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Business of Writing, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Borges and I… and Me: on the Writer’s Need to Build a Platform

We are most passionate about what we believe in and hope for, but it does tend to make us gullible in the pursuit of those goals.

For example, the salesperson wants to make the sale, and to do so must believe in his product. Most salespeople I’ve encountered have no doubts about what they’re selling, even if the item or service is trivial or deceitful. What’s interesting to me is that most of the salespeople I’ve known and worked with have the same attitude when someone else tries to sell them something. They tend to be quite easy to convince, because they believe so easily. Call it selling the salesman.

I think it’s the same for many writers. We believe so much in what we do, that we are as willing to be sold on aspects of the writing business for which maybe we should reserve some doubt.

borgesI know, I know. WTF? The above comes from reading The New Yorker’s piece, “Two New Books About ‘Borges’” by Mark O’Connell.  He writes of Jorge Luis Borges that, “Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message.” Borges doubted in his literature, and he doubted in life. He did not buy into many of the writing schools or practices of his time. He didn’t believe in writing novels when his ideas could be presented in short stories. He didn’t believe in genres. He abhorred the need for marketing and publicity, although he was one of the most interviewed authors of his time—but he spent much interview time separating his private self (the “I”) from his public persona (“Borges”). He understood the difference and did what he felt he had to do, but never bought into the hype. (Although maybe his criticism of his alter ego was a bit of an act to generate more publicity—with Borges, one never knows.)

In an essay titled “Borges and I,” he wrote this (reprinted in the NYer post):

Borges stands for all the things I hate. He stands for publicity, for being photographed, for having interviews, for politics, for opinions—all opinions are despicable I should say. He also stands for those two nonentities, those two impostors failure and success […] He deals in those things. While I, let us say, since the name of the paper is “Borges and I,” I stands not for the public man but for the private self, for reality, since these other things are unreal to me.

We are told by some of the agents and publishers who control the mainstream writing industry that we must market ourselves every day: blog, facebook, tweet, tumble, blah, blah, etc. How they expect us to be any good as writers if we spend time self-promoting instead of writing is beyond me, but I’m not surprised by that attitude, because these people are no longer writers or even believers in great literature, but salespeople, and they believe in, well, selling stuff, not creating stuff.

I admire Borges (actually not Borges, but his “I”), and like him I try to separate myself when I write as much as possible from that “other,” the necessary and gullible self-centered wannabe who writes this blog and sends out tweets and would gladly do an interview if anyone ever asked.

Maybe this split personality, this dual track imposed upon me by the publishing moguls (and me) will work out someday, and I’ll be a successful writer, but I have some doubts if I’ll be able to recognize success should it happen. The two me’s have different ideas about what constitutes that state.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of platform-building “mandates” presented to writers today?


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


33 thoughts on “Borges and I… and Me: on the Writer’s Need to Build a Platform

  1. Dear Joe, Your “I” is the subject, the great writer you are, your “me” is the objective victim the platform builders are trying to turn you into, and Borges is your Other, the alter ego, the example. As you have by fighting the battle your way already gotten your book published and on Amazon.com, I think you should go on defying the platform builders as much as is logistically possible. Borges is sort of saying to you: “One day, son, this can all be yours.” Go for it!

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 17, 2013, 1:42 PM
    • Well I can’t let you go on thinking my book was published independently. Woodward Press is me and four other writers, which makes the book self-published. I’ll explain more in future posts.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 11:57 AM
  2. “all opinions are despicable” — love that.

    It’s always comical when I hear agents/publishers/editors say, “just write the best book you can and the rest will take care of itself.” That’s true, of course, but I don’t believe they mean it for one second. Writers these days, it seems, are required to be 2 people: the deep, introspective artist who spends all of his/her time locked in a room alone working –and– the well-spoken, witty, charming, sociable, handsome marketing expert. It’s like when MTV came along and real musicians could no longer just be their authentic selves; they suddenly had to be fashion-plates and hang with the beautiful people, or forget having a career.

    Posted by Teri | August 17, 2013, 1:56 PM
    • Borges was absolutely right–which of course is despicable of me. And your MTV analogy is spot on, Teri.

