The Decline of the Literary Celebrity

Stephen King

Stephen King

Who would be the most recognizable living literary celebrity to the average man on the street today?

I would guess Stephen King, and that being mainly because so many of his novels have been turned into popular films (and the fact that he, himself, has appeared rather frequently in movies and on television). I would give the runner-up spot to Maya Angelou, and that mainly for her poetic recital at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and for her political activities on the behalf of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama since then.

But would the average man on the street recognize the faces of any of the last twenty recipients of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel, or even the Nobel Prize for Literature? Would they recognize any of their names?

I highly, highly doubt it.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Such was not always the case in the United States. As recently as the 1980s, the face and name of Norman Mailer were immediately recognizable. Now, admittedly, Mr. Mailer was famous for more than his books – he was also famous for stabbing one of his wives and for ticking off a couple of generations of feminists. But in the decades prior to the 1980s, literary celebrities, of whom Norman Mailer was one of the last ones, were not at all uncommon. The names and faces of writers such as Arthur Miller (also famous for his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe), Truman Capote, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway frequently appeared on the covers of such popular periodicals as Life and Time.

But there was a golden age of literary celebrity, prior to the pushing aside of novels as the favorite mass media of cognoscenti and commoners alike, and that was the latter half of the nineteenth century. Then, celebrities such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens could have lived very, very comfortably off just their speaking fees. Before the advent of the movies, radio, and television, they were the Charlie Chaplins and Clark Gables of their day. Then, unlike today, when any potential literary celebrity must have an easy faculty with television, a literary celebrity did not even need to have a pleasant-sounding voice.

I was struck by the following scene from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1870 novel Devils, in which one of the supporting characters, the famed writer Karmazinov, is a wickedly funny caricature of the equally famed real-life Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev:


Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev

“When rumors had reached us of late that Karmazinov was coming to the neighborhood I was, of course, very eager to see him, and, if possible, to make his acquaintance. … When we met he was standing still at the turning and looking about him, attentively. Noticing that I was looking at him with interest, he asked me in a sugary, though rather shrill voice:

“’Allow me to ask, which is my nearest way to Bykovy Street?’

“’To Bykovy Street? Oh, that’s here, close by,’ I called in great excitement. ‘Straight on along this street and the second turning to the left.’

“’Very much obliged to you.’

“A curse on that minute! I fancy I was shy, and looked cringing. He instantly noticed all that, and of course realized it all at once; that is, realized that I knew who he was, that I had read him and revered him from a child, and that I was shy and looked at him cringingly. He smiled, nodded again, and walked on as I had directed him. I don’t know why I turned to follow him; I don’t know why I ran for ten paces beside him. He suddenly stood still again.

“’And could you tell me where is the nearest cab stand?’ he shouted out to me again.

“It was a horrid shout! A horrid voice!

“… I almost turned to run for a cab for him. I almost believe that was what he expected me to do. …

“He suddenly dropped a tiny bag… I flew to pick it up.

“I am convinced that I did not really pick it up, but my first motion was unmistakable. I could not conceal it, and, like a fool, I turned crimson. The cunning fellow at once got all that could be got out of the circumstance.

“’Don’t trouble, I’ll pick it up,’ he pronounced charmingly; that is, when he was quite sure that I was not going to pick up the reticule, picked it up as though forestalling me, nodded once more, and went his way, leaving me to look like a fool.”


Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

I actually had a very similar experience to that of Dostoevsky’s hapless narrator. My run-in was with the famed (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

In 1987 or thereabouts, I was browsing among the long aisles of science fiction and fantasy books at Forbidden Planet, a huge SF, fantasy, and horror books, comics, and toys store located at Broadway and East 13th Street in Manhattan, when I happened to see Harlan Ellison also browsing on the very same aisle. Trying to be as discreet as possible, I spent the next ten minutes following him around the store, staying at least three quarters of an aisle away, checking out what he was checking out. Then, having selected a few books, he went to the register to pay.

