OutWrite 1998: The Collection
Callan Williams Copyright © 1998
It's the Packaging, Stupid
Notes On OutWrite98
The Packaging, Stupid.
It's the packaging, stupid. For cruising or for selling, it's the packaging that counts. When given a choice between an excellent product with so-so marketing, and a so-so product with excellent marketing, bet on the marketing. People really do judge a book by its cover, even authors.
That was the message that threaded through the seventh OutWrite convention, held in Boston February 20-22 1998.
Most writers there hated the message. They hated the notion that their hard written words were nothing but product, that their image as an author was nothing but a commodity to be bought and sold. They worked hard to ignore the message that agents, publicists and publishers were giving out, that the obligation to engage the market, to engage the audience, is the first priority. Just like the first obligation of a politician is to get elected, because they are only effective in office, the first obligation of a writer is to get the book published, publicized, sold and into the hands of readers, because if no one reads the book it may as well not exist.
This does not sit well at all with vulnerable, romantic writers, who are focused on creating great art. The requirement to package, to seduce readers, to market is painful, especially for people who reject the whole notion of a market economy. Yet, if a book is never published, does it really exist? While Emily Dickinson published very little in her lifetime, most writers aren't willing to wait for a post-mortem audience, and can't afford to wait for post-mortem royalty checks.
It's hard to make money from writing a book. It takes good sales and ancillary work, like speaking engagements, to make a living as an author, even for people who write blockbusters, which also need to be sold. That means that packaging is crucial, the notion that "marketing is oversimplification" as promoted by Reis & Trout. This is very hard for an author who has worked to create a nuanced and rich work of art, only to then have the obligation to remove the nuances from it and over simplify it again to satisfy the market.
It is a packaging of both the work and the author. Agents are clear that they look at the commercial possibilities of the author as well as of the text itself, because they know that books that sell attract both publishers and readers. The author's public persona is part of the package, honed and performed to entice readers, to draw attention, to focus sales.
This notion of packaging exists in every part of life. Transpeople quickly learn that it is not enough to be something, but that there is an obligation to show who we are though the packaging that we present to the world. Even at OutWrite, queer central for the weekend, cruising was done by looking at surfaces, at what attracted in the moment, at the package. This makes life much easier for simple people with simple thoughts, because they have less nuance to erase, less angst about the pain of being oversimplified out of existence.
Authors who out themselves in their work know that whatever they do, they will be obscured by surfaces. Sometimes those are the packaging of the selling of the book, but many times it is the pigeon holing of the readers, who see what they want to in the text, often taking away messages that reinforce their own ideas and missing nuance that might challenge them. Putting yourself out as product, either in written form, in performance form, or even just in image form is allowing yourself to be surfaced, to be packaged by others to fit their own needs.
Yet, what is the alternative to this packaging? It is to be invisible, to never be seen by anyone. When we do fit in the package, we open the possibility to develop a relationship with the audience. In the first season of Seinfeld, we needed lots of cues, but now that we have built a relationship, even Elaine lifting an eyebrow is funny, because we know what she is thinking. This is the challenge of building an audience, starting simple and working up to a level of complexity and nuance, like two computers negotiating a language starting with 1 and 0.
The obligation of fitting in a package, even though we know that nobody is as simple as their packaging, is very hard. Even Caitlin Sullivan, who wrote "Nearly RoadKill" with Kate Bornstein, says that she still judges packages quickly, even though she knows there i.e. much beyond that. People have even told me that some see me as less than a full emotional human, someone who doesn't bleed, because they only see the packages of thought that I put out, and not the nuance behind them.
It's the packaging, stupid. It's about taking all that we are and symbolizing it, essentializing it, commodifying ourselves, in order to start a relationship with the other people and with society at large. I know that this is true. And I also know that there is a reason I am drinking rum at 1:30 in the afternoon as I write this, because I hate the thought of being surfaced, packaged.
But, it is the package. And sometimes I would rather just be stupid.
Writers are a queer bunch, and nowhere was that more evident than at the seventh OutWrite conference for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered Writers held in Boston over the weekend of February 21 1998. Everyone experiences a conference though their own eyes -- these are my experiences.
Writing is inherently a solitary pursuit, the battle between a human and a blank page, the will of words to craft a message that is meaningful. Samuel Delany noted "the only transgression to speak about are the issues of pain we have because we cannot speak about them," and in their own way, each writer has spent time locked in a closet finding ways to speak out about what touches them, to put their vision of the world on paper, on screen, or on stage, so that for a few moments others can see the world though their eyes and come away with a new vision.
In her plenary address, Nancy Vatrano, publisher of Firebrand Books noted that the decision to write is always a private one, but the decision to publish that writing is a public one, that art made public becomes public property. We write because we have to write, to understand ourselves, to pour out the thoughts and emotions that flood us and shape who we are. Sharing that writing, especially in a way that gives rewards to the writer and the people who also participate in the process of making that writing available and visible, requires more. We can also see this in gender -- the essence of gender is private, but the decision to express that gender is public, open to all.
