Philosophy, children’s literature and the question of branding
A couple of months ago, my children’s book, The Snorgh and the Sailor, was published. It has been one of the most demanding and delightful projects I’ve ever been involved in. Who would have thought that eight hundred words would require quite so much redrafting?
I fell into children’s literature somewhat by mistake, after becoming friends with the illustrator Thomas Docherty. Tom is a wonderful artist, and a lovely man; but when we decided to have a go at working together, I can remember feeling a little apprehensive. Part of the reason was that I was not sure I could write for this age group. Another part of the reason was that I was a writer who spent his time working on philosophy and novels for adults, and I couldn’t really see how writing children’s books fitted in. I worried about how my work as a whole would hang together. Wouldn’t it look, well, a little odd? Writers in the twenty-first century, I have been told more than once, don’t need to just be writers: they also need to be brands. If so, then what kind of a brand was I? My output as a writer is a curious mix—novels, children’s literature, pop philosophy, academic philosophy, Buddhist stuff, Chinese-related stuff, blogs. What, I have sometimes wondered, does it all add up to?
I put the question to one side—although it has popped up several times since—and got on with my various projects. And as the Snorgh took shape, I came to appreciate the particular delights of working in children’s literature. There really is something unutterably wonderful about seeing your words turned into images such as these (you can see more of Tom Docherty’s work at Snorgh.org or at thomasdocherty.co.uk).
Now that the book is published, I’ve recently discovered something else: that when you write a children’s book, you get letters—enthusiastic, creative letters—from schoolkids who have read the book, made their own books about it, written their own stories about your characters… And all of this is gratifying in a way writing philosophy books, novels and academic philosophy articles isn’t. Of course there are pleasures involved with these things also, but they are different pleasures (any academics reading this—when is the last time you so enjoyed an article that you decided to send a drawing to the author?).
Now that Snorgh is making his way in the world, and in good hands, I’m back to the philosophy, working on a relatively substantial monograph on Levinas and storytelling, due to be published in 2013. It is about as different from the children’s book as it is possible for a book to be. In terms of author branding, this is a disaster. Nobody is ever going to write on the back cover of the Levinas book, “If you liked The Snorgh and the Sailor, then you’ll love this!!” So, what does this add up to in terms of a whole? What is my ‘brand’, my ‘unique selling point’, my ‘thing’?
The moment I write these questions down, I realise that they go against almost every single reason that I write. I write because I want the freedom to explore stuff, because I want to move from one thing to another, because I’m interested in too many things not to write. And, of course, I write because I want people to read what I write. But that doesn’t mean that I need everybody to do so. I never, ever want to see a train full of people all reading identical copies of one of my books. I never, ever, want to see a train full of people all reading the same thing, whatever the book. So: different books, different audiences. It seems that already several thousand people have read the Snorgh—the first print-run sold out in a few weeks, and it doesn’t take an age to read, so they must have done. Conversely, I suspect that only a handful of people will ever read the Levinas book cover-to-cover (although others may pull it off the library shelf from time to time). When it comes to the Levinas, I wouldn’t inflict it on most of my best friends. As poet Erin Mouré said at a talk I went to a few weeks back, “Books are emigrants, they belong in the places where they arrive”; and I’d very much like each thing I work on to set out, suitcase in hand, and find its way to a different destination.
This is not to say that these different projects are not linked. Often they are, even if not obviously so. Going back to the philosophy book after the children’s book, I can see that—perhaps surprisingly—writing about Snorghs is helping me write about Levinas. It is helping in terms of style: I’m thinking about those things that matter in children’s literature—concision, clarity, humour—and that should but often don’t matter in philosophy. It’s helping in terms of method: I’m reworking some of the more lumpen philosophy by means of telling stories. And it is helping in terms of thinking: writing the Snorgh (which itself owes something to Levinas) has allowed me to ask questions that I hadn’t asked before. Questions such as, ‘What happens to Levinas’s thinking when the stranger becomes a friend?’
And then, this summer, I’m planning to start working on a few book-length projects now that have little to do with Snorghs or Levinas. None of this will do anything for my ‘author brand’. But who cares? As I see it, branding is what farmers do to cattle, so that should they stray out of their enclosures, they can be dragged back, bellowing and hollering. Better to be something small and unobtrusive—a stoat perhaps—something nimble enough to slip between the fence-posts, to go from one field to another, following its nose and its own purposes…