Selling Out


Imagine, if you can, Head Housefly Al deciding one day he wants to be a Viking. Wants to build his very own personal and authentic Viking knarr and do a bit of sailing. Naturally, in your imagination, you see him giving me a call to help him out. I’m a dreamer. I used to have hair like a Viking. I have nothing pressing to do with my time. I’m an obvious choice. He’d probably, if your imagination is like mine, give the rest of the Houseflies a call and ask them to drop everything and come join him on his little venture. Al has no money, he’ll explain, and, no, he’d go on, I don’t really know how to sail, but it’d be fun (and he’d throw in some exclamation points at the end of that sentence and, when in doubt about Wednesday’s willingness to come out and play, he’d probably throw around something along the lines of questioning Wednesday’s belief in God).


This actually happened. Except not to Al or, alas, me. A few years ago, Hodding Carter decided he did indeed want to be a Viking and he did indeed want to sail his very own personal knarr (I’ve no idea why knarr is always italicized, but it is). Wanted to be a Viking and retrace Lief Erikson’s voyage from Greenland to North America. Carter had pretty much no money to work with. He didn’t know a thing about sailing. He asked some friends to see if maybe they might be free for a few weeks to do a bit of sailing. They were, and even though they couldn’t sail either, they agreed to do it. (Nautical experience, apparently, being the trees getting in the way of the forest, vision-wise, when it came to this project.)

A Viking Voyage: In Which an Unlikely Crew of Adventurers Attempts an Epic Journey to the New World chronicles Carter’s experiences from dream to boat building to hiring at least one person with sailing experience to captain the ship to failing on the first attempt to the successful completion of the journey the next year. Carter is a goofball, and his writing style makes for a fun read. Hijinks aplenty in the North Atlantic. The most interesting parts of the book are the ones dealing with the actual sailing, but that’s probably only half the book. Carter spends a good deal of time discussing his dream and researching Viking history. The history is interesting, although Carter’s narrative gets bogged down in it at times (you can kind of skim those pages and not miss too much). It also gets bogged down in details about boat building — I read the book a couple of years ago and still remember things about rudders that I’m not sure what to do with other than say, hey, I know something about rudders (there are even multiple diagrams of the things).

Anyone who likes travel or adventure writing should pick up this book, as it really is one of the better travel or adventure books I’ve read. It has a different feel to it than most books of that genre. He’s not as well known as travel writers such as Frances Mayes or Peter Mayle or Bill Bryson or Paul Thoreaux, and that’s probably because he didn’t choose as sexy a subject such as Italy or France or Australia or the Sahara. He chose Greenland. He chose Vikings. I don’t think he sold just all that many books.

What Carter did that I don’t think the other writers I mentioned do is: he got a sponsor. He wasn’t an established writer that would get a big signing bonus from a publisher to go off somewhere and write something. So, after running out of money early on in the project, he started looking for someone to sponsor his project. In comes Lands End. They love the project. Enough so that they eventually spend around half a million dollars to make sure Carter has what he needs to succeed. Half a million dollars. On a book. About Vikings.

I’ve never quite understood what people mean when they say someone has “sold out.” I understand what they’re saying, I just don’t think it makes any sense. An artist can do the same thing for years and then for whatever reason suddenly be noticed for it (i.e. makes lots of money) and next thing you know, they’ve sold out. Happens in the music world. Happens in the literary world. Carter sold out in the most literal sense, and for that, I commend him. And I commend Lands End.

The book itself is interesting, but I think this partnership is even more so. There is this pervasive image in the art world of the starving, depressed artist creating or writing something that isn’t appreciated during her lifetime but is eventually recognized as something great. It’s romantic. It means the artist was more interested in her art than in either recognition or money. Carter, though, is a family man and has people depending on him. He has no time to be the starving artist. At the same time, he probably doesn’t want his dream of an authentic voyage to be compromised by corporate executives who might try to manipulate what he says in some way.

Lands End seemed to be an ideal sponsor. They got Carter publicity (I think 48 Hours did a little segment on him). They made sure he was able to do the project safely. And they didn’t really care what he said. They thought it was a nice idea and told him to go for it. Of course, they got some advertisement out of the deal. They were mentioned on 48 Hours. Carter’s website featured a not so small link to Lands End. And, anyone who actually reads the book, or reviews of the book, knows how generous this company apparently is, how committed they are to travel and adventure and outfitting travellers and adventurers.

I do think Carter maintained his integrity as an artist and not a spokesperson for corporate America. Partly because…umm…no one read his book, but more so because he didn’t let the partnership interfere with what he had to say. His voyage took place roughly 1,000 years after Erikson’s. Which took place roughly 500 years before Columbus found North America. Which means there could be some touchy political issues to be handled. Carter handles them well, and he handles them without preaching or demonizing anyone. He’s really more interested in the adventure than he is in politics.

So while the literary world will probably continue to look down on writers that sell blockbuster books, such as Grisham and King, because their work is too commercial (i.e. they sell tons and tons of books and are in no danger of being confused with a starving artist), when something is written well enough, it can actually be a commercial for an actual company and the writer not be accused of selling out.

Currently reading: The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. History of the Surrealist Movement, by Durozoi. 9/11 Commission Report, by the Commission. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson.


4 Responses to “Selling Out”

  1. wednesday Says:


    My belief in God is so vast and far-reaching that it boggles the mind.

    I know that Vikings, on the other hand, absolutely did not exist. Anything that allegedly preceded Columbus and his discovery of America strictly for the purest reasons of religious freedom smacks — smacks! — of evolutionary revisionism.

    Also the new hermeneutic, whatever the heck that is…

  2. Longhorn's other half Says:

    Sorry, I’m only into the 1st paragraph so far and laughing heartily. I just wanted to throw in there that Joe can navigate by the stars (really, he can…at least that’s what he told me to impress me back in the day.)

    So he’d be of great value on your voyage.

    OK, I’ll finish reading now…

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    In that case, I hope I didn’t offend Joe last week when I mentioned that the world’s most respected sailor was a British woman. I do have nothing pressing to do with my time, if, say, Joe wants to be a Viking for a few weeks.

  4. Coach Says:

    Nice writing, Mikey. I, too, loved this book (far more interesting than my current read of Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day and probably more useful). Keep up the good work, sport.

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