On Literary Fame

Very few writers would honestly say they'd prefer to be completely unknown (hence, unread) rather than famous - but in the past few days a remarkable media and PR campaign has sought to announce that an Irish writer,
Sally Rooney, is now 'The world's most famous' young writer. And in many magazines and frontpages of major national UK newspapers over the past few days, the 'hell of fame' has been noted. It is not the author's fault that another 'hell' - that of dying or suffering in Kabul outside the airport while desperately clinging to hope - was also being mentioned, often on the same front pages.

There are levels of fame, and therefore, levels of hell, no doubt.

This post is not about the Irish novelist, however. We must wish her well and hope she manages to enjoy her success and keep writing: her efforts have paid off, and that is all to the good. Literary envy is a poison no one should spice their food with.

Let us consider a point that many editors for newspapers may forget, as well as programmers for festivals. It is so simple as to almost be a truism, except it isn't, because it is not definitively true and many people don't believe it, but here it is: sometimes the best writers are not the most famous ones.

I only mention this, and not in a bitter way, because as a publisher, I publish dozens of books by very brilliant, and talented, writers and poets, who are, factually-speaking, not 'the most famous' in their fields. They are all, without exception, still worth reading, and, in the opinion of many readers, their work equals that of much better known writers.

This is the way of the world. There is always a bit of luck, a bit of media strategy, and some financial clout, behind the generation of fame. There is also, usually, also some reason for the fame generated by the quality of the work. In literature, famous writers are normally also good, if not great, writers.

But so are the dozens and thousands of writers, not short-listed, prize-winning, or mega-published and gigantic-selling, often good or excellent writers.

There is no accounting for taste, and in a sense, the most famous writers, by definition, are the most popular, and hence, the most enjoyed by their age. Dickens was popular, famous, and a genius. So too, Plath is now famous, and a genius.

But fame can be cruel, and fickle. Famously, when the once-famous author of The Great Gatsby died - often considered one of the greatest works of literature ever - The New York Times mis-spelled his name in its small obituary. And didn't mention Gatsby.

Meanwhile, E.A. Poe, now clearly a figure to always be studied, if not respected, remains a best-selling, famous and popular writer, but in his own lifetime, except for a brief period when he was reciting his poem 'The Raven' he was not even among the top 100 most famous poets or writers in the USA, according to lists of the time. One academic, examining these lists, observed that NONE of the other poets listed is anymore known or read.

Fame changes as does literary good fortune. Ben Johnson, one of the finest poets and playwrights of the English language, was so poor when he died, he had to be buried standing up.

Countee Cullen was once the most famous African American poet; now he is less-read than many others of the Harlem Renaissance, and often forgotten. Yet, he remains a poet of greatness. Dickinson is the most famous woman poet of all time, after Sappho, and yet both had difficult reception histories.

Posthumous fame is an ambiguous friend, but is surely to be welcomed more than posthumous oblivion. It is the only fame that mattered to Horace and other classical poets; John Donne barely published any poems in his lifetime, and was best-known as a giver of sermons when alive. Margaret Atwood, when I was in university, was more famous as a poet, than as a novelist; the pendulum swings.

The idea of being a 'famous younger' writer or poet is always a double-edged compliment, because the young grow up, all too soon. Bret Easton Ellis managed the feat of being famous young, then writing a masterpiece when a bit older. Keats is forever young, though friends though his name was writ on water. A few years ago, Zadie Smith was the world's most famous young novelist - now she is merely one of its greatest, period. Tolstoy when old was famous for disavowing his younger works.

Fame is a funny thing. Except when it isn't.

But it should never be the only reason to read a writer. Who knows, you may even discovered someone unsung, and help make them... well, famous...


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