Posted in Of Writingly

Of Writing and Fame

Fountain Pen Writing (Courtesy: Pixabay)

On a recent trip, my friends and I were discussing a couple of others who couldn’t come along. One is doing well as a singer. Does not have a record yet, or a ‘live’ presence, but still. The other is a published writer, having recently had their stories published in reputable magazines and newspapers. I was the only one who differed in the general consensus that the singer was, in the derogatory sense, a ‘celebrity’ now, while the writer wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Which got me thinking – are writers anything but ordinary?

Enid Blyton (Clearly, a ‘her’)

I read Enid Blyton throughout my childhood. I loved reading her, or him, for she was a person of indeterminate gender to me, because that was irrelevant. Growing up in India, I wasn’t familiar with the name Enid, and which gender it might belong to. My error maybe spared, because several people born and brought up in England rightly mistake Evelyn Waugh for a woman (a mistake also made by Adrian Mole, in the Adrian Mole diaries). When you think about it, how much do you really care about the writers whose books or articles you read, enjoy, remember, swear by, fall in love with, argue over at the top of your lungs, dismiss with every bone in your body, or tuck away unread in your personal library?

Sure, we’ve had authors making the rounds in mainstream media. Those of whom we read about, before we read from. More often than not, however, we read of their notoriety, not fame. Not many get to know what the Man Booker prize winner looks like, or is called, let alone if they had a baby or got divorced. That’s for other types of celebrities, not writers even of the highest public merit.

Man Booker Prize Winner 2016: Paul Beatty

It is simply because writing is too external, too dissociative an act when it comes to reading it, to need any prior or follow-up knowledge of the writer. I am wrong, you may say, because you are easily impulsed to read up on an author once you get interested in their story, as the competence of their writing can easily be measured by the curiosity they cause about themselves through it. Who is this, who creates beauty or revulsion so easily? Where is he from, or is he a she? Did this happen to him/her?

Then why is it that most ‘celebrity’ writers can easily shop in supermarkets, slip into movie theatres in broad daylight, have their lives tabloid-free? Why is it that those who have films made on their bestsellers still come bottom in the line of big names promoting the film based on their book? Why is it, that no matter how talented or recognised, the hugely successful writer still manages to remain a normal person? Why is it that writing sells, but writers don’t, even when they sell out? What makes them so inherently uninteresting to mainstream media, who only seem to cater to the lowest common denominator?

Is it the intellect of the writer that acts as a shield to their mainstream fame? Sure, the geeks have inherited the earth, but name one writer who has as easily an identifiable, iconic status as that of Steve Jobs, without having some personal notoriety. When you think about the fact that it takes to sell only 5000 copies a week to get on a reputable bestsellers list, writing, or books in general, just do not have the numbers to interest fame-makers for their merit alone. A writer always needs something more to sell, which a pop song or a film does not.

Fan Frenzy (Courtesy: Pixabay)

You may argue, not every talented person needs to be subjected to hysterics and intrusion in order to be deemed worthy of attention. True, but often it is in behaviour, if not in words themselves, that recognition lies. I have seen sombre academics fall at the feet of a plain, kurta-pyjama-wearing literary writer in devotion of his talent, perhaps his being. His reaction was just as interesting – though he lacked charisma, that certain je ne sais quoi you expect in any famous person, he betrayed being used to such behaviour, from such learned individuals. You can either accept and adapt to the adoration you receive, or be flustered and bothered by it every time.

I think it is more symptomatic of our age to equate fame with orgiastic behaviour. Reading of writers both regional and of international repute in times gone by, I find their fame was a more back-and-forth affair, where they would converse with their admirers, in person or through writing, without being big-headed about it, as we expect famous people to be. It would certainly help to be big-headed if that meant selling more books, for our age has firmly proved that the most famous are those who are famous for being famous. That being a successful writer, and being a celebrity are two different states of being, and their integration would result in someone who is both famous and talented, though one did not necessarily create the other, and vice-versa.

The question for us normal, aspiring writers participating in this discussion is – should we aspire to it? Do we want to join in Carpool Karaoke, play ‘Never Have I Ever’ for the umpteenth time, invest in a good pair of face-hiding sunglasses, learn the art of the perfect selfie etc.? My two cents is, why not? No matter how much you deny it, or think it’s vapid and invasive, the idea of it is tempting. Sure, you have the likes of Elena Ferrante, but even then, success in terms of popular adoration, even if it doesn’t directly come your way, is still irresistible.

