There are only 24 hours to go on my staff pick Kickstarter project to fund research into the life of Lord Alfred Douglas. One of my backers says she thinks it will rally at the last minute. Is she right?
Thank you to those who have supported this quixotic project, and those of you who still might, I wanted to give you a small idea of why I find Lord Alfred Douglas so fascinating.
In 1980, Gary H. Paterson of King’s College at the University of Ontario published an annotated bibliography of writings about Lord Alfred Douglas. The 32 page article summarized writings about the poet to that date with brief quotations and descriptions their subject. The following is a list of the adjectives used to describe him. In a few words it paints a clear picture of a complex and contradictory character and the wildly different impressions he made on people:
amusing, aristocratic, attractive, blue-eyed, brilliant, brutal, cantankerous, changeable, charming, childish, complex, conceited, courageous, cultured, defiant, desperate, desastreux, devoted, diabolical, egotistical, exigeant, exquisite, fair (in coloring), false, fanatical, fiery, gifted, generous, good-hearted, gracious, handsome, headstrong, human, idle, imitative, impatient, impossible, independent, indiscreet, infatuated, inferior, insistent, imperious, likeable, jealous, loyal, mercurial, mindless, misguided, obsessed, outspoken, overwhelmed, over-zealous, pallid, plain, pretty, proud, rancorous, reckless, selfish, self-righteous, spoilt, talented, touching, treacherous, uncompromising, unreasonable, unsophisticated, unstable, venemous-tongued, vengeful, violent, well-read, willful, witty
“Few have cared to think or talk about the uninteresting.”-Lord Alfred Douglas
This was the premise of an article Lord Alfred Douglas wrote when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University. An essay in praise of the boring has comic potential. Potential, it must be said, the young man failed to realize in his Spirit Lamp article. He chose, instead, to complain about the tediousness of Oxford dons, as students are wont to do.
But I think he was on to something. He lived at the beginning of the era of the media celebrity. Oscar Wilde, himself, might have been the prototype of today’s stars. He sought attention and headlines for his personal traits– his bon mots, his manner of dress– before he had achieved much of anything. He used being known as path to a career rather than becoming known for having done something notable. That is the modern way.
Alfred Douglas, however, represented the old world. It was a world in which honor and dishonor were the main measures of a man. Oscar Wilde always tailored his speech to his audience. Alfred Douglas said whatever he thought without much regard for how it would come across. “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” Wilde famously said. Douglas had no mask. He was, as Bernard Shaw would say “unpoliced.”
Oscar Wilde would have done well on Kickstarter. Lord Alfred Douglas, probably not. And perhaps one of the tragedies of his life was that he was so ill-equipped to navigate a world of fame.
As I have been exploring my hype-challenged Kickstarter project to some of the most successful projects out there, I have noticed that people instinctively give money to the thing that entertains in the moment even if, in the case of Bunch O Balloons, it has already achieved 800% funding.
A case in point is Nothing in a Bottle, in which a guy from Michigan named Dave, promises to send you a bottle of nothing.
The reason the famous “I’m going to make potato salad” Kickstarter went viral is that it made people laugh. People said, “Yeah, that’s funny, I’ll kick in a few bucks for the smile it gave me.”
Why not? But note the past tense. “It made me smile.”
Kickstarter was conceived to take potential energy of ideas and turn them into kinetic energy through financial backing. It is about supporting unrealized potential.
All of the entertainment value of the potato salad project was already realized in the Kickstarter post itself. It aimed to entertain, and it did. The people who support it are not actually paying because they hope the guy can pull off a potato salad.
This brings us back to the Alfred Douglas question. How do we support the uninteresting? That is to say, how do people and projects with an entertainment challenge make a go of it in a hype centered world?
Some projects are uninteresting because they cannot promise specific results and do not lend themselves naturally to clever premiums. Investigative journalism falls into this category. People generally recognize that investigative journalism is vital and in the public interest. It has also come into hard times as news organizations prune their budgets and 24 hour cable news channels compete against America’s Got Talent for eyeballs. Big news is a bottom line business, driven by ratings, and so the most sensational (and easy to cover) stories will lead.
