Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America

Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America

by Joe Moran


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In America, authors are as likely to be seen on television talk shows or magazine covers as in the more traditional settings of literary festivals or book signings. Is this literary celebrity just another result of ‘dumbing down’? Yet another example of the mass media turning everything into entertainment? Or is it a much more unstable, complex phenomenon? And what does the American experience tell us about the future of British literary celebrity?In Star Authors, Joe Moran shows how publishers, the media and authors themselves create and disseminate literary celebrity. He looks at such famous contemporary authors as Toni Morrison, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, John Updike, Philip Roth, Kathy Acker, Nicholson Baker, Paul Auster and Jay McInerney. Through an examination of their own work, biographical information, media representations and promotional material, Moran illustrates the nature of modern literary celebrity. He argues that authors actively negotiate their own celebrity rather than simply having it imposed upon them – from reclusive authors such as Salinger and Pynchon, famed for their very lack of public engagement, to media-friendly authors such as Updike and McInerney. Star Authors analyses literary celebrity in the context of the historical links between literature, advertising and publicity in America; the economics of literary production; and the cultural capital involved in the marketing and consumption of books and authors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745315195
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 02/20/2000
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.57(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Tom Behan (1957 - 2010) was Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Kent. His books include Defiance: The Story of One Man Who Stood Up to the Sicilian Mafia (2008), See Naples & Die: The Camorra & Organised Crime (2009) and The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and The Allies (Pluto Press, 2009).

Read an Excerpt


Introduction: The Charismatic Illusion

There is no avoiding authors in contemporary American culture. The books and arts sections of newspapers and magazines are filled with author-interviews and profiles and features about them; they crop up on talk shows and other television programmes, as well as infomercials and shopping channels; they draw audiences to readings, lectures, signings, book fairs, literary festivals, public debates and writers' conferences. Aside from these concrete appearances, they also circulate in a more nebulous sphere of gossip and rumour, as the media reproduce speculation about their private lives, peer-group rivalries and million-dollar publishing deals, run articles about where to spot the most fashionable literary celebrities around town and produce helpful charts for readers ranking writers according to their status and visibility, revealing which are 'in' and which are 'out'. What is going on here, in this culture in which, as one commentator puts it, 'Nobel laureates in literature give their recipes to the New York Times living section'? If celebrity authors hardly rival their counterparts in film, television and popular music for column inches, they are still a significant cultural phenomenon, one well worth examining critically.

This book is about this phenomenon of literary celebrity – how it is produced and disseminated, what kinds of meanings are attached to it, and how celebrity authors themselves have grappled with and added to these meanings in their work. Above all, I want to challenge the way the emergence of literary celebrity is most commonly explained – in terms of the vulgarization of literary life by commercial mass media in America. In this argument, contemporary literary fame becomes part of the overall pervasiveness of 'entertainment celebrity' (any fame linked to the sphere of popular culture) which is seen as 'an imperialist phenomenon, moving into new arenas and making them over in its own image'. More specifically, it is linked to the ubiquity of media images in contemporary culture and a new emphasis on mere visibility or notoriety as a source of fame. This recalls Daniel Boorstin's seminal definition of the celebrity as being simply 'well-known for his well-knownness ... the human pseudo-event', a perniciously artificial figure produced by the influence of mass media on American culture and society. According to Boorstin, 'the star system has reached far beyond the movies. Wherever it reaches it confuses traditional forms of achievement. It focuses on the personality rather than on the work. It puts a premium on well-knownness for its own sake'. He notes, for example, the way in which 'the American publishing scene has been dominated by a few stars ... who have prospered as authors partly because they could be touted as "personalities"'.

Like Boorstin's distinction between the traditional figure of the 'hero' and the contemporary 'celebrity' – the former being 'a big man' and the latter simply 'a big name' – much of the existing discussion of literary celebrity is in jeremiadic vein, opposing the hype and publicity of celebrity to an earlier, purer form of deserved fame. A Newsweek article from the 1980s – a time of frantic buyouts of publishing firms and the introduction of sophisticated new marketing techniques into the book industry – put it in these terms:

Open just about any magazine today, turn on any talk show, and you'll find a writer holding forth ... on where he gets his ideas, what he eats for breakfast and, of course, the state of the American novel. Imagine what Herman Melville ... would have thought of Jerzy Kosinski half-naked on the cover of the New York Times Magazine ... What would he have made of John Irving scantily clad in wrestler's briefs to advertise the new magazine Vanity Fair? ... Melville, who made an average of $1,600 a year at his writing peak and was therefore one of the best-paid authors of his day, might find it hard to credit the vast sums of money that now flow toward writers whose faces flash across the country on the covers of national magazines and whose images enter America's living rooms via cathode-ray tubes.

