Why do so many people, even non-readers, have such a high regard for authors? Why is there such uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does publishing something, even online, make a person into an object of admiration?
These are some of the interesting questions Tim Parks asks in a recent article. I found it earlier this month just after giving a talk on Hemingway to a group of 25 people, all of them familiar with the Hemingway legend but few of them readers of his work. Even non-readers have literary heroes, it seems.
The same week, my wife, Lynn, published more of her fiction on Amazon Kindle, and the reaction to this news, even among those who have intention of downloading these stories, is usually one of excited awe, as if she were now some minor celebrity.
Parks teaches creative writing on occasion and finds among his students the same eagerness to publish than I have found in some of my students. They see the only real validation of their work as having it accepted in some format so that it's "out there" so that they are, presumably, no longer anonymous nothings. They are not willing to wait until the story or article or poem is ready; this may take months, even years. Yet most of these emerging writers are impatient.
We live in a culture of celebrity, where winning is everything even though this motive is rarely acknowledged by most writers. The fear of being unrecognized seems to be at work here, the fear of being ignored, the fear of personal failure if the piece of writing we dash off one week is not soon being applauded by readers.
Fame is a devouring monster. Leo Braudy, in his fine book The Frenzy of Renown, sketches the role of fame in some of the great writers and its cultural interplay with the realization that all earthly fame is fleeting: today's Hollywood celebrity is tomorrow's has-been. Yet something in most of us seeks at least fifteen minutes of fame.
I remember my then 9-year-old nephew asking me, "Are you famous?" when he saw my books listed on Amazon. I assured him that I was not and never will be famous; that I did not seek fame, though I was pleased that much of my hard work was rewarded. Much of this publication was expected by the university where I taught; but my non-academic writing, including this blog, is not produced primarily to attract attention to myself. If I can reach a handful of readers who find something I say interesting, I am richly rewarded; if I have no readers at all, the process of having written is deeply satisfying. Too many writers do not enjoy the process.
Parks worries about his ambitious students, who (like many people I have known) rush into publication before they are ready. They will neglect the patient thought and revision needed to make a text really satisfying in an effort to make it commercially viable. The motive: not money so much as fame, the reward, apparently, for the nagging need we have for reassurance that we are important in and of ourselves.
Parks finds low self-esteem at work; I would add fear, which is even more basic and underlies so much.