My Website, My Self

When a writer hangs up her Internet shingle, fans go wild. And order ottomans.

Imagine my disappointment when the launch of my website transforms me into neither a Pulitzer Prize winner nor a punk icon. The design scheme of my living room also remains a pale shadow of my homepage. All working artists grapple with the fallout of presenting work to the public. The degree to which people "get it" is occasionally exhilarating (the glowing newspaper review, the audience that appears to be on laughing gas) and mostly horrifying (the vitriolic online customer review, the ubiquitous question "Do you write mysteries or romance?"). This lack of control over audience response can be uncomfortable, even debilitating. The website, thus, is not just a promotional tool but an opportunity for creative people to attempt to explain ourselves, to set the record straight, to re-create our images by suggesting that we are in fact something entirely different from what our publicist, agent, or mother assumes us to be.

Like all technological "advances," the artist's website makes us wonder how anyone ever got along, or at least forged a career, without one. After all, visual artists can now display high-resolution JPEGs of their work, musicians can offer downloadable (and crappy-sounding) samples of their songs, and, for my part, I no longer spend hours making photocopies of my magazine clippings since editors can ostensibly go to my site. But convenience aside, these websites suggest a lack of faith in the audience's ability to interpret the work on its own. It is no longer enough for us to present our work; we must now tell people how to read, see, or hear it. As if prefacing every offering with a press release, we must emphasize that we're "a satirist," "an abstract impressionist," "an award-winning Claymation animator," "a klezmer drummer." (Don't know what klezmer is? No worries, we'll explain that, too.)

The opportunity to educate the public is both tempting and troubling. As much as I relish the chance to use my website as a partisan clearinghouse of my work, I must admit that it's also a vain act of self-defense. The degree to which I feel compelled to be my own publicist is proportional to the degree to which I don't entirely trust my readers and would-be readers to grasp or even like my work without the benefit of my helpful reader's guide. This reveals both a pitiful insecurity on my part and, I daresay, a growing need for artists to not only create their art but to advertise, market, and hand-sell it. The pragmatist in me says this is a necessary evil. It is, after all, presumptuous to think we can hole up in our garrets, writing our books and throwing our pots with no thought to how our work might reach the public. But in our effort to brand ourselves, are we relying on links and bios and design elements to express ideas that, back in the old days, resided solely in the work itself?

The author, looking suitably hot
photo: Gail Folda
The author, looking suitably hot

Unless someone on the MacArthur committee stumbles upon my website and is jazzed enough by my color scheme to give me a genius award, the value of artists' websites will probably remain, like the work itself, in the eye of the beholder. And unless I start selling ottomans, it's unlikely that I'll generate enough traffic to effect any increase in sales or exposure. But, like decorating a house, the process of designing the site taught me a thing or two about myself. Lesson one: If I were a wallpaper pattern it would probably not be the pattern you see on my site. Lesson two: Sometimes you just have to live with the wallpaper you have.

Meghan Daum is the author of a novel, The Quality of Life Report, and an essay collection, My Misspent Youth.

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