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  • Writer's pictureBella Ve

Launching Books and the Influencerfication of Art

There’s a big red Webster’s New World Dictionary in my house. The binding is falling off the spine and several pages are ripped in jagged pieces so that it’s impossible for me to tell what year it was published. There is no definition for “Internet” - it skips from interneuron to internist - but the definition for schmooze is: (n) “to chat or gossip, especially as to further a career or business connections.” I could have looked the word up online - and I did - and favored the Google definition (schmooze: (v) “talk with someone in a lively and friendly way, typically in order to impress or manipulate them”) but I’m trying to embrace the analog more often. Anyways, I tell Hailo, I am absolutely not a schmoozer. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.

You get ahead by networking, college career advisors repeat mechanically; my beloved boss rubs elbows with donors to secure our organization more funding; at a book launch party held by a Big 5 Publisher, a guest holds up a piece of the merch and says “I love the keychain, I’m definitely going to use it!”

Is she? Really?

I had no idea what to expect walking into said book launch party. I knew that Hailo forwarded us the invitation from Big 5 Publisher, and that I thought it would be fun (and if not fun, then cool). Truthfully, my mind’s eye pictured something similar to a gallery showing. I did not expect to be led up to floor 17 of a building in midtown Manhattan, and into a conference room with about five other people in it. I did not foresee my being introduced to The Author, and for her to hug me while a person on Big 5 Publisher’s staff held up a phone, recording the introduction. “I don’t know why I’m hugging everybody today!” The Author says, and I say “it’s okay, I’m a hugger!” and I hear her repeat the same line several times over the hour I spend at this thing they are calling a party.

Saccharine choruses of “yesssssssss!”es, forced and uninteresting conversation starters, (“what are you having for dinner tonight?” “what show is everyone watching right now?”), trinkets and branded merch on the table make me wonder about where they were produced, how many women and children of the Global South it took to produce them, how many greenhouse gas emissions polluted the environment from their production, and if people will actually use it instead of just saying they will. So, okay. I’m a cynic, I’m kind of a bitch, and I am truly, truly, trying to be less judgmental. But it’s goddamn hard. Of course I also tuck into the spread of free food. I’m not a barbarian.

We’re standing around, half heartedly blowing oxygen on the dwindling flame of conversation, and I have to admire the other women’s ability to schmooze, to make small talk, and to engage with people that I am uninterested in engaging. I am trying my best to girl boss queen my way into gatekeep gaslight go fuck myself when we’re told the interviews will start soon.

Big 5 Publisher has given us, we grateful influencers, the opportunity for individual, private, five minute interviews to post to our various social media platforms and content creation streams. Now instead of feeling awkward I am feeling panicked. I don’t know what to say, what to ask, I don’t know how to influence, I am not an influencer, I don’t want to be an influencer, I don’t want people to know who I am (Bella Ve is a fake name for Christ’s sake) but I don’t know how to say no. I had no idea this was what I was walking into.

I’d like to wait for Hailo to get here, I say. She is the one with the TikTok account, and she is more used to TikToking. So now I have time to violently flip through the pages of The Book, trying to grasp some semblance of some idea on what the hell The Author is even going on about. But I can’t retain anything because I am nervous and unnerved and I DO NOT WANT TO DO THIS but Big 5 Publisher allows me to go last so we can wait for Hailo.

I stall while Hailo is on her way, waiting for her to come save me. I have a real conversation with someone, and I think it’s not too bad. Dostoyevsky says it's harder to love the human than it is to love humanity. I disagree. Most of the time I feel like I can’t stand humanity, yet when I talk to a person for more than five minutes I feel an overwhelming love for them. But then she goes downstairs to welcome Hailo and I’m alone again.

I can’t be that person to influence, to film, to record. I can write about it, sure. I can’t TikTok. I can’t schmooze. I can’t talk small. I just can’t.

Why do we care to influence, anyway? To shout out in the void, to market in the digital age? To turn art into content, and create content that is masquerading as art?

Big 5 Publisher keeps asking for a time check on Hailo. When will she arrive? When will you record? When will our film team get to go home?

I’m still stuffing my face with free brownies and fruit and charcuterie. I want to get out of here. The Author is now going to sign our books in Sharpie. I remind her of my name, telling her how it is spelled, to save her the awkwardness of having to ask again in case she’d forgotten. I watch her draw a star as she signs, and when she gives it back to me I read the inscription, “Bella, you are PURE MAGIC!” her message says, and when I look up to thank her, I realize she has disappeared, and crossed the room to sign someone else’s book. Not that I’m particularly upset by this. It’s her job. But it’s also symbolic. Of what, exactly, I’m not sure.

Finally, Hailo is in the building, and I retreat into the safety of Mommy Literati’s shadow, and tell her we are filming an interview. “No, I’m not,” she says. “And you don’t have to either if you don’t want to.” I guess I didn’t realize that was an option.

Except now the Big 5 Publisher team is looking at us expectantly, waiting for us to film. I don’t want to disappoint anyone (even though I am a bitch I am also, helplessly, a people pleaser). Hailo and I step outside for a pep talk. We agreed to film something with me behind the camera, explaining to the team I prefer to remain anonymous, write under a pen name, keep my likeness to myself, etc.

