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?
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.
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.
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.
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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