I was recently reading something about a reclusive-but-successful author, and people were commenting on how wonderful it was that some authors refuse to market and just let The Quality of Their Work Shine Through, and that contemporary authors should do the same.
I've heard this quality-of-the-work-shines-through argument before--for example, when someone decides not to proofread their book, because The Quality of the Work Will Shine Through!!! and I guess blind the reader to all the stupid grammatical errors.
The problem with deciding that you will just let The Quality of You Work Shine Through is this: THAT IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN IF NO ONE EVER READS YOUR BOOK.
Literary quality is not actually a form of light. There is no bright halo surrounding the really good books. Literary quality cannot shine through unless someone 1. knows your book exists, 2. picks it up, 3. reads it, and then 4. talks it up.
In the past, authors didn't have to market because publishers did it for them--or, at least, that was how things were supposed to work: Publishers sent books to reviewers. Publishers paid co-op to books stores for better placement. Publishers got extracts published in literary magazines. And in return, publishers got most of the money.
It wasn't that there was no marketing going on. It was just that the authors weren't the ones doing it, or at least not all of it.
It's really easy for people to think that their contribution to a success was the only one that matters. That's true of editors, marketing people...and writers! We do the writing, so we tend to think that good writing = successful book.
But if you write the best book in the entire world and then hide it, who is going to read it? If you put your book out without a cover and no support, who is going to find it? Readers aren't psychic--they don't know that a great book exists unless they're told.
Marketing isn't easy, and it doesn't come naturally for most people. But marketing isn't only for inferior writers. The notion that good-quality writing doesn't have to be marketed is simply bullshit--there's a strategy for marketing literary fiction (New York Times book review; NPR feature) that is as by-the-numbers as the marketing done for the most crassly commercial book imaginable. And the idea that so-and-so is such a superior writer that he just sits on a mountaintop next to Bob Dylan, contemplating his own awesomeness, probably came straight from so-and-so's marketing department.