Friday, November 20, 2015

Hard to be Hip

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.


  1. One might argue that the purpose of an author is to disappear into her work. One's stories should be so absorbing that the reader will be transported to another world. The author is, as you say, just the medium, channeling those visions.

    I actually think "The Skank with the Skink" is pretty clever. But it doesn't really convey a sense of who you are or what your writing feels like.

    With regard to your daughter's quest for fashionability, I have never understood (and still do not) the appeal of so called "name brands". Most of the branded stuff I see is incredibly ordinary and boring. Plus why would I want to advertise some designer by wearing his or her logo on my shirt or on my bag--especially if I'd already shelled out a fortune for said item?

    I was brought up to be a bargain hunter, and I still am. (Third generation Filene's Basement, I like to brag.) I get far more pleasure out of finding a great piece of clothing at a cut-rate price than I'd ever get showing off designer stuff as a badge of belonging.

    1. I have never understood (and still do not) the appeal of so called "name brands".

      Well, it's just a status-symbol thing. I, too, deplore the whole phenomenon; but human societies invariably trade in status symbols, alas—they always have, and they probably always will. Again, I'm not defending it—I wish humanity could rise above it (among other things that I wish humanity could rise above). I'm just saying it's a powerful anthropological phenomenon that goes far beyond the machinations of the fashion industry and the irrational purchasing habits of consumers.

    2. (Not that I'm calling your purchase irrational, Jean! You seem to have made an admirably reasonable compromise, given all the realities confronting you.)

  2. Adolescents have an intense need to appear to fit in with the dominant peer group, or at least not to stand out as being outside it. It's a form of self-defense (or a display of dominance if you happen to be in a position of dictating the terms.) The fashion part of it is far worse than it was when I was young, back in the Ice Age of the 50s/60s, and probably worse than when any of us were young.

    The only redeeming factor of my nine-year-old granddaughter's enrollment in a private Catholic school is that they wear standard uniforms, with a bit of flexibility, so there's no fashion brand issue. Well, I'm exaggerating, because she's also getting an excellent education academically, although not necessarily enough preparation for real life.

    Getting back to the branding of writers, well, I wrote a few paragraphs and then accidentally deleted the whole thing, so I guess I'll start over and do it as a comment on my own post. Let's just say I'm facing a new branding issue that's presents a hurdle I'm not going to clear.

  3. "The Skank with the Skink" is the best thing I've heard today, though I don't think it fits with what I think of as the Jean Roberta brand. What's funny is that I do have a pretty clear image of what I expect when I come to a Jean Roberta story. I expect a certain sort of exuberant shamelessness. If the story is historical, I expect that the story won't blind itself to the realities of the time. I expect to see some sort of sexual fluidity somewhere. I expect that the story won't be afraid to engage with problems of sexuality and gender, should they come up (like your story in Twice The Pleasure, which I really loved).

    That's not to say I wouldn't read a story of yours if it deviated from those expectations, but I actually think I've developed a pretty clear idea of what your work is about. That's a funny thing to consider as we all ponder how to think about these branding issues.


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