Many people have suggested crowd funding as a means to support this important journalistic work, but it tends to fail and for the same reasons that big news organizations cut funding for long-term, high risk, no-guarantee investigations. There are no immediate results to show. Much of the research cannot be announced before the work is done. It is hard to hype and hard to make entertaining– even if the end result has the potential to be explosive down the line.
I looked up “investigative journalism” on Kickstarter and the first project that came up in the list has no backers. (Admittedly in this case it could be because there is so little biographical information about the reporters. Potential backers can’t judge whether this team can carry it off or not.)
Research is another area that lacks entertainment value. (My project falls into this category.) Research is all potential energy. It should be, in theory, exactly the type of thing that Kickstarter would do best. It is not. When I looked up “research” four featured projects came up. All of them are 0% funded right now.
(The projects are for the creation of a platform for crowd sourcing cancer research– a kickstarter for cancer research if you will, research on humpback whales, a tiny house research project, and a guy doing genealogical research.)
Fixing a theater’s roof will always be less entertaining than videos about a new theatrical production even though the roof is necessary to allow those productions to take place.
So perhaps we should start to talk more about the uninteresting.
And if you would like to take your first step into funding the uninteresting, consider backing my project to research a 20th Century poet who insisted on writing in a 19th Century style. Just how uninteresting is my project? It is research– so I don’t know what I will find– and it is the first step of a larger project which will only come to fruition somewhere down the line. I am writing about a master of a poetic form most modern readers do not respond to. If you want to support the uninteresting– it is a great place to start.
“I do not actually find a great deal related to your venture from a hype viewpoint.”-guy who sent a message to me via Kickstarter hyping his hyping services. (I would have found a great deal more related to his hyping talent were he to have written me in more standard English.)
For the past couple of days I have been looking at successful campaigns on Kickstarter to see what they have in common and to see how my project compares “from a hype viewpoint.” The staff member who named my project a staff pick called it “a very cool use of the site.”
So, you see, I am cool.
Before I get to the serious hype, let me explain what I think the staff picker found “cool.” Back when I wrote my first work of historical research, more than a decade ago, I was able to secure a publisher with my resume (much more sparse than it is now) and a well-worded promise that I would find really interesting stuff if they would just unleash me in a few libraries and church archives. Somehow my concept– to write a biography of a building– struck a chord without all that many specifics, and they gave me a small advance which allowed me to pay my bills while going to local history libraries and basically asking people if there was anything interesting there related to my subject.
There are fewer publishers around these days who will take a chance on a non-celebrity author. They want to see even veteran historical writers come to the table with the bulk of the research complete. This means that these kinds of books need to be written by people who are of independent means.
There are a lot of great writers out there who are not men and women of independent means. If the audience values books that require travel and time to research, we will need to find a way for writers and researchers to eat while doing this work. Kickstarter could be a vehicle for that. So that’s the cool part– this idea is part of a larger vision that goes beyond my particular book proposal.
Specifically, I want to do primary research into the poet (and intimate friend of Oscar Wilde) Lord Alfred Douglas to produce a detailed sample chapter that will be the centerpiece of a book proposal I have been working on for two years.
I find it hard to see how anyone could come up with something more sexy than that, but just to improve my chances from a hype standpoint, I have been posting articles here that detail the many similarities between Lord Alfred Douglas and some of the most successful campaigns currently going. I have already explained how much my project has in common with the “I’m going to make a potato salad guy” and an ap to stalk people’s cats over the internet.
Today, for reasons of propriety, I decided against illuminating any similarities between the poet and the “Gay Men Draw Vaginas” Kickstarter proposal, although I assure you this is a thing. I thought, instead, to compare and contrast a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas with Bunch O Balloons, a project that is 8081% funded. Yes, that is 8081%. (Compare this to 6% funded with 5 days to go for my project.)
Bunch O Balloons lets you fill up to 100 water balloons in a minute. I don’t have a great deal of call to do that, but a lot of people seem to because it is funded to the tune of $809,021 as of today.
When it came time for me to do a top ten list of things Lord Alfred Douglas has in common with 100 water balloons being filled simultaneously, I have to admit I was a bit stymied.
The sad truth is, you cannot fill water balloons with Lord Alfred Douglas. But all is not lost.
When I look at the last three popular Kickstarter projects I have featured, I have come to the conclusion that people will instinctively give money to anything that is clever and entertaining. I am in luck, because Lord Alfred Douglas was nothing if not clever and entertaining.
