometimes explicitly, that a writer cannot build a saleable brand if they don’t specialize in a particular genre. I have talked to writers who actually have said they are afraid of the ideas they have for YA and picture books because they feel it will make it harder to position themselves as middle grade authors. Once established in your field you can “experiment” with little fear of sullying or diffusing your brand.
What I’m beginning to see is that authorship is beginning to take on the uglier aspects of cinema’s auteur theory, wherein an author is best understood by the themes that run throughout the work of a single person in what is generally agreed to be a collaborative art. Writing is not, generally, as collaborative as film but the desire to utilize the author’s name as a calling card for expectations is right up there like the name above the title on movies. Sell the author (or auteur), establish the brand, move the product.
In the 1950s when French critics (and future directors) put forth the auteur theory they were attempting to raise film to an art form worthy of the sort of analysis given to literature and other fine arts. As the theory goes, the films of Alfred Hitchcock could be identified by the stylistic elements and themes of paranoia, voyeurism, the guilt of the innocent, and dangerous ice queen blondes. While these elements are certainly recognizable over his five decade career what is most interesting is how many different writers were involved with these films. The auteur theory gives the writer little or no credit in the collaborative process because, in the end, it was the director’s “vision” on the screen and thus the fruits of their “authorship.”
As proof of the auteur theory’s durability you can probably name five Hitchcock films, and perhaps the stars of those films, and not name the screenwriter for a single one of them. My undergrad degree is in film and even I have a hard time remembering the screenwriters of Hitch’s films.
But as the argument for authors is that their brand lets readers (and editors and agents) know what to expect, the other edge on that sword is the same as film-director-as-auteur: there is a presumption of sameness from project to project that acts as a limiter to what the writer is expected to produce.
Maureen Johnson may espouse this idea that the writer need not worry, and that branding isn’t something to consider, but she also has not built her career as a writer across genres and formats. In “being herself” both in books and the way she presents herself on Twitter she has, inadvertently or by design, established a brand that is as easy to recognize by her readers as Coke is to soda drinkers. We are trained to seek out products that appeal to us and we expect those brands to remain loyal and true.
But as we are taught to appreciate the subtle emotional branding differences between Coke and Pepsi, their formulas differing only slightly in order to establish copyright, they are interchangeable as colas. You can be part of one brand’s “generation” or assume the superior posture of the other’s being “the real thing” and still not be able to define the differences. You must actively seek beyond recognizable names and read deeper into the packaging to find true variation: colas that use cane sugar taste radically different that those that use corn syrup, those that don’t artificially color their drinks are clear, and so on. But without this branding for superiority in the market we come to accept there are only two choices (like our branded politics) and will grudgingly accept the other if our preferred brand isn’t available.
Is this seriously the way we want to think about the craft of storytelling, about writing and about what it means to be an author?
The lasting result of this brand-think is that an author of breadth and depth is considered a liability, because their brand cannot be easily sold or exploited, which in turn limits what is available to us as reading consumers. What bothers me, then, is the expectation that what is perceived as “success” is that which can be replicated like a factory product; books thematically or stylistically similar to one another that do not challenge readers expectations or threaten them with the confusion of true variety.
When I think about what I like about certain authors do I find that it usually is with their style of storytelling. I assume it is because I have been trained to expect that from authors. But I was also trained as an artist and within the fine arts there are two distinct paths one can follow. Artists can, like photographer Ansel Adams, become the master printer of wilderness landscapes, so much so that the occasional portrait by Adams literally shocks because it seems “out of character” to us; or, as with artists like Picasso or Hockeny, move through different “periods” of their output as they strive to explore new horizons, giving followers a chance to grow and change their perspectives along the way.
What branding is for authors feels more to me like Warhol’s factory churning out silkscreen prints on canvas of palatable pop culture. One hit book is always welcome, but something that can be spun off into a series is even better. It’s the “If you like this, then you’ll love this” approach, with writers looking to find ways to take the stories they feel compelled to tell and forcibly lay them into molds. Like packaged titles, with their market research and stable of anonymous writers churning out melodramas according to the style book, brand identity becomes the tail that wags the dog.
It isn’t enough that authors remain true to themselves, they should be deliberately and consciously confounding expectations and moving as far a way from branding as possible. They, we, need to be on the edges of the frontiers not only telling the stories that matter to us, but giving readers cause to hack through the overgrowth of complacency and into new worlds. We need to stop demanding that writers all march along the paths that are known but to go beyond Frost’s less-traveled roads and actually blaze entirely new trails. It’s not about social media and e-publishing, it’s not about knowing our personal brand or getting pigeonholed, it’s about looking at our storytelling as a creative art, as something larger.
The dictum is that a writer must write what they know, and write the stories they need to tell. I’m beginning to believe this path of thinking, while true in many respects, has led to a dead-end of writer as a factory laborer. There are much bigger issues that aren’t being discussed but our energies are being consumed with false concerns like branding.
The old joke is that no one gets into writing for the money, so lets stop adopting the business models of marketing, quit focusing on appeasing the business cycles or second guessing the next trends. Instead let’s see if writers can find their way back to their shamanic roots, become the storytelling healers of their tribes, and increase the diversity of voices rather than the delusional heterogeneity of brand monoculture.