Anais Nin (Photo by Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The art of literary celebrity

How do writers become more than their books?

How do you achieve literary celebrity? Discipline at the desk is a prerequisite, but it’s arguable that what you do is as important as what you write, even in this perilous of cancel culture. Your place in history depends on it. You don’t become famous for sitting colour-coding your collection of books, or for being a “facilitator, or a “mentor” or “working with communities” — accomplishments which virtuously adorn the bios of so many writers today. The most eminent writers have tended to be tormentors rather than mentors.

It’s fascinating to compare the attention-grabbing acts of the past to the 2020s. Former writers were often as renowned for their sexual habits as they were for writing. The Marquis de Sade is surely the pinnacle of all, since his name spawned a sexual term, but Anaïs Nin leapt into a torrid affair with Henry Miller, whilst Colette became extremely well-known as a serial seductress, creating a succès de scandale in 1920s Paris by sharing an onstage lesbian kiss. Oscar Wilde generated gender confusion by prancing around America in knickerbockers with a wilting lily in his hand well before poet Kae Tempest dispensed with their long locks and changed their pronouns. In general, however, it’s not sexy for writers to be sex addicts in this puritan #MeToo era — where it can be viewed as exploitative.

Bukowski doubled his notoriety by pairing his pursuit of sex with alcoholism. Drinking is a literary cliché, but uninhibited alcoholic behaviour followed by an untimely death fast-tracks you to immortality quicker than a down-in-one, as evinced by the likes of Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Flann O’Brien, Carson McCullers and Jack Kerouac. In Kerouac’s case, he added drugs to the cocktail. It is interesting how Aldous Huxley reinforced his legendary status by charting his experiments with mescaline. Similarly, contemporary writers like Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis and Rob Doyle have dabbled with drugs in an experiential way to help them write fiction. Balls-to-the-wall self-immolating hedonism was once great fun, but it has totally fallen out of fashion.

There is no lie a writer will not stoop to, or rise to, for self-aggrandisement

Male writers, of course, have sought to cultivate a macho image. Ernest Hemingway was the greatest at this shtick and had more arrows to his bow than Apollo. He’s been immortalised as the quintessential big game hunter, although conservation has put paid to writers following in his footsteps, and animal rights has guaranteed he will never have a rival bullfighting afficionado. Perhaps less well known is that Hemingway twice boxed a fellow writer, Morley Callaghan. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper in the first boxing match in 1929. He was so discombobulated by the sight of Hemingway’s blood, he let the round go on for four minutes, culminating in Hemingway being knocked flat. 

In these post-masculine days, male writers are less likely to be delivering punches than receiving them, but one such incident gave Colum McCann his moment in the spotlight. McCann rebuked a man in New York for shoving a woman to the ground — heroic — and was later sucker punched and knocked out by the same man. Some writers in the absence of self-heroising stories have actually been caught out lying. Graham Greene claimed in an interview to have played Russian roulette as a bored schoolboy, but his brother later counterclaimed that the bullets were blanks. Flann O’Brien even pretended to have met James Joyce in order to muscle in on Joyce’s celebrity. There is no lie a writer will not stoop to, or rise to, in the cause of self-aggrandisement. 

A plethora of writers have enhanced their reputations through travel. Robert Louis Stevenson settled in Samoa whilst Hemingway relocated to Cuba. This was a particularly clever route to self-promotion, ensuring that their expat homes became tourist destinations. Writers used to flock to Paris, but rarely do so now unless for a writing residency. Martin Amis and Paul Muldoon reside in the USA, but this is surely more down to cushy academic posts than an adventurous spirit.

Talking of spirits, there are those who have made a feature of their religious philosophy, whether it’s the devout Christians, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, or the occultists, W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. The modern writer, however, is much more likely to be an iconoclastic atheist like Salman Rushdie.

Foreign wars have always been a magnet for writers, as Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy and Martha Gellhorn could attest. Plenty have risked their lives for their convictions; Byron died of dysentery in Greece whilst fighting the Ottomans, for instance. Paul Muldoon recently proclaimed that writing a war poem “is my way of enlisting”, in Ukraine which invoked a few chuckles as it’s hardly on a par with George Orwell who was wounded in the neck in the Spanish Civil War. I’ve visited Ukraine twice to witness the effects of war but it seems that current fiction writers prefer to keep their powder dry for their trivial Twitter wars.

The secret to literary stardom is simple

If there is one constant fame-enhancer from past till present, it’s the trope of the sickly writer struggling to create. It reached its apogee in the 19th century with Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Emily Dickinson and the tuberculous trio of the Brontës. It seems that in this category the women out-ill the men, though Keats could give them all a good run (or bronchitic shuffle) for their money. Julia Darling was one of the first writers in the 2000s to anatomise her breast cancer in a blog. Since then, the cancer experience has been publicly vivisected in essays and diaries from Colm Tóibín to Jenny Diski. It’s now not enough to have a disease unless you mine the hell out of it during your lifetime. In the time-honoured tradition of writers’ self-fictionalisation, Dan Mallory and Elisabeth Finch have even faked a cancer diagnosis.

The alternative way for the modern writer to attain fame is to strongly identify with an on-trend political cause. Gender identity has enhanced the posthumous reputation of Jan Morris and made J.K. Rowling hit the headlines even more than she ever did with Harry Potter in the never-ending battle between TERFs and FARTs (Feminist-Averse Radical Trans). There is also huge value for the contemporary writer in using identity politics to prove they have overcome a perceived disadvantage in life whether by being disabled, female, LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, working class, non-Caucasian, etc. Dara McAnulty was recently awarded a BEM for services to the environment and people with autism. He is a perfect example of the young writer tapping into the socially-conscious causes célèbres of his era.

As our life expectancy extends, we’ll have even more time to propagate varying iterations of ourselves. The secret to literary stardom is simple: we writers shouldn’t live for writing; we should live for writing our lives large on the world’s consciousness. 

Now, anyone for a cage fight?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover