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.