h a r r i e t m a y

Marketing lessons from Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan at Guardian Book ClubHave you read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan? It was one of those books that when it came out it felt like everyone was reading it. It moves across time, linking characters not necessarily directly or chronologically but in some tenuous way. Almost like a reminder that the marginal characters in your life are the heroes in theirs; roles that are interchangeable in every moment. The power lies not in the characters but the moment, which Egan denotes as the goon: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

I went with Sam to see Jennifer Egan interviewed as part of Guardian Book Club, where she spoke mostly about A Visit from the Goon Squad (the idea behind the event series is that an author will have a new book out, but they’ll be asked to talk about an older work. That way no one has to apologise for accidental spoilers).

Jennifer Egan is so clearly brilliant and so effortlessly warm. Even when talking about the way she works; at one point she stopped herself to apologise for speaking as if her writing appears fully formed on the page. It doesn’t. She writes entirely long-hand, and her latest novel Manhattan Beach eventually ended up as 14,000 handwritten pages where some characters had different names throughout just because she’d lost track. But as I listened to her I couldn’t help thinking that the lessons she’d learned as an author made really good marketing advice:

There are many ways to tell a story, but make sure the medium fits
If you have read Goon Squad then you’ll know that the penultimate chapter, Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake, is told as a PowerPoint presentation. Egan had never used PowerPoint before writing this chapter (to get a primer she had asked her sister, a consultant at Bain, to send her one, telling her it was research into the corporate world. When she received the file she couldn’t even open it, as she didn’t even have ), but had the feeling that the setting, a desert, might just work with PowerPoint atmospherically.

But it’s a radical form, and the only way she felt she could access the character of Alison Blake. “I wouldn’t have used it if there was another way to tell that story,” she said. “Hopefully I got some emotion through without over-sentimentality.”

Act fast
The last two chapters of Goon Squad are set in the future– a future that’s now our present and that was dreamt up before everyone had an iPhone. Egan didn’t shy away from how outdated these chapters already are: “All these ideas were vaguely ahead [in 2010] and now they’re behind.”

The speed of technology and innovation is still increasing. If you want to be ahead, you’ll have to be quick.

Define what you do
When Goon Squad was published the New York Times called it “uncategorizable”. Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? Jennifer Egan wouldn’t let her publisher put ‘A Novel’ on the cover of the hardback edition. And I mean, I get it. It’s easy to think that by leaving something open, you let your audience think for themselves. You let them decide, to participate.

But that isn’t what actually happens. What happens is that your audience, not knowing what you’re offering them or why they should care, move on. Good Squad sold poorly when it was first released.

Define what you do so people can decide whether they’re interested in it or not.

Sometimes it’s luck
The movement through the stories of Goon Squad works a lot like you would move across the Internet, jumping through hypertext to related but separate material. Did that effect contribute to the success of Goon Squad (it won the Pulitzer in 2011), making it timely and narratively appealing?

If you get an idea, try it. Sometimes you do things and they’re relevant. Dream it up and see where it goes.


With more tech comes more responsibility

00003XTR_00003_BURST20170408100147-01“Do you think I could be an actor?” I cut a glance at Sam in such a way to ensure that he knows this is a test. It’s a game we play, usually when we’re at the theatre, like we are now. I am old enough to know how much work goes into becoming an actor, how highly skilled they are, but young enough to still think I could do anything, and why not this? I also think people who assume they can do anything are perhaps also the sort who don’t need endless reassurance, but I do. Sam is an actor, so I trust his opinion on this one, and also my fiancé, so I rely on him to always see the potential in me that I hope is really there.

“Well, you’d need to learn to project, for one,” he says, matter-of-factly, “and you’d need to overcome your mannerisms.” I pull back in mock-horror. My mannerisms! Sam proceeds to mime, bending his arms at the elbows and sharply punctuating the air with his hands, in which I find a nuanced sense of both beauty and humour, but not myself. “I do not do that!,” I object, and quickly cover myself: “And even if I did, that would mean I couldn’t be an actor?” I would hate to think my obstacles are things I cannot even see.

“No, you would just have to learn these things about yourself, and then how not to do them.” His response is reasonable, and after all, I am interested in finding out how swaths of people behave, and why. I should at the very least be able to do this for myself. And from what I can see, actors possess all the speaking, performance, communication, empathetic and analytical skills that are becoming increasingly necessary in the age of digital connection and virtual reality.

