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.
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:
“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.”
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).