Make a Splash! Career Advantages of Taking a Dump on Joan Didion

April 8, 2019 § 12 Comments


Ross_West_075

Photo by Jack Liu

By Ross West

Is this thing on?

[Tapping on microphone]

Okay, welcome, welcome everybody—nice to see such a good crowd. The subject of my talk today is Farrah Abraham. You may remember how she rocketed to fame as a participant on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant.  She followed-up with appearances on Teen Mom, Teen Mom OG, Couples Therapy, Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition, and Celebrity Big Brother.

Now twenty-seven, her indefatigable commitment to cultivating and leveraging her name, her celebrity—her brand, if you will—is simply breathtaking. What I’m here to tell you is that Farrah Abraham should be a role model and an inspiration for every writer attending this conference. This is true whether you are promoting a book, building a platform, or curating your career.

Just this month Abraham added “book critic” to her already impressive résumé with a review of Joan Didion’s groundbreaking Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Demonstrating the attention-getting panache of P.T. Barnum, Abraham titled her review, “Joan Didion is a Gin-drinking Bore Who Writes Convoluted Books.”

[Audience gasps and hisses]

I should add—

[Booing continues]

People, please. I should add, this piece was not written on spec—a practice painfully familiar to many of you fledgling self-promoters. No, Farrah Abraham was commissioned to write the piece—by Penthouse magazine.

[Audience groans]

I can see the name of that publication has some of you fidgeting in your seats. But let me remind you of a few authors who were glad to have their work appear in Penthouse: James Baldwin, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Roth.

Abraham is not without a certain amount of her own literary credibility. Her memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended, was a New York Times e-book bestseller. How many of you can say that?

[Indistinct comment shouted by an audience member]

0305-farrah-abraham-joan-didion-tmz-getty-4Yes, I agree, it was absolute garbage. Her review of Didion’s book is even worse. As if Abraham is completely unfamiliar with the concept of an essay collection, she’s stumped as to why the pieces jump “from year to year, often for no rhyme or reason. The non-linear structure confuses me. I had to wonder, ‘Was Didion even trying when she wrote this junk?’”

[Audience gasps and jeers]

Yes, junk. Ahem. And then there’s this: “If you’re looking to find out what not to do as a writer, this is a great book for you.”

[Groans and hoots]

Look, I don’t disagree with you. Let me come right out and say it: Abraham doesn’t have, and never will have, the literary talent of Joan Didion’s toenail clippings.

[Cheers]

But that is not the point.

Now please, people, can we all get off our artsy-fartsy high horses and get down to business?

Here’s the bald-faced fact: Success in this today’s publishing world is all about ambition.

So how do we learn from a fantastically successful self-promoter like Farrah Abraham?

Has writing your book landed you an interview? If so, great. But how can you make that interview work for you? In other words, ask yourself this: What would Farrah Abraham do?

Research shows that the more times a prospective buyer is exposed to your book’s name, the more likely she will remember it, google it, and buy it. So when the interviewer asks you a question, keep in mind the writer’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt take every opportunity to flog thy book. Commit to memory such phrases as “As I talked about in my book…” and “I devoted a whole chapter in my book to that…”

Listen to how smoothly Abraham does it: “When you need a book to read and ponder your drug problems, pick up a Didion essay collection. If you’re looking for a book that discusses real issues, you are better off picking up my memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended. My life story is closer to the truth of life.”

[Sneering, derisive laughter]

Yes, it’s appalling, grotesquely so . . . and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget, her book came out in 2012—seven years ago. But she’s still out there hustling the merch.

Let me be blunt: If you want to build your platform, if you want to blossom your career, sell books, and make money, you need to hold these truths to be self-evident: The race doesn’t go to the talented, or the clever, or the crafter of the most elegant lines since John Milton. The prize goes to the most aggressive promoter.

What matters is visibility, publicity; any and all attention you can generate in print, radio, television, podcasts, and blogs—exploding across social media with the attention-getting energy of a lightening bolt.

Abraham knows this in her bones. Her formal education is an associate’s degree from a defunct cooking school, but when she saw an opportunity to crap on one of the literary titans of the past hundred years did she hesitate? Not for one second. She’s a minnow calling a whale puny. That, ladies and gentlemen, is audacity.