Neil Gaiman

Of course, not everyone is as successful chasing after it. Maybe, to quote a legitimately famous writer Neil Gaiman, we should just focus on making “good art”. Even if the fantasy of a beloved artist is hard to overcome, the dream of being a good artist is an absolutely essential one. No one does this thinking they don’t want to make anything good. Make something good, and then watch the rest unfold.

Do you think writers should be famous? Do you aspire towards fame as a writer?

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Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

27 thoughts on “Of Writing and Fame

  1. Stimulating topic this one. I often write under a pseudonym if I feel the writing ‘fits’ the name. I have no desire whatsoever to join the rat race of having to produce books on demand. I am over the moon if my work is accepted and published, but I am very happy to go off down my street and be fairly anonymous. I’m not certain that a successful writer should always be a ‘celebrity’; I would like my work to be accepted on merit of being a ‘darned good read’.Sometimes I have read a follow-up book by the latest hot writer and been very disappointed.
    I am interested to hear what others say on this subject.
    Best wishes Norma

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing, Norma! Do you find it necessary to share your personal life on your social media to support your writing career? It seems to be an absolute necessity these days, whether an author publishes independently or through traditional means. Even a blog can do eons better numbers-wise if it’s more personal. I don’t enjoy that at all (I like mystery in my favourite famous people. They’re boring to me once I see what they had for breakfast.) And I’d hate to be in such a position, or at least will find it very difficult.

      1. I don’t have any of the media accounts, so, I don’t share any personal details. I share what I think I need to on my blog, but even then I am careful of what I reveal about myself. At this stage of my writing life I am not really of interest to the wider public, so self promotion is not necessary for me. If and when I am lucky to have something published I share with family and friends but that is the thrill of seeing my name in print.
        I am interested in other people as a member of our human race; (and occasionally a great deal of curiosity) but I believe in our human right to privacy and dignity. I can’t abide the so-called ‘celebs’ who share their ‘personal pain’ and then ensure that they are available for any photo opportunity!
        Best wishes Norma.

  2. I like that approach, focus on making “good art.”
    It’s interesting how the perception of some works changes over time – I gather Moby Dick received mixed reviews (at best) upon its release, now it would be difficult to find a review that deemed it anything less than an essential classic!

      1. I have an infrequently used one – I’ve sent some of my posts to a few of the artists that I’ve reviewed, and some have generously ‘liked’ or ‘re-tweeted’ which was a nice surprise!

    1. Oh, the number of writers who had been savagely put down (Keats, for example) in comparison with the number of popular ones who’ve blended into obscurity… and I still think critics are necessary in this world, while popular taste can always teach us something! Even Gatsby was panned and sold badly initially, if I’m not mistaken.

      The film critic Mark Kermode had an interesting take on it – no matter the review, the very fact that it is noticed takes it that much more ahead in being seen by other people.

  3. Following Neil Gaimon’s advice and aiming to produce good art is surely more productive (and sane) than aiming for celebrity.

    Personally, i’d settle for somewhere in the middle – making a decent living as a writer is pretty aspirational. If a little bit of celebrity came along I wouldn’t turn it down.

    But I won’t hold my breath.

    1. Exactly. I prefer the middle ground too, though I’m likely to tilt towards anonymity than adoration, as attention terrifies me! For me, just loving art, and pursuing your ideas is the most important thing. Nothing else feels as good, not even recognition.

  4. Extremely thoughtful and insightful. I’ve had embarrassing fantasies of being recognised as a good writer while still knowing that majority of successful writers will remain relatively obscure while untalented socialites become household names. I think it’s because books require a lot more effort and are a lot less consumable than say songs or movies or news that feed off of infamy to make people like the kardashians famous. Therefore books are relatively less accessible and writers fall by the wayside in terms of fame and celebrity. I think that aspiring to fame as the ultimate goal is the most corrupting and compromising to good art. It’s very common to be successful but still produce work that is critically panned such as the Twilight books and movies. People like Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler get away with producing bad work because it still sells. Celebrities get surrounded by ‘Yes Men’ who don’t criticise their work so long as they are selling well. I can’t blame them too much because it’s much easier to claim that people are unecessarily hating than admit you’ve created something bad. It takes guts to listen to criticism and only those who are truly intent on improving their work will put their ego aside. The best anyone can do is be true to their own intent and the message they’re trying to impart from their work. Pandering often falls flat so I think the best thing anyone can aspire to is to get satisfaction from their work and not from the power that associated with it. As David Foster Wallace said in his This is Water speech, if you worship power you’ll always feel weak and if you worship material goods you’ll never have enough.

