Feeling a touch of Michael Lewis overload
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If, like me, you live in the US, then you may be feeling a touch of Michael Lewis overload. If you live elsewhere, you may be spared this condition, which brings with it a sudden fatigue with dimples, floppy hair and pink gingham. If you are involved in the financial world anywhere, however, I suspect you, too, may have it, given that the author and journalist’s latest book, Flash Boys, a “surprise” tome (ie one that was not described in its publisher’s catalogue prepublication) hit the media and banking worlds with a boom a fortnight ago and set off a perfect Lewis media storm, from 60 Minutes to CNBC. (Yes, I am theoretically contributing to it here but the idea is to act more as a punctuation mark than a continuation.)
Whichever platform you used, there was no getting away from Lewis; his image, rooted in the iconography of the courtly southern gent, complete with pastels and open-necked collars, was everywhere. It got to the point where if, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blond fringe on a screen, I knew exactly who was on.
Which is, when I began to think about it, extraordinary. How many authors have that kind of face, as opposed to name, recognition? How many writers are such familiar brands that you can actually get sick of seeing them?
I can name only a handful, all of whom have, like Lewis, a certain sartorial shtick – a consistent “logo” that is mentioned in any article about them: Malcolm Gladwell and his wacky ’fro; Tom Wolfe and his white suits. Norman Mailer was well recognised thanks to his white hair and pugilist’s face, and Dame Barbara Cartland made a signature out of her pink dresses. Beyond that, I start coming up empty-handed.
I can’t help but wonder if Lewis, Gladwell et al have grasped something other authors have not, but should: namely that having a great book idea is one thing, and writing a great book another, but having a great image helps. Or an image, full stop. Even for someone who makes their living from words, not pictures. After all, these writers are the first to cotton on to many stories, from tipping to trading. They just haven’t expressly told this one yet.
This is not to denigrate their narrative achievements. Image is nothing without the work to back it up, even if the work took place a long time ago (consider how many Hollywood “stars” have extended their careers for decades, long after their last successful movie, on the strength of red carpet appearances, beauty contracts etc; yes, I am talking about Sharon Stone). Lewis, Gladwell and Wolfe share not only an understanding of the power of a look but a remarkable facility with language.
But they also share, it seems to me, an understanding of branding, and the power of being a brand. They get the point of the telling accessory, hairstyle or shade that will make them instantly recognisable; of building a character for themselves as well as for their characters. It is a very good marketing tool. Just ask Ronald McDonald.
In 2008, Tom Wolfe told Time magazine: “[The suit] has done me so much good. Not long after I published my first book, I quickly found I was terrible at being interviewed. But then I’d read the piece and it would say, ‘What an interesting man; he wears white suits.’ And so it was a good 10 years where the suits were a substitute for a personality.” Today, my search for “Malcolm Gladwell’s hair” gets 41,400 results on Google, while Lewis has transformed the pastel jacket-and-shirt combo into the mufti of the investigative journalist type.
Not long after her novel Gone Girl came out, Gillian Flynn told me how odd it was to be closeted by herself writing for so long, and then to have to suddenly become a public personality. She was finding the transition difficult, though she had a “reading” dress that she wore to all her public appearances. That strikes me as the start of a branding exercise (but not the end, because I could not tell you what the dress looks like; either it has not been seen enough or it is not singular enough).
Why have more authors not taken this up? After all, creating a character acts as a disguise that should ease the transition from private to public (the actress Kerry Washington has discussed her realisation that she had to invent “red carpet Kerry” as a career move).
In part, I think, the answer lies in the idea that it is somehow distasteful for a person of the mind, like a writer, to become a person of the body – or even worse, a person of clothes. And writing is a solitary craft most often practised in a room by oneself, where, for all anyone knows, the writer might be wearing a gorilla suit because it helps them connect with their thoughts, or something. How they look is supposed to have nothing to do with it; we want to believe their words can speak for themselves.
Which, of course, they can. But not on Charlie Rose.
More columns at ft.com/friedman