If it’s true that we live in an Ironic Age culturally — in which subversion is the basic principle, and where previously accepted norms of beauty or order are intentionally undermined — then, theoretically, it must be feasible to live in a different age.
Northrop Frye touched on this in his brilliant book Anatomy of Criticism, with its Theory of Modes. Without going too much into that here — and Frye himself largely restricted his suppositions to literature rather than to everything in the culture — the general idea was that things have progressed through stages, from the ancient world where Myth ruled, to the Middle Ages which were dominated by Romance in the sense of long epics about legendary heroes, through a Renaissance period in which the grand forms that Frye dubbed High Mimetic took shape featuring kings and great leaders, to the beginnings of our current society with the growth of the novel and its 'ordinary characters', for example, and, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the emergence of Irony and its concentration on the sub-human as the basis of all art forms.
Owen Barfield, in his profound but rather difficult book Saving the Appearances, also argued that a shift had taken place over the centuries and that the way in which people perceived the world around them had fundamentally changed. According to Barfield, our current way of understanding things is going through a dysfunctional stage — he was hopeful that a more unified approach to comprehending reality, which drew on the connected harmonies of the past, might be achieved in the future.
Asserting that the world in which we live is going through a ‘phase’ automatically asserts that there might be other phases. Not that these other phases evolve naturally or are inevitable — that would be a step too far — but that they might exist and have just as much validity as the one that permeates everything at the moment is implicit in the larger argument.
Irony — our current ‘condition’ — has not discovered some underlying ‘truth’ which has enabled it to dismantle, disrupt and dismiss other perspectives, in other words. It would be truer to say that Irony, like any other broad viewpoint, is capable of revealing powerful insights into reality — but not absolute insights. Absolute insights could only be unveiled from a position which included all other possible viewpoints, if you see what I mean.
What does all this have to do with marketing your book?
Firstly, it may be a relief for you to know that you are not necessarily operating, as an author, in a tooth and claw environment. Just because your work has not made tons of cash, or received glowing reviews, or transformed your life because you are now recognised every time you go shopping, does not mean that you have ‘failed’. It might be possible to embrace a view in which the notion of ‘failure’ itself had no validity. Naturally, we are brought up to expect our lives and our products to succeed, or at least to be judged against an objective criteria which finds them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — it seems to be part of our mental DNA. But perhaps there is another way of looking at things entirely.
Secondly, if we have been largely brainwashed by our society to try to market our books in particular ways, maybe we should re-examine both the ways and our expectations.
What exactly does it mean, to ‘market’ a ‘book’?
What is a ‘book’, outside an Ironic framework? And what does it mean to ‘market’ it?
Through a long process which probably began back in the time of the Romantic Movement at the end of the 18th century, we have come to accept that a ‘book’ is an item containing exclusive intellectual property, copyright to an individual author, meaning that this property is ‘owned’ and belongs to one person to the automatic exclusion of all other identities. Naturally — and even our use of the word ‘naturally’ in this context is revelatory — if we ‘own’ our creative work, we enter then into a world in which others do not own it and our job becomes selling it to them. A marketplace appears.
That marketplace has a number of characteristics, including the sense that what takes place within it is ‘the individual versus the rest’. Furthermore, the ‘rest’ includes not only possible purchasers of our book, but purveyors of other books, competing with us for the attention of those prospects. We strive to bring about a kind of distortion, pulling attention toward ourselves and our book (and, it's implied, away from others) in an effort to generate interest and then, ultimately, to convert our specific and intellectual property into the more universal currency of… well, currency.
Prior to the 18th century, what we call intellectual property would have been viewed differently. We look back on those times as ‘primitive’ and even ‘contemptible’ because notions of copyright had not yet been developed, and the sin of plagiarism — or what we call a ‘sin’ — was rife. Authors borrowed ideas, characters, plots, settings and so forth from each other in ways which seem to us chaotic and unthinkable. But they only seem so if we hold tightly to the notion that intellectual property is a ‘thing’. Once we put that treasured concept aside — and it’s difficult to do, I agree — we begin to glimpse other ways of thinking and acting. What was important to Shakespeare and his contemporaries — and those who lived well before Shakespeare, going right back to ancient times — was not the individual ownership of one idea or set of ideas by a single author but a kind of ecology of ideas themselves.
That phrase ‘an ecology of ideas’ opens up whole new ways of perceiving things.
Stay tuned for more.