With his back turned toward me, I felt liberated to openly stare at the man and his purchases (none of which I can recall). I hid at the edge of an aisle and watched him head for the exit. But just before he left the store, Ellison swiveled around sharply, stared right at me with a sardonic smile, and offered me a little wave. Then he walked outside. Just like Dostoevsky’s narrator, I was left feeling like a fool in my own eyes.

In the science fiction world of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Harlan Ellison was the science fiction world’s Norman Mailer, equally as famous for his outrageous conduct as for the stabbing quality of his writing. His name and face were instantly recognizable to the great majority of science fiction fans, thanks, in part, to his photo appearing on the back dust covers of such seminal anthologies as Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions and for his having written one of the most fondly remembered and honored episodes of Star Trek, the heart-rending “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Yet today, fans of written science fiction are a very minute sub-group of the mass of sci-fi and fantasy fans, most of whom have knowledge of the field that begins either with Star Trek or Star Wars, or any of an innumerable number of sci-fi video games or roleplaying games. I would venture a bet that at DragonCon, perhaps the largest “pure” science fiction convention on the planet, host to up to 40,000 attendees, perhaps two percent of those attendees would recognize the name Harlan Ellison, and considerably less than one percent would be able to pick his photo out of a lineup. Yet as little as thirty-five years ago, his face was one of the most recognizable in the science fiction world. Now only Neil Gaiman, known more widely for his Sandman comics and his leather jacket than for his novels, might be recognized by a fraction as many science fiction fans as Harlan Ellison was recognized by in his heyday. The name George R. R. Martin would be recognized by some, but that is only because his series A Song of Fire and Ice has been turned into the massively popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. The total pool of fans of the genre has grown so much larger, and the space occupied within that fandom by written works has shrunk even faster.

Such is the fate of the literary celebrity today…

5/6/14 Addendum: A commenter over at The Passive Voice writing industry blog points out the case of Michael Chabon. I think Chabon is richly illustrative of the point made by my article. He has won several of the top literary awards; his books, while considered literary fiction, are very accessible to the wider reading public and feature strong, well-constructed plots; he is exceptionally photogenic (People Magazine once named him “One of the Fifty Most Beautiful People in America”); and, much like Ernest Hemingway was in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Chabon is the personification of his era’s dominant/elite conception of masculinity. If this were any time between 1930 and 1980, the era when the mass media lionized top writers, Chabon’s face and voice would be everywhere. But with the splintering of both the mass media and popular culture into thousands of sub-segments, as opposed to the monolithic mass media and pop culture which existed until fairly recently, Chabon is as lost in the crowd as any of us (despite his appearance in People Magazine, which itself does not have nearly the same clout it once had).


  1. Marc Cabot says:

    Is J.K. Rowling not celebrity enough, or not literary enough?

    • Andrew says:

      Ah, Marc, but how many people would recognize her face, as Hemingway’s face was once almost universally known?

      • Marc Cabot says:

        Most of the kids who grew up reading her books would probably have a good idea who she was given half a chance.

        • Andrew says:

          Marc, please see my response to Tasha below. Again, thanks much for dropping by and for making several comments. Much appreciated!

  2. plwinkler says:

    “Who would be the most recognizable living literary celebrity to the average man on the street today?”

    James Ellroy, perhaps.

    The decline of the literary celebrity corresponds with their disappearance from broadcast TV. Out of sight, out of mind. I can’t recall Jay Leno having authors on his show when he used to host the Tonight Show.

    Capote, Mailer, and Vidal were ubiquitous when I was a teenager in the ’70s. Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, William F. Buckley, David Susskind and other talk show hosts had authors on as guests on a regular basis. Not anymore.

    • Andrew says:

      That was a point I didn’t make specifically in my article, but I certainly had in mind what might be thought of as “The Golden Age of the Writer on TV Talk Shows.” Thanks for bringing that to everyone’s attention.

  3. Tasha Turner says:

    If you are on social media chances are you know what your favorite authors look like and more. If you browse online you see what bestselling authors look like as their picture shows up in a number of places. I grew up in the 1970s & 80s and frankly most of the people I knew weren’t paying much attention to authors unless they were in the publishing field or there was a scandal.

