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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Art versus Copy

True story: I’ve just won a major poetry competition. I’m about to get a profile boost. People will be googling my name and stumbling on my website. Good! I’ve been writing poems and making books for a decade now, and the more people know about them, the better.

But my website, like many writers’ websites, has fallen into disrepair. Not only is it not up-to-date; parts of it have stopped working altogether. Before I can celebrate, I’ve got to fix the old girl up, and in doing so, enter into an uneasy negotiation with myself about the merits - and the perils - of self-publicising.

By and large, writers - by which I mean fiction writers and poets - are bad self-publicists. They’re bad because they’re reluctant, and they’re reluctant because so much of the business of self-publicity seems grubby - even, dare I say it, shameful. Shameful that you aren’t important enough for someone else to be doing it for you. Shameful that you’re stooping to ‘sell’ yourself like a brand of washing powder. Shameful because what you really want to write about is other people, other subject matter. If you were an attention seeker, you’d have gone into stand-up comedy. As a writer, you want people to look at you only so that they can then look where you’re pointing. There’s something inevitably absurd about your name being rendered in imposing letters at the top of a web page, as if people were coming to watch you dance or make a speech.

But to think of self-publicising purely as a matter of touting one's credentials, or 'brand' management, or placing oneself centre-stage, is to miss the opportunity to treat it as a creative enterprise. Art and publicity are not on opposite sides of the fence, the former for dreamers, the latter for schemers. Good copy shares much in common with good poetry - it is memorable and concise. Both can be used to tell the truth or make a beautiful lie. The point is to bring people closer to something.

One of the hardest parts of renovating my website is cutting down the word count. I’ve written a lot of poems and made a lot of books, employing different techniques and making use of, so I’m told, ‘a wide frame of reference’. Every project is different. Heck, every poem is different. But I can’t expect a visitor to want to pick their way through a full run-down in the hope of finding something that piques their interest.

I have to start by introducing myself, just as if I were meeting them in person. If I want them to follow my outstretched finger, I have to be an engaging guide. It's just like the first page of a book, or the first line of a poem - nobody likes an infodump. A brief summary of what I do and some examples of the range I cover can, I find, be folded into a short explanation of the layout of the site. I do want visitors to wander, and become lost, eventually. In this respect, I intend to be treacherous. But initially, at least, I would like them to feel they’ve got the measure of me, so that the (inevitable) majority who only stay for the briefest of visits can go away with an accurate impression.

Complications and setbacks can provide an impetus to do something unexpected. wasn't available when I was shopping for domain names, so I had to settle for Not as catchy, but at least I can have some fun with it. I add randomised text above the masthead, so that instead of just being my name in bold type, it reads 'Go to your room, Jon Stone' or 'Go crazy, Jon Stone'. This performs two additional functions: it's a little self-deprecating, which weighs against the egoistic focus of the site, and the randomisation means the site looks slightly different on each return visit.

I deploy endorsements, but try to choose ones that accentuate something odd or unique about me, rather than general praise. I keep the menu headings simple, but use subheadings so that I can add a variety of content. I want the site to look neat and navigable, but to have hidden depth. This is, after all, the first creation of mine that some people are going to encounter, I reason, so it should reflect the skill and attention that characterises my best work. It should not seem like something perfunctory, something that exists because a publicist told me I had to have a website.

And that's it, right there. Self-publicising is grubby when it's treated as an artless enterprise. Say it with feeling, and it need not be so.

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