One of the primary reasons I've been a bad reader lately is advertising.
I’m a believer in advertising partly because, as you can see, I’m such a sucker for it. I even believe in advertising the English department I work in. For the past few semesters, I’ve hosted a series of pizza-lunch panels featuring English professors, the goal of which is to advertise the faculty to potential English-class-takers who might have lost their way to us, under the spell of “practical” disciplines like business and nursing. The title of the lunch that kicked us off was “Guilty Pleasures: Find Out What Your English Professors Really Do In Their Spare Time.” It was quite well attended.
So you’ll be surprised to discover that until recently, I was in the camp of people who reject the idea that writers need to sell themselves and their work. I rejected the notion on such a visceral level that I wasn’t even aware of it, until I joined a group of professors in trying to draft a plan for a literacy program at the university where I teach.
The group was formed in response to both the NEA’s report, and, more specifically, the extremely low—and falling—circulation numbers in the university’s library. The group huddled together for the first time on a bleak February day in the warmth of the library’s multimedia room, shutting ourselves in from the cold outside.
Before we began, we each filled out a short questionnaire about our own reading habits that included questions such as Do you mainly read for: a) pleasure, b) current events, or c) research; and How many novels have you read in the last six months: a) less than 5, b) 5-15, or c) more than 15. That was when I realized—and I said so at the meeting, to an abbreviated chorus of what I took to be similarly embarrassed laughs—that, looking at my answers, I might actually be part of problem we were sitting there trying to fix.
At dinner that night, I was telling my business-guy boyfriend about our meeting, and he said, “Sounds like you’re trying to ensure a market for your work.”
I thought this was unbelievably demeaning. I, a writer—an artiste!—was not going to be lowered to the bottom-line demands of the marketplace. To filthy lucre. Ensure a market, indeed. I aspired to something much loftier: to shaping undergraduates’ malleable minds with great words and ideas, to inspiring in them a hunger for knowledge, a desire to spurn the market-driven mentality of the Internet and television.
I was going to make them smarter.
Realizing that I’d taken offense to his suggestion, my boyfriend took a moment to clarify: “Don’t get me wrong—I think you should be trying to ensure a market base for your product.” My product being the future novels that would hopefully fly off Booksense’s virtual bookshelves.
He was, in short, encouraging me to do the very thing the NEA’s report implicitly urged all teachers and writers to do: Stop—and if possible reverse—the erosion of our market base.
Reading is as much at the mercy of the marketplace as GM stock. And because reading is just one of many priorities, for our students and for us, the commodity associated with the activity will get purchased only if that activity is at the top of a person’s list of priorities. Writers and teachers are competing—however much we wish this weren’t the case—for the time and attention of our students and potential readers.
It struck me then that teachers of writing are in the ideal position to market books. And the best forum might just be every university’s required freshman composition class, which is what literally armies of aspiring writers with MFAs are teaching these days.
We writer-teachers see our students at least two times a week, and we have their attention for a full three months of their formative intellectual years. And yet, how many of us see this as an opportunity not just to make them smarter, but to make them customers? Customers of our own writing, of our friends’ writing, and customers of local indie bookshops the nation over. For the months we hold sway over our students, when they write, they belong to the very community of writers to which we ourselves belong.
It’s really pretty exciting.
If we could make them feel this excitement, rather than the drudgery of the required course, who knows how many readers we’d create? Because we wouldn’t just be converting our own students. Pretty soon, when our students start turning down phone calls because, “Girl, I just can’t put this book down,” others will surely be inspired to follow.