In Defense of Literary Celebrity

Barnes & Noble in Manhattan

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

I’m concerned about the kinds of conversations we’re able to have with each other about books now, in an increasingly fragmented literary landscape. In what ways can we talk about books with one another when even avid readers haven’t read any of the same books?  Like Yeats (and Joan Didion, who invoked this same passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)), I’m worried about dispersion.

Even with my most literate friends, I find myself mostly pitching books, talking mostly about plot. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about style, craft, and the subtle nuances of ideology with people who haven’t read the book. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I admit that my particular form of anxiety might be specific to that genre. How do I really talk about the greatness of a Jennifer Egan or Jeffrey Eugenides when I’m stuck explaining the plot? In other words, do I have to enroll in an MFA program to have these conversations about texture and form?

It’s this concern with the analytical quality and specificity of our conversations about books that leads me to literary celebrity as a construct. I find celebrity promising as a construct because it is a cultural machine for generating common points of reference. But I’m increasingly certain that for most of the literary landscape, it’s doesn’t really exist. I might think that Margaret Atwood (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Booker Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or E.L. Doctorow (winner of the National Humanities Medal, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Library of Congress Prize) are bona fide consensus figures: living legends. But my most literate friends and my colleagues at Arizona State University frequently know little about them and their work. At the same time, they’re equally scandalized about my lack of familiarity with Jonathan Lethem or Thomas Pynchon.

In the chair next to me, Lee Konstantinou is writing about One Book and Big Read projects that unite an entire community around a single text. Two seats down from Lee, Dan Gillmor is writing about how authors create small niches of readers who hold them in particularly high regard. Digital platforms like Goodreads and in-person social formations like book clubs (not to mention university programs at the undergraduate and graduate level) represent ways of confronting this problem. And maybe it’s not a problem after all. Some readers/consumers prefer dispersion to an arbitrary and exclusionary canon, especially since most of our canons unquestioningly support and reproduce the privilege of wealthy straight people, white people, and men.

But I still worry that there’s something impoverished about a literary marketplace without (deserving) celebrities. Even in its most easily-despisable Hollywood form, celebrity enables diverse groups of people to participate in conversations at a significant level of detail. Celebrity can be a conduit for incredibly broad and inclusive conversations about values, ethics, politics, and the mechanics of identity and selfhood. Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Lindsay Lohan and their ilk give us a rich grammar to talk about who we are and who we want (and don’t want) to be. I believe that books are even more powerful devices for generating productive and challenging conversations, but without literary celebrity to diffuse shared referents throughout large swaths of the public, reading becomes a solitary activity instead of a starting point for interaction, interpretation, and thoughtful debate.

Maybe Goodreads and LibraryThing solve this problem for some of us. I hope that people respond to this piece by suggesting tools for having these kinds of in-depth, deliberative conversations.

It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Goodreads chain together reading and writing. If you want to use one of them to have a conversation about a book, you have to commit to some intellectual labor. So for those of us who consider ourselves ardent readers but not always enthusiastic writers, Goodreads can feel like another chore. And for a white collar professional / knowledge worker like me, Goodreads and book clubs sometimes too closely resemble things like web management and staff meetings—they can look and feel a little bit too much like work.

Perhaps this is an arena where booksellers can act as curators, or where other cultural authorities (like Lee Konstantinou’s Book DJ) can catalyze and manage conversations. By performing the cultural work of igniting and managing conversations in a highly visible way, maybe they can make the rest of us feel like we’re just having fun, enriching our minds, and freeloading on their sweat.

In their defense, authors and publishers are doing everything they can on the celebrity front—from Twitter and Facebook to low-yield book tours and TV appearances, where they can pick them up. Is literary celebrity even possible anymore? The only place I see it these days is in the red-hot young adult market; J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King before her, even failed in a subterfuge to escape her global fame. Maybe it’s just not possible for authors like my beloved Egan and Eugenides to “tip” in a broader media landscape where films, TV, and increasingly video games dominate our attention economy.

