Since childhood, I’ve been an avid reader of the advice column “Dear Abby”. Most of the time, the problems she addresses have nothing to do with my own life. But recently, a question came from a newly successful author about a problem that I’m sure few people would ever imagine complaining about: Fame.
The person asking for advice writes:
I have recently enjoyed the success of having my first book published. However, this achievement has begun to change my life in ways I hadn’t expected. I am a somewhat shy and reflective person by nature, preferring to live quietly rather than being in the spotlight. … However, since my books’ debut, I have felt myself pulled into a different sort of world… My in-box is inundated, and I am expected at speaking events and signings … I am becoming more and more uncomfortable and stressed. How can I be who I am without feeling like a disappointment to those who believe in me?
— Not what I expected in the Midwest.
Abby told her: “You are among the lucky few who has been published, and you now have a responsibility to yourself and to your publisher to promote your work and do public relations.” In other words, stop whining about your success and just deal with it.
I can hear everyone out there rolling their eyes at this woman who dared to complain about the downside of success. What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t everyone want to be famous?
I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago with a very successful novelist. We’ve known each other for awhile, and over dinner, he confessed that he’s starting to withdraw more and more because people suddenly make him uncomfortable. This would certainly surprise his fans, because in public he seems like such a gregarious guy and he’s a wonderful public speaker. At book events, he can turn on the charm, but after the event’s over, he just wants to hide away in his hotel room. “I’m starting to feel more and more like Greta Garbo,” he said. “I just want to be alone.”
I don’t think this is all that unusual for writers. Many of us became writers because we feel most comfortable in our imaginary worlds. We’re very good at entertaining ourselves, and we’re awkward in crowds, unable to maintain the scintillating conversations that our own characters manage to pull off so easily in our novels.
I happen to be one of those people. I confess that, after a media event, you can usually find me holed up alone in my hotel room, watching TV and eating a room service dinner. I’m not lonely; I’m happy!
So I felt sorry for the woman who wrote to Dear Abby and didn’t get the sympathy she needed. Yes, it’s wonderful being famous and successful. But the poor woman also found it scary and stressful. If her books are nonfiction or advice books, I’m afraid she’s in for some tough times, because her future as an author is going to hinge on her personal story and personality — and that requires engaging directly with the media. She can’t hide away and expect the book to do well on its own; she’ll have to force herself to be out in the public eye.
But if she’s a novelist, she may well be able to enjoy success without media attention. I know of a number of authors who are afraid of flying and won’t go on tour. Or are so painfully shy that they won’t do interviews. Think of VC Andrews, who was bedridden and never appeared in public. Or J.D. Salinger, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in decades. Or the many beloved authors whose faces remain unknown to us because no photographs of them ever appear. They’re famous, yet able to maintain their privacy.
Unlike actors, whose faces are practically in the public domain, authors can creep about unrecognized. And if they write under pen names, there is no reason anyone will ever notice them. It may be unsatisfying for those who crave movie-star fame.
But for those who crave their privacy, it’s a way to achieve fame … without consequences.