This descension narrative, contrasting 'serious' literature with the frivolous, titillating agenda of the media and the disposability of consumer culture, is reiterated in academic cultural criticism. John Cawelti, for example, makes a clear distinction between literary 'fame' and contemporary literary 'celebrity':

The test of artistic fame is that one's words or images remain in the minds of men; the test of celebrity is being followed everywhere by a photographer ... The object of celebrity is the person; the object of fame is some accomplishment, action, or creative work.

Alan Spiegel similarly agrees that the turning of contemporary authors into public curiosities serves them up as part of the meaningless ephemera of consumerism:

Celebrity watching is still one of this culture's most efficient antidotes to the poison of dead time in a leisure economy; our national pastime of converting an artist into a screen star while dragging his art along as a stand-in is the customary price serious work usually pays for permission to leave the cell of the specialist and enter the marketplace.

These comments seem to tap into general anxieties in postmodern, mediatized culture about the replacement of the 'real' with surface image, and the subsequent blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction, public and private, high and low culture.

It is possible, though, to challenge this narrative from two perspectives. First, its view of mass culture can be seen as too uniformly hostile: critical discussions of mainstream celebrity have moved on from early accounts by critics like Boorstin, James Monaco and Christopher Lasch which characterized stars as uncomplicatedly shallow and superficial, distinguished from 'ordinary' people by notoriety rather than genuine achievement. More recent work on celebrities in the sphere of commercial entertainment by Richard Dyer, Joshua Gamson, P. David Marshall and others has challenged these straightforward oppositions between performance and work, surface and depth, promotional packaging and content. It has shown that celebrity is an unstable, multifaceted phenomenon – the product of a complex negotiation between cultural producers and audiences, the purveyor of both dominant and resistant cultural meanings and a pivotal point of contention in debates about the relationship between cultural authority and exchange value in capitalist societies. This new emphasis is part of a larger trend within cultural studies which has challenged early attempts to dismiss popular culture as formulaic and one-dimensional, and presented it instead as heterogeneous and open to multiple readings.

Second, the complicated relationship between cultural elites and the marketplace means that literary celebrity is different in significant ways from the celebrity produced by commercial mass media. The encroachment of market values on to literary production, while clearly having a major impact on literary celebrity, has not occurred in a vacuum – it forms part of a complicated process in which various legitimating bodies compete for cultural authority and/or commercial success, and regulate the formation of a literary star system and the shifting hierarchy of stars. Literary celebrity in the US is not simply an adjunct of mainstream celebrity, but an elaborate system of representations in its own right, produced and circulated across a wide variety of media. Rather than being a straightforward effect of the commodification of culture, it raises significant questions about the relationship between literature and the marketplace, and between 'high', 'low' and 'middlebrow' culture in contemporary America.

'The Cultural Value Stock Exchange'

In order to begin to make sense of some of these questions, this book will need to examine them in relation to wider theories about the relationship between cultural and economic capital. In this connection, the work of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, is particularly useful. Bourdieu's work on culture is specifically concerned with the struggles for power and position amongst cultural producers which result when traditional systems of authority – such as those provided by ecclesiastical and aristocratic patronage – collapse. He argues that there has been a historical development since the decline of these old forms of patronage and the first emergence of a literary marketplace, by which the social sphere of writers and other cultural producers has grown larger, more sophisticated and more 'autonomized', transforming itself into 'a field of relations governed by a specific logic: competition for cultural legitimacy'.

The term 'field' is a crucial concept in Bourdieu's work – it describes a semi-autonomous, structured system with its own internal logic, rules of operation and inherently hierarchical relationships created by the struggle between agents for whichever form of capital is appropriate to that field – the principal forms being symbolic, social, economic and cultural. The field of cultural production, according to Bourdieu, is specifically concerned with the creation and dissemination of cultural capital within what he refers to as 'the cultural value stock exchange'. Cultural producers are relatively autonomous, gaining power within this field by the extent of their separation from other fields, by investing in cultural capital which has an ostensibly antagonistic relationship to other forms of capital – particularly economic capital. In fact, according to Bourdieu, cultural capital is only gained when directly economic interests are either absent or concealed, because they threaten the field's claim to a monopoly of influence over which cultural goods are valued. The individualization of the author or artist as a person with special gifts or qualities (what Bourdieu calls the 'charismatic illusion') is the focal point of this separation of cultural from economic capital – it is 'the ultimate basis of belief in the value of a work of art and ... is therefore the basis of functioning of the field of production and circulation of cultural commodities'. Leo Braudy's more general history of fame argues in similar vein that the idea of the famous author as distanced from and superior to other kinds of public notoriety – and in particular as occupying a privileged position outside the sphere of exchange and profit – has been inscribed in the concept of literary fame since the displacement of aristocratic patronage by the rise of the author as individual entrepreneur within the literary marketplace.

