One of the first books I read about unconventional sexuality as a young adult was called Exhibitionism for the Shy, by Carol Queen. It was exactly what the title would lead you to expect: an instructional guide to an exciting kind of sexual expression for exactly the kinds of readers whose basic personalities would make them seem unlikely to pick it up. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I ponder my resistance to the kinds of work I need to do to promote my book.
Self-promotion doesn’t hold the same appeal as erotic exhibitionism, at least not for me, but it does feel a whole lot like being naked in public. Just, instead of that public place being the kind of erotic party space where lots of people are naked and interested in each other, this feels more like having stripped down on the corner of a busy Manhattan intersection, where, to the degree that anybody notices I’m naked, they’re really just irritated that I’m in their way while they hurry to work.
I imagine self-promotion feels awkward, to a greater or lesser degree, for many of us. To help get a better handle on promoting my book despite this, I recently read a great post by the brilliant Lynn Comella about promoting a book she’d written, and one of the things she said was “You have to write a book you want to tell people about.” That stopped me in my tracks. Of course. How simple. If you’ve written a book you don’t want to tell people about, then you’ll never be able to promote it yourself.
This simple observation helped for two reasons. First, it helped because it shifted my perspective. I’m promoting the book, not myself. (That’s a bit of a fiction in that I wrote the book and the book is about my life, but it matters: I’m talking about what’s in the book and why the book matters, not about why I matter.) The reasons the book matters go well beyond me. The book matters because of the widely experienced social issues it addresses. Here are a few examples:
- It is not only possible, it is frequently necessary, to be a caregiver for someone with whom you have a complicated relationship. We can navigate these complications and still take care of each other if we are courageous. The example in this book is of a mother-daughter relationship, possibly the most common such situation, but the lessons apply to many other kinds of relationships. (It also takes courage to decide when you are not the right person to be the caregiver, and that’s an incredibly important thing to be able to do.)
- The US Heath care system does a remarkably poor job dealing with sexuality and with death. It doesn’t see people as whole, but rather as clusters of symptoms.
- We each – regardless of our age or the condition of our bodies – have unique sexualities and deserve to be seen as whole people, deserving of respect, pleasure, intimacy, and affection.
- Thinking and talking openly about the kinds of deaths we want (or don’t want), and about the kinds of care we want at the end of our lives (including care related to our sexual expression), can help us avoid unnecessary pain and family conflict. It can also be as hard and as awkward as discussions about sex. Neither should be avoided.
- Unconventional sexual expression and sexual subcultures can be empowering, especially for women, and for people facing significant changes to their bodies, while conformity to mainstream expectations sometimes impedes sexual pleasure and freedom.
That exercise helped me answer the question about how I felt about the book. Yes, I wanted people to know about it. Yes, I think it is important. But what about the rest of Lynn’s advice: Write a book you want to tell people about. If you shift your focus from the object to the subject, it’s a different question from the one I’d just answered. Do I want to be the one to tell people about it?
Getting out front and telling people about this book that I love remains hard for me. It isn’t that I’m uncomfortable speaking in public. I teach for a living. I’m happy to talk to groups of people about stuff I care about. It’s that I have to get over my unrealistic idea that people should discover the book and then ask me about it, rather than my having to put it in front of people and saying, “look at this really important thing I made.” I haven’t had to go out and recruit students to take my classes (though perhaps in these days of declining enrollments that’s exactly what I should be doing.) The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of books published in the United States alone every year. If I want mine to be noticed I have to put it in front of people. And as a person who is, if not shy, then certainly introverted, that is not an easy thing to do. But I’m going to get better at it.
Writing this book was only part of the work. Sharing it is the other part. This introvert is grateful to have such a supportive and enthusiastic community as she takes her first steps into the crowded and noisy world of book promotion. Perhaps my second book will be called Self-Promotion for the Shy.