From a writer who not long ago went through the brief excitement of publishing a book comes this report: "I often find myself humming a line from an old Hank Williams Jr. song, 'I've brought it on myself and I guess I shouldn't complain,' but frankly even the very limited amount of fame that has come of this is terribly distressing to me. Perhaps it will get better and I will develop a public persona. Perhaps I will affect outsized shoes or long scarves. But at the moment that outside clatter seems a threat to my concentration, which really is all I have to depend on in making sense of any of this."
Here is a person caught, as countless others before her have been, at that exact moment when a writer -- or for that matter any other artist -- must choose between accomplishment and notoriety. To her immense credit she has elected the former, and has set up defenses that are designed to preserve her privacy so she can continue with her real work, which is writing, rather than with the self-promotion that our culture expects of her. In so doing she is being both courageous and independent; she is also, as the history of American letters tells us, going very much against the grain.
Popular mythology has it that the great destructive forces with which American writers must contend are alcohol and money, but popular mythology is only half right. The most destructive force of all is fame, or celebrity, or notoriety, or recognition -- whatever one wishes to call the condition that encourages a writer to turn his attention away from his work and onto himself. Not merely is it the most destructive, but it is the most difficult to resist and therefore the force that has done the most damage.
By comparison with the allure of fame, the temptations offered by hard drink and cold cash are relatively minor. Power may be the ultimate aphrodisiac for those who thirst to manipulate the lives of others, but for those who are driven by a compulsion to express themselves, the ultimate aphrodisiac is fame. It is fame that confirms the validity of one's work and, more important, one's self; to the writer, whose ego is so crucial an instrument of his work, its allure is almost invariably irresistible.
Yet as my correspondent correctly senses, fame is the writer's downfall even as it exalts him; to the writer upon whom it has been bestowed it means nothing so much as distraction. There are many things that fame allows one to do, among them getting the best table in the restaurant and the handsomest persons of whatever sex one prefers, but they do not include getting one's work done. Once he becomes famous, a writer finds it exceedingly difficult to conduct the business that got him there in the first place; too many people are clamoring for his attention, too many opportunities to enlarge the realm of his fame are being offered, his life is too much noise and too little privacy.
For succumbing to all this clamor, no writer should be blamed. There are, alas, few Mother Teresas among us; most of us, no matter what our lines of work, have vast hidden resources of vanity waiting to be tapped. Writers are different from the rest of us only in that preoccupation with self is often more intense and susceptibility to the celebration of self therefore all the greater; for being merely human, for indulging themselves in the pleasures of being lionized, writers should be indulged rather than criticized.
But the price of capitulating to human nature is the diminution or loss of creativity. Few writers simply stop work after they become famous, but even fewer write as well as they did before celebrity shone upon them. There is in American literature no example more poignant or pointed than that of Ernest Hemingway, whose creative powers declined in almost exactly inverse proportions to the rise of his legend and who, by the time of his suicide, was capable of writing little except unintentional self-parody; for the last quarter-century of his life Hemingway was not a writer but the prisoner of "Papa," that internationally celebrated "image" he had so artfully fashioned.
What writers too often forget is that Hippocrates and Seneca were right: Life really is short, art really is long. The rush of instant gratification one gets at being on the cover of a news magazine or the guests' sofa at Johnny Carson's nocturnal gabfest may be thrilling, but not a soul is going to know a thing about it 15 or 20 minutes from now; it's only the long haul that really counts. It may be, in fact, that there is no more telling mark of a writer's seriousness than his willingness to forgo the ephemeral glories of fame in order to pursue the more lasting ones of genuine artistic accomplishment -- to sacrifice immediate satisfaction in favor of the longshot effort to write books that people will read a hundred years from now.
This is a hard course to follow, so it is no particular surprise that relatively few writers have chosen it. Thomas Pynchon, laboring away at his work in a location unknown to all but a few, is clearly one of them; so too is Anne Tyler, who is no recluse but who declines to give interviews or do other forms of self-promotion. Several of the senior figures of American literature -- Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Walker Percy, Bernard Malamud -- seem to have devised ways to meet what they regard as their public obligations without seriously infringing upon the time they devote to their writing.
But to most writers as to most other people, the lure of the spotlight is simply irresistible. Norman Mailer has basked in it ever since his premature success with "The Naked and the Dead," with consequences for his art that are impossible to measure but most certainly have been deleterious. Joan Didion, John Irving, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Erica Jong -- the list of writers whose public personas eclipse their actual literary accomplishment is long and, to the reader who hopes to see writers fulfill themselves artistically, depressing.
So my correspondent has clearly chosen the right course, though her letter makes plain that she already understands how difficult it will be to adhere to it. She has been blessed with the knowledge that limelight, unlike sunlight, neither nurtures nor strengthens; it only distorts and distracts, and its ultimate effect is deadening.