    1. What a thoughtful response! Thank you for adding so much to the discussion. Completely agree with all that you say. And I have those fantasies of being successful too! More of what opportunities it will open for me, creative jobs I’d like to have etc.

  5. I’d also like to add that I think it’s the persona that makes someone a celebrity rather than the work they produce. That’s why untalented people get really famous. It’s harder to sell a persona if you’re a writer.

    1. Absolutely. Many talented people have bland public personas, or are private in their nature, whilst others are able to market themselves well, by either having a naturally interesting personality, or constructing it.

  6. I write in the hopes of eventually changing what I see as wrong in the world. I have no particular talent for it (as you clearly do; very enjoyable read, by the way), but I write for catharsis and with the hope that my message will resonate with others. I don’t attach my name to my writing because I still have to work for and with the very people I’m complaining about (I’m not driven to starve in a ditch, you see). 😉

    While I was reading, J.K. Rowling came to mind. I’ve not thought of her as a particularly controversial person, but boy did she find fame!

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post! ♡

    1. Thank you so much! I absolutely loved your Dear Gilbert post. I wish I had a piece of personal history like that! And I disagree: I think you do have “a particular talent” in writing, otherwise you couldn’t have written such a thoughtful piece!

      1. It really was brilliant. I was just telling my mom about it. I used to have an autograph book (for people I know, not celebrities) and I must say, I haven’t heard of anything like it in ages. I just love the concept of yours, uh, I mean your grandfather’s!

      2. Ha, ha! Thanks! I’m so glad grandpa hung onto it. Hang onto yours! Your grandchildren will love it, too!

      3. I think they’ll be mortified by it. They’ll think their gran’s the uncoolest woman ever! But, I’m glad I have it. I have very few things from my childhood, so it feels like a lifetime ago even now when I go through it. (Yes, I am a millennial, but bit of a non-hipster old soul too!)

      4. Ha, ha! I’m sure that’s not true. You Millennials are actually a very cool bunch. I love that you’re bringing back a love of all things old and stylish (my Mill son is the same way), and you’re all smarter than the rest of us (ok, I don’t love that quite as much). 😉 I’m sure whatever “uncool” you think you have is exactly what your family will treasure the most. Hmm….I think you’ve just given me an idea for a new post…

      5. And you’ve given me an idea for a post too! Actually, though I don’t talk about it frankly here, much of my blog is about me having an existential crisis, especially because of how out of step I feel with modern life. I guess it has something to do with the way I was raised. Both my parents and my school were so modest that, despite being very open and practical, I’ve learned to be a little suspicious and scared of anything flashy and cool. Smartphones scare me, I’m unlikely to get one of those fitness bands, I hate headphones…

  7. I read several of your articles and definitely tasted the flavor of the crisis you mention. There’s nothing at all wrong with pulling back from all the crazy of the day. Technology, in particular, is becoming more watchful of our private lives than it should (and since I’m typing this on a smart phone, I’m sure someone from Silicon Valley is reading it while it’s being composed). There’s nothing wrong with being cautious, but, as they say, all things in moderation. Just be you. You’re powerful on your own, as you are. Your writing is excellent! Don’t apologize for it. If you want to be published, do it! You’ve got what it takes. And fitness bands…pfft…they’re overrated.

  8. I think you make a really good point and I enjoy the arguments. If I were to make a guess of why writers are not celebrated like actors or singers. I think there are many arguments to be made about that. Perhaps, it is easier for us to attach a face to an actor because we see them and a signer, but when it comes to a writer are we intrested in their appearance or the story being told? Perhaps, not as much. I don’t have any information to back that up, just a thought.

    1. I definitely agree! That’s why I mentioned Enid Blyton, because who she was didn’t matter to me when I used to read her as a kid. J. K. Rowling, on the other hand, had to adopt her official name instead of using her first name because her publishers thought people wouldn’t want to read the story of a boy wizard written by a female author!

      Thank you for reading and sharing!

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