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The Tackiness of Publicity
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For sheer gall and arrogant self-promotion, you really have to hand it to writer Nicholas Sparks. The mega-selling novelist, who creates dopey bestsellers that frequently get made into terrible movies (The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe) once made the infamous claim that he was like Shakespeare when it comes to inventing romantic dramas. He also stated that he was a part of a great tradition that included Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway, although, he was quick to add, he blazed his own trail: when a reporter from the USA Today asked what writers in his genre he liked, he replied "There are no authors in my genre. No one is doing what I do." He also dismissed the notion that what he wrote were "romances" or "melodramas." "There is a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion or manipulating emotion," he said. "And I do not verge into melodrama. It's all drama."
Well okay then. Though someone gets cancer in virtually every one of his stories, there's no melodrama in his work. Got it. And I guess only a rival of Shakespeare could come up with lines like "Love is like the wind, you can't see it but you can feel it" or "I love you more than there are stars in the sky and fish in the sea." And you can surely see the Hemingway influence in prose like this: "Life, he realized, was much like a song. In the beginning there is mystery, in the end there is confirmation, but it's in the middle where all the emotion resides to make the whole thing worthwhile." And you can hardly blame the guy for bristling at the notion that he's merely a "romance" writer, especially when you discover this beauty, from Nights in Rodanthe: "While I sleep, I dream of you, and when I wake, I long to hold you in my arms. If anything, our time apart has only made me more certain that I want to spend my nights by your side and my days with your heart."
I love this passage, especially the last part, the "days with your heart" bit — it conjures up visions of the fervent lover spending days with the disembodied heart, taking it to dinner, on a romantic boat ride, having a picnic with it. This is a writer, damn it, a real writer, not a simple melodramatist or romance novelist. He's up there on the mountaintop with Shakespeare and Tolstoy and all the rest, and if you don't believe me, well, just listen to Nicholas Sparks, he'll tell you all about it.
Of course, for a writer as eminent as Nicholas Sparks, it must be deeply insulting to witness other, lesser writers trying to pass off their wares as "artistic" or "important" novels, which is probably why he ridiculed Cormac McCarthy's book Blood Meridian, calling it "horrible" and "the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written." Never mind the almost universal praise the book has received, or the fact that McCarthy is perennially on the short list of Nobel Prize nominees, or the assertion by Harold Bloom that Blood Meridian is the greatest single book since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Nicholas Sparks knows writing, damn it, and Cormac McCarthy is just a hack, an impostor, a wannabe. And Faulkner, too, for that matter.
All of this is appalling, of course, and embarrassing, and believe me, it's way too easy to point out what a total jackass Nicholas Sparks is (Other writers have taken better shots at him, most notably Roger Ebert.) But I have to admit, a part of me kind of admires the audacity of the arrogant little creep. His books are total crap, absolutely unreadable, and the movies are terrible, even for the genre, but I get a kick out of the PT Barnum hucksterisms. Nicholas Sparks is such a bad writer that he gives Stephanie Meyer a run for her money as the worst popular writer of this century, yet in his mind, he's a genius. He's almost preternaturally oblivious. And he's more that capable in his role as a publicist for his favorite writer, Nicholas Sparks.
It's this part of the man that impresses me the most, for, like a lot of artists, I have a tremendously ambiguous relationship with the idea of self-promotion. Most writers, artists, musicians, et al., have to come to terms with the idea that, at some point, if you want to succeed, you have to pimp yourself out, you have to generate publicity, you have to get your name "out there." Some people have a knack for it, some view it as a necessary evil, and some, frankly, would rather toil in obscurity than sully their art with such tackiness. In a perfect world, a legitimate work of art will receive the notice and acclaim it deserves without a lot of noisy self-promotion, but, obviously, we don't live in a perfect world, and often the only time anything gets noticed is if it comes with a lot of belles and whistles and fireworks. It's unseemly, it's depressing, and unfortunately, it's absolutely a fact of life.
I wish I could remember the name of the up-and-coming novelist who stated, a few years ago, that if you want people to believe that you're a great writer, you have to tell them that. Repeatedly. After enough repetitions, the author wryly noted, people will start to believe you are a great writer, whether or not the work merits the applause. The author held no joy in explaining this, he was merely reflecting on the way the world works, as he saw it. And I think I agree. The method of self-promotion doesn't have to be as crass as Nicholas Sparks' (and really, the guy had already sold 70 million books when he made that statement about Shakespeare; I mean, come on), but there does have to be a tiny, savvy PR guy inside all artists, a little voice that knows the magic words to grease the wheels of marketing and publicity.
I'm notorious in my circle of friends for being ridiculously enthusiastic about the quality of my own work — anytime I receive a compliment about my acting or writing, I refuse to be deferential or humble, I usually respond with a supremely arrogant "I know" or "Yes, it is good, isn't it?" I know this makes me look like as big a jackass as Nicholas Sparks, but I should explain that I'm a perverse, transgressive sort who hates social conventions like the backstage theatre visit. I've heard too many of them, seen too many of them, and I know from experience that theatre people are liars of the first order, especially back stage. So I take the false compliment away with my arrogance. Of course, it goes without saying that I really do believe that I'm a great actor, and a great writer, one of the best this city or state or universe has ever seen. Maybe not as good as Nicholas Sparks, but a helluva lot better than Cormac McCarthy.