I recently had an email from a reader who sent along a paragraph from Garrison Keillor’s “News from Manhattan” column in which he, Keillor, bemoans the end of the famous writer. Keillor recounts looking at a portfolio of Jill Krementz photographs of authors from the 1960s and 1970s: Every author there, he writes, “from Tom Wolfe to Mailer to Roth to Margaret Mead to Perelman and Singer and Vonnegut and Morrison and Steinem—I recognized them instantly at a glance. I don’t think I know many authors by sight anymore. What’s worse, I doubt that others do. I think the era of Famous Writers is over.” The email from my reader ends by asking, “Are you not, if not hounded, at least recognized often when you’re out and about?”
I found it especially interesting that my correspondent would quote Garrison Keillor on fame to me. I recall one night, standing before a urinal during an intermission at the Chicago Symphony and discovering Garrison Keillor at the adjoining urinal. He was taller than I had imagined—they apparently grow big along Lake Wobegon—and he had a ticked-off look on his face. I recognized him because he’d been on PBS that day, but I said nothing to him. Back in the foyer with my wife, a man came up to me and asked, “Aren’t you Joseph Epstein, the writer?” After I allowed that I was, he said some kind words about my writing. I thanked him and looked over at Garrison Keillor, who still had that ticked-off look on his face. Was it there, I now wonder, because no one recognized him?
The answer to my correspondent’s question is that, no, I am not often recognized and have never come close to being hounded. I am mildly pleased on the rare occasions when I am. The other day in my local Whole Foods, a woman in the checkout line in front of me said, “I know who you are,” though nothing more. When I am recognized, I often respond by saying, “Damn, I guess this disguise didn’t work.”
On a cold day in Minneapolis some years ago, I asked to share a cab with two men who announced to the driver that they were going to the same Marriott hotel I was. At the hotel, I was ahead of one of the two men at the reception desk. When I asked the reception clerk if he had a reservation for Joseph Epstein, one of my fellow passengers asked, “Are you the Joseph Epstein?” I replied, “Actually I am a Joseph Epstein.”
“No kidding,” he said. “You’re my alter ego. This is going to sound like a bobbysoxer, but may I go up in the elevator to your room with you?” He did, and he turned out to be Dr. Paul McHugh, head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and since that fortuitous day a dear friend.
I have been publishing essays and reviews and stories and books for what will soon be 62 years. I have had two books, one on snobbery and the other on friendship, on bestseller lists. Over the years I have been sent round the country by various publishers to flog these and other books on radio and TV stations and in bookstores. I have been interviewed for my opinions on various media perhaps a dozen times, and perhaps turned down the same number of invitations for other interviews. I’ve been more than 60 years in the literary business, and they are still mispronouncing my name (it’s Ep-STINE).
Do I feel aggrieved about my relative obscurity? Not much. Not really? Garrison Keillor is probably correct: Literary fame is probably no longer available. But, then, fame itself, its very nature, seems to have changed.
I USED occasionally to go to dinner with a man who was the lone anti-machine alderman during the Chicago mayoralty of Jane Byrne (1979–83), and he was consequently often interviewed on television for his anti-machine views. At our dinners together, I couldn’t help notice that he scanned the room, looking for people who recognized him, and could feel his palpable disappointment when nobody had. I sensed Saul Bellow, especially after winning the Nobel Prize in 1976, was also slightly disappointed when not recognized in public places. I once introduced him to a lawyer I knew who, not knowing who Saul was, asked him if he was any relation to Charlie Bellows, a once well-known local defense attorney. We did not speak about this painful contretemps afterwards.
On the other, very different hand, I was some years ago taken to a Chicago Cubs–Los Angeles Dodgers game by George F. Will. We watched it from a skybox. After the game, making our way through the crowd, no fewer than 20 people called out, “Hey, it’s George Will.” “Yo, George Will!” “George Will, loved the piece on Bush.” When I asked George if this happened often, he said that it did. “I suppose this is owing to your television appearances,” I said. This was before cable talk shows, and he was a regular on the now long-defunct Sunday-morning show This Week. “I like to think it isn’t,” he said, “but you are probably right.”
Regular appearances on television may today be the only source of fame in America. One can achieve fame through being a great athlete, perhaps a movie star, possibly a major gangster, but the surest route is through television. And yet even cable talk television, with its multiplicity of pundits, no longer produces fame of the kind George Will then possessed. In 1968, Andy Warhol said that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” With the scores and scores of bloggers, podcasters, cable pundits, and others, that time may by now be down to three minutes. Fame itself has come to seem a lot less interesting.
One test of fame has it that your caricature can appear in a publication without a caption beneath it identifying who you are. Another is the first-name test, whereby one can be known by one’s first name alone. Thus: Cary (Grant), Frank (Sinatra), Johnny (Carson), Michael (Jordan or Jackson), Marilyn (Monroe), no last name required. All, note, are figures from an earlier day. Ellen (DeGeneres), Leo (DiCaprio), Jen (Aniston), Stephen (Colbert) don’t quite register in the same way.
In some realms, fame diminishes more rapidly than others. Sports is notable here. That splendid linebacker, that indispensable closer, that brilliant point guard—five or 10 years after their retirement from professional sports, they are forgotten by all but the die-hardest of fans. At the Standard Club in Chicago I was once introduced to Marshall Goldberg, the 1939 All-American running back from the University of Pittsburgh who went on to play for the long defunct Chicago Cardinals. When I made plain that I of course knew who he was, it seemed all he could do not to hug me.
Movie-star fame also seems less than it once was. Here, from a recent biography of Cary Grant, is a list of America’s favorite male movie stars in 1957: Rock Hudson, William Holden, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Glenn Ford, Yul Brynner, Clark Gable, and John Wayne, which leaves out Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, and Fred Astaire. A similar list could be made for female stars. No one, I daresay, could put together anything like such lists for 21st-century movie stars. Movies do not play the central role in the life of the country they once did, and so the portion of fame available to those who make movies is correspondingly reduced.
Not that fame doesn’t have its uses. I have always liked the story of Ira Gershwin and his wife and another couple attempting, rather late in the day, to get a table for dinner at Sardi’s. Ira goes off to call the restaurant and returns to say that they are filled up and aren’t taking any more reservations. The husband of the other couple says he would like to try. He returns to report that, yes, they have a table for four at 8:00 p.m. in the center of the room. “How did you arrange that?” Gershwin asks his friend.” “Simple,” the friend replies, “I told him I was Ira Gershwin.”
Chicago, my hometown, is not famous for famous people. We have no Spike Lee or Woody Allen, which explains why the Chicagoan Gene Siskel, the movie critic who had a successful television show with Roger Ebert called At the Movies, was invited by the Chicago Bulls to buy four first-row seats for the team’s home games. “It cost only $58,000,” he told me, with more than a touch of irony, the night he took me and two others to a game against the New Jersey Nets, “and they throw in free parking.” After the game, the four of us were headed for dinner, and Siskel, from his car phone, called a restaurant for a reservation, a call that began, in reverse Ira Gershwin mode: “This is Gene Siskel.…” The restaurant, I was somehow pleased to learn, wasn’t taking any more reservations.
Some American writers have made a direct play for fame, even for visible fame. In his day, Mark Twain became known as the man in the white suit. In ours, Tom Wolfe picked up on Twain’s white suits and was rarely seen not wearing one. (Some clever fellow remarked that perhaps the person who mourned Wolfe’s death most was his dry cleaner.) A former editor at the New Republic, in reverse Tom Wolfe mode, wore all black, including cowboy boots, but he came off as all hat and no cattle. Without her good looks, the writing of Susan Sontag is unlikely to have attracted the interest it did.
Costuming and good looks alone were not the only forms of writers achieving visible fame. Appearances on Jack Parr or Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett’s late-night talk shows, at a time when these shows had a much wider audience than their successors have, brought nearly instant fame, at least if during those appearances a writer said wildly scandalous things. So Truman Capote remarked that the popular novelist Jacqueline Susann looked like nothing so much as “a truck driver in drag.” Gore Vidal said that the three most depressing words in the English language were Joyce Carol Oates. Norman Mailer, who could be depended on to supply outré behavior on national television, called Vidal a liar and a hypocrite on the Dick Cavett program. Such was one way to fame open to the contemporary writer, which reminds one that Marcus Aurelius said, “After fame is oblivion.”
How many great writers were famous in their lifetime? Lord Byron was one: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” he wrote. More accurately, Byron was infamous, this chiefly for his sexual escapades, including rumors of incest with his sister. Tolstoy had great fame in his later years, and his lingering death, in a railway station far from his home at Yasnaya Polyana and his wife of nearly 50 years, was covered by the press as one of the first great media events of the 20th century. T.S. Eliot during his lifetime had a fame beyond the merely literary, as witness his amusing correspondence with Groucho Marx. Ernest Hemingway was another writer who could claim fame, but his was less than enviable; and in the New Yorker, the reporter Lillian Ross, by merely recording his vain talk, allowed him to hang himself as a foolish blowhard.
