I thought I knew myself. Then I put three letters before my name and I disappeared entirely. Who knew “www” could provoke such an identity crisis? It was as if I’d been given the opportunity to choose a new name and couldn’t decide between Mary or Moonbeam, as if I was on a makeover show and weighing the advantages of a Kate Winslet-ish nose or a Kate Hudson-esque chin. But this was much more metaphysical than that. A website was a chance to receive a Total Reputation Makeover. Gone would be the horrifying debris washed up by the ruthless surf of Google. The nasty customer reviews would be conveniently omitted and replaced by carefully selected encomiums. The out-of-context quotes from newspaper interviews would be traded for witty, eloquent statements custom written for the homepage. Unfortunate mug shots would be eclipsed by a strategically lit and suitably hot photo of myself. In other words, the website would set the record straight. Thought you knew who I was? Visit meghandaum.com and think again!
Of course, that assumes a lot of people know who I am to begin with, which they don’t, and barring some future involvement in a government sex scandal (meghangate.com), probably never will. After all, I’m a writer. As Gore Vidal said, “Saying you’re a very famous novelist is like saying you’re a famous ceramicist.” The goal here isn’t fame. The goal is professional and creative sustainability. Or more than two people showing up at book signings. Or being able to afford car insurance. Or the car wash. And while having a website may not hold the key to that goal, it seems increasingly clear that not having one is a form of self-sabotage tantamount to not having a cell phone.
I won’t ask why websites for authors—or for anyone—are necessary these days because they’re really not. The whole idea of “necessary” is quaint. The Web has turned us into a nation of hobbyists. It’s as if we’re all attending a high school in which only electives are offered.
Still, some electives are more elective than others, and herein lies the conundrum of the artist’s website. Though most writers, musicians, and artists spare the public our high school poetry or 1970s-era family photos, we don’t exactly offer much that’s particularly useful. My website features no mortgage calculator or Atkins recipes, nor is there any online-dating component or opportunity to buy a kitchen appliance and then rate it by number of stars. It’s merely a website about me, the explaining of me, the showing of me, the providing of links to a sampling of my works—two books, a couple of magazine essays that don’t embarrass me, a rather cringe-inducing “what the critics said” link that includes the kind of disembodied, ellipses-laden quotes that could just as easily be talking about a really ripe tomato. Incidentally, tomatoes have their own website, www.tomato.org, which is sponsored by the California Tomato Commission. It has some interesting stuff on it and I wish I’d looked at it before I designed my site.
I wish I’d looked at a lot of sites before I embarked on my own. Maybe I could have avoided reverting back to pre-adolescent levels of inquiry along the lines of “if I were a wallpaper pattern, what kind would I be?” Maybe I could have spared my patient and very capable designers hours of time wasted at the hands of my indecision and my habit of describing navigation bars as “those scrolly things” and links as “those things that go to other things.”
But my ignorance of the Web paled in comparison to my ignorance of (cue the synthesizer) . . . myself. What was my look? My tone? My ratio of crowd-pleasing genericness to take-it-or-leave-it edginess? Was it best to stick with the tried- and-true hybrid of biography and promotion (“Meghan Daum was born in 1970 and excelled in English and now writes books, buy them now“), or did I dare attempt to be hip as well as promotional (“A little bit ribald, a little bit renegade, Meghan Daum is an acid-tongued princess of noir, buy her books now, super saver shipping!“)?
The alternating satisfaction and discomfort I feel toward my website runs, predictably, in direct proportion to the alternating satisfaction and discomfort I feel about my work, my career, my entire being. Depending on my mood, I am convinced the site needs to be funnier, cooler, more minimalist, less minimalist, more informative, less revealing, and/or displaying different fonts or colors. Surfing the Internet, I find the site of a Pulitzer-winning author. It’s a funky yet cerebral presentation with whimsical cartoons and a refreshing absence of author photos and within seconds I decide mine should be exactly like that. Five minutes later I stumble upon the site for a ’70s punk music icon and am certain I would be better off with an entirely white screen with tiny lowercase letters displaying only my initials and perhaps an arcane quotation from Quentin Crisp.
As things turned out, I ended up with a site that resembles an amalgam of the Sundance catalog, Real Simple, and an Anthropologie store. This is because my designers followed my instructions to the letter, responding to my blurted-out declaration of “I like shabby chic!” with a design scheme that I suspect has led a number of people to attempt to order ottomans from www.meghandaum.com. Imagine their disappointment when they end up with a measly book.
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?
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.