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How Far Should Writers Go to Sell Themselves?

Recently, I put on an event called The Literary Gong Show at an infamous watering hole in Portland, Oregon called Dante’s Inferno. I was the host of the event, and had dressed myself in a tuxedo and a floppy-collared, bright yellow, pleated tuxedo shirt that I unbuttoned to the navel. This was intended as an impersonation of Chuck Barris, the host who fronted the 70s TV program "The Gong Show," but I think I just looked like an aging writer in a cheap, untailored tuxedo who didn’t know how to button his shirt and couldn’t afford a bowtie. The Gong Show event was the end of a string of such events. In a bookstore in Portland, I orchestrated a doughnut ring toss. In San Francisco, I ran a game of Jeopardy. In Santa Fe, I reenacted a scene from my book. Sometimes I simply read, but at odd venues: cafes, bars, even a high school. At one point I found myself on top of a safe, sandwiched between an Elvira pinball machine and a vintage photo booth, reading to a crowd of people turned the other direction, as they waited to order pastries...

Recently, I put on an event called The Literary Gong Show at an infamous watering hole in Portland, Oregon called Dante’s Inferno. I was the host of the event, and had dressed myself in a tuxedo and a floppy-collared, bright yellow, pleated tuxedo shirt that I unbuttoned to the navel. This was intended as an impersonation of Chuck Barris, the host who fronted the 70s TV program "The Gong Show," but I think I just looked like an aging writer in a cheap, untailored tuxedo who didn’t know how to button his shirt and couldn’t afford a bowtie.

The Gong Show event was the end of a string of such events. In a bookstore in Portland, I orchestrated a doughnut ring toss. In San Francisco, I ran a game of Jeopardy. In Santa Fe, I reenacted a scene from my book. Sometimes I simply read, but at odd venues: cafes, bars, even a high school. At one point I found myself on top of a safe, sandwiched between an Elvira pinball machine and a vintage photo booth, reading to a crowd of people turned the other direction, as they waited to order pastries...

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

author-writer-james-bernard-frost
a-very-minor-prophet-book

Guest column by James Bernard Frost, author of the 2012 novel
A VERY MINOR PROPHET, which Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk
called "the best novel, ever, about [Portland's] strange underground
world of misfits and heroes. James' fiction and nonfiction has been
published in many places, including the San Francisco Examiner, and
Wired. He lives in Oregon with the author Kerry Cohen, their four children,
the rain, the freaks, and the trees. His bike is currently in disrepair.
Find James on Twitter.

If all this sounds overdone and somewhat unnecessary, you’re right, it was. But there was a method to my madness. My novel, A VERY MINOR PROPHET (April 2012, Hawthorne), is about a shy guy who wrote self-published magazines about a preacher he’d discovered in his town. The preacher stood up on milk crates, gave ridiculous sermons, and was ridiculed by his audience. As the narrative progresses, there is a change: the shy guy in my novel watches the preacher and wishes that he were just as brave.

So what I decided to do on my book tour was to be brave. I don’t know if I sold more books because of it. Most of the presentations were to tiny audiences. It’s entirely possible that all the stunts turned people off, and I sold less copies of the book. But the point was to live out the spirit of the novel, to take myself completely out of my comfort zone and see what happened.

And what did happen? I’m not entirely sure yet. Some things worked; some things didn’t. I’m at my best when I’m being genuine and sincere, and reading my material straight up to an audience that wants to listen. Chaos confuses me. Last night, after two hours of writers heckling each other—the gong going off; the writing hard to follow—I got up on the stage to read a chapter of my book, a scene that had taken place right there at Dante’s Inferno.

(Author Laura Novak discusses how live readings impact your writing.)

Screen shot 2013-02-23 at 12.18.15 AM

Me at the Literary Gong Show in Portland, OR.

It was a bad idea.

By the time I started reading, hordes of twenty-somethings were pouring in the door. They’d gone to a major league soccer game, and now they were in Dante’s for an event called Sinferno—they wanted to watch thin, tattooed woman writhe on the stage, and dancers twirling fire sticks. They did not want to watch an aging forty-year old in a tuxedo and an unbuttoned shirt reading from his novel.

I was sweating at this point. I could hear sports fans chatting with each other, ignoring the stage. Some guy yelled, “Get a hook.” I tried to find some way to end with humor, to wrap it up, but I just couldn’t weave my way through to an appropriate end. I finally just stopped mid-reading, thanked everybody for coming, and slunk my way off the stage.

(Pay it Forward -- 11 Ways You Can Help a Friend Market Their New Book.)

But as I walked off, surrounded by a throng of indifference, I chuckled to myself. In the scene in the novel at Dante’s, my main character, trying so hard to get across a message he carried so deeply inside, had been gonged off the stage, and here I was at Dante’s experiencing the same thing. It couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to the book tour.

Another writer who performed, the novelist Pauls Toutonghi, wrote an introduction for himself that evening. Pauls is an eloquent writer on the page, but his biography was purposefully simple. “Pauls Toutonghi is sick and tired of all this. He’s just a hard-working writer and a family man, who likes to settle down at night with a drink or two.”

As I walked out of Dante’s, outstaged by tattooed firedancers, Pauls’s bio reminded me of the truth of being a writer. The joy is in producing beautiful work. The most likely response to that work is indifference. But does that really matter? Especially when we’d rather be sitting at home on a lounge chair, a book in hand, settling down with a drink.

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