      Agents and publishers seem to assume that writers write to be noticed, but it seems to me that the best writers write to discover some truth about life and reality. The “getting noticed” part only comes into play because writers, like other people, need to eat, and have to pursue some notoriety to be paid for the work they love. But corporate culture’s relentless cut-to-the-bone-so-executives-and-shareholders-can-make-more-money strategy throws us into the role of marketer, and both writing and marketing suffer.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 11:55 AM
  3. I’m thrilled we have choices to build a platform. In the old days, ten years ago, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet editors who have published my work online. To avoid burnout, I only blog once a month. If I skip a month, it’s because I have a lot going on and need the time for my WIP. I also spend most of my free time on Twitter and Tumblr because Facebook is more time-consuming. I think writers need to be “out there” but also need to be careful not to spread themselves to thin. It’s important to find social media sites (or a blog schedule) that works best for you.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 17, 2013, 2:54 PM
    • and therefore, SatMoPo works so well for me. I can always blather 500 or so words a week, and there’s no big pressure to do it more often and take away from my time on WIPs. Not that I don’t love doing it and the support I get from my regular commenters, but it’s mostly done to comply with that requirement of the industry.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 12:03 PM
    • I like what you said Darrelyn. Balance is key. kaye

      Posted by Kaye Linden | August 19, 2013, 4:06 PM
  4. Inneresting post, Joe.

    If you’re going traditional, you’re going to be stuck with all the abovementioned “shoulds.” If you’re going Indie, then you do what you feel you should do/want to do, and as much of it as you want to do. It’s all up to you. To me, it seems, it’s that simple. I like doing blog posts and radio interviews (yes, they’re fun to me), they are also a way to put my work out there. I don’t want to get bogged down in *having* to do that all the time, because it would then take away from writing, which is my Prime Directive.


    Writers never had to do that in the past; in the past writers were just called, well, WRITERS. That was the platform. Of course, there’s all kinds of things done in the past I don’t necessarily think we should be revisiting, like being hardscrabble dirt farmers and dying at the age of 42, so just because we did something a certain way in the past does not mean we should do it the same now,…but on “being a writer,” I do actually like that view of that. I resent HAVING to HAVE A PLATFORM. Bug off. If you like my work, then, please, continue to read my work, but don’t force me into some mechanistic, faux pretense just because some promo dude or dudette dreamed up the concept to SELL MERCHANDISE. Don’t force me into some artificial promotional creation I wasn’t BEFORE I came to you. I am a writer who has many and varied interests. I try to write about them. You don’t have to believe my beliefs, like my personality, or agree with my attire. Really, what it comes down to is, do you like my work? :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 17, 2013, 4:00 PM
    • The writing biz is in such chaos these days. There’s dozens of reasons, but a lot of it comes down to the old guard writing people (agents, publishers and writers) having no real understanding of the internet and social media, and the industry’s new demigods (corporate execs, marketers and wannabe writers) ignoring writing’s history and obsessing with pop culture, mass marketing, and profit margins. Those new guys are winning, and the old guys can’t stand it, and to me that means that writing (and all art, btw) is devalued, reduced to its entertainment and monetary value, and not its social comment, which is to render it not art at all. This is a war that will turn out like most wars–everyone loses in the end.

      I’m following your blog closely, Frank, because you’re doing exactly what indie authors must do to make it.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 12:25 PM
      • Thank you, Joe, for such kind and generous words! I also closely follow your blog for the same reason—and that you have so much GOOD to say! Keep fighting the good fight! :-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | August 18, 2013, 2:20 PM
      • BTW, I finally got on the stick and downloaded your Face Makers on my miPad (that’s what I call my iPad mini)! LOVE the cover, and looking forward to reading it, Joe!

        Posted by fpdorchak | August 18, 2013, 2:34 PM
      • Thanks Frank. And I’ll soon be over to grab a copy of ERO (not E.R.O.).

        Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 3:11 PM
      • I kept looking for your book over the iBook app, and it never showed (not even today); then I was hoping for the paperback version, but that keeps showing “limited/out of print” on Amazon, so I just decided to download into the Kindle app I kept forgetting I had. :-]

        : -] Well, thank you, sir. If you want the ebook, “ERO” works, if you want the paperback, “E.R.O.” is still the Amazon search engine.

