by Jean Roberta
“Mom,” said my daughter as only a popular twelve-year-old can, “I need something with the right brand.” (She named it, but I’m not sure any more what it was: Someone and Someone Else. Lululemon clothing wasn’t available in our town in the late 1980s, but there was some other brand, based in California, that was a serious social marker for young fashionistas.)
I was a single parent living on a variable income. Did I put my foot down and give her a stern lecture on economic reality? I did not. What I couldn’t tell her was that sometimes a gust of cash came into my bank account from the men I served through an escort agency. I was supporting my daughter by doing something that would surely give her a stigma by association if it became known to her friends. The least I could do, I thought, was to provide her with at least one upscale item of clothing that would enable her to compete (more-or-less) with the more pampered kids in her crowd, including the daughter of two medical doctors.
So we went shopping, and looked at brand-name clothing. I didn’t see why it had so much more appeal than the second-hand and reduced-to-clear items I usually bought for myself. (This is how I acquired items designed by Adrienne Vittadini and Donna Karan.)
My daughter would have liked to have more than I bought her, but I had to set limits. In a probably doomed effort to look like the well put-together mother of a fashion-conscious daughter, I bought myself a pale turquoise-coloured leather belt. That was all, but it was an Esprit, and it matched an outfit I already had.
We came home from shopping to our two-bedroom apartment in a co-op for low-income single parents. Of course, most of my daughter’s friends lived with two parents in family-sized houses. For better or worse, our co-op of four small apartment buildings was an island of poverty in the town’s South End, known as Snob Hill. All her classmates (except the other co-op kids) came from a higher tax-bracket than ours.
I hoped that providing my kid with one suitable brand-name outfit would be enough to compensate for our circumstances. I knew it wouldn’t.
Since then, I’ve been told about the necessity for writers to brand themselves. Well, okay, I had that done on a physical level when I got the turquoise-and-mauve lizard tattoo on my shoulder in 2002, but that doesn’t seem to have given me a cult following as an erotic writer. After reading something about skinks (a type of lizard), I was tempted to call myself “The Skank with the Skink” on my website, but I resisted temptation.
Actually, the reference to skinks came from a thread started by a post by Hanne Blank on Facebook, where she regularly posts glamorous photos of herself in red lipstick, with generous cleavage. Both her image and her writing (literary erotic fiction and scholarly non-fiction) are distinct and easy to recognize, not to mention her trained voice. (As a favour to interested listeners, she posted a free recording on-line at about this time last year. Her voice is as opera-worthy as I had imagined.)
Somehow, Hanne’s multiple roles/identities don’t seem to detract from each other. (Among other things, she advocates against fat-phobia and the unhealthy obsession with weight-loss in North America.)
Well, then, could I brand myself in multiple ways too? But here’s the catch: branding seems to be about creating an image which appears to be unique, even if it really isn’t. So I could hardly follow anyone else’s lead in an obvious way, and expect not to look pitiful.
It’s a catch-22. I’ve been told that one way to acquire a Name is to claim that one writes like someone better-known. To give an example of this theory, in about the year 2000, an editor for Black Lace Books in England (an imprint of the Virgin publishing empire) sent an email to Adrienne Benedicks of the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, asking if anyone in the group could write lesbian erotica like Carol Queen or Pat Califia. Adrienne recommended me, and I was thrilled. I was more thrilled when I got four stories published in Black Lace anthologies, but I couldn’t see how “writes like Carol Queen and/or Pat Califia” could be a useful tag-line to propel my literary career. Why wouldn’t readers prefer the real thing?
I’ve seen websites and on-line newsletters that brag about the breath-taking sexual magic of So-and-So’s work, and some of this promotional material makes me cringe. This is not to suggest that braggarts always lack talent for anything else. I’m sure there are skilled writers who are undeservedly ignored, and who would like to find ways to emerge into the spotlight. Maybe I just can’t get past the values of my middle-class upbringing, in which bragging was considered uncouth. Friends were supposed to brag about friends.
So apparently I have no clear brand, and probably never will, unless a brandless condition can seem to be a brand unto itself. In my teaching career, this seems to have worked. When asked, several years ago, to define my "philosophy of teaching,” I surprised myself by realizing that I actually have one. I said, “It’s not about me, it’s about the material. I’m only the messenger." I explained that I learned to overcome the stage-fright of a new teacher by trying to present the material as well as possible to the students, much like a matchmaker introducing two good friends in the hope of igniting a strong new relationship.
Maybe that’s my brand on the page as well as in the classroom. If so, I could do worse than to be a mouthpiece for the characters, or the subject-matter.