When Bosie, as he was called, was a boy (when was he not?) he could pull the most outrageous stunts and get away with it by assuming an expression of cherubic innocence. It worked far more often than it had any business doing because he looked like the image to the left and he had such impeccable manners.
He had cards printed up which read “Lord Alfred Douglas presents his compliments to…. and regrets that he will be unable to…. in consequence of……”
When he had more pressing matters than study– poems to write, games to play, famous playwrights to go to dinner parties with and so on– he would fill in the card and leave it for one of the dons at Magdalen College.
“Lord Alfred Douglas presents his compliments to Professor Smith and regrets that he will be unable to show up an essay on the Evolution of the Moral Idea in consequence of not having prepared one.”
Like him or hate him, surely this is as clever and entertaining as a bunch of balloons being filled up with water. Maybe it is not $800,000 clever, but that project is already fully funded, mine is not. So if you have $25 to put towards something with the potential to amuse you, visit my Kickstarter page and help me dig up more entertainment. I hope you will agree that I have now done a bit more for my venture from a hype point of view.
Yesterday I promised to continue my series on how similar my Lord Alfred Douglas Kickstarter project is to some of the more popular ideas on the site. Today I would like to focus on a project called “I Know Where Your Cat Lives,” which is more than fully funded at this point to the tune of $3,111. I Know Where Your Cat Lives is an ap that visualizes public photos of cats on a world map using coordinates embedded in their metadata, the site says.
It is usually cats that stalk prey, and this site gives humans the opportunity to turn the tables by stalking cats. The innate appeal is obvious. I am pleased to say that Lord Alfred Douglas has a great deal in common with I Know Where Your Cat Lives. First and foremost:
1. Feasting with panthers.
This is what Oscar Wilde called his adventures into London’s underworld. The feline reference is right there in the name. Wilde and Douglas stalked quite a bit of metaphorical prey together in their day. Moving on…
2. Once you find a cat using the ap you will always know where it is because cats always come back, as did Lord Alfred Douglas.
As a friend wrote of him in the Catholic Herald, “I am very sorry to heat that Lord I Alfred Douglas is seriously ill. and has been anointed. Though much of our correspondence has been acrimonious, each series of quarrels ends in a reconciliation, for Lord Alfred, who never attempts to disguise his feelings, is as ready to offer the hand of friendship as he is to tell you just what he thinks of you.”
3. Cats are playful, as was Lord Alfred Douglas.
Douglas wanted to remain forever a child. He told George Bernard Shaw that you could be whatever you wanted in Heaven and he wanted to be a child.
4. Cats have an air of haughty superiority, as Lord Alfred Douglas often did.
Douglas learned all of the proper skills for a man of his station. He was schooled with impeccable manners, he knew how to dress properly for each event and time of day, he learned ride horses, write poetry, to play the piano and sing. In later years Douglas would often make the mistake of writing things for the (middle class) public as though they shared his aristocratic values and assumptions, alienating them when he wanted to gain their sympathy. He truly did not understand that people born without silver spoons might find it hard to sympathize with his brand of “hardship.”
“The lot of a younger son with the courtesy title of ‘Lord’ and no money is indeed a miserable one,” Douglas wrote in his autobiography. “…I believe the most constant cross I have had to bear is precisely that of having been born, and having had to go all my life being, a lord without money.”
5. Lord Alfred Douglas played the piano. Cats play the piano.
A few days ago, I posted a proposal on Kickstarter for research into the life and work of the poet Lord Alfred Douglas. To my tremendous surprise, even though I told one or two friends about it, my idea has so far failed to go viral. I was baffled by this. I mean, who doesn’t love strict formalism and the Petrarchan sonnet, am I right?
I did a bit of exploring on the Kickstarter site to see what types of pitches receive the most funding and I think I know what my problem is. My project does not have enough potato in it.
In case you do not know what I am talking about, I am referring to one of the site’s most wildly successful campaigns. An Ohio guy promises he will make potato salad:
This is not surprising at all. People like potato salad.
I would like a bit of that spud windfall myself. While my project (primary research to create a sample chapter that will form the basis of a full length biography) pales in ambition and scope to “Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet,” it does have certain potato salad aspects that may not be obvious on the surface. So here is a top ten list of how Lord Alfred Douglas is like potato salad.
