Trust and Generosity: What Marketing Has To Learn From Writers


“Chance had made me a man, generosity would make me a book”
Jean-Paul Satre

A while back the Guardian newspaper asked some leading authors their ten rules for writing fiction.

Amongst Jonathan Franzen’s was:

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.”

Esther Freud’s rules included:

“Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”

Goodness. The reader as a co-conspirator. Someone we know. And like. And trust. Whose intelligence we have faith in. Someone who’s in it with us. Someone who we are in the service of.

How different that is from so much of marketingland’s assumptions and attitudes towards those it serves and depends on. How different that is from the notion of the hapless pawn who can be manipulated simply by the insertion of marketing messages into his or her brain. Or reducing people to anonymous demographics we have absolutely no empathy for. Or the habit of segmenting people into bizarre and meaningless typologies that bear absolutely no likeness to any of the real people we encounter in our own lives. Or assuming that our audience is not as smart or sophisticated as we are.

No amount of technology can compensate for not knowing or liking your audience. Perhaps we should all resolve to regard the consumer a little differently. Imagine a world where we too regarded the consumer as a friend, not an adversary, or a spectator. And where we trusted him or her.

The author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace once spoke of the writer’s generous impulse:

“All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”

It would seem that marketing has more to learn from the craftspeople that inhabit the world of literary fiction than it does from most social media experts.

One comment

  1. Amanda

    Great post. It reminded me of something I read recently by Michael Cunningham (who wrote The Hours), who said that authors need to learn to write for their readers, not themselves.
    I think his point is as true for people who write books as it is for those of us who work in agencies, whether we’re creating new work or writing the briefs designed to get us there.
    Here’s an excerpt from my favorite bit of his column, which will be top of mind next time I sit down in front of a blank page:
    I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.
    I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.
    We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite TV shows.
    What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.
    Here’s the link to the full column: