Amid growing concerns about varying forms of modern addiction, remarks made by the bestselling author of crime novels Lee Child are likely to prove controversial. “I’ve been smoking weed for 44 years, five nights a week,” Child has boasted to a reporter. Claiming to be provided with a “a huge range of marijuana” by his dealer in New York, where he lives, the writer has described himself as “the poster boy to prove it doesn’t do you much harm”.
He is, of course, a poster boy for something entirely different. His profoundly silly and irresponsible remarks merely confirm the terrible effects of one of the most powerful addictions known to modern man – publicity.
Authors are peculiarly vulnerable to this new form of dependence, and their cravings are never more acute than in the month of August. It is the moment of the year when the media are hungry for content, and the autumn’s new books need an early push.
Last year, it was revealed that some crime writers were using internet aliases to promote themselves and attack their rivals. Now it is Lee Child’s turn to get a hit of column inches during the holiday season.
Perhaps he deserves our sympathy. Any author is told by publishers at the start of his career that promotion and visibility are the key to success. A couple of profiles later, the soft stuff will soon give away to a stronger craving for publicity. Just another “Me and My Pets” for a Sunday newspaper, he will tell himself, or perhaps a brief guest appearance on a daytime TV show: what harm could that do?
Gradually the written stuff fades in importance, and the showy nonsense which attends publication becomes more significant than the work itself. Hype – the skunk of publicity-addiction – kicks in.
It was Jeffrey Archer who made hype respectable. The real work of the modern writer, he would say, started when the book was written and needed to be promoted. His successors have subsequently discovered that, because there is such fierce competition for coverage, the hype-peddling author must forever go for a stronger hit.
Once Archer could get away with wild boasts about his own success, sales and popularity; now an author must claim to be a poster boy for drug use.
The tragedy of the addicted author is that hype tends to be delivered with a price-tag. The work begins to suffer as the author treats himself as the real story. “Mass exposure,” Ted Hughes once wrote in a letter, “intensifies my feeling of being ‘watched’ (which maims all well-known writers, & destroys many.)” In a similar vein, John Updike spoke of the successful writer acquiring “fat eyes”.
So it is with today’s writers. It has often seemed that the careers of some of our most gifted writers – Jeanette Winterson, Martin Amis, Will Self – are a never-ending tug-of-war between their better writing selves and the nagging addictive need to be noticed, to be at the centre of some exciting new row.
With Lee Child, there is no struggle. He clearly sees himself in a different league of self-promotion. Not so long ago, he announced confidently that he could write “a literary book” as good as anything written by Amis. “It would take me about three weeks,” he said.
This new publicity binge is rather more serious because it is just possible that the easily influenced might actually believe the pernicious idea that one can take cannabis almost every day of one’s life without any ill effects.
People of sense and judgement, though, will ignore him or look away in embarrassment. After all, it is just another over-excited author tripping out in August on his own hype.
Keep calm, they’ll soon lose interest
A small but chilling insight into the modern way of news management has been provided by Scotland’s Grampian Police.
Its officers emerged with rather less than credit last year from Anthony Baxter’s BBC documentary You’ve Been Trumped, seeming to have an institutional bias in favour of Donald Trump over the matter of the American businessman’s Aberdeenshire golf resort. At one point, the police took the director and producer into custody while filming and conducting an interview. Subsequently all charges against them were dropped.
Now, thanks to a freedom-of-information request from the Sunday Herald, it has emerged that Grampian Police elected to take a “low-key” PR approach to the programme and the publicity surrounding it. Five days after its broadcast, a police inspector reported, with satisfaction, “We’re of the opinion that the interest is waning.”
The next time a news programme explains that an organisation with tricky questions to answer has declined to be interviewed, it is worth remembering Grampian Police and its “low-key” tactic. It is a simple ploy of the powerful – keep your head down, and soon enough, interest will wane.
Terence Blacker’s ‘My Village and Other Aliens’ is at the Zoo Southside at 5.30pm on the Edinburgh Fringe until 26 August