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Social Faux-Pas and Inflated Egos: On Meeting “Famous” Writers and Other Concerns, non-fiction, memo

Maybe it’s because I was born and raised in Washington D.C., where notable people are often your neighbors, but I continue to be dismayed at readings when I see hordes of fans surrounding a “famous” author and lavishing an obscene amount of obsequious language on him or her. Whatever beneficence (like a Papal blessing, perhaps?) you are looking for from the “famous person,” think about how you are demeaning yourself, and how, by forcing the other person to play the role of a “superior being,” you are warping and distorting what could otherwise be a pleasant exchange.

I read Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted many years ago, back in the early-to-mid seventies, and I had a chance to touch on it briefly with the author when Mr. Schulberg and I spoke at the 2002 International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. He said that a lot of it was, of course fiction, and did not happen in real life, or did not, at least, happen in exactly the way he wrote about events in the book. He was, at the time of writing that novel, actually trying to draw a sympathetic portrait of Fitzgerald, but, of course, ultimately said he had to be true to the character he had created, which sometimes put him at odds with the original (or “actual”) turn of events.

I had sat down with him because Mr. Schulberg seemed awfully alone there at a table all by himself in the "social hour" of the late afternoon, and seemed happy to have the company. He intimated that he felt he was an artifact, "a museum piece" in his words, and that the people there (at the conference) seemed afraid to approach him and strike up a conversation. I suggested maybe that was because they either didn't have very much to say or were afraid to talk to him. "And I don't really fit in very well with all these academics," he said. I went to the open bar and brought each of us a glass of wine and sat with him and listened to his stories – his career was much richer than his merely having been connected with Fitzgerald on a movie-script -- until one of the organizational folks came up to escort him into the dinner, where he was seated at the head table.

At the same conference there was a staged reading of a play drawn from the correspondence of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott, and Zelda Fitzgerald. George Plimpton took the role of Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer the role of Hemingway, and Mr. Mailer’s wife the role of Zelda. Afterward, I met George Plimpton, having waited until the crowd of gushing fandom had thinned, and asked him, as probably the one person in the theater that night who had actually known Hemingway, whether he thought that Mailer had captured him in his performance.

Mr. Plimpton, who seemed relieved not to be talking about himself (I had overheard many of his “fans” asking him about his career as Editor of The Paris Review and whether they could send him personally some of their work and if so where they should send it), replied thoughtfully, “Not in the sound of his voice, so much,” he said, “but yes, he quite got Hemingway’s character, I think, the inner man.” Then a second wave of admirers descended. In fairness to my academic colleagues, the performance had been open to the public as well, so most of Mr. Plimpton’s fans were not my peers.

When I met Philip Roth at a reception held by the English Department of George Washington University, where I was then teaching, I mentioned that I had encountered an interesting gentleman who had attended his reading two nights before, and that the person in question reminded me of a character in one of Roth’s books, a fan of (the fictional) Nathan Zuckerman’s named Alvin Pepler.

I had arrived at the venue early – I had stayed downtown and eaten on campus since I had had a four o’clock class, and the next person to arrive made a point of sitting next to me. It was the gentleman in question, and I suspect that he sat next to me in an otherwise empty auditorium because he wanted to have an audience. He told me he was from the same hometown (Newark, N.J.) as Mr. Roth, and had gone to the same neighborhood high school (Weequahic High), and that he believed he knew some of the people in some of Roth’s books, and that he was the world’s greatest Philip Roth fan. (Let me say that I have known many self-proclaimed “world’s greatest fans” and I can assure you that they could not possibly be what they claimed – one self-proclaimed “Hemingway’s greatest fan” did not know how many times that author had been married, and had not read For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises.) He was, however, planning to run with the bulls if he ever got to Spain.

At any rate, after regaling me with all of the “facts” about his high school that Mr. Roth, a few years his senior, had gotten “wrong” in his work, the auditorium had filled. Soon enough, the lights dimmed and Mr. Roth was introduced. The emcee made the point that Mr. Roth would not be meeting people afterward or signing autographs; nonetheless, when Mr. Roth concluded, the “world’s greatest Philip Roth fan” pulled several of Roth’s books from his backpack and rushed the stage, leaving Mr. Roth in the awkward position of having to politely decline to do what the emcee had already said he would not be doing!

