Ready for Fame ?~ Nava Atlas

Are You Ready for Fame? Classic Authors Dish about Being in the Public Eye

 

by Nava Atlas
We
all know that writing, in its essence, isn’t about publishing. At the
risk of stating the obvious, writing is a journey, one that, if you
follow it with passion and heart, will take you where you need to go.
But admit it. You’ve fantasized at least once about what it would be
like to be a famous, bestselling author. I’ll admit that I’ve daydreamed
about it at least once or twice—per day, that is.
What I learned from the authors I got to know while writing The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life
is that fame does have its pleasures and advantages, but it has its
discontents as well. The twelve classic authors whose writing lives
unfold in the book all craved recognition and its advantages—primarily
the kind of independence that was hard-won to women of their times. None
were “overnight successes,” though it may have appeared so to the
world. Hard work, setbacks, and disappointments most often preceded
their breakthroughs. The Literary Ladies ultimately reaped the rewards
they richly deserved, to greater or lesser degrees. But they also found
that fame meant having to deal with the ups and downs of becoming a
public person, producing work in the glare of raised expectations, and
having to deal with criticism.
One of those was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin
was the first ever book of fiction that became an international
bestseller. This modest woman (who gave birth to seven children and lost
three along the way) was surprised when the book she’d yearned to write
with the sole aim of creating social change also made her a global
literary star. The book was as controversial as it was successful, so
she was both celebrated and reviled at home and abroad.
A letter to her husband, written in 1856 while she was in England to promote her second novel, Dred, reveals how she learned to take the highs and lows of fame in stride: “One hundred thousand copies of Dred
sold in four weeks! After that who cares what critics say? … It is
very bitterly attacked, both from a literary and a religious point of
view … but yet it goes everywhere, is read everywhere, and Mr. Low
says that he puts the hundred and twenty-fifth thousand to press
confidently … Is not this blessed, my dear husband? Is it not worth
all the suffering of writing it?”
Back
in the day, authors quaked in anticipation of the opinions of print
media critics, but now, we also need to fear reader-reviewers’ rants on
online book sites. Once your words are out there, they’re fair game, and
it’s hard not to let criticism hurt, no matter what its source.
Madeleine L’Engle (best known for A Wrinkle in Time)
hit the nail on the head when she explained why authors dwell on the
one bad review among many: “I bleed from bad reviews, even though I have
been very blessed in getting many more good reviews than bad reviews.
But like every other writer I know, when you get ninety-nine good
reviews and one bad review, what review stays in your mind? The bad one.
And why? Because it awakens our own doubts.”
Most
of us could do without public criticism, but becoming rich and famous
within one’s lifetime is a “problem” most of us would be glad to grapple
with. It does require an adjustment of one’s self-mage, however. Louisa
May Alcott saw herself as a pen-wielding drudge, and once fame and
fortune were assured with the publication of Little Women (a
book she did just for the money, with low expectations), she wrote to
her sister, “I can’t make the fortunate Miss A. [referring to herself]
seem me, and only remember the weary years, the work, the waiting, and
disappointment.”
But
even as she reconciled herself to her new incarnation as a bestselling
author, Alcott wasn’t content to rest on her laurels. She continued to
write, though chronic illness made it increasingly difficult toward the
end of her life (she died at age 55). Her success allowed her to provide
for her mother and sisters, and letters to her publisher reveal
gratitude and humble acknowledgment of the pleasures of fame and money.
Becoming
famous within one’s lifetime can be a classic case of “be careful what
you wish for.” Willa Cather had a fierce love/hate relationship with the
press. Yet unlike most of the other Literary Ladies whose writing lives
I learned about from their private letters and journals, Cather made it
her business to be a public person, granting interviews and giving
speeches galore. She behaved like a social networking maven within the
milieu of her own times. Yet even as she did tons of outreach to bolster
her reputation, she grew irritable with loss of privacy, complaining:
“In this country a writer has to hide and lie and almost steal in order
to get time to work — and peace of mind to work with.”
To
gain recognition as a writer is a blessing. To become famous is a mixed
blessing. Becoming a public person can be fun in small doses for those
who can muster grace under pressure. Fifteen minutes —or a lifetime—of
renown is something many writers would be willing to experience; but
then it’s important to once again regain balance, and find a quiet oasis
where work can flourish. Our literary role models learned to deal
fairly well with fame and fortune, and if you and I should be so lucky,
we’ll find a way to do so as well.
Nava Atlas is the author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life. Visit the companion web site for more on classic authors and their wisdom for contemporary writers.