Although Bourdieu argues that power within the field of cultural production is gained by those who present themselves as free of outside influences, however, there are also different sectors which vary in their level of autonomy from other fields. Indeed, Bourdieu uses the relatively loose term, 'field', precisely to point to its provisional, relational and conflictual nature, the fact that it is made up of constant struggles between dominant and peripheral figures. He sees the field of cultural production as being divided roughly into two subfields: the 'pure' subfield of restricted production and the 'extended' subfield of large-scale production. The subfield of restricted production is an 'autonomous' grouping associated with elite culture and organized around the specific, self-contained interests of the field, in which commercial success is frowned upon and the myth of the individual producer as charismatic genius is most prevalent; the subfield of large-scale production, in contrast, is a 'heteronomous' sphere in which success is primarily measured by commercial gain, the satiation of a pre-existent demand, the widest popular success and other forms of capital not specific to the field, and the status of individual producers is correspondingly at its lowest. (As an example of this, one could point to the ways in which popular genre and pulp fiction have traditionally been viewed as less firmly linked to an individual author than more 'literary' texts.) Bourdieu, however, emphasizes the dynamic nature of these subfields and their continual mutual interaction and conflict, so that the field of cultural production as a whole is 'a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces'. In other words, there is a constant battle between agents occupying different points of hierarchy within each field and correspondingly different levels of autonomy from other fields, about what Bourdieu calls 'the rules of the game' – the role and purpose of authors and artists and the work they produce. As he puts it:

The struggle between occupants of the two opposite poles of the field of cultural production has at stake the monopoly on the imposition of the legitimate definition of the writer, and it is comprehensibly organized around the opposition between autonomy and heteronomy.

It must be said that, although he continually emphasizes the applicability of his ideas to other countries, much of Bourdieu's extensive ethnographic research is specific to France – and, in particular, the class stratifications in French society which inform his general notion that literature, art and culture fulfil 'a social function of legitimating social differences'. However, his theory of the competition for different forms of capital within and between different fields provides a useful analytical framework for examining literary celebrity in the United States, since my argument in this book is that this phenomenon tends be mediated in such a way that the author represents both cultural capital and marketable commodity. In general, celebrity in the United States has been conferred on authors who have the potential to be commercially successful and penetrate into mainstream media, but are also perceived as in some sense culturally 'authoritative' – in other words, they occupy a contested area of cultural production between the restricted and extended subfields.

Consider, for example, some of the bestselling authors in America (and the world) today: John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Thomas Harris, Scott Turow, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Stephen King – famous people certainly, but writers more read than read about. Celebrity authors, by contrast, tend to be (for example) those who are reviewed and discussed in the media at length, who win literary prizes, whose books are studied in universities and who are employed on talk shows as what one host (Merv Griffin) once called 'heavy furniture', adding 'the minor authority of the authorial' to the proceedings as a serious counterweight to the more lightweight celebrities on view. They are, in short, usually 'crossover' successes who emphasize both marketability and traditional cultural hierarchies, occupying what Charles Newman describes as 'that immense and pleasurable space between belletristic coterie and mass-market hype'. Bourdieu's theories will therefore be useful in working through some of the tensions involved in the production of literary celebrity between the legitimacy of culture and the less ambiguous sanction of the marketplace. Literary celebrity clearly complicates the moralistic approach of Boorstin and others – it is either an indication that celebrity is now worryingly omnipresent and that even high culture is 'dumbing down', or that the cultural pessimists have misunderstood the complex dynamics by which fame and reputation are acquired in contemporary culture.

Since they tend to straddle the divide between the restricted and extended subfields of cultural production, celebrity authors are ambiguous figures. As cultural signifiers they often contain elements of the idea of the charismatic, uniquely inspired creative artist associated with the autonomization of the cultural field, but they also gain legitimacy from the notion of celebrity as supported by broad popularity and success in the marketplace. In fact, the ambivalence with which literary celebrities are often represented itself feeds into the conflicted ideologies of celebrity in general, drawing simultaneously as it does on aristocratic notions of fame as the setting apart of a natural elite and democratic-capitalist notions of fame as inclusive and meritocratic. Literary celebrities are also controversial and much-discussed figures in American cultural life because they have a contentiously intermediate position in relation to literary production as a whole. They have thus been at the centre of an ongoing debate – particularly between cultural producers in the restricted and extended subfields – about the relationship between literature and the market. A number of critics have already pointed to the historical significance of this struggle over cultural legitimation in the US between traditional highbrow standard-bearers who insist on the absolute separation of art and commerce, and proponents of popular and middlebrow culture who insist on their commensurability.


Excerpted from "Star Authors"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Joe Moran.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Charismatic Illusion
Part One: Cultural Contexts

2. Mark Twain Absurdity: Literature and Publicity in America

3. The Reign of Hype: The Contemporary Star System

4. Disembodied Images: Authors, Authorship and Celebrity
Part Two: Star Authors

5. The Scribe of Suburbia: John Updike

6. Reality Shift: Philip Roth

7. Silence, Exile, Cunning and So On: Don DeLillo

8. A Star of Bohemia: Kathy Acker

9. Conclusion: A 'Meet the Author' Culture

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