    • Andrew says:

      Tasha, thanks so much for dropping by and for commenting. I think what social media had done for us is aid and abet the fragmentation of popular culture. Pop culture used to be a monolithic thing; everybody read the same news weekly magazines and watched the same three TV networks, and many read whichever novels were declared to be “important” or “significant” by those sources. Nowadays, social media allows us to be in closer touch with the source of our particular passions, as you point out, but those passions are not necessarily widely shared by the bulk of the population (as was once Dickens’ popularity, or Hemingway’s, or even Truman Capote’s).

      • Tasha Turner says:

        I graduated HS in 1985. I don’t think I knew what any of the people mentioned looked like. I wonder if this might be a gender or class issue? Other women I’ve talked to say the same thing – that they weren’t very aware of these guys. We might have heard their names but they weren’t celebs to us. I went to a public HS for 9th grade & switch to private 10-12th. Outside of classes, and parents as a number of kids parents were celebrities, we didn’t talk about author “celebs”. That didn’t change during the one year of traditional college I attended, even less so in the work world I entered in 1987.

        I remember the 1970s and don’t remember my parents who were big into culture focusing much on celebs. They were more about the books, music, art and being involved in the arts locally, as were most of their friends. I hung out with mostly their adult friends more than kids when I was younger so I was around for book, music, art discussions.

        • Andrew says:

          Tasha, I’m just a few years older than you. I don’t remember Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, etc. from my childhood, either. But once I was an adult and exploring literature, I was fascinated to learn how ubiquitous such authors had been in the media and in popular consciousness during the dominance of the three big TV networks.

  4. Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    I suspect you’d find that the TV series of Game of Thrones has raised GRRM’s profile enough that he would be recognised often on the street, especially if dressed in his “fat beardy in suspenders” costume.

    Which doesn’t of course, support any case for him being a literary celebrity.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks so much for dropping by, Phoenician, and for leaving an insightful comment. I suppose time will tell whether or not George R. R. Martin becomes as recognizable to the general public as Stephen King or any of the literary big-timers from the 1930s to the 1970s who I discussed in my article. Perhaps someday some future blogger (or whatever commentators will be called then) will lament, “How come there are no more literary celebrities like George R. R. Martin anymore?”

  5. Certainly in government and military circles, I think Tom Clancy would count as a literary celebrity. He received many warm welcomes from military personnel over the years and, in some cases, granted unusual access.

    • Andrew says:

      Scott, thanks so much for stopping by and for leaving a thoughtful comment. Please come back often!

  6. Andrew: Very good blog/article regarding literary celebrity! And it’s observations are, for the most part, spot-on. I should point out that Truman Capote was — like Mailer — very well known for more than his books. In large part, due to TV show appearances in the 1960s, but also because he (like Mailer) often made news in the gossip columns. Way back when, far more writers were invited onto the Tonight Show. But even then, writers who knew how to speak and be entertaining while doing so — ala Mailer, Gore Vidal and Harlan Ellison — were the ones invited back. And Hemingway was also well known for his personal adventures as well as his books. The African hunting adventures, and the adventures in Cuba and frequent vistis to bars in Florida. Plus, he was involved in the Spanish Civil War and managed to get an “assignment” during WWII. So Hemingway, like Capote (and Mailer, and Ellison) gained some fame via his personal life, and via appearances on TV (in Hemingway’s case, the TV spots were usuall news items — he may even have gotten himself filmed for one of those old news reels shown before movies back in the 30s and 40s.

    (These days, unless you’re a writer whose success has spilled over into TV and the movies — George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Gillian Flynn, Michael Connelly, etc.) you don’t get invited onto TV shows. And very few of them — Craig Ferguson was one of the few — actually a lot more than five minutes of talk time).

    As for writers who might be recognized today: Stephen King is a definite yes, for the reasons you noted. And I believe George R.R. Martin is fast approaching the same level of fame. Which says a lot about 1) the popularity of his books, and 2) more importantly, the popularity of the show adapted from his books, since Martin has done lots of TV interviews and promotions spots, as well as magazine and online interviews (along with King and John Irving and a few others, Martin is one of the few writers to be interviewed by “Rolling Stone”.

