The Self-Promotion Blues, or, Me and Jessica Lange

categories: Cocktail Hour


There was a fine essay the other week in the back of the New York Times Book Review, a piece called “Building the Brand” by Tony Perrottet. The beginning of the piece was particularly good, where Perrottet writes about the uneasiness that most of us feel about self-promotion: “In this era when most writers are expected to do everything but run the printing presses, self-promotion is so accepted that we hardly give it a second thought.  And yet, whenever I have a new book come out, I have to shake the unpleasant sensation that there is something unseemly about my own clamor for attention.”

Unseemly.  That’s it exactly.  As I head into my summer of promoting two books, anxious that they will sell 30 and 34 copies respectively, I feel both the near-desperate desire to get attention for them and a deep-seated ambivalence about that desire.The feeling is entirely different from writing the books themselves. While I was down in the gulf researching and then back home writing The Tarball Chronciles, I felt a sense of religious mission (or at least as close as I get to religious mission.)  Books are hard but they wonderfully organize the chaotic world; they make your priorities clear. They give you, as Steve Martin said in The Jerk, a “special purpose.” What young writers, and old writers like me, sometimes don’t understand, or forget, is that making a book is largely a matter of creating energy, and that excitement and focus are great energy creators. As it turns out, large challenges, sometimes nearly impossible challenges, are good ways to engage your otherwise unengaged mind, and that difficulty itself can create sustained excitement.   People don’t usually say this out loud but for me there is something frankly noble about making a book—it entails sacrifice and commitment.

It is hard to build up a similar sense of focus, sacrifice, and commitment when the task at hand is trying to get people to look in your direction.  By writers’ standards, I am pretty extraverted and in general do not mind attention.  I sing at parties, give impromptu speeches, and, after a few drinks, like to do a little something I call “the butt dance.” (Better not to ask.)  Though I have technically never worn a lampshade on my head, I do not consider myself above it. And I’ve always had a little Muhammad Ali in me: when I played Ultimate Frisbee I billed myself as “The greatest player of all time–by far.”  The point is I’m not shy.  And even un-shy me feels uneasy at the prospect of a summer of waving my arms around and yelling, “Hey everybody, look at me!”

When I am feeling particularly bad about the tackiness of the whole self-promo game, I think of the reassuring case of Jessica Lange.  Why Jessica?  Because long before she was an award-winning thespian, a smart, savvy professional married to America’s most famous living playwright (who also happens to be a movie star), she became famous for showing her breasts to a giant ape. I still remember when the issue of Time–or was it Newsweek?–arrived at our house on Beechmont Street in Worcester.  This must have been around 1975 and Dino de Laurentis’s new movie, King Kong, was featured on the cover and inside, over a series of photos, the huge ape held a young starlet in his hand, while, with the forefinger of the other hand, he pulled down the top the starlet’s primitive dress.  Of course that issue of Time did not get thrown in the trash at the end of the month with the rest, but found its way into the bottom of a young boy’s underwear drawer.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that without those pictures Jessica Lange might not have been Jessica Lange.  Without acting the tootsie there would be no Tootsie.  (Side note: these pictures have obviously stood the test of time: when I typed in “Jessica Lange” at Google images, the words “King Kong” appeared after her name in the first few options.)

So good for Jessica.  But where does that leave me?  I have a book coming out about the Charles River and if I were to follow her model I might consider paddling down the Charles again, for promotional purposes, only in a Speedo this time. But no one wants to see that.  Moreover, as I get older I not only become less interesting with my clothes off but less interested in doing things that draw attention to me. It isn’t just that I, like you, have been taught that this obvious and pushy forcing of self onto the world is simply impolite.  It’s also because promoting oneself, as a goal, lacks the same sort of overall mission, of quest, of pure juice, that a book project has.  A book is a mountain to be climbed while this other thing is….well, what is it?

In the past I’ve tried to go into these self-promotional periods with the same energized mindset that I go into a book with. Instead of making obsessive lists of potential chapters I make lists of radio stations I will contact, articles I will write, readings I will give.  But invariably I run out of steam, though I do grudgingly do most of the things I’ve set out for myself.  Perhaps the best advice I’ve read for keeping sane during these periods comes from Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, where she strongly urges writers to get involved in their next creative project. This is a tad counter intuitive: how can you have time to do all that necessary hand waving and self-pointing if you are hard at work on the next thing?  Shouldn’t the commitment to getting the project out to the world be as strong as the commitment to the project’s completion?

This summer I will try to answer that last question in the affirmative.  This summer I will try to kill any new books that start growing in my brain, and try to get as excited about finding new readers as I get about writing new sentences.  And maybe this time it will all be different. Maybe, by sheer force of energy and will, I will end up trading quips with John Stewart on the Daily Show.  Maybe some young girl will smuggle away her family’s copy of Time, the one that features the Speedo-clad middle-aged kayaker.  Maybe, instead of getting up and drinking coffee and writing in the morning, I’ll get up and call my media contacts and tell them how great I am.

More likely, a little self-disgust will creep in. And that’s when another part of my brain will take over.  That part of my brain—dark, reptilian, primitive—will whisper to my conscious brain, “Hey, why don’t you blow off all this unseemly publicity stuff?”  My conscious brain will start to doubt itself until, and then, as it begins to teeter in its commitment, that older part of my brain will go in for the kill, whispering, temptingly:

“Hey, I’ve got this idea for a new book….”


  1. Bill writes:

    Here’s the scene with the monkey and the lady…

  2. Jessica Lange writes:

    Dear Mr. Gessner–You might think I’d be offended by your little ejaculation here, but I’m not…. And I’m still around. I’d be happy to kayak the Charles with you–in as few clothes as possible, the two of us, I mean. That would get us both some attention, and frankly, isn’t that what it’s all about? Your friend, or, I hope to be your friend, Jess.

    • Sam Shepherd writes:

      Jess….you hussy…stop making passes at that hot young(ish) writer.

  3. Dave writes:

    So far we have Cape Cod Museum of Nat History on July 6, Newton Free Library on July 14, the Thoreau Institute in Concord on July 19, and Harvard on July 21. But would love to do more while I’m up there if you have any ideas!

  4. An Alewife writes:

    Keep us informed if / when you are planning to be around Concord, Cambridge, Newburyport or Cape Cod.

    Good luck on your tour!