“Being a famous poet is not the same thing as being famous.” —John Ashbery
I was buying a book in a store one day, a book of poems. The cashier rang me up and noticed what genre this book was. “Oh,” she said, “That’s interesting.” I thought so too, since I was buying it.
“I like to keep up with my betters,” I said.
Another “Oh,” and then the question I knew was coming. “So you’re a poet. Do I know your work?” A sophisticated way of asking “Are you famous?”
Thankfully, no. Fame would be frightening. Happily, writers for the most part don’t get famous anymore. Instead, we become successful at our craft. Fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case; writers had a much greater degree of mainstream exposure than we enjoy today. Remember Ginsberg showing up on Cavett, and just imagine what the ratings zombies at the networks today would think of, say, Yusef Koumunyaaka, Cornelius Eady, Li-Young Lee, Toi Derricotte, Lynn Emanuel just to name a few. Now, I think any of the above would make for riveting TV, but dollar-counters likely would not.
Which tells us something about the way mainstream culture’s view of literature has changed in the past fifty years.
When I taught at BGSU, I used to have to do those unfortunate cattle-call “Career Day” on certain Saturday mornings; parents would bring their daughters and sons to walk among the various displays, some of them quite well done and others thrown together at the last moment. The English site was somewhere in between, but my happiest memory of those mornings was talking with colleagues. The tough part, of course, was the spiel. I could quote it from memory today, but I’ll spare you.
Saying the same thing to all those young people was difficult; it was harder to hear their most-often asked question: “So, if I come to your school, will I become a famous writer?”
Oh, dear. I told them we could give them the tools to become adept at their craft, and got back to program specifics, because I hate the question of fame. Let’s break down the essence of that question; notice the word will—”Are you guaranteeing me?” Well, of course not; we’d have been sued.
And then the reference to fame. I could sum it all up by referring you to Ashbery, above, but let’s scratch down one level deeper. Why do these people seek fame rather than greater ability? I’d say it’s conditioning. I went through it myself; maybe you did too, mistaking fame for ability that other people might recognize. For me it stopped the day I heard an undergrad colleague define success as “when a classroom full of freshmen open up their books and say, ‘Oh, not her again,'” meaning herself. For me it was like taking Antabuse and trying to drink. Horrible. To this day I remember it, and don’t know whatever happened to her. Don’t care, either.
I’ve been exposed to very well-known writers, and for the most part they’ll tell you that not that many people outside the academy even know who they are. Which, when you think of it, is a pretty sweet deal, right? Best of both worlds, and much better than being famous. I mean, come on, consider the lives of famous people. Britney Spears is famous. Charlie Sheen is famous. They’re both train wrecks, but they’re famous and in some ways faults are more saleable than abilities in this media economy. Or if you want a more writer-specific example, how would you like to have been Salman Rushdie in the nineteen-eighties in hiding from an Iranian fatwa?
Do you still want fame? Or would you rather simply learn the craft until others in your field cannot deny your skills, the musicality of your work? Fame is a joke, a tease, a ruse. True literary success is something none of us can game; all we can do is keep to our labors and place our trust in the reader’s taste.