We have just installed Google Home, and now I can demand the lights go on and off, the temperature go up and down, media begin and end, on a whim like a spoiled child, and without moving a muscle. It’s a funny thing to grow up with a parent who remembers having to walk to the TV to change the channel, and now I don’t even have to hunt through the sofa cushions to find a remote. I think, this will help me learn to project.

Google Home is a smart assistant, but what I really need is a smart coach. There is economic value is outsourcing or automating mundane tasks– the reason why robots are replacing jobs at alarming rates— but what about personal value? The people who are losing jobs to machines do not have better lives because of it. They are being removed from the workplace altogether, so as we become more accepting of robots we have a responsibility to understand how that will effect the world around us.

So I understand that Google Home could quite possibly pick up on my mannerisms too. And when it does, will it use that knowledge just to sell me better things, removing the need for companies other than Google? My hope for technology is that it doesn’t just make my life more convenient, but that it can also help me become a better version of myself. My hope is that technology offers me more opportunities rather than just taking some away.

On greed

IMG_20170312_121600We’re young and urban and busy, so not much about our lives is about ritual, and when it is, it’s the ritual of morning coffee from Pret or of cramming ourselves into a Victoria line train before someone with greater mass pushes us back out (“Pull in your bags and jackets from the closing doors!” the train drivers bellow across the PA and then a beat later, predictably dismayed, “Somebody didn’t listen!”). We were raised with various half-hearted religions, or none at all, and whatever spirituality our parents hoped we’d gain has now been replaced with YouTube videos. “I think running is your spirituality,” Sam tells me, when I declare I’m not at all spiritual. “It occupies a lot of your mind and your time.” Does this mind-space and time-taken equate to spirituality, or distract from it? “It’s spiritual,” Sam assures me, “the way you use running to focus, to connect with yourself.” I’m not certain. All I know is I’m glad I have no obligation at all to pretend I believe in anything beyond stardust and electricity and sure even dark matter.

We meet Amy at a workers caff for eggs and toast before making our way over to Conway Hall, a beautiful art deco building that houses the oldest freethought organisation in the world. On the surface it’s church-like, but rather than bible verses the walls remind its congregation TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. It’s the kind of place where I can forget I’m hungover, rather than be made more aware of it. We are here for Sunday Sermon, another reminder of what we owe to those who normalised weekly meetings around the world to share ideas which is not, by itself, a terrible idea. The theme is greed and the first order of the day is to belt out the hymn, ABBA’s ‘Money Money Money’, before Jack Monroe, fresh from legal victory, takes the stage. I’m a little greedy, for success, for Karen Millen dresses, certainly for sourdough bread. I’m also a marketer whose work is based somewhat on manipulating the greed of others. I need this.

“I apologise for the general state of me,” she says, smirking beneath a flash of orange hair. Even suffering from a cold and not, like me, the consequences of the previous night, Jack is vibrant and rebellious and it’s easy to see how she has made a career out of appealing to the public, pushing back against modern pressures to be anything other than herself. The pressures to be aspirational, as she says. We can be successful without taking up all the space, all the resources, we can want things without damaging ourselves and our communities and each other. And this is the difference, as she tells it: following on from the success of her first book, A Girl Called Jack, her publisher had plans to grow Jack from “the face of modern poverty” into an aspirational success story, with a high-gloss, hardback book retailing for £26.99, more than double the £10 maximum selling price she had demanded for her first book. “The only way you can take every one of my readers on this journey with me,” she recalls saying, “is to give every one of them a book deal. Can you do that?” Yet at the time, Jack was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in a flat with five other people, a stark contrast to the space the publisher had arranged in which to take the highly stylised photography for the book. And in the end it didn’t become Jack’s book, it was something else entirely, not made for Jack’s audience but in spite of them: “and it flopped.”

Jack doesn’t manipulate greed but questions it. I resolve to question my greed, turn it into creativity and curiosity–focus is called for, and connection, and suddenly spirituality doesn’t seem so outlandish– and maybe then it’s even ok to want more.

