Rebecca Braun asks: ‘Where is Literary Celebrity? ‘

 

  1. From What to Where

This series of workshops began last September, where we took a multi-disciplinary look at what literary celebrity is. Arguing against prevailing trends in Celebrity Studies more broadly, Tom Mole described it as a primarily 19th-century phenomenon, linked to the rise of mass print technologies. In subsequent papers, we have traced manifestations of literary celebrity in frontispieces in texts, early film, literary homages to great dead authors, digitally-produced maps of authorial influence across national canons, bestselling contemporary authors, academic books, and we heard at least one rousing defence of intellectual authority and literature as an individual moral act. But the more inclusive our approach has become, the less I have felt I know what literary celebrity is.

As part of my ongoing deliberations, I recently re-read some of the founding works on literary celebrity from the early 2000s: Loren Glass’s Authors Inc., and Aaron Jaffe’s Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity.[1]  Insightful as these studies of fame and literature remain, they are curiously limited: literary celebrity, so the argument goes, is a particular, historical response to the emergence of mass culture in the early to mid-twentieth century; once the age of modernism is past, so too is literary celebrity. Glass brings this to a point: ‘Celebrity obviously persists, and certainly some authors are famous, but the specific articulation of the private authorial genius versus the mass marketplace is no longer possible in a society no longer based on the opposition between art and commerce’ (27). Accordingly, his study finishes in 1980 with the all-encompassing, relativizing gesture of postmodernism.

For me, this categorical ‘death of the literary celebrity’ simply does not ring true. Just like Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’, literary celebrity can only be definitively killed off if what we are talking about has been presented in a very specific, and thus dismissible, manner: in this case, the self-fetishizing white, male author of modernist ‘high’ culture. Yet the insights provided by both creative practitioners and literary scholars in our hub so far indicate that literary celebrity is not only a live issue, but also a very wide-ranging one that is present in multiple forms across different disciplines and centuries. It does manifest as an intellectually fetishizing gesture in response to the twentieth-century mass cultural market. But it is equally present in the emergent fetishizing material culture of the nineteenth century and the politically and pedagogically-driven intercultural technological initiatives of the twenty-first. In fact, literary celebrity is everywhere, if we only know how to look for it.

 

  1. Literary Celebrity as Challenge

The key to finding literary celebrity as a meaningful, ongoing object of study may be to move temporarily away from what individual, well-known authors have said or done in respect of their work or person – the conscious, authorial engagement with literary celebrity that tends to drive most studies on the subject –, and consider instead what has been done to them. This is not to underplay authors’ awareness of and complicity with certain fetishizing processes, but it is to stand back and see the full range of these processes. For celebrity is about creating an environment in which celebration of a particular person can take place, using whatever self-sustaining promotional technologies are available. As Tom Mole and Jessica Goodman showed us in September, in the nineteenth-century literary context this environment may be a whole physical landscape that is filled with over-sized busts of authors. But it may also take the form of an online fan community who project their pleasure at finding their own experiences represented in creative works onto the unashamedly middlebrow, enthusiastically interactive author who writes entertaining, accessible fiction. Diana Holmes showed us last November how such combined word-of-mouth and purchasing power can turn an author of averagely good romantic fiction into a publishing phenomenon that demands a response from the literary elite.

At this point, Glass and Jaffe would argue that these authors are not really ‘literary’, and therefore their celebrity-style presence across a range of popular-culture media does not count as ‘literary celebrity’. Yet this is to determine, if not the death, then certainly the ossification of one’s subject in advance. For it is precisely in its challenge to the established position of literature as deliberately bracketed off from the masses that the phenomenon of literary celebrity as an area of academic enquiry was born in the first place. With each renewed challenge to the existing literary order that becomes evident in sociological trends such as the one outlined by Diana, we can perceive a new audience suggesting new answers to the question of how literature and its various related industries (academe, publishing, film) have value in the world. These questions should give us pause for thought about our own fetishizing activities as academic guardians of different ‘authors’ and the ‘worlds’ they represent. How have we picked our ‘great’ authors? Who have we excluded, and why? And how do we exert authorship and comply with acts of authority-making ourselves?

The work that has gone on in our hub so far has equated literary celebrity with a type of challenge in a number of ways. In the case of canonically famous authors, their celebrity is part of a normatizing discourse. However, the way in which they are appropriated by other discourses and fields is always also a challenge to purely aesthetic readings of these authors’ significance. It forces us to think beyond the literary text and acknowledge that many of the ways it operates in the wider world might jar with purely literary ideals. Meanwhile, bestseller authors open up new ways of looking at literary achievement; they often pioneer interactive forms of engagement with a fan base that more niche, ‘literary’ authors may turn to rather later in their careers, but are certainly also likely to use and may indeed come to reflect upon at length, as my own research on Nobel laureates has shown. In this sense, literary celebrity is always both at odds with the predominant literary system, and an immediate product of it. It comes from the normative, institutionalized context of literature, but it pushes it outside of its comfort zone and makes the walls of greatness porous.