"The difference between a book and standup," said comic Kate Clinton, "is that in standup you can tell people how to react, but in a book you just have to let it go and let the material find its own audience, its own level." Material we give to the world has a life of its own, and that life will affect the authors life in new and interesting ways. The hard part is not coming out, but coming out over and over again in new ways. A book outs its author in a new way everytime it is read, and selling a book requires even more outing, more public visibility, more surrender to the audience in every moment.
For me, as one of the few transgendered women in the approximately 1000 attendees, the issues of how to communicate the essence of my transgendered experience, how to have people share my vision for a moment is uppermost. In a crowd organized around sexuality, around cruising, a group where the connections of sexual relationships were predominant, talking about the challenges of gender is to be a member of a small group. Even in this ocean of queer writers, the transgendered are invisible, drowned in the assumption that it's about sexuality, even though many panelists spoke of seeing the limits of open sexuality as a rallying cry in the culture at large.
Craig Lucas, playwright, who was the other plenary speaker -- one lesbian, one gay man -- spoke of wanting to have his inner child assured that it was OK to fornicate, to copulate in ways that are still seen as slightly dirty. For me, though, I wanted to assure that inner child that it was OK to be a faggot, that the world is a better place because there are gay men who bring their own vision to it, in the same way the world is better because of the rainbow of diverse gender visions we each bring. I wanted to celebrate the gender, not the copulation, but that was far from the dominant theme.
In a panel on "Post Gender" with Nancy Nangeroni, Mike Hernandez, Caitlin Sullivan and Matt Bernstein Sycamore, they spoke of the challenges of moving past gender, of the point where we lose the "traction" that comes from fixed gender roles engaging with each other and end up "splattering" into a place beyond interpersonal relationships.
I noted that the organizer had invited the whole conference to "cruise . . .ahhhh. . network" but that one young butch from NYU had said that "my friends came up to cruise, but they are having trouble figuring out who is what." -- having trouble judging the books by their covers. I questioned the group on how the issues of packaging can actually reflect the contents of someone, how we can move beyond simple visual cues that create fear or desire, and move to understanding the whole person. For this crowd, writers whose inner emotional lives rarely were fully expressed on their surface, this was an enormous challenge. Even the big queer dance looked more like the high school dances for nerds I used to put on in the early 1970s than a festival of the most thoughtful and emotionally rich queers on the planet.
This issue of how to show who we are, to communicate with our packaging was reflected in the theme of commodification that ran though the conference. With the flowering of big chain bookstores and new media outlets, authors are required to package and sell themselves in a way that was only required for mass market authors in the past, the turning of nuanced books to bumper-stickers, the over-simplification that is inherent to marketing. Many bemoaned this requirement as capitalist oppression, while others welcomed it as the natural extension of ownership, owning and selling our own destiny.
The challenge in commodification, however, is the contradictory requirements on an author who must both be deeply solitary & introspective and now must also be committed to building marketing relationships & sales by being extroverted. Authors, whose every bruise makes for compelling reading must also toss off the bruises of the free-for-all market, remaining up, persistent and in-character, in-package to face the assault of the audience they must appeal to, from agents to editors to reviewers to readers.
Successful authors seem to address this dilemma by presenting a persona to the world, to perform the public role of author, which is somewhat separate from their private role of writer. Kate Bornstein highlighted this in her panel on Writing Against The Rules "As someone who is not primarily a writer but a performer, I am working on the Zen koan, "The way you do anything is the way you do everything." I am trying to write the way I act, to have relationships the way I write, to live the way I have relationships. I bring everything I am to my work, my acting, my transgender, even those days when I sold Scientology. I'm too exhausted to act. I just come from the heart. Many people fear transgendered people, and my goal is to say in no uncertain terms "I am not a threat to you." I have this whole non-gendered cuteness thing, and I think it's working. I just want to say "I love you" to as many people as possible, and I do that. I just am myself with the audience, and that means I am good with an audience. I can get an audience off, oh yeah baybee!"
Meryl Cohn, whose book "Do What I Say" was written as "Ms. Behavior," a lesbian etiquette expert, says she sometimes looks at outrageous things she wrote and then thinks "That's OK. Ms. Behavior said those things! Writing from a persona has really freed me."
For many authors, the challenge of maintaining those persona in face-to-face encounters can be difficult. On the Internet it can be difficult to code nuance and irony, and there were writers who could not even recognize irony up close any more. This is the natural extension of the writers inherent self-centered-ness, their obsession with their subject, which, after all is said and done, is always themselves. Their own immersion into their thoughts and feelings is what allows them to make powerful language, to concentrate their emotions on the page from where they can jump into the minds and hearts of their readers.
It is an old truth that one who feels too much need to criticize and demean the work of others is not doing their own work enough. The dissatisfaction they have with not speaking their own piece comes out in demeaning and belittling what others say. My own personal issues around OutWrite were around this issue. When I was doing my work, either participating or receiving positive comments about my work, I was happy, but when I saw others doing work it chafed at my own need to get my work more visible, and I was prone to see them negatively.
