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Mystery and the Practice of Writing:
A Call for Restoration 

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“An author’s personality can help or hurt the attention readers give to his books . . . The way to save your work and reach more readers is to advertise yourself.”
Norman Mailer, First Advertisement for Myself

It is not insignificant that one of the oldest definitions of the word ‘mystery’ is this: a handicraft or trade.

Some time ago, the details of the practice of a trade were seldom known—kept unknowable by the practitioner—to those who awaited the result. It was the work itself that dazzled, the final product that drew the curious. One didn’t sit by the forge and count the sparks. The tradesperson didn’t divulge all the intricacies and frustrations. There was a tradition: a rigorous protection of the secrets of a craft.

But with writers, in the twenty-first century, what do we get instead?

We get daily updates on the process of a novel. All the frustrations. Details of its contents. The emotional landscape that goes with its creation, every moment of it divulged.

We get the author’s complaints about cover art, or paper quality.

We are given a blow–by-blow account of every deadline, every agent’s response, every copyeditor’s mistake.

We get information about the financial and business arrangements between author and publisher.crisis Hints are provided about the scale, or lack thereof, of an author’s advances. Precise figures regarding what is needed in the way of preorders are lamented. We are asked outright to spread the word and help make sure the book will sell.

This is the scenario online in 2014. Readers and writers are caught in a relationship crisis. The work is laid bare and unprotected. The author self-flagellates on the blog. And while we are supposed to be storytellers, this cannot be the story that readers expect us to tell.


Readers’ Eyes: The Blog and the Writer’s Practice

Of course we want to build up our work and our talents in the eyes of our readers. That being said, how we go about it matters very much.

“It is sometimes fatal to one’s talent not to have a public with a clear recognition of one’s size,” Mailer wrote, in First Advertisement for Myself. However, the actions outlined in the bullet points of the previous section amount to a kind of betrayal.

That is, we have mistaken readers to be a replacement for the increasingly absent—maybe already vanished—publicity departments of so many of the publishing houses that used to provide them. We must realize, however, that this replacement of one for the other is a form of vulgarity.

I’m not even convinced that blogging is an effective way to sell books to readers. It seems to me that it’s simply the first, or perhaps the first convenient, way that publishing houses have managed to conceptually offload the shrinking-budget problem. Writer: go blog; we’ll see you in accounting in three months.

Meanwhile, Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, was among the top three bestselling authors in the United States, in 2012, according to Publisher’s Weekly. And she doesn’t blog or tweet at all.

14981462-yellow-typewriter-oldWait, all the bloggers are wont to say — and often the following comes from those bloggers who want you to read their blogs about blogging — Flynn (and others like her) were popular before the Internet was the place where publishers told us to go. I suppose the equation comes out to: a writer such as Flynn needn’t blog, but everyone else must. Everyone whose career is not like hers. Every author trying to make it on their own.

A very leaky boat, this equation. If blogging is the answer in the era of new publishing, then why aren’t the best and most aggressive bloggers enjoying the fruits of their labor by now? Why aren’t they selling like Ms. Flynn? Regardless, writers continue with the instructed method: furiously disclose, beg, repeat.

It is high time for a change in our online thinking.

Smarter Advertisements: Better Blogging Now

Any savvy marketer will tell you that the well-thought-out building of a brand—especially the building of a brand in the digital space—involves not an endless series of advertisements for oneself but a series of interesting and informative installments. The creation of idea-heavy material that is actually an adjunct to the brand, but not the begging of an audience for anything.

Writers are a brand, too. Their books are the products.

For example, airlines publish articles about the best times to skip lines at an airport. Beverage companies with philanthropic arms publish stories about associated efforts to bring sports to UK youth. Information technology services put up articles about new trends in the IT industry, not lunkheaded insistences that everyone ought to buy the products that they sell.

Writers are a brand, too. Their books are the products. If authors make mistakes online, it is often that they’ve confused the goal—the recognition of one’s size as it were—to be the virtual disclosure of every sordid detail of their personal practice. They flay their writing for all to see.

This is counter to every good example of how attracting an audience works. One doesn’t sell a plane ticket to travelers by divulging the repair history of a given plane. Why then, would an author try to sell their next story to readers by listing all the instances that it has been broken along the way?

Readers should instead be granted ways to find good writing through expressions of the writer’s art.

• Instead of yet another post about what one wrote today, why not a once-a-week installment of flash fiction?

• Rather than a shopping list and begging readers to visit auctions of signed books on eBay, why not a fragment or a chapter from an out-of-print, or even an abandoned, work?

• If an author draws, paints, makes jewelry, sculpts, or shoots short films, these are works that add to an audience’s appreciation of an author overall.


And Finally…Why and What We Must Do

The artifact, the books and stories, should be a place for exploration. They should be the thing that readers search for meanings and one not rendered vestigial by the explicit exposure that has become so commonplace.

Why, you ask. What is at stake?

We risk rendering the end results of our handicraft prosaic. We risk turning our finished writings into postcards for a blog that readers followed along the way.

What we must do is restore more mystery to the equation. At the same time we must relearn the art of earning an audience, not by the methods of thoughtless marketing, but by creating a sense of personality, and giving our readers better tools to measure our creative size.


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James O’Brien holds a Ph.D. from the Editorial Institute at Boston University. He is engaged in research for the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge Historical Society. O’Brien’s fiction and poetry have recently appeared in The Newer York, Commas and Colons, and Titular Journal. Currently, O’Brien publishes Bennington’s Catch, a serialized novella, at

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