Blog: Critical Challenges to Literary Celebrity


braun 2aAs we gear up for the third event in our series on literary celebrity, we thought we should share the growing archive of our reflections on the topic. This post reproduces Rebecca Braun‘s thoughts on the areas of critical enquiry that emerged between the first and second workshop. If you are new to the project, they might help you get a sense of the kinds of thoughts we will be bringing to the table on 12 & 13 March; if you attended previous events, they should help refresh your memory.


‘Literary celebrity’ and ‘critical challenges to authorship’ may not appear to be much related – or, if so, only as opposites. Where celebrity invokes the West, the cultural mainstream with its major players and conglomerates, and, therefore, a certain lack of will to change on the part of all involved, a writer or scholar who enacts some kind of performative critique of authorship implies a position that lies, at least in part, outside, above, beyond or below all this. Such a performance announces challenge and change and implies some form of edgy viewpoint or re-drawing of the conventional boundaries that surround the way authors work and how the fruits of their labour are perceived. On the one side you have the big fat cats with the prestige and national prizes, on the other the lean guerrillas sniping at the system.

But I would like to invite you to keep an open mind about our two categories. Celebrity status as a ‘great’ writer and practical challenges to such an authorial role are by no means conceptually mutually exclusive. Underpinning both is a concern with individual human agency, normative social processes, and the wider cultural impact of literary work – the guide themes of our research hub. In what follows, I’m going to trace how we’ve begun to develop these underlying concerns in respect of literary celebrity in our work so far – and encourage you to help us further develop the critical angles and challenges to Western literary conventions that we think lie at the very heart of the experience of reading and writing in the contemporary world.


So what is literary celebrity? Most studies of celebrity as a cultural phenomenon will start with the observation that it is first of all an attribute in the history of the English language. People ‘have’ celebrity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before it becomes a proper noun and individual ‘celebrities’ begin to appear throughout nineteenth-century society. From our twenty-first century perspective, however, a literary celebrity is first and foremost a person. However aware we are of the industry processes that grow the trappings of fame and success, the allure of celebrity is predicated on the biographical body of the writer concerned, the face that he or she can give to literary endeavour produced within a certain cultural context. Tom Mole refers to this as the ‘hermeneutics of intimacy’ (see his video interview with the hub). As a reaction to the very means of mass circulation that underpin the rise of celebrity in the first place, people ascribe value to the sense of personal familiarity that owning a postcard picture or sharing the experience of seeing an author in the flesh at a reading event can provide. So, literary celebrity is always concerned with bodies, with notions of the individual, and with the kinds of human relationships that can be sustained by industrial technologies.

This desire to ‘connect’ with a person and put a real live face to a readily available literary corpus is by no means confined to the fortunes of the nineteenth-century British authors that Tom Mole and Kamilla Elliott have traced in their work on print and material culture of the period. Jim Hinks, editor at Comma Press, has spoken about the very real-life circumstances behind why so many contemporary  potential ‘great writers’ ‘fall through the cracks’ before they have even managed to get started (see his presentation to the hub). Partly in response to the difficulty aspiring writers experience in a market saturated with mass-mediated personalities, he is developing a commercial venture, the MacGuffin App, that aims to connect up readers and writers in a far more differentiated way than the unsubtle broadcasting techniques of the large conglomerates that flood supermarket shelves with ‘literature by celebrities’. Representing a small, independent, Arts Council funded publisher, he can of course be seen at the oppositional end of the literary celebrity spectrum: one of our lean guerrilla fighters. Yet the technology he is using, and the basic belief underpinning his commercial publishing decisions, are predicated on bringing individual writers to large numbers of readers, who in turn wish to celebrate and share these ‘great’ or otherwise inspiring voices.

If literary celebrity focuses first and foremost on people, it is of course also a process, and, as we have just seen, the people would not be widely visible without the process. To collapse one into the other, however, is not helpful – literary celebrities should not be seen as merely the cynical end result of celebrity processes, inherently unable to look beyond or have value outside of the system that produces them. Why not? One surprising answer might be found in the work of Andrew Piper. Piper dispenses with the biographical person of the author altogether in his big data approach to studying literary influence across space and time. Research from data-mining projects has shown that computer programmes will reliably correctly ascribe texts to their authors based solely on groups of high-frequency collocations. If an author can be reduced to his words in this way, then it stands to reason that his literary influence on other texts can be represented in graph form: how much Werther is in the early nineteenth-century English and French novel, for example. The biographical body of Goethe the literary celebrity has become a literary corpus that mutates, expands, and contracts as it comes into contact with other corpora and conventions.