1. To make potato salad you need to pick potatoes. Potatoes are Irish, Oscar Wilde was Irish and Lord Alfred Douglas picked him.
Here’s how Irish Oscar Wilde was: his parents met protesting the Irish potato famine.
2. Potatoes grow underground and need to be dug up. Biographical information also needs to be unearthed through trips to dusty archives.
Hidden away in an archive at the New York Public library are the letters between Lord Alfred Douglas and his wife the poet Olive Custance. Custance was part of Douglas’s life for four decades. I will be looking for previously unpublished clues as to her influence on his life and work.
3. Potato salad is traditional and made by following a recipe. Lord Alfred Douglas preferred the strict structure of the sonnet as his poetic recipe.
To see the moment holds a madrigal,
To find some cloistered place, some hermitage
For free devices, some deliberate cage
Wherein to keep wild thoughts like birds in thrall;
To eat sweet honey and to taste black gall,
To fight with form, to wrestle and to rage,
Till at the last upon the conquered page
The shadows of created Beauty fall.
The octet of Lord Alfred Douglas’s Sonnet on the Sonnet is a fitting metaphor for the poet’s life. He was a man of unruly passions, an inheritance they say, of the “mad bad” Douglas line. Douglas would spend most of his life in search of a structure, a “deliberate cage” to hold them. He had absolute devotion to any cause he took up. He expected absolute love from his friends. He chose as his preferred art for the rigid form of the Petrachan sonnet. He chose for his religion an un-yielding form of Catholicism. He longed to return to childhood, when rules were clear and all choices were made for him. He even found his greatest peace in prison.
4. A main ingredient in potato salad is mayonnaise. To make mayonnaise, you need to break some eggs. Lord Alfred Douglas did a lot of smashing with his hot temper.
When Douglas was in a good mood he could not sit still. He would fidget and pace, jump up and sit down. When angered, he could not contain the emotion, he would explode and then the storm would pass, but not without leaving hard feelings in its wake. It was an aspect of his personality he would have to wrestle with his entire life.
Douglas was aware of his own turbulent emotions at an early age. The closest he came to explaining how these tempers felt from inside was the 1891 poem “A Summer Storm,” “…but lo! one note/Of harsh discord, one word of bitterness,/And a fierce overwhelming wilderness/Of angry waters chokes my gasping throat.”
5. Potato salad is a mixture of odd ingredients. Lord Alfred Douglas’s personality was also a mix of odd ingredients.
Douglas seemed to be everything and its opposite all at once, and all of it in the extreme. He was a romantic poet, a dreamer, loyal to a fault and also combative, haughty, vile. He was self-centered and generous, a gentleman and a non-conformist, a titled Lord with no money, born with the advantage of social privilege and the disadvantage of a family legacy of mental instability. He could not take criticism, but he loved to dish it out. He cuts the figure of a knight in the wrong time, mounting his horse in full armor to do battle with a cream pie. The famous Monty Python sketch about the man who is alternately rude and polite could very well have been inspired by his lordship. George Bernard Shaw wrote “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning.” Another team of biographers called him “a kaleidoscope of a man. …we gaze upon a cinema of a man of many selves; each turn of the cinamatograph reveals a new man, or rather a new shade to a chameleon’s skin.”
6. Admittedly the aristocratic Douglas never cooked for himself. But here is a Victorian potato salad recipe that one of his servants might have whipped up.
From Godey’s Lady’s Book 1861.
Boil as many potatoes as will make a dish for your family; when done peal them carefully and slice while hot into a deep dish;cut in very small pieces young onions or shives (chives) and mix them among the slices, distributing a little pepper and salt; pour over the whole, good vinegar, scalding hot, and send it to the table immediately. A wholesome and pleasant dish for spring and early summer.
(After his wife’s death, an elderly Douglas fell into an absolute panic when his maid had to go to the hospital and he thought he might starve to death. He wrote to Shaw, “I was left with no servant and an utter impossibility of getting one… Without a servant I couldn’t live and had to go to hotels at ruinous expense… At present I am in a miserable state of health caused by worry and anxiety… and inability to sleep.”)
