Blog Post

Grown-up me-books!

How can you use the market place to predict future classics?  How could you even bet on the literary future?  EBay has found a way -- a really interesting one.  The futures markets tell us that Darren Shan (author of the young adult series Cirque du Freak) is more than twice as valuable as of today than New Yorker darling David Mitchell.  But Ken Follett is a cut above that.

How do I know?

  A worship of writers are raising money for research on autism by auctioning off character names in their next books on eBay.  Right now the bids on Shan, Mitchell, and Follett are £170.00, £72.00, and £255.00 respectively.

These bids clearly represent an evaluation which indexes some combination of present fame (the horizontal, popular culture dimension of literary value), staying power (the vertical, proto-canonical dimension), and -- this is the third dimension that gives the other two depth -- subjective love of the works of the writers themselves. (I am awfully proud of having a walk-on part in a biography Blanchot's biography, for example.) "He had preferred me to a funeral: this was a fact that would endure forever," thinks a grateful Beckett character.  "I am in a Darren Shan novel: this is a fact that will endure forever, no matter what the people of the future think of Darren Shan, or if they think of him."

What I like about this auction is how it appeals to subjective love and loyalty, to our sense of what others should like, now and forever, whether they do or not. (This is the Popean/Kantian antinomy of taste: I know all taste is subjective, but I believe my taste should be universal:  "'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none / Go just alike, yet each believes his own.")

Of course all three dimensions together give insight into the subject of vicarious experience -- imagine if Tom Sawyer had paid Twain to give him that name, so that he could then read about going to his own funeral: the book itself would be like the funeral scene it describes.

John Sutherland has an interesting piece about authors who appear as bit players in their own books: One of Martin Amis's narrators complains somewhere about  running into "that asshole, Martin Amis."  But that asshole could have been me!  And of course Dante has Casella sing one of his, Dante's, own canzoni in Purgatorio II, which is sort of the same even if sort of not.  You can think of others reading your name in the book, as in the great passage in Proust where the narrator finally gets his article published in Figaro, and spends a lot of time thinking himself into the mind of someone picking up the paper, noticing the article and the name of its author, and reading it with interest:

Je voyais ainsi à cette même heure, pour tant de gens, ma pensée, ou même à défaut de ma pensée pour ceux qui ne pouvaient la comprendre, la répétition de mon nom et comme une évocation embellie de ma personne, briller sur eux, en une aurore qui me remplissait de plus de force et de joie triomphante que l’aurore innombrable qui en même temps se montrait rose à toutes les fenêtres.

[So at this very moment, I saw for so many people my thinking, or if not my thinking for those who couldn't understand it, at least the repetition of my name and an embellished evocation of my person, shine upon them all, in a dawn which filled me with more strength and more triumphant joy than the innumerable dawn which at the same time showed its rosy hues in every window.]

Nothing like thinking about being read about -- and in a novel! The king looks at the cat!

Flaubert discovered late in the writing of L'Éducation sentimentale that there was a family named Moreau in the Department of France whence he has Frédéric Moreau come to Paris.  This made him very unhappy: he didn't want any confusion.  So just change his name, his friends advised.  But it was too late for that Frédéric Moreau by then designated Frédéric Moreau just as much as the obscurely titled Reservoir Dogs designates the movie Reservoir Dogs, which is about neither reservoirs nor dogs.

So what does it mean that a writer is willing to sell of naming rights?  Does that mean that the name is arbitrary?  Or -- and I would pay for this, I think, if I had the money -- doesn't it rather mean that the name affects the book, changes what goes on in it, or how we feel about it, changes its aura and atmosphere, so that my name casts its auroral radiance on the whole of the work, a new dawn for literature, all thanks to me!

Betting on a book by paying to be in it is a decision-theoretical act.  It's compounded of prediction about the future, love of a particular work or author, independent of the future, and the combination of the two in a desire for the future to go a certain way, to remember a certain author or work.  And it's more than this too: we want to be part of the book, known to be associated with it. We want that to be part of the future too.  Our bet is public and if we win, the very fact that we've won will be part of the literary work we've bet on.  Patronnage that comes too late, like Chesterfield's, shows that he wasn't willing to bet, except on a sure thing.  Betting on a future book, and being rewarded only by the book's future -- that's something.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).