Friday essay: why literary celebrity is a double-edged sword

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By WalterThornton

In 1967, French theorist Roland Barthes famously declared the metaphorical “death of the author” in his essay of the same name. Barthes rejected the Romantic idea of the author as a unique figure of genius. Still, despite his best efforts, this romantic notion of the heroic, solitary wordsmith lives on today.

In Medieval times, authors were seen as nothing more than craftsmen. But the Romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley – singled out the writer as a figure of “spontaneous creativity”. As academic Clara Tuite has noted,

This Romantic writer was seen as either a solitary hero, a tragic artist, a melancholy genius – or all three. In the centuries since, famous authors have been both celebrated and panned, adored and ridiculed.Since Romantic times, we have often expected writers to be detached from the trappings of celebrity culture, aligning their integrity with an anti-commercial attitude. There is, argues author Joe Moran, a “nostalgia for some kind of transcendent, anti-economic, creative element in a secular, debased, commercialised culture” that we commonly attach to writers. Indeed theorist Lorraine York has asked if we can even use words like “fame” and “celebrity” to describe writers, “those notorious privacy-seeking, solitary scribblers”.

One of the first to question the idea of literary celebrity was the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who found his own fame something of a burden. More recently, authors such as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Dave Eggers have struggled with the desire for popularity and credibility. In today’s internet culture, reaction to a famous writer’s actions or utterances is quick and merciless. Next week, a new author will be thrust into the media spotlight, with the announcement of the Booker Prize winner.

Yet interestingly, discussions about the difficulties of being a famous writer rarely include women. The notion of the solitary genius is usually attached to men. A notable exception is the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante – who is famous, ironically, precisely because of her reluctance to engage with literary celebrity. Ferrante writes under a pseudonym, in her words, to “liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety”.The extent to which her true identity has been picked over shows how our society craves constant closure, often at the expense of creativity and imagination. As Michel Foucault once noted, literary anonymity is “of interest only as a puzzle to be solved”.

Such is the nature of contemporary celebrity culture that many cannot tolerate the idea of writers who prefer anonymity over fame. So those such as Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger and Ferrante, who have evaded the limelight, have been scrutinised as much for their personal lives as their actual works.The 19th century writers Charles Dickens (hero of the working class) and Mark Twain (America’s most beloved humourist), were plagued with aspects of their fame. While Dickens was often criticised for appealing to the lower classes, Twain likened celebrities to clowns. Celebrity, he said, “is what a boy or a youth longs for more than for any other thing. He would be a clown in a circus […] he would sell himself to Satan, in order to attract attention and be talked about and envied”.

Yet Dickens and Twain also enjoyed their fame. Dickens was renowned for engaging his audiences at public lectures; Twain also went on speaking tours.

If we fast forward half a century or so, we come to Ernest Hemingway – another author who felt imprisoned by his fame. As theorist Leo Braudy puts it, Hemingway was caught between “his genius and its publicity”. In an undated writing fragment,He also called fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald a “hack” for writing Hollywood screenplays.

Yet Hemingway nevertheless helped promote the “Hemingway myth”, built around ideals of masculinity and genius. He was frequently photographed outdoors, fishing and hunting, or attending bullfights.

Then there was Norman Mailer, the pugnacious, Jewish author of The Naked and the Dead and Advertisements for Myself. In 1960, Mailer stabbed and seriously wounded his then-wife, Adele Morales with a pen-knife at a drunken party. (After pleading guilty to a charge of third-degree assault, he received a suspended sentence.)Mailer cultivated a public persona that certainly boosted his fame, but did little for his literary reputation. Many critics accused him of wasting his talents by shamelessly promoting himself; he did frequent TV interviews, including a particularly notorious appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, where he and Gore Vidal famously butted heads over Mailer’s public profile and ego.