7. The Douglases were Scottish. Here is a Scottish potato salad recipe.
10 waxy potatoes, diced
4 ounces (100g) shelled fresh peas (or frozen peas)
4 ounces cooked beetroot (red beets) diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Two teaspoons chopped onion
One teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
Four tablespoons (60ml) salad dressing or salad cream
Fresh parsley to garnish
Boil the potatoes in salted water for ten minutes or until tender. Drain and pat dry. Cook the peas separately for about five minutes or until tender and then drain.
While the vegetables are still warm, mix together and stir in the chopped parsley and onion and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Fold in the salad dressing (or salad cream) to moisten, and garnish with sprigs of fresh parsley.
8. Potato salad is a staple at dinner parties, as was Lord Alfred Douglas.
9. Lord Alfred Douglas had a lot of salad days due to his life-long hobby of betting on losing horses. (He even placed a losing bet on a horse on the day he died.)
10. Potatoes assume the most curious shapes, as did Alfred Douglas’s life.
Enjoy this clip from the 1895 journal The Sketch, which juxtaposes a story about an oddly shaped potato with a notice about a poem based on a letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas.
(The poem based on the letter was written in an attempt to thwart blackmailers.)
Join me tomorrow when I will explain what Lord Alfred Douglas has in common with the proposed “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” ap.
[P.S. Thank you to Kickstarter for naming my project a "staff pick" today.]
Back in November, I had a conversation with an agent about a novel I am looking to publish. He had strong opinions about what types of books are marketable, as all agents do. His point of view was that for a story to sell it had to conform to certain reader expectations. There was, he argued, a natural ending for stories and the natural ending was exactly the one you would expect. In the Hollywood movie, the hero saves the world and wins the respect of his estranged girlfriend in the process, for example. If the film does not deliver the expected resolution then audiences will not be satisfied. Call it the “Rosencrantz Theory of Literature.”
Of course, what is considered a “natural ending” changes over time and across cultures. The satisfying end for the Victorians was one in which the protagonist was destroyed by cruel society. We prefer the “happy end.”
The “happy end” differs depending on whether the protagonist is male or female. Here are the two “natural ends” for popular narratives: In the male happy end the narrative is complete when the hero has scored a victory against great odds. In the female narrative the “natural ending” comes when she is content with the life she has (with bonus points if she finishes the story in true love).
Dorthy has all kinds of adventures in Oz, but the message she comes away with is “there’s no place like home.” Her victory is not becoming the leader of Emerald City, it is being content to live in black and white Kansas. She has a happy end when she stops dreaming of a better life “somewhere over the rainbow.” Put another way, victory for Dorothy is giving up on her dreams.
This is not a narrative that died in the 1940s. It was not pushed aside by women’s lib in the 1970s. In fact, I came to the realization that the expectation of a “natural ending” was different for women while watching “The Devil Wears Prada” the other night on a hotel TV.
In Prada, the protagonist is a young woman who scores what is considered to be a dream job as the assistant to the editor of a major fashion magazine. Her boss is demanding and ruthless. The young woman moves up the ranks and ends up on a glamorous trip to Paris Fashion Week rubbing elbows with high society. Her boss, incidentally, is pictured as having a rocky home life as is expected. Powerful female business women are expected to achieve status at the expense of real relationships. Our protagonist does not want to make the same mistake. In the end (spoiler alert) she walks away from the shallow and artificial life of status and glamor to return to a more “authentic” existence. We see her stepping out of a taxi and abandoning her boss as the boss looks on with disguised admiration for the young woman. The film ends with the main character walking in comfortable clothes with her head held high.
It struck me that this was the expected ending, the Rosencrantz ending, the one audiences are prepared to believe and publishers are prepared to buy.
It also struck me that it was an inversion of the expected male ending. The male protagonist’s story would tend to resolve with the man victorious in the career field he had entered. There was a point in the movie where the main character becomes aware of a plot that could oust the editor. She tries to protect the boss who has made her life so difficult. I would expect the male character to use this opportunity to forward his own interests and bring down the bad guy. It might end with him as the editor of the publication himself. It is not common for the male narrative to end not with worldly success but with the character deciding he does not want to play the game.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.
This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.
Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.
The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.
Dorothy has a happy end when she gives up on her dreams.