Is there a stereotype of a Latvian writer? Perhaps a somber figure in black who disdains popular culture and pores endlessly over obscure literary theory. An air of humorless academic seriousness likely lingers over him. He probably likes Dostoyevsky but regards him as a bit light. He himself writes novels in which people stare out of windows at the falling snow, contemplating suicide between shots of potato vodka.
If the above matches your imagination, then you would delight in a hugely successful marketing campaign called #IAmIntrovert created by Latvian Literature, the national agency charged with promoting, well, Latvian literature.
The #IAmIntrovert campaign may seem counterintuitive. While most marketing efforts opt for the colorful or touchy-feely and choose to focus on how wonderful, modern, and diverse whatever they are selling is, Latvia has been running one that is, in effect, one giant sigh.
The person who came up with the idea of #IAmIntrovert is Una Rozenbauma, a film director and marketing expert who was inspired by meeting one particular individual.
"I started considering the introvert type when I met a man I simply could not work out," Rozenbauma says. "At first, I thought he was just very awkward and a bit of an idiot, but then I realized, no, he's just an introvert. When conceiving the campaign, I offered several ideas to Latvian Literature, one emphasizing the strength of our women writers, another emphasizing poetry and illustration. But we saw there was an issue with Latvian authors not liking to speak in public and sell themselves, so the introvert concept took off."
She said officials were surprisingly receptive to what is undoubtedly a high-risk marketing strategy. "It seems to me that when you communicate honestly and open-mindedly, you show your strength, even if what you are saying is awkward," Rozenbauma says. "At the beginning of the campaign, there was a rather pronounced counterresponse from ‘positivists,' who prefer the common practice that we follow communication clichés—that we are all smiling, open, and perfect. But these weren't writers; these were some readers. The writers themselves backed the campaign and admitted they are introverts. Now, the overall response, ironically, is positive. It makes people smile and keeps things in perspective."
Several authors appeared in promotional clips on YouTube ahead of the 2017 London Book Fair. All were wearing dark clothes and most had spectacles. At last year's London Book Fair, the Latvian stand offered a clothes rack displaying dingy black garments, each one featuring a short quote from a Latvian author, and invited people to take selfies with their backs turned to the camera. It was, to many, a masterstroke: the first book fair stand you could literally wear. (You can expect to see the selfie stand again this year.)
The #IAmIntrovert campaign has since branched into online cartoons depicting embittered authors sneering at the popular success of commercial writers. This was even followed by the production of a bespoke beer. The result is that #IAmIntrovert has transformed from a cliquey concept into a wry and likeable look at literary life, one that treats the audience as intelligent skeptics rather than babyish consumers who need to be spoon-fed good news.
Anete Konste, a Latvian writer with a talent for humor, scripts the cartoons in collaboration with the artist Reinis Pētersons. The comic features a main character (an introverted writer named "I") and, occasionally, an equally narcissistic though decidedly more elegant female counterpart.
It is to Latvian Literature's credit that all this has been achieved on a budget of less than €30,000. And, in reality, the stereotype of the Latvian writer as a thin, intense, introverted man is itself a work of fiction. For a start, many of the most talented writers in Latvia today are women—Nora Ikstena and Māra Zālīte are just two marquee names. You also may have noticed that the people behind the #IAmIntrovert campaign, with the exception of Reinis Pētersons, also all happen to be women.
In this sense, the concept of the introverted Latvian writer, then, is something like Voltaire's concept of God: as he didn't really exist, it was necessary for a group of talented women to invent him—in order to then destroy him—which sounds a lot more like Nietzsche.
Mike Collier is a British writer and journalist who has lived in Latvia since 2008.