The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Cruel Calculus Of Literary Reputation

August 28, 2007
Washington, DC

Did you see that piece in the New York Times last week about JT Leroy, the abused-kid-turned-truck-stop-hooker who transformed himself into an acclaimed writer of literary fiction -- until he turned out to be a female freelance writer who'd transformed herself into the totally fictitious JT Leroy? It's a bottomlessly interesting story, one I may return to for the ideas it shakes loose about the pernicious practice of reviewing author's bios instead of their books.

For now, though, I'm curious to look at literary fame and its possible effects on productivity and talent. The 21 Big Read authors describe a pretty broad spread on the spectrum of literary celebrity, from Harper Lee at one end -- so retiring that she effectively retired at 35 -- to Leo Tolstoy at the other, of whom it was once said that Russia had two tsars, and that Tolstoy was the more illustrious of the two.

Somewhere in between is Ernest J. Gaines, who scribbled in obscurity until Tracy Keenan Wynn adapted The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman for CBS, maybe even until Oprah Winfrey anointed A Lesson Before Dying with the gilded halo of her first initial. In a recent conference call with our inhouse NEA book group, Gaines sounded like a remarkably modest man, unimpressed by his accolades and -- maybe for that reason -- one of very few writers whose later books surpass their precursors.

Then there's Marilynne Robinson, who takes her sweet time. In 1980 she published Housekeeping (which also recently joined the Big Read list) to rapturous reviews. She didn't come out with another novel till 2004's Gilead, which won her the wide readership that had previously eluded her -- and the attention that she in turn had eluded.

Four famous writers, four different reactions to fame. Harper Lee ignores it and falls silent. Tolstoy revels in it as a younger man, then walks away. Gaines works hard, succeeds, then works even harder. And Marilynne Robinson gets it right the first time, raises a family, teaches, and then comes back as if she'd never been away.

Why does success paralyze some writers, help others by giving them time to write more carefully, and leave others almost unscathed? When all else fails, look at the books:

1) At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, the sheriff argues that "taking the one man who's done you and this town a great service an' draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight -- to me that's a sin." Should we be entirely surprised that Harper Lee shares Boo Radley's aversion to the limelight?

2) In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the title character enjoys the trappings of bourgeois success until he finds himself entrapped. Is it any wonder that Tolstoy reveled in his own fame until at midlife, like Ivan, he finally heard the soft, crunching tread of the one reader nobody ever snows?
3) Or look at Gaines. The protagonist of A Lesson Before Dying works at a thankless job until he finds a way to love it. Is that so different from his creator, who plugged away at fiction for years until success, when it came, was almost beside the point?

4) One more and I'll stop: Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead consists of letters from an elderly, ailing father to the young son he won't see grow up. You don't have to be obsessed with the lineaments of literary reputation (in other words, you don't have to be me) to read that novel as a meditation on what it's like to write a book as wonderful as Housekeeping and then wait, in vain, for the childlike gratitude such an achievement deserves.

Okay, I'll stop. There's an entire branch of voguish pseudo-French criticism waiting to be christened that would read each new book as a writer's further rumination on his or her own flickering renown -- careerisme? -- but I'll not christen it today. Just know that good writing, whether pseudonymous, anonymous or just unsung, is always synonymous with hard, selfish, lonely work?