The challenge for me, however, was the cost of moving from writer to author, of commodifying myself and my work to go public, and in going public letting go of my privacy and opening myself to both the negative and positive of the audience. To be open to the world requires dropping our defenses, defense that protect against other people's fear and against the love other people have for us.
The cost of this opening to others was seen differently. Carol Queen, a bisexual sex educator and author noted that whenever heterosexuals read even a book about queers they think "Hey, this is about me!" She believes that there may be something to learn from that, that we can learn to appropriate the good stuff, moving away from the assumption that whenever we take from others we are contaminated, polluted. Kate Clinton, a radical lesbian comedian was less happy. "Straight people are becoming more gay, and gay people are becoming more straight. Assimilation is about coming together, but being cutting edge means being marginal, and losing marginality for me is losing my edge."
Losing our edge, our marginality, our liminality, our unique voice that is grounded in our pain and rage versus taking the best from the world, breaking boundaries and becoming part of culture is the debate that the queer community that is engaged in, and the one that each writer as an individual is faced with as they try to juxtapose the inner creative voice with the outer product. Even as Veronica Vera. from "Miss Vera's School For Boys Who Want To Be Girls" sits in the sparsely attended transgender writers caucus and tells me that she was also afraid of being packaged, but has come to love it. I fear that packaging as much as I crave that opportunity to be a star and have people want to hear my words, see the world through my eyes.
The friend I drove to OutWrite with turned to me and said "If they know it are not, you are one of the best chances that trannies have to change the perception of transgender in culture." Even a friend who was on an airplane talking about transgender with an advertising executive got the advice that "The gender community need to find a way to "SELL" their issues."
I write what I need to hear, what I have always needed to hear, just like any writer does. The challenge, as highlighted for many queer writers at OutWrite, is how we take the work and turn it into a product, take the very blood from our veins, the tears from our eyes and sweat from our brow and hawk those precious fluids to a waiting market. To suffer in silence, write in private, is to open your heart. To speak up in public, to be an author in the market, is to sell a piece of your heart. Yet, if we don't give our heart to others, how can we help the global community grow?
Notes From OutWrite 98
-It's possible to make a living doing what I plan to do. I know because I met someone doing it.
-- I'm expelling toxins from the right side of my body! I'm free!
-- I am way too smart for the crowd. My mother promised that would change as I grew up.
-- I dreamed my whole family came and met me and took me home -- even the ones who have left this place.
-- I was having my arms pinioned to my side and being suffocated. That must be your dream
-- Of course I can change context in an instant. Why can't people just accept that?
Before I left, Paige called, the gal who I last went to Boston with, and when I came back, Fran got the point about TG. How odd and synchronous!
Walking though Boston was a hoot. so much like home. And then there was that odd pseudo-Buivid who was with the crossdresser <Gypsy6@AOL.COM> who was born in Albany and has been living in Montreal -- where I also went to school. How odd.
Victoria Vera: When the money gets thin and the bill collectors are calling then you have to jump and just make the package go.
Liz: "You are brilliant and funny and sexy and you don't know it. You play bigger in boy clothes because you feel safer, but I'm not sure that's a good thing."
Carol Queen: Many of us are into the romance of ownership and belonging, and we try to stealth into a kind of emotional S&M if we want to or not.
Delany: categories are always provisional.
Callan: Who should we be performing this weekend? It's all performative.
Caitlin Sullivan: I have taken to writing about myself in the first person plural. I am a fragmented being, which is a TG being. [q: how is codependency (who do you want me to be?) different than multi-role personalities?] There are benefits to structure, and I like to talk about them. How do we negotiate points of solidity, common ground?
Vatarano: We are visible, but people still don't feel comfortable engaging us. We need movements, need to study the struggle of oppressed groups, learn from others people's lives, find common cause with people not like us.
Callan: Kate should be on "Trannies Who Will Do Anything For Affirmation & Affection" on Geraldo.
Carole Maso: Why does reality == verity? And whose verity does it equal? Does autonomous always equal joyful and free? Every piece of writing is the creation of a universe, a universe that has its own rules and must be internally consistent or readers will tear it up.
John Keen: "We" is almost always a conflation and inaccurate.
Barbara Carrellas: Writing is seducing people into your world
Liz: I feel scared, wacky, out-of-place,
discombobulated & uncomfortable at the reception.
Callan: Transpeople feel that way all the time. What is a transwoman thinking when you see her? I can guess -- fear, scars, discomfort, trepidation. Few people realize the enormous effort it takes just to be there.
-- Hormone drives are the anesthesia of the first adolescence
-- The cycle repeats
-- how can you know about people from their packaging?
-- People buy books that are written by authors.
-- Stardom is required
-- I can see people who will play a role in my future.
-- It's about my work or it's about nothing at all. Happy when Leslea or others honored the work
What is the difference between adjusting your story to not infuriate bullies and adjusting your story to not short out allies? Do both require the same kind of staying dim?