Christian Humility and the Self-Promotion Problem

Christian Humility and the Self-Promotion Problem October 4, 2016
The avatar for Mortimus Clay at Amazon.
The avatar for Mortimus Clay at Amazon.

A little over a decade ago, when I first began writing fiction, a few of the biggest literary agents in New York City took an interest in me.

It was the first sentence of my query letter that caught their eyes. Here it is:

If you gave a thousand immortal monkeys armed with kitchen blenders all the works of R. L. Stine and Plato, what would they produce?

If I remember correctly, about 20% of the letters resulted in requests to see the manuscript. That was phenomenally good, even for that time. (The “hook” is everything when it comes to writing.) But none of those submissions landed an agent.

I wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, so it is just as well. But now that I actually have two literary agents (one for fiction and another for nonfiction), I can look at what happened a little more dispassionately than I could then.

Back then I thought having an agent was the golden ticket to getting something published. How wrong I was! It is just the first (or second) step in a long journey. I have a couple of very good agents, my nonfiction agent just got something I wrote in front of some of the biggest editors in America. I have the privilege of telling you that I have been turned down by some of the most important people working at Random House and Penguin.

The Turkish edition of my book, The Purloined Boy
The Turkish edition of my book, The Purloined Boy

Getting turned down never feels good. And the people doing the down-turning don’t feel any better about it than the down-turnedees (well, maybe a little better). And so they love to console if they can. I got some nice praise. Everyone thinks I write really well. But they all had the same complaint. My platform is too small.

My platform? Yeah, basically that means I’m not famous enough to guarantee the return on investment they’re looking for.

I know what you’re thinking, “But if they publish your book, that will make you famous!” Wrong. Lots of books lose money and published authors die every day without becoming famous.

The thing these publishers are doing is understandable given the economics of publishing these days. They’re hedging their bets. They want to be reasonably sure they’re publishing profitable titles. And the best way to ensure that is by knowing that the people they publish already have people lined up to buy their books.

So, that’s the deal. (I don’t run the world, I just live here.)

So to succeed these days as a writer, you need to become your own marketer and publicist. You’re supposed to get out there: start a blog, have a newsletter, get followers on social media–the more the better. (Disclosure: I’m working on building my platform, and this blog at Patheos is part of it.)

All of this raises a big problem for someone who takes Christianity seriously.

Where does humility come in?

What do you do with verses like this one:

“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” Proverbs 27:2

The platform building gurus would say, “Right on! Endorsements, secure as many as you can!” I’m not sure that jibes with the spirit of the verse though.

Enter Mortimus Clay

I write fiction under a pseudonym–Mortimus Clay. That helps a lot. It gives me the space to promote like crazy without directly promoting myself. (Or, not obviously, anyway.)

I developed the pseudonym originally for an entirely different set of reasons. The first was so that people could find my books on Google. (He says sheepishly.)

Have you ever searched for yourself on a search engine? Were you as dismayed as I was? I thought Christopher Wiley to be a fairly unusual name. I came to see that nearly every other person in the world is named Christopher Wiley. I didn’t appear in the search until about page 10. Type in Mortimus Clay and what do you get? Me.

Since I knew I needed a pseudonym I thought I might as well have fun with it. So I dreamed up a name that both sounds creepy and subtlety says something.

The name Mortimus Clay is just fun to say, for one thing. Then you can shorten it to Morty. But it is what it alludes to that is truly fun. “Mortimus” comes from the Latin root, mort–as in mortal, or mortician. It means dead. Then “Clay” is an allusion to the Apostle Paul and in particular this; We have this treasure in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). So the name means, “dead guy” or “dead body”.

This brings up “dying to yourself” as well as the simple fact that we will all die, and after that, the judgment.

I’ve had a little more fun with the name on top of this. I actually dreamed up a little backstory for Mortimus along with a story about how I, C. R. Wiley, came into the possession of his papers. I’ll tell you about all that next Tuesday.

In the meantime, let me return to the problem of humility.

Humility may be the most inward of virtues. Just getting up and taking a shower can be an exercise in pride. Really, why did you bathe this morning? (You did bathe, I hope.) Was it just out of concern for what others might smell if you hadn’t? Or was it because you take pride in your appearance? Come on, be honest now.

As a minister I deal with this sort of thing all the time. What sort of car should I drive? If I drive a BMW, what will people think? Should I really get humble and drive a beat-up rust bucket? We all know that even if I did, I could still take a weird sort of pride in my humility.

Then what do I say when someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, that was a great sermon!” (Yes, that happens sometimes.) Should I say, “Well, not really, let me tell you all the things that were wrong with it.”? Or maybe I should scold them for paying me a compliment? Or how about this, “It was the Lord, you know.” knowing all the while that they either think I’m truly super spiritual for saying that, or that I’m just a sanctimonious jerk.

I’ve decided the best thing to say is this: “Thank you”.

There ‘s no failsafe formula for humility. Every day I get up in the morning and engage in dozens of things throughout the day that I could do pridefully or humbly. On the surface they look very much the same either way.

In the end, I’m the only one who knows for sure why I do anything. Correct that: the Lord and me.

No, correct that again: I’m pretty sure the Lord is the only one who truly knows why I do anything.

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