Look into any dictionary of quotations or any list of them to be found online and one discovers that everywhere the pursuit of fame is thought a game not worth the candle. From Emerson’s “Fame is proof that people are gullible” to Santayana’s “The highest form of vanity is the love of fame,” those who have passed for thinkers over the centuries are agreed that fame is an empty prize. Yet, for want of it, so subtle a mind as Henry James’s suffered, late in his career, a nervous breakdown. James’s New York Edition (the revised republication) of his novels was a financial flop. His renewed (also abortive) attempt to score a triumph in the theater also contributed. At one point, James even allowed that “I would have written, if I could, like Anthony Hope and Marion Crawford,” one the author of The Prisoner of Zenda and the other a writer of fantasy, both far below his own standard. Even Henry James, that most immitigable of highbrows, that purest of literary artists, dreamed of great fame and riches through his writing.
But then most writers, when it comes to their own writing, tend to be fantasists. When they publish a book, their hopes for it—commercial, critical, popular—soar into the empyrean. This will be the book, a sure bestseller, that will take me out of the financial wars forever. Reviewers, surely, cannot help but understand, and duly appreciate, what I have achieved here. If only… if only…if only.
Freud says that the artist gives up fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful women for his art, through which he hopes to win fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful women. I like to think that I have eluded Freud’s clever cliché. I believe I have stowed away sufficient fortune to see me out, I have for more than 40 years been living with a beautiful woman, and the idea of being famous no longer lights my fire.
I also like to think I have passed beyond the fantasy stage in regard to my own writing. When I publish a book, I hope it will sell enough copies to repay my publisher and please my modest number of regular readers (7–8,000 or so). I am pleased by enthusiastic reviews but no longer crushed (ticked maybe, but not crushed) by damning ones. I have ceased accepting occasional offers to do interviews or appear on talk-radio shows. As for offers to give lectures, I set a high fee ($10,000) and write to the people, not all that many, who have made the offer that they are not to worry if they cannot meet it, for I have heard these talks myself and assure them they are worth nowhere near $10,000.
My writing has not won any of the grand prizes. No MacArthur Awards, no National Book Awards, no Pulitzer Prizes. (Pulitzers, I once wrote, go to two kinds of writers: those who don’t deserve them and those who don’t need them.) I was given a National Humanities Medal, which caused a liberal friend to say that it was a shame that I won it during the George W. Bush presidency. I replied that I should have preferred to have been awarded the medal by Abraham Lincoln, but then one couldn’t have everything.
“The longer a man’s fame is likely to last,” wrote Schopenhauer, “the longer it will be in coming.” Bearing this out, many writers famous in their day—Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, John Updike—already seem decidedly less interesting in ours, while many of the writers I admire were not notably famous in their lifetimes. Michel de Montaigne, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell—they all worked diligently without the need for the kind of clamorous recognition that accompanies fame. Beerbohm even enjoyed his obscurity, proudly showing S.N. Behrman a royalty statement preponderately filled with zeros. In recent years I have taken to referring to my own royalties as my peasantries, though I do take some small pleasure in noting, on the Amazon Author Central page, that my books do continue to sell at the modest rate of 20- or 30-odd copies every week.
FOR ME the true pleasure in writing is found in the work itself: in the delight in amusing phrases, well-turned sentences, rhythmical paragraphs, conclusions I had little or no idea I would arrive at until my composition was complete. I have long subscribed to E.M. Forster’s remark, when asked his opinion on a subject, that he didn’t really know what he thought until he had written about it. Writing, in this view, is an act of discovery, and so it has been for me.
Fame, which I never truly sought, has eluded me, but in compensation I have had more than my share of praise, some of it from writers older than I whom I have much admired: Jacques Barzun, William Barrett, Sidney Hook, Philip Larkin, Tom Wolfe, Herman Wouk, Gordon Wood, Norman Podhoretz, John Gross, Dan Jacobson, among others. I also take pleasure in the minor but fairly continuous flow of emails (perhaps six or seven a month) that I get from readers who claim to find satisfaction in my writing. One such email, touching on my subject here, recently claimed that I was not a famous writer—he adduced Stephen King as a famous writer—but a distinguished one. Now there, if only it were true, is a distinction with which I can happily live out my days.
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