    You might also include Neil Gaiman. Although his novels are quite popular, Gaiman’s fame is also largely due (I think) to his being a writer for several different mediums: Books, comics, film and TV (“Dr. Who”), as well as some online fame. And recently, many of his public have sold out, not something that happens very often with writers (one gets the feeling that a lot of women are attracted to him as well — that doesn’t hurt — and he is quite adept at speaking and verbal sparring, in an “entertaining way”, with TV hosts). It probably doesn’t hurt that he has been described as looking like a “rock star”.

    And I believe you CAN also include J.K. Rowling, who would be noticed more often than most people would think, and largely because of her Harry Potter popularity (books AND film, since she is featured on documentaries on DVDs). In 2006, my daughter and I saw “An Evening With Harry, Carrie and Garp” at Radio City Music Hall. The crowd — largely of children, but there were plenty of adults, around at least four thousand — the place looked packed (it was the second night), probably closer to capacity of six K — treated King, Irving and (especially) Rowland like rock stars!

    Sadly, even back then, the newspaper industry, etc., was already falling victim to not seeing writers as celebrities. I was still in freelance journo capacity. I tried to peddle a piece — after the fact — about the Rock Star Treatment of the authors (they got much more applause than the movie stars introducing them, including Whoopie Goldberg) and about the continuing popularity of books, etc. Peddled it to my book editors in Denver, Milwaukee, and a couple of other spots. They all thought it wouldn’t be “timely” enough (in other words, they wanted a piece that would provide a scoop, rather than insight). Despite the fact that I had backstage access (I knew/know one of the writers) and despite the human interest/cultural angle (heck, I even had stuff like stepping on Salman Rushdie’s toes — he was attending along with his son; interesting way to meet a writer one admires) — but it was a no-go.

    An interesting side note: with the Fatwah taken out on him, and at least a handful of TV spots, you would think a few people would recognize Mr. Rushdie. But except for me (when I accidentally stepped on his sandaled feet while making my down an aisle, no one recognized him till an Q&A period after the readings by each author. I DO think John Irving could be added to the list of recognized authors — because his books still sell widely — but since only three or four worthwhile movies have been made of his books, he hasn’t had as much exposure in the film/TV areas as the others.

    In any case.
    Good article!

    • Andrew says:

      Dorman, at the risk of making a bad pun on your last name, you have compiled a very impressive “Shindler’s List.” Thanks for taking the time to visit, and for writing a response which could easily be a blog post of of its own. I would definitely agree with your assertions about Neil Gaiman; he comes close to being a “master of all media,” and thus has been able to extend his recognizability considerably (also maintaining a very consistent mode of dress in public appearances… the leather jacket and all).

  7. Make that, many of his public appearances (for Gaiman). And sorry for any OTHER typos.
    Gotta run — cheers!

  8. historyagain says:

    Even as a child I was as fascinated with authors as I was with their works. I could easily recognize Farley Mowat and, when a bit older, thrived on the next greatest Pierre Berton saga. When I was 12, and transplanted to the States, I was involved in a junior book club at the local library. I had the thrilling opportunity to meet and introduce Dan Rather, certainly a celebrity in his own right, but at the time a literary celebrity as co-author of The Palace Guard with Gary Paul Gates.

    But perhaps my greatest thrill was at the age of 14 having the opportunity to spend an entire hour with Ray Bradbury at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. We talked in length about The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was barely aware of the two English teachers and six other students in the room. In my mind it was a one to one encounter that has marked the course of my life. I can’t even imagine how I would have felt to be in the presence of Harlan Ellison, although thanks to your article I can imagine it with much greater ease.

    I really enjoyed your article and it makes me think about authors and author celebrity in a new way as well as deftly taking down memory lane and my own author encounters. Thanks!

    • Andrew says:

      Thank you so much for dropping by and for sharing a very interesting story about Ray Bradbury, long one of my favorites. Please continue to visit my site from time to time.

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