 

  1. Celebrity in the Literary System: Problematic Embodiments

It was no accident, then, that the second event in our workshop series was entitled ‘Critical Performances of the Authorial Role’ and we looked at problematic manifestations of literary celebrity across a variety of cultural contexts and from different disciplinary angles. Joining us on a skype connection from Mexico, author Alejandro Reyes engaged in a conversation paper with Cornelia Gräbner that began by thematizing the problem of a well-educated, middle-class writer attempting to give a voice to the experiences of street children in Brazil and ended with questions from the floor about the ethical considerations of winning state-sponsored prizes for the resulting literary text. Alejandro had developed thoughtful self-reflexive literary techniques to problematize his own narration of squalor as well as the left-liberal reader’s consumption of the text. However, there was no place beyond himself from which he could reflect upon his real-life acceptance of a prestigious national literary award; no way he could avoid the problematic merging of the downtrodden voices of the Brazilian street urchins with his successful literary person. Even as he challenged literary conventions, he found his own celebrity beginning to emerge from the very system he was so overtly critiquing.

The difficulty of standing outside yourself and the extent to which we all engage in a normative literary system was also brought home to us from a different disciplinary perspective. Gary Hall, Professor of Media Studies, addressed the phenomenon not just of literary celebrities who are very obviously produced by specific publishing initiatives, but also academic celebrities, who are equally beholden to publishing formats and copyright laws that run directly counter to the ideals of free access to knowledge and intellectual interaction that they might espouse in their work. His presentation of innovative forms of publishing and co-authorship in the form of ‘liquid books’ that are genuinely freely accessible and interactive inspired us to look critically at the kinds of outputs we are pursuing in our own critical analysis of a literary industry that relies on images of authority and attendant practices of intellectual and commodity fetishism. As authors of strictly copyrighted monographs and edited volumes, we are unquestionably a part of this.

Literary celebrity focuses on the body of the author, which stands in for the celebrated body of work they have produced, and this in turn stands in for literature and what literary endeavour means to society. But the different ways these literary bodies are made to function beyond literature act like a mirror, reflecting light back on the manifold contradictions and problems within celebrity processes. In this sense, literary celebrities talk back to celebrity and the imperfect world from which it arises. Who are we to celebrate literature? How short of the mark does our celebratory impetus fall?

 

  1. Questions of literary celebrity

Literary celebrity, I claimed, is everywhere. It comes from a celebration of literary achievement, but the very act of celebration also throws literature into doubt about itself, as it becomes a quantifiable good: a marketable book, a photographic authorial body, a series of values that can be stamped with institutional approval, coded into other discourses and re-packaged for their purposes. And all of this has the potential to throw us into doubt about our cultural practices and assumptions. I’d like to hazard a suggestion here that this is what makes literary celebrity different from fame – a distinction I have been wrestling with ever since I unwisely entitled my undergraduate module ‘Literature and Fame in Contemporary Germany’ and then spent at least half of it talking about celebrity. Famous authors are those ‘great’ writers who populate university syllabi and lists of ‘world classics’. General consensus reigns over their literary credentials, and people are happy to celebrate them within the confines of literature specifically for their literary achievements. They are safe. Celebrity authors, by contrast, are forever breaking out of the great hall of literature, or knocking on the door to be let in. They force reflection on the institution of literature: how it is constituted, why it matters, and how it might be otherwise. They are dangerous. In as much as these terms are only ever categories we apply, authors may fall into both, depending on the kinds of questions we are asking of them and their significance.

If literary celebrity is everywhere, then this workshop series has been about making it, and our own use of it, visible. We have come a great way in unpicking the issues it raises. But much more remains to be said, and we have four great papers today that are going to pick up all of the key threads that have been running through our series: gender, legacies, embodiment, place, collaborative processes, and academic authorship. On all of these threads, big questions are still outstanding. Here are mine:

  1. How does literary celebrity map on to different spaces and places?
  2. Are the different spaces of literary celebrity gendered (e.g. rural/urban landscapes; the feminized text v a masculine institutional reception)?
  3. Is literary celebrity itself a significantly gendered process?
  4. Do re-iterations of an author and/or her work through multiple media drive celebrity – or do they exacerbate problems of transience and ensuing obscurity?
  5. How constitutive of literary celebrity are academic institutions?
  6. How nationally specific is literary celebrity?

Rebecca_Braun2Rebecca Braun is Principal Investigator at the Authors and the World research hub.

 

 

 

[1] Loren Glass, Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880-1980 (New York: New York U P, 2004) ; Aaron Jaffe, Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2005).

 

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