Wilde Promotion

on December 8, 2014 in Misc

oscar ny

This last week I learned a literary fact that surprised the heck out of me.

At the age of 27, Oscar Wilde set out to become a great celebrity.  Not a great writer, not a brilliant playwright and poet and essayist, but simply very, very famous.  So he set sail from England to the United States in 1882 and within days gained access to “America’s best-connected writers, scholars, salonistes and politicians, though he jawed just as jauntily with farmers, miners and cowboys.”

He quickly arranged to sit for a prominent photographer in Manhattan. Why? Because “New Yorkers were obsessed with collecting 4-by-6 cardboard-backed celebrity portraits, the Pokémon cards of the fin de siècle.  The image-conscious Wilde instantly saw the value of the trend:  The right photograph would burnish his image and magnify his mystique.”

(These quotes are from a New York Times review of a new biography, WILDE IN AMERICA, by David M. Friedman)

wilde colored

No one before Wilde had used the press so skillfully to establish a claim to renown,” Friedman argues, ably proving his point by following his subject from interview to interview, state to state, charting the shrewd steps Wilde took to build his brand, “devising a formula for creating fame that other modern celebrities — all of them far more shallow than he — are using today, whether they know it or not.”

Did you hear that?  Oscar Wilde built his brand first.  He first made himself a commodity the press eagerly covered.  He realized that “celebrity could come before accomplishment.”  Then only after he was famous did he sail back to England and launch his literary career.  Of course, unlike most celebrities he really was a genius and produced several literary masterpieces.

Obviously I’ve been going about my literary career (a word I use as a joke) all wrong.  Fame should have come first.  The trouble is, I lack not only Wilde’s literary genius, I completely lack his genius for self-promotion.  And honestly, the idea of promoting myself as opposed to my novels just seems…. weird.  I would feel so fake, so self-conscious, so strange. And yet, there’s something deliciously appealing about Wilde’s plan.

What about you?  I mean, we’ve all read the advice-to-writers about building our “brand” first and so on.  But do you think you could launch a self-promotion campaign the way Wilde did?

Have a great week.

8 Responses to “Wilde Promotion”

  1. I don’t have his genius either. Clever way he went about it. Good thing he produced, or he would’ve been like Paris Hilton – famous for nothing.

  2. Helena says:

    Alex – Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Snookie — so many famous people without a hint of talent, let alone genius.

  3. Hart Johnson says:

    I think his personality is a bit of a rarity in writers. I really see him as having all of this grounded in humor to some degree–have you read The Importance of Being Earnest? It gets across much of what I see he was doing–by playing at doing a thing you eventually sort of stumble into DOING the thing, if you will. He made it fun, which made it infectious. I try to do this online, but I don’t have the real life personality to carry it off. Plus there is the whole ‘follow it up with genius’ piece. But I think there are people online who have managed this: The Bloggess or Allie at Hyperbole and a Half–people with such large personalities and humor that we fall in love with them and THEN they sell their books.

  4. Wilde met Twain and my hero, McCord, on that trip. At least that is my story, and I am sticking with it! Wilde gets around: he is on my book trailer of today’s post. Thanks for letting me know about that new biography, too. :-)

  5. Helena says:

    Hart – I grew up on a book belonging to my Dad, “The Wit and Humor of Oscar Wilde” — so I knew a lot of his best lines by heart. And you’re so right that he was play-acting; he even consciously knew that just be being himself he was living a kind of fiction.

    Of course I now want to check out The Bloggess and Hyperbole, but for me YOU have a gorgeous, bigger-than-life personality, Hart dear.

  6. Helena says:

    Wilde – You know Wilde, Twain, and other writers so well I figure you’ve read a couple hundred biographies already. I’ll go meet you and Wilde right now.

  7. I had no idea there were media-whores back then, too! Guess it figures — part of the human condition. Definitely easier to land a book deal when you’re famous, methinks.

  8. Helena says:

    Milo – Media whoring was a very new profession, and Oscar was one of the first.