The aforementioned Alvin Pepler is a character from one of Roth’s Zuckerman books, and I wondered, idly, if this gentleman had been part of the inspiration for that particularly annoying, highly opinionated but ill-informed bête-noir character in Roth’s book. So at the reception, I mentioned to Mr. Roth that I thought the individual reminded me of the Pepler character. He said, “There are so many of those out there. At least one of them shows up every time I read.”

I asked how he dealt with them, and he said, “I’m trying to learn to be rude. But Mailer has an interesting way of getting rid of pestering fans.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“He slugs them,” he said, smiling.

I laughed, and mentioned I was teaching him (in teacher parlance, this means ‘teaching his work’) that semester, and that I had come to perceive him as an experimental writer, always playing with the narrative form. He has, for instance, two first-person protagonists in his first novel, Letting Go.

“That’s interesting,” he said, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but you know, I’ve got three first-person narrators in my second novel, When She Was Good.”

I smiled and said, “That’s the book my students are reading this semester.”

And so forth. Collegially.

If you have a connection with their work, that’s good, but it doesn’t mean that you actually have some sort of mystical “connection” with the author that privileges you to behave in other than a polite and circumspect fashion. Just back off and treat them as someone to whom you have just been introduced. Unless they are at a reading or book signing where the author is autographing books, don’t assume that they will want to, or even should, respond nicely if you are interrupting their dinner somewhere or they are out with friends socially.

When you don’t want anything from someone who is important, but instead speak with them as though they were “ordinary” people (which they are, actually, it’s just that your awe makes you treat them differently), you’ll find that you might actually realize that they are ordinary. Don’t be a pest or a sycophant, or an Alvin Pepler type. Don’t gush, don’t fawn, don’t praise them unduly. Just tell them their book was important to you, or how much you liked it, but don’t go on and on about it. Nobody likes a suck-up.

On the other hand, you should be wary of acting as though you have a literary reputation equal to theirs. If you are reading these words, you are probably, like me, no more than a medium-sized fish in a very small pond at best. Don’t forget that. Just because you are in either a formal or informal group of local writers doesn’t give you the right to pretend to so much equality.

One of the problems with little local writers support groups is that, as they grow, their individual group members' opinions of themselves grow exponentially, as if merely belonging to the group makes them a "better writer" or elevates their local “importance” or somehow increases their "professional-writer” status.

This is, of course, so far removed from the actual experience of an actual writer, which is that you actually spend your time and effort writing, and that through writing and focusing on craft you actually improve your work. It's like physics -- you get out of it what you put into it. Someone once said that the secret was not in wanting to be a writer, but in writing. To call one's self a writer is like putting a pretty label on an empty container. Anyone can do that (i.e., call themselves a writer), but no matter how pretty you make the label, unless you fill it with the actual work of writing, it will continue to be an empty container with a pretty label.

And this is nothing new. Paris in the twenties was filled with “writers” who spent more time socializing in cafes than in actually sitting down and writing. Read Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast," but this time focus on what he says about the time he spent writing rather than the time he spent in café’s and bars. He has some interesting things to say about those compatriots who were only “dilettante writers.”

Writing is work, not a pose. That “famous writer” you may have the good fortune to meet has spent a hundred more times at their desk writing than they have spent out on the road meeting their adoring public.

If you’re not serious enough about your work to actually understand that your first draft isn’t perfect as it emerged, like Athena, sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, then you’re not serious enough to call yourself a writer.

Those who are serious about their work -- most highly regarded authors regardless of genre -- aren't worried about the attractiveness of the label, but about what goes into the container. And about filling it.

Two of the stated purposes I had in creating The Broadkill Review over a decade ago were to elevate the level of public and professional (writerly) discourse in a world increasingly filled with self-promoting dilettantes, and in building a community of writers who want to improve their work, and who aren’t averse to listening to advice from people with more experience than most of them.

As the editorial torch passes in the more-than-capable hands of Scott Whitaker, I hope that TBR has, and will continue to achieve those parts of our purpose.

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