Don’t be afraid, be disobedient instead

cnyIt is first thing in the morning, and I am watching a YouTube video over my morning coffee. This one happens to be on Thoreau, who in 1849, in the midst of an unjust war against Mexico and fifteen years before slavery was to be abolished, published an essay called ‘Civil Disobedience’. I have just spent a weekend angrily scrolling through Twitter, and calling my parents at their home in North Carolina to ask, how is it in apocalyptic America? So I am feeling, like a great deal of the world’s population, civilly disobedient.

Although we were incensed by Trump’s sudden Muslim Ban, the weekend was not, for us, one of protest. Instead, Sam and I ran the five miles from our flat to London’s Chinatown to join the Chinese New Year festivities and see in the year of the fire rooster– audacious dragons dancing to the beat of drums, while overhead products are sold to us in Chinese via LED screens. We remain hopeful that a year of luck and prosperity lies ahead of us, despite the signs that Trump is preparing for a coup. Hopeful that in the rich and colourful world we choose to participate in, ancient and modern all at once, our diversity will be a source of strength and not one of division.

In his essay, Thoreau writes that

The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognising and organising the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Any fears of globalisation and technology are being misaligned, to make the rich richer and the powerful almighty. Governments (the US government is now notable although certainly not alone) are using those who are ready to bend, not even to just its will this time, but to its whims. It has long been our job to demand discussion, progress and constant re-evaluation, but now we must go further, and endure all injustices as if they are acted out against us personally. When told to be afraid, refuse; choose to be disobedient instead. Know your neighbour, let your representatives know who you are and where you stand, and organise. More than a hundred years ago Thoreau decried a government that refused to strive to improve, to uphold the humanity of those it was formed to serve, and yet here we are.

“Cast your whole vote,” Thoreau insists, “not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” Well, I am a fire tiger: restless and independent. And ready to fight.

Feeling and Power

the_hedda_gabler_company-2578x1450We are at the National Theatre and the cast is on the stage, taking their final bows. Hedda Gabler has melted back into Ruth Wilson, Olivier Award-winning actress, and as the applause eases just enough she projects a few words over the crowd.

“Today is a historic day…” As she begins I am holding my breath, because she is using her platform powerfully and I am grateful. “We couldn’t march. But we march on stage.” The applause erupts again.

“How do you feel, after seeing Hedda Gabler?” As we exit the theatre into the bracing cold I know Sam is wondering because we have both been in a funk all day, wallowing in our January miseries. I did not go to the Women’s March, and I am wracked with guilt. “I feel better after that,” Sam admits, but I shake my head. “I feel the same as before,” I say, “Nothing.”

Over the last few weeks I have oscillated between feeling deflated and crushingly disconsolate, so I have not been much fun to be around. There is nothing wrong. It has merely been a feeling, like existing in a pot of tar: suspended in blackness with little ability to move.

Unable to move and at the brink of my vast irrationality. I say I want what I don’t; I throw tantrums when the innermost parts of myself are not correctly interpreted, through ESP or some other way. “Did you see yourself in Hedda?” is another thing Sam asks me, after she has flung several bouquets of flowers violently across the stage and confessed that she did not ever like the apartment in which her husband, stretched now to his financial limits, has acquired for her. Yes, yes of course. But surely a part of all of us is Hedda? (In the introduction to his English translation, the critic William Archer writes that “the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end.” If it should, with a view to recent events, I know it won’t be the Hedda-types who will be to blame.)

As we walk towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge on our way to the Embankment tube station, we discuss where power lies in Hedda Gabler. On the surface, Hedda herself has very little– every move she has made freely has served only to trap her further in isolation; in her marriage, in her home, in her thoughts. What power Hedda does have lies in the way she makes the other characters, both men and women, take to her, candidly offering her information she can then use against them. It is not until she attempts this with Judge Brack that she realises she is not the only one with this ability.

And there is a power projected onto her as well: the power to bear children. The insinuation and Tesman’s hope that Hedda may be pregnant is made several times, but a child would imprison her finally and completely. When Lovborg, on the other hand, refers to his manuscript as a “child”, he refers to the product of his intellect, hard work and freedom. What Hedda wants so desperately is to be her own woman. And yet she never finds the courage to live as brazenly and as deeply as she acts.  

And what if I’m failing to live brazenly or deeply? Going to work is easy; the commute, switching on the machine, answering questions and even asking them. It’s what is expected. What no one expects us to do is to fight, if we can find a way to fight for the right things in the right way.