Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Grisham

The fame monster

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John Updike on the cover of Time Magazine

“Celebrity,” John Updike famously wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” But celebrity among writers is a strange thing. We’re long past the point where a novelist can singlehandedly turn the temper of his or her time, as Norman Mailer and others of his generation once believed was possible, but a handful of authors do become celebrities of a certain limited kind. We see short news items, as James Parker notes of Martin Amis in The Atlantic, when they change agents or apartments, and their features become reasonably familiar to us from dust jacket photos or the staged shots from the New York Times Book Review. I’ve gone through countless author headshots while preparing my Quotes of the Day, and it’s a little funny how often the same props reappear: the desk, the bookshelf, the cigarette. Photographers seem eager to pose novelists among the tools of their trade, as if in response to how opaque a writer’s work can seem from the outside; Kanye West doesn’t need to stand in front of an 808 to remind us of what he does for a living, but with most authors, we need a visual cue to let us know why this pale, pasty person is looking out at us from a magazine.

The one good thing about becoming a famous writer is that you can exist as a figure of intense importance to a wide circle of readers without being harassed on the street. John Lahr’s recent New Yorker profile of Al Pacino emphasizes how grindingly strange a life of real fame can be: “I haven’t been in a grocery store or ridden the subway in fifty years,” Pacino says. For a serious actor, this kind of alienation from ordinary life can be a handicap; if every interaction is skewed from the start, it’s hard to remember when it was ever anything else. Writers, for the most part, can go shopping or ride public transportation incognito, and even an author whose work saturates airport bookstores probably has little trouble making it onto the plane. I’m not sure I could pick John Grisham out of a crowd. The number of Americans who have finished a novel by Stephen King pales in comparison to those who watch LeBron James play basketball on any given night. We tend to compare literary success to its peers, not to the larger culture, so it’s easy to forget that 100,000 copies in hardcover—which made a phenomenon out of Jonathan Safran Foer—amounts to 0.03% of this country’s population.

Jonathan Franzen in Time Magazine

Oddly, it’s the faces of literary novelists that we seem to see the most, even if their sales aren’t nearly at the level of their mainstream counterparts. More of us would recognize Jonathan Franzen at Zabar’s than James Patterson. This is partially because of the logic of a career in literary fiction, in which reviews, interviews, awards, and teaching serve to offset scanty sales, and partially thanks to the nature of that kind of writing itself, which turns the voice of the author into a selling point. I’m not particularly interested in who Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth “is,” as long as they write compelling stories in which the authorial viewpoint almost disappears; but the work of writers like Updike or Mailer or Bellow is inseparable from the personality it expresses. We’re more curious about the face behind a book like Infinite Jest than The Da Vinci Code, and if it’s true that we all end up with the faces we deserve, it’s no surprise that literary writers look a little more haggard and interesting. Even then, I don’t know how often they’re accosted by fans. I had my share of celebrity sightings in seven years in New York, but I don’t think I’ve ever randomly recognized an author I knew.

Yet the hunger for fame, even if it’s only within a select sliver of the reading world, still drives a lot of writers. We measure ourselves against the the outliers, forgetting all the while that we’ve only heard of them because they’re exceptional, and forget all the others toiling away in obscurity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: writing is so punishing a profession in other ways that it takes a powerful immediate desire to carry an author with a realistic idea of his talents from one day to the next, whether it’s the promise of sexual conquest, revenge on imagined enemies, or even money. Celebrity is probably a healthier notion than most of these, especially because the version of it even a major author receives is so illusory.  As I’ve said before, writing any book, even a bad one, requires that the author think that he’s a little better and more exceptional than he really is, and if most of us end up somewhere in the middle, it’s only because we aimed at a high mark and fell short. Fame, for authors, doesn’t really exist in the same way it does in other fields; it may never have existed at all. But it’s a useful fiction, and without it, we might not have other kinds of fiction at all.

The curious case of Michael Crichton

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As long as we’re on the subject of research in fiction, we may as well consider the singular example of Michael Crichton, who, more than any other popular novelist in recent history, appeared to spin the straw of factual information into fictional gold. In many ways, it’s one of the most extraordinary careers in twentieth century culture: in addition to his bestselling novels, Crichton was a screenwriter, director, and creator of ER. He was perhaps the last popular novelist, aside from John Grisham, whose books all seemed destined to be made into movies, and without the benefit of a series character. He was also a graduate of Harvard Medical School, extremely tall, and exceptionally good-looking.

Given all these accomplishments, it would give me great malicious pleasure to inform you that, alas, Crichton was a bad writer. Except he wasn’t. Within the constrains of the genre that he invented, or at least perfected, he was the best there was. When you’ve read as many bad thrillers as I have, a novel like Jurassic Park comes to seem like a model of the craft: it’s smart, expertly paced, with characters who are just distinct enough not to be interchangeable, but not so memorable that they get in the way of the story. In short, Crichton’s books are the Cadillacs of technothrillers, and their quality is impressive enough to make Jonathan Franzen’s insistence that “the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s” seem more than a little childish.

Michael Crichton

Which isn’t to say that Crichton was always great, or even good. Near the end of his career, as is the case for many popular novelists, the titles begin to blend together, and I can’t say I’ve managed to get more than halfway through anything since Airframe. Even some of the books I read and enjoyed when I was younger seem a little thin these days. Rising Sun, especially, was a huge disappointment when I read it again a few years ago. It wasn’t the alleged xenophobia, which might have worked in a better thriller—and there’s certainly room in this world for a great suspense novel about two American cops up against an implacable Asian adversary. It’s more Crichton’s determination, in Rising Sun and elsewhere, to subjugate his facts to his message, when in his early novels, the facts were the message, and a very compelling one indeed.

And there’s an important lesson here. In the best Crichton novels—Jurassic Park, Sphere, and my own favorite, Congo—the facts are a filigree, a treat, an additional reward layered onto an exciting story. I won’t go as far as to say that Crichton’s use of factual information is as artful as, say, Thomas Pynchon’s, but there’s a joy in science for its own sake that seems to be missing in subsequent books. And the growing inclination to use information to convince or convert the reader, which all but destroys the later novels, is as deadly as in the most sentimental religious fiction. In the end, Crichton’s religion was science, or politics, when it should have been story. Like the writers who become ever more seduced by the possibilities of voice or style, or even the scientists in his own cautionary tales, he was destroyed by his own tools.

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2011 at 10:17 am

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