Perhaps the shift to “lifelong learning” that we’ve continued to hear about throughout the 1990s and 2000s will mean that classroom-style interpretive exercises—either in-person or virtual—will become a more consistent part of people’s adult lives. But “lifelong learning,” at least so far, hasn’t been a conversation about humanities education. I do believe that structure and obligation and community membership—soft forms of force—might be necessary if we want literary discourse to be a vibrant part of the broader culture. This will also require a critical understanding of the concept of a “canon” as something to be questioned, revised, critiqued, and examined closely, instead of an unassailable stamp of cultural primacy.

To close with one last quandary: if we’re not having these conversations about literature, has the conversation moved to another cultural site? Are video games, or apps, or movies, or sports, the place to look for robust, inclusive, analytical conversations that are “about” more than they seem to be about? If we can agree that it’s valuable to come together and talk about something we all have in common, what is that thing today? What should it be in the future?


Photo courtesy of Monica Arellano-Ongpin, used under a Creative Commons license

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Literary Celebrity

  1. I keep thinking about the role of poets in different societies: while a “famous” poet in the United States is likely to be unknown to most of the population, and might sell books in the thousands, there are countries where a famous poet is genuinely famous: Pablo Neruda in Chile, for example.

    This is not so much “celebrity” as simply mattering: meaning instead of fame, perhaps.

  2. I love the questions being posed here, and I have a couple thoughts on some of them. I’m thinking first about your concern that even at the highest echelons of the craft, literary celebrity is too diluted to be a useful tool for cultivating community and conversation. I think the ecosystemic causes for this condition are actually a net good in the world, even if they lead to frustration by end users such as yourself. The fact that the conversation is diluted suggests that there are a lot of good writers out there, and that there’s some kind of infrastructure to support their existence. It makes sense: a book is orders of magnitude cheaper to produce than a TV show or a movie. It stands to reason that, assuming audience appetite, there would be more of them. Television and cinema are much closer to a monoculture than literature, and that leads to my next thought.

    I believe that the conversations you’re looking for are definitely happening around television. Shows like Mad Men, Sopranos, and True Detective are deep, deliberate texts, and there are incredibly insightful and passionate close readings happening around them. I just finished watching Sopranos, and immediately after reaching the conclusion, I went searching for interpretations. The VERY FIRST Google result for “sopranos final scene analysis” is this opus. It’s a master class in ratiocination, a meticulous shot by shot analysis, and a reflection of a deep and abiding love for the text that is The Sopranos.

    It’s also easily 20,000 words, so there might actually be too much of a good thing.

    The point is that these conversations are happening, and they’re happening in visible, accessible spaces, and they are definitely happening around television.

    My last thought is that Master of Sopranos is actually a nice representation of how to engage in these conversations around texts. Because literature is in a state of diffusion and proliferation, maybe the best way to incite close reading and discussion is to do that work in a public space. Whether that space is GoodReads or a WordPress blog, I’m not sure. I don’t actually think the platform is that important. The people who find your work will be the people who went looking for it, and that, to me, is the first prerequisite to having meaningful conversation.

  3. It’s a funny thing or maybe a sad thing, but I have found that English professors suffer from more or less the same problem you describe, Joey. In any particular English department, no two professors will have overlapping senses what’s canonical. Of even if they have a broad sense of what’s canonical, they will not have detailed knowledge of the same books.

    Indeed, put three different professors into a room together, and you will discover that what those three professors will most likely have in common is television. Those three professors are very likely to have seen — and to have detailed knowledge of The Wire, The Americans, Homeland, Game of Thrones. That’s what professors, whose job is to study literature, to talk about literature, talk about at the water cooler. Not Joyce, Woolf, Pynchon, Morrison.

    Our desire to talk about TV rather than books may be a bit of mental counter-programming. That is, we may just be sick of talking about literature after a long day at the job, but I think this preference is, in fact, indicative of what white-collar professionals and middle-class cultural consumers have in common. Whether television’s dominance solves the problem you mention, Joey, or foretells some dystopian future, remains an open question.

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