Ultimately, I am not proud of the content I produce. It doesn’t mean anything. My anxiety and nerves cloud my brain so that I forget what I had decided to ask five minutes before. I want to ask about The Book, what it means to The Author to have written it, and what she’s trying to say with it. I want to ask what percentage she’ll make from the sale of her writing, her work, and how much Big 5 Publisher will take home. Instead we talk about artificalisms and influencerisms and writing in the digital age. I’m too scared to ask tough questions. About what it means to be a content creator rather than an artist. It’s part of what The Book is about, after all. And its thesis seems to be antithetical to the living breathing experience of it.

So we’ve filmed. We’re allowed to leave. I cannot get out of there fast enough. I take a brownie for the road.

I talk with Hailo about what just happened. I sit with the experience for a few days. I write. I realize that the reason I was so uncomfortable was, apart from being blindsided by the prospect of influencing, the room itself was seeping with the amalgamation of everything I so vehemently protest about this, the “digital age” that is the source of so much cultural criticism as of late (and The Book itself!).

This content we were creating, on behalf of Big 5 Publisher, is going to disappear into the void of Internet avenues and cell tower power lines. The only time it will probably ever be relevant is during the promotion of The Book. Still, for that content to be consumed organically, it must pop up on someone’s phone screen, totally at the whim of the algorithm, and even then, it will be up to the content consumer to watch it the full way through.

I’ll say it again: I don’t see myself ever being an influencer. I value the privacy of my identity too much. And if influencing is an art then so be it; but why are we pretending that art is adaptable in the other way around?

It seems the value of producing art for content’s sake far outweighs the value of producing art for art’s sake. If an artist, or as they are more commonly called today a “content creator,” has the option to pursue two projects: one they are passionate about, and one that they are less passionate about, but would be more lucrative (profiting in likes and views), might they not be more inclined to put time and effort into the project that can promise them profit? It’s a product of late stage capitalism in the digital age, yes, but it’s also a product of the spinning wheels of a culture which leads to an influencerfication of everything.

Everyone's an influencer. Or at least, everyone has the opportunity to become an influencer (and therefore, a content creator). “Content” has a broad meaning but a narrow purpose: to get people to consume the content, more often than not through their phone screen. Feeding the masses a mindless dopamine hit from scrolling on their phones for a thirty second video - that’s life, man, and the ominous loom of a TikTok ban aside, it seems there’s not going to be a change anytime soon. I acknowledge that, and further, I understand that in wanting to promote yourself or your art, there’s almost no denying that you have to create some kind of social media platform to keep it going, and to get people to actually read it. The issue to me is that art then becomes exploited, and the influencer game, and all the influencers at the Big 5 Publisher’s book launch party, are eating right out of the hand of the machine.

It’s cliche at this point to call womanhood a performance (“to be a woman is to perform”) and in the style of Judith Butler, constantly uphold it by performing in the gendered idea of womanhood. Avoiding getting too much into the weeds of third wave feminist theory, I’d argue that this gendered form of influencing and marketing to young women (The Book, the launch party, and the content created from it, though having the ability to be consumed by a person of any gender is clearly, plainly, obviously, targeted to young women); and the influencerfication of content and art targeted towards women upholds that performance. The influencer, the female influencer, in addition to upholding the performance of womanhood is now tied to upholding the performance of herself as an influencer. She is no longer herself; she is the idea of herself. She’s her Internet persona. And here Book 5 Publisher is, making use of that content creation, for free.

And it’s different from how a celebrity artist might be reflected in their personality, the “personality” being perception. Your favorite actress, singer, writer, etc. will always be an artist before they are a personality; the influencer will always be a personality before they are an artist.

This is how I felt at the book launch party. The prompting of young people to create these personalities in order to capitalize off of their art reinforces and self imposes a peceived personality; it’s a two way mirror we hold up in front of our faces. We reflect each other back to ourselves and through the blue light of phone screens. We use each other as a means to an end to a means for which we gain clout, build a “following,” and advance our own pursuits. It’s pornographic. Self-voyeuristic.

It’s this simultaneous exploitation of each other that I think turned me off. It's feeding into the machine of labor exploitation because, even if it is kind of silly to think of it in this way, being an influencer still requires some sort of labor. In this context, the exploitation of labor comes in the form of a fake return on investment. Investment being time and phone battery, sure, but for argument’s sake: what is the tradeoff here? One of the influencers may get likes, comments, and views. Big 5 Publisher will get free publicity, free book promotion, and the work of something like a PR team that they might’ve otherwise paid with actual dollar bills, for free. To add more insult to injury, the videos themselves might pop up on something like Booktok - it’ll capture the organic movement of online book lovers, and feign as content created for the sake of content creation.

How many executives sit around a room like, how do we get this shit trending?

Enter influencers. Enter content creation. Exit art. Exit authenticity.

All this is to say, in my wildest dreams a piece of my writing is trending. But I’m not going to write to create content. I’m going to write: to write. To make people think. To make people feel.

I’m a writer. That’s it.

1 comentario

24 abr

love having a healthy level of cynicism for institutions. that's the only way things change

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