Where conventional research in literary studies (mine included) has focused on the real-life agency of the individual writing subject as it is expressed in and around the text and changes over time, Piper’s appears to imply that the life and works of the biographical individual can be entirely replaced by that of her literary corpus, which lives on as a sub-set of cultural discourse. Yet conceptually we are perhaps not so very far apart. Both attempts to quantify and qualify influence look at how words are programmed into a textual form that has an original programmer (the author), but which will reach an audience and be interpreted for posterity largely independently of this programmer, thanks to the modern-day infrastructure of communications. This process of getting out to a wider public and being refashioned as a result can be traced in the fortunes of a famous bunch of words, just as it can in the fortunes of a famous author figure. But in as much as we are still asking how literature gets out there and matters to the world, and how the agents driving this process manifest in multiple different contexts and are changed by these contexts, we still have the fat cats and the lean guerrillas. We are just measuring their waistline a little differently – and perhaps beginning to challenge our own use of measuring tapes at the same time.

It would of course be perfectly possible to trace the material legacy of a literary celebrity’s body just as the literary legacy can be traced of his or her corpus, although different interdisciplinary technologies would be required. In fact, this observation brings us to the third aspect of literary celebrity: along with denoting specific people and general industry processes, literary celebrity is also a product that lends itself to wider cultural appropriation. Significantly, however, the interplay between person and process remains so crucial within the concept that the kind of monumental ossification and subsequent crumbling that can quickly befall other kinds of celebrity seems less likely to happen. Unlike politicians or other important public figures, authors made tangible in marble and stone just seem to be able to represent so much more than their own specific body of work, while their literary corpora remain alive to challenge and change. This observation was the upshot of Jess Goodman’s work on the blossoming material and literary cultures for celebrating posthumous ‘great men’ in late eighteenth-century France (for details on a related symposium Jess is organizing, see here). Where various political representatives were introduced and then ejected from the French Pantheon after its erection, the only two figures who remained resistant to the changing political tastes of revolutionary France were Voltaire and Rousseau, whose busts were seen to rise above it all as pure emanations of literary esprit. Tom Mole has equally shown how, in the British context, a programme of erecting monuments to great authors resulted in a semi-conscious policy of making the whole country into a kind of outdoor pantheon. As the wrangling over making their earthly and literary remains available for national celebration demonstrates, Byron and Scott had an important role to play in underwriting master narratives about British and Scottish identity.

The material culture of literary celebrity however also quickly brings us face to face with blind spots and absences in our society in a way that purely textual readings of authors cannot. Both Jess and Tom brought out the very gendered posthumous division of the author’s real and symbolic bodies into, on the one hand, a grave site, often tended by female relatives, for the actual remains in an off-centre location, and a male symbolic order of oversized stone and marble edifices placed in metropolitan environments by male literary and political champions. Meanwhile, Kamilla’s work has engaged in detail with the different imaging and paratextual conventions for the male and female writers who have gone on to form the backbone of the English-language canon: while female authors such as Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte were not widely picture identified until their (often posthumous) biographies, picture postcards of celebrated male authors circulated widely in their lifetimes – again underscoring the gendering of the urban context and the circulatory practices through which literature plays a wider social role.

Studying literary celebrity, then, can quickly lead away from straightforward hagiography. Viewed as a phenomenon that emerges where literature meets with wider social currents, it shows how assumptions about people, processes, and products affect both the way we think about writing and the kind of wider world we live in. So, even as the literary mainstream and its process of veneration becomes apparent, it also becomes contestable – indeed, if we follow Pierre Bourdieu and buy into some form of periodization of literature and literary movements, it more or less demands to be contested. Monuments cast shadows, and those shadows make us think.

Thinking, listening, and critically reformulating ideas about literature in the light of its real-world context – these are also the key activities of our research hub. Our thoughts about the way celebrity relates to the study of literature and how authors act as conduits for larger social processes will continue to evolve throughout this series. We look forward to developing them with you!


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