And does she allow herself to be hobbled by some misplaced sense of humility? No! She’s riding the galloping stallion of her career and she’s giving it the spurs for all she’s worth.

[Audience grumbles]

If Farrah Abraham is anything, she’s shameless—a quality I suggest you nurture. And if you don’t already have the word careerist in your vocabulary, add it immediately, apply it to yourself, wear it as a badge of honor.

Any of you have a problem with that?

Another of Abraham’s skills: she thinks laterally. She accompanied the release of her memoir with a tie-in album of her music—one song for each chapter in the book. Pure cross-promotional genius. Farrah Abraham: TV star, best-selling author, literary critic, and accomplished musician. Has a nice Renaissance-woman ring, doesn’t it?

farrah-abraham.jpgIn point of fact, the reviews of her record were brutal; one used this phrase: “the most horrible combination of sounds to ever be assembled in the history of audio recording.” Doesn’t matter. Self-promotion is not a rearview mirror enterprise. What matters is what’s new and what’s next.

So ask yourself this: What am I going to do and how far am I willing to go? Abraham went all in, starring in the adult films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. You might not want to promote yourself quite so, well, nakedly. But people, one way or another it’s all about exposure. You need to act and act aggressively. Your books are not going to sell themselves. Your career is not going to spontaneously generate.

Let me leave you with this thought. Being a writer is, first and foremost, about pushing, plugging, hyping, branding, merchandizing, and in every other possible way advertising your work and yourself. It’s not a career for the timid.

Thank you.

Are there any questions?
__

Ross West earned an MFA at the University of Oregon, where he worked for nineteen years as science writer and editor of the research publication Inquiry then as senior managing editor of the university magazine Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His essays have been anthologized in Best Essays NorthwestIllness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and The Best of Dark Horse Presents. They have also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Recent publications include an excerpt from his novel in Embark (October 2018) and a short story in Spank the Carp (February 2019). He served as the text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and the Atlas of Yellowstone.

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§ 12 Responses to Make a Splash! Career Advantages of Taking a Dump on Joan Didion

  • Sandra says:

    I love all the booing, grumbling…and winking here. I just spent a weekend at a writing conference leaning how to market my book. Abraham could have taught one of the sessions, for sure.

  • This is a hoot! Thanks for writing it. I hate it and I love it. So, you know, there it is. I hate the reality of it but I love how you handle communicating the reality.

  • kjboldon says:

    I look forward to the Brevity email in my in ox as a reminder to focus on writing. When I write, I am guided by principles of communication I learned from a meditation teacher: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it timely? Is it true?

    This piece is neither kind nor necessary. Satire can be an effective tool for change, but to what end, here? To mock a pop culture figure as a way of bemoaning one’s own lack of celebrity? It comes off to me as sour grapes. I’m made more uncomfortable that it’s directed from a older man to a younger woman.

    I think we can raise the level of discourse here.

    • Totally and completely agree with kboldon here. Not really funny to me—can feel the snark and cynicism—yes, yes, I know, that is how it is meant to sound, but , wow. I also think Didion’s work and reputation are under no threat from Ms. Abraham. Isn’t this the type of capitalism we all (supposedly), Know and love?

  • Debra says:

    thanks, Ross, for a good Laugh (though not without a stab of pain).

  • kperrymn says:

    I found this an apt commentary on the current epidemic of shameless self-promotion. My only question is how have I never heard of the Journal of Recreational Linguistics? I’ve gotta check that out!

  • Hysterical. “…a minnow calling a whale puny.” Love it.

  • Kim Hinson says:

    Really fun blog Ross. It’s hard to write humor…but you did it! Yay! The world needs more humor these days…even at the expense of JD :-).

  • Perfect! Reality TV star Farrah Abraham reviews Joan Didion for Penthouse. What’s next? Kim Kardashian on . . . Ursula LeGuin? Maybe for GQ?

  • greghaz says:

    Hard to imagine a funnier report on the sad state of current American “culture”.
    Thanks Ross!

  • E. Kramer says:

    What a read! I have (not so fond) memories of watching Farrah Abraham on “Teen Mom.” What a blast from the past to see her appear here and in such an unexpected context. Thank you for the surprising — if somewhat upsetting — read.

  • Oh.I.Love.This! Hilarious and oh so true! Onward, writer peeps! Let’s be shameless! (should this not be a seminar in our MFA residencies?)

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