        BTW, just read a recent article in Writers Digest that really torqued me off, about what to do for your writing career and to land an agent. It was written BY an agent, and so much in the article contradicted what has been pound and pounded and POUNDED into writers’ heads. I don’t like to rail on negatively about stuff, and am trying NOT to blog about it, but, good LORD the issues I have with that article! It just goes to show you, rules change. Just because someone tells you to do something one way…well, to heck with it. Just write a damn good story and follow your POSITIVE impulses. I’m tired about being told what to do then have the damn rules change—and don’t try to tell me “things change.” It really is turning into the movie biz, where you can’t trust what someone tells you to do, cause that will change once the rule has been uttered….

        Walk it off, walk…it…off…. ;-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | August 18, 2013, 3:55 PM
      • Sorry about the paperback. My bad timing. I decided to tweak the cover (trying to get more contrast in the faces), and while I’m proofing the new version the book is not available. But once it’s done, you and any of the regular commenters on SatMoPo will be eligible for a free copy. It’s the least I can do for you guys’ ongoing support. BTW I downloaded ERO and read a few pages–looks great.

        And yes, walk it off… As the writing industry goes through its current upheaval there will be many people on the marketing end who focus on sales and forget that writing is not just a product. It is a lot like the movie biz, as you say. But maybe as things settle down sometime in the future, writing will come to resemble the theater business more. There will still be a need to be profitable, but the focus is on the art, not the money. Look how many great actors turn to the stage after they’ve made their reputations. Maybe in time writers who currently follow the dictates of the sales droids will see the folly of the mass market and recommit to the quality of their art. Maybe.

        Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 7:39 PM
  5. I look forward to your posts. You always have an interesting perspective. kaye

    Posted by Kaye Linden | August 17, 2013, 5:01 PM
  6. I have very little understanding of platforms or publishing dos and don’ts. My publisher has so far only told me to pick one or two social media activities that would make me seem accessible to readers, and they’ve asked me to build an author website. That may change as the first pub date approaches, but for now it’s pretty low-key.

    Posted by Averil Dean | August 17, 2013, 5:57 PM
    • Your comment is very interesting to me, Averil, since what your publisher is requiring, despite the low-key approach, is basically the industry norm for new and unpublished writers. The difference is in how that’s perceived by the writer. One writer may say, “no problem, I enjoy doing it,” while another writer may say, “I should spend my time writing, not self-promoting.” I’d be interested in knowing just how immersed they want you to get into those social media activities.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 1:25 PM
      • Well, I do think writers worry more about this than we need to. A publisher just wants you to have some online presence, they truly don’t expect you to turn your world upside down and live in a fishbowl. The thing that sells the current book is the next book. Publishers know that. My editor seems sensitive to the fact that we all have only so much creative energy, most of which needs to be channeled into the real work of writing.

        I was already writing a blog when I signed with MIRA. They asked me to keep blogging. Most people are active in social media anyway, in one form or another, so it’s not really an upheaval as far as I can tell. (I’m not on Facebook or Twitter but I can see that it could get overwhelming if you tried to be everywhere. I agree with my editor that it’s better to pick one thing and do it consistently.)

        Social media aside, I have no clue what I’m expected to do in the real world once the book is out. Please dear god may it not involve public speaking.

        Posted by Averil Dean | August 18, 2013, 2:05 PM
      • I think you’ve got it in perspective, Averil.

        But you live in the Portland area and you have a book coming out. You’ll be reading. In public. And believe it or not, once you get that first sentence out, everything will be fine. In fact, more than fine.

        Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 2:10 PM
  7. It is a creative act to be different “persons” as the need arises. As a writer, I trust myself to be good at that.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | August 17, 2013, 6:05 PM
  8. I think I’m right there with you, Joe. Although I’ve enjoyed blogging much more than I thought I would (I entered the medium last year with some reluctance and a sense of platform-building obligation), I hate all the other crap we’re supposed to be doing. I have yet to think of Twitter as anything other than a complete waste of time. There’s so much noise and relentless spamming, I can’t figure out why it’s worth it. Your recent post on your blog “following,” which is largely puffed up by Twitter spammers/followers helped solidify my opinion. Yet somehow, like you, I keep on keeping on, trying to find a balance between the obligatory platform stuff and the actual writing, hoping that someday, maybe, I’ll embody the definition of successful. But I can’t help but think in the darkest times that I enjoyed writing much more when it didn’t feel so complicated.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 17, 2013, 11:58 PM
    • There’s an old saying in advertising/marketing, which is, “We know that half of our advertising is working… but we don’t know which half.” Despite improvements in their pseudo-science, marketers still can’t be sure which marketing strategy is the best for their clients, simply because consumer tastes change and they grow tired of the same campaigns (plus marketing “research” can’t include much info on innovations, since they haven’t been “innovated” yet–one of the reasons publishers produce the same kinds of books ad infinitum rather than taking chances on different stories.) Writers should only pursue those social media avenues they feel comfortable in (or make that less uncomfortable), or the practice can hurt their writing by putting undo stress on them.

      Your last comment strikes a chord with me. One of the main reasons I jettisoned many of my other commitments in the last few months (editorships at LA Review and Delphi, contest mogul and submission freak) was to get back to that time when I truly enjoyed writing and the thrill of discovering just where that passion could lead me, a time when I looked forward to sitting down at the keyboard instead of approaching it already exhausted. I feel like I’m getting there.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 1:41 PM
      • You’re a wise man, Joe, and every post you write gets me thinking. Perhaps I should also consider shedding all the peripheral platform crap and tune my focus into writing.

        Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 18, 2013, 1:56 PM
      • Unfortunately that strategy will only have an impact if about half of all writers do it at the same time. Otherwise no one will notice.

        But to individual writers I advise: Do what you love to do–it will show in your work. Leave out the frustrating and stressful parts, they’ll just drag you down.

        Posted by jpon | August 18, 2013, 2:14 PM
  9. Could Pynchon or Salinger break into today’s market?

    Posted by arichaley | August 19, 2013, 1:39 PM
    • I would hope so, but my gut feeling is no. Too much of publishing is tied to mass market sales and the values promulgated by television (which are essentially the same thing). To publish, Salinger would have to give Hayden Caulfield a superpower or an abuse problem, or some kind of gimmick, and I doubt he would do it.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2013, 8:54 PM
  10. Thanks Joe. You’ve started a lively discussion here, and I’m enjoying the comments alot. It’s interesting how the Borges questions gets everyone — not just thinking — but WRITING in a very energetic way. these are some of the most well-written comments I’ve read on your blog. which makes me think there’s something about Borges, something about the split that he writes and explains — that frees something up in us. The previous commentator mentioned Pynchon, and certainly Pynchon is (one of) the inheritor(s) of Borges, as is Beckett. Can you imagine THE CRYING OF LOT 49 in workshop? What about ENDGAME? How about as a tv series? videogame (actually that MIGHT work). So, there’s something about avant-garde writing that talks about the writer’s situation in a way that feels fresh and invigorating.

    as for me — I keep on feeling as though I “should” write a best seller, I “should” sell myself better (or at all), I “should” court mainstream success. I “should” write stuff that isn’t quite so peculiar. But the fact of the matter is, I’m pretty much not about that sort of thing. I hope to have readers — sure. But I write to help myself and others think that there’s more out there for us as humans than the status quo, and the mess we’re in currently is as much a failure of the imagination as it is a failure of ethical and political will to work and live with others. If we can imagine better and other, we can make it/do it. And so I hope in my own small way to encourage that — this thinking differently about what’s possible.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 19, 2013, 3:45 PM
    • Borges was one of those writers whose purpose was to plant doubt in the reader’s mind, to get him/her to question some unquestioned belief, or simply think about reality in a different way. I love reading his work, except that it doesn’t help me get anywhere in today’s market.

      As for those thoughts about what you “should” do as a writer (because I’ve had them too), ask who is telling you that, and whether you respect that point of view.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2013, 9:06 PM
  11. We are all multifaceted. Thank god for that. But why stop at two? There are many more aspects of my personality than me and Anna Fonte and frankly, they all help when I write. (How can you play favorites with the writer and the one who writes? Neither one is more real than the other. It’s all part of the pig, I say.) Borges knew that a writer must address the audience if he wants to get published, and he found an excellent way to do it.

    Posted by girl in the hat | August 20, 2013, 4:18 PM
    • Few besides Borges could pull off what he did, both on the page and in the spotlight.

      I like the idea of the writer tapping into aspects of her personality. For me, not only do they help create character, they often help me make the decision about what I will write on any particular day.

      Posted by jpon | August 20, 2013, 9:42 PM

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