Significant Signatures – Literary Self-Branding

2 May 2014 | By Sign Salad

The fact of literary commercialisation is old hat. Jack Kerouac’s beatnik spirit was reissued a few years ago by high street shop Urban Outfitters and their $40 ‘On the Road’ t-shirt – ironic given Kerouac’s particular distaste for humdrum domesticity, those ‘rows of well-do-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time’ (Dharma Bums). Indeed, online shop Out of Print specialises in literarily emblazoned fashion, from Charlotte Bronte tote bags to Orwellian iPhone covers.

But what about when the identity of the author and her writing tropes become the forefront signifiers of a book’s success? The point where it is no longer necessary for Out of Print to encapsulate a beatnik oeuvre on a t-shirt, because the author has already succeeded in branding themselves? Although Kerouac may not have been too keen on this approach, self-branding now proliferates across the world of literature.

Terry Pratchett with his leather jacket and black fedora hat is practically synonymous with his own brand of comic fantasy and his Discworld series with its gaudy maximalist covers and fictional and topical parodies. He stated in a 2007 radio interview that his early-onset Alzheimer’s was an ‘embuggerance’, a word that would not seem out of place in one of his novels, reinforcing Pratchett’s Pratchettness with the signifying tropes of his fantastical appeal.

Zadie Smith experienced instant success with her multi-award winning debut White Teeth, imbuing the name Zadie Smith with such eminence that a not-insignificant advance was issued for her second novel The Autograph Man. Although this novel did not receive such a storm of praise, it by no means besmirched the brand Zadie Smith and subsequent to the publication of her debut she has succeeded in establishing her own style of quick-witted hysterical realism, more often than not revolving around the multicultural enclaves of North-West London.

Like Pratchett, Smith proffers her trademark appearance, donning bright-coloured prints and a signature headscarf, photographed bright-eyed and worldly-wise, gestures that fortify the Zadie Smith brand. Her publishers use the same font and livery for the covers of her books, communicating to consumers a Zadie Smith consistency that is also reinforced by Smith herself – her distinguishing characteristics: a headscarf, literary clout, a sparky realist writing that predominantly circumnavigates the NW postcode. In this global age of ephemeral author presence, in which the writer is simultaneously digitally close and physically distant, these signifying tropes come to stand in for the old fashioned signature. Following this, consumers are reassured by given marks of authenticity; the Zadie Smith font, the Zadie Smith headscarf, the Zadie Smith postcode – all of these tropes regulate the Zadie Smith brand, offering consistency and quality to its consumers.

Then consider the extensive gap between the publication of Donna Tartt’s 2002 novel, The Little Friend, which won the WH Smith Literary Award, and her most recent 2013 novel The Goldfinch. Despite not publishing anything for over ten years, Tartt’s name now carries the alluring promise of long and extensively researched books, finely honed detail and awkward adolescence. Her product might appeal to the highbrow reader looking for a page-turner, austerity & intelligence with a serious pinch of potboiler. This brand offering is mirrored in Tartt’s elusive life, in the few photographs of her severe bob haircut, sporting a mysteriously knowing gaze – all serving to stoke the barrel of Tartt-related possibilities.

The cult aura of the Tartt brand contrasts against the likes of Stephen King, whose Wikipedia page alone offers an extensive author biography. A different brand of best-selling author, King has published over fifty novels, mostly of the mainstream modern horror genre, and a far cry from Tartt’s illustrious and enigmatic prose. King’s novels have been made into Hollywood blockbusters, and his book On Writing serves as a personal memoir as well as a guide for those who also wish to write (presumably with a certain King-like flourish, although hopefully to develop some own-brand sensibilities). King’s characteristic glasses and manifold public appearances serve to strengthen his quality of Kingness, his brand of authorial stamp.

The brand of an author is affected by the way in which authors present (or, as with Tartt, does not present) themselves to their consumers. Their style, their friends, which cafes they frequent all contribute to their particular signature coding – the framing of the quintessentially Guardian-reading, literary Zadie-esque to the mannishly clothed and all-knowing Tartt-esque. Urban Outfitters don’t need to offer a White Teeth t-shirt for Zadie Smith to appear as a cohesive brand